Features

My Life & Cars – Jeff Zwart, film director, author and racer

Whether filming them, racing them or driving them for pleasure, Porsches have always been a part of Jeff Zwart’s life. Here he tells evo about some of the most memorable

Some people cram so much into their lives that you’d have to conclude they have the power to be in three different places at once. California-born Jeff Zwart is one such time-bender. Over the years he has been a keen racing cyclist, potential veterinarian, magazine and advertising photographer, film maker and director of commercials and movies, rally driver and eight-times Pikes Peak class champion, catcher of up to 200 flights a year, author of motoring books, director at a global media business (Radical Media) and a serial Porsche owner. And yet still he finds space in his manic schedule to strap a canoe to the roof of his Porsche 356, pile his wife and Bernese Mountain Dogs inside, and mosey on out into the serene wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. 

That the soft-spoken and convivial American could devote an hour and a half to an evo interview, and then dig out the pictures to illustrate it, is further proof that Zwart’s relationship with the space-time continuum is different from the rest of ours. And his passion for cars in general, not just for the Porsches with which he is most often associated, is of an intensity we might all aspire to, yet seldom achieve. But then, Zwart was born into an automotive landscape of dream-like quality.

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‘My dad being a mechanical engineer, cars fascinated him, especially MGs – my parents met on a blind date when he was driving an MG TC. He always loved cars and was into the racing culture that was going on in California at the time. He drove a 1958 or 1959 Porsche 356 and then saved up enough to buy a new Porsche in May 1964, a slate grey 356 C.

‘Three weeks later was the Indy 500, one of the biggest races in the world. My parents decided that as a family vacation for my ninth birthday, we’d do a road trip from Delaware to Indianapolis to see the race. For me, as a little kid, riding in the back of my parents’ first new Porsche, going to this race, parking in this sea of cars, was pretty special. We went up to Turn 3, climbed the stairs in that grandstand and looked out over this two-and-a-half mile oval known as the Indianapolis Speedway, and I was captivated, not only by the journey there, but by racing too. Everything in my life really came out of that weekend.’

Zwart’s father’s influence on his future career was far-reaching: ‘My dad subscribed to Road & Track magazine and I couldn’t get enough of turning the pages. They covered Pikes Peak every year and I always thought that it was amazing there were race drivers shooting up the mountain. The magazine also introduced me to the photographer Jesse Alexander, one of the great motorsport photographers of the day.’

Sending the young Zwart to his grandparents’ farm each summer also had an impact. Aged 12 he learnt how to drive in a 1955 International Harvester pickup truck. ‘On a farm everything was motorised so I drove, rode in and operated multiple vehicles every day,’ he explains. The farm also yielded photographic inspiration: ‘My grandmother was by no means a professional photographer, yet she had a real sense of composition in every picture she took. I still have her old Brownie camera. I also have my dad’s Zeiss Ikon Contessa – dad always had this camera with him to document his life.’

Readers of a jealous disposition should look away now… Zwart had his first ‘proper’ driving lesson in a Porsche. And not just any old Porsche. ‘In the United States the deal was that at 15 and half you could get your learner’s permit and at 16 you could get your driver’s licence. One Sunday when I was 15 my dad said, “Today, we’re going to teach you how to drive.” We had two cars in our family at that stage, a Volkswagen Beetle and a Porsche 911. Dad had outgrown his 356 C and bought the cheapest 911 he could afford. Turned out it was chassis number 35, so it was actually a 901, one of the first 75 cars built.

‘I thought we were going out in the Beetle. But Dad said, “We’re going to take the Porsche because it has more power and you won’t stall it so much.” That was just the coolest thing. The day was amazing. That moment of releasing the clutch and feeling this 911 pull away from underneath me… Moments like this and going to the Indy 500 in the 356 C, these were moments that forever connected me to the brand Porsche.’

Could any father have done more? Apparently so. At least in Zwart’s case. ‘From aged about 12, I had a paper route,’ he says. ‘My dad said OK, you can spend half your money, but the other half has to go into investments in the stock market. I could choose what stocks to buy and when I graduated from high school I could take the money out and spend it how I wished.

‘At the end of all that, the stocks I’d chosen had done really, really well and I had enough money to buy my first car. Naturally I wanted a 911 because I love the sound of them, but I couldn’t really afford one. However, the 914/6 also was really cool, had the six-cylinder engine and was cheaper than a 911. So, I bought one in 1973 and still have it today.’

Zwart’s first choice of career wasn’t automotive – he intended to be a vet, an aspiration that took him to Europe. ‘As a youngster I was always racing bicycles and two of my friends made it into the US Olympic team for 1972. Another friend and I decided to bicycle 2000 miles through Europe and end up at the Munich Olympics to watch them race. Later he moved to Munich with plans to attend veterinary college there. 

‘I learnt the language and worked for a large animal veterinarian in Munich while I waited for college applications to open, but on a Friday night I would jump on an overnight train and wake up all over Europe.’ Zwart went to all the big European motor races and loved every second. He knew he wanted to be involved in motorsport but realised he didn’t have the connections to be a driver, nor the inclination to be a mechanic. What was left? ‘The people closest to the race drivers, in the middle of the action, standing at the edge of the track: the photographers.’

Zwart returned to the USA and was accepted at the renowned Art Center Design College in Pasadena to study photography. After graduating in 1979 he took his portfolio along to Road & Track and was promptly given a cover shoot: ‘Having a cover story as my very first assignment, that was a really big deal. 

‘I stayed shooting for Road & Track for quite a while, doing many covers and great features, like the 959 at 200mph on the autobahn. The other great thing was that all my pictures had my name attached to them, so the advertising agencies were seeing my name over and over again. That soon led to me picking up advertising work, which quickly exploded.’

With a reputation as an action photographer, Zwart picked up big name clients such as Volkswagen, Acura, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and BMW. ‘For BMW I was shooting 50 to 60 ads a year – all the national advertising, dealer advertising, all the brochures.’ The hard work brought exciting rewards. A 911 Turbo graced the Zwart garage, and then a BMW M1. ‘I bought the M1 from the musician Christopher Cross, who had two of them. Looking back, it’s probably one of my favourite cars that I’ve owned.’

After a decade as an advertising stills photographer, Zwart was persuaded to try his hand at moving images for television commercials. ‘The second commercial I shot was for Porsche, the 944 Turbo, and that launched me as truly being in the scene. I’d thought that the transition of moving from a stills photographer to film would be a two-year process, but three months into shooting film I never looked back and never shot another stills campaign.’

Zwart’s close relationship with Porsche meant he enjoyed a succession of ‘the latest and greatest of their new cars’, but he hankered after something older. ‘I started looking at the iconic cars. I had a 1973 Carrera RS with red script on it; I built a model as a kid of the 906, the Carrera 6, so in 1996 I started searching and I found a Carrera 6 that I could afford.

‘I had some other very special cars along the way. One of the most special was a 1967 911 R, one of 20, chassis number 11, which happens to be the number I’ve always raced under. I drove that car for years on the streets and it was the last unrestored 911 R in the world. I had a 962 for a while, the Blaupunkt car that finished third at Le Mans in 1988. The historical significance of Porsche became really important to me, so I looked for cars that would help tell that Porsche story. I started looking for a Gmünd, one of first 50 cars Porsche built in a sawmill in Austria, and was able to find a 1949 example that happened to be chassis number 50, the last one to come out of Austria.

‘For a number of years I had a 959 S, which was an incredible experience to drive, and currently I have a 1995 Carrera RS Club Sport – 911s don’t get any rawer than that. We also have a 1964 356 C cabriolet that my wife drives and the dogs ride round in: when the roof’s down and you’re driving through the Rocky Mountains it’s just beautiful. Plus I have a 1953 pre-A 356 coupe and my Carrera 4 rally car, the first car that I won at Pikes Peak with – it’s the car that created my identity in the motorsport world.’

Zwart was a comparative latecomer to racing. While working on an editorial feature on race schools in the US, he’d shown tremendous potential on track but didn’t have the time to pursue things further. Years later he employed Kiwi racer Rod Millen as the professional driver for some of his advertising shoots and Millen also spotted Zwart’s talent behind the wheel. ‘Rod Millen had his own race shop and had a US ProRally Championship programme,’ explains Zwart. ‘One day he said to me, “Why don’t I build you a rally car?” Two years later, in 1990, I was Open Class National Champion and tied for the overall National Championship.’

Though pleased with his success in a Mazda, Zwart thought it would have been even better in a Porsche. And Porsche had just launched its first four-wheel-drive 911, the Carrera 4. ‘So I came back to rallying in 1993 with a Carrera 4 rally car and with the full blessing of Porsche Motorsport North America, who helped us get all the parts. I finished fourth overall that season. In ’94 I won a couple of races early in the championship and Porsche Motorsport said, “Why don’t you do Pikes Peak?”’

Porsche ‘borrowed’ a turbo motor and installed it in the Carrera 4 for the event. ‘I went to Pikes Peak for the first time in a Porsche and won the Open Class. There was no looking back after that, I was hooked.’ Zwart was so enamoured that he’s competed there 18 times in 13 different Porsches, winning his class eight times. He’s held three division records, is a member of the sub-10-minute club, and he’s now into his fifth year of coaching at Pikes Peak for Porsche Motorsport North America. 

With his directing career flourishing, Zwart no longer had time to compete in full championships so began cherry-picking events he thought he might enjoy: a round of the WRC in New Zealand in a Mitsubishi Evo; the 10,000-mile, 25-day Panama-Alaska Rally in his treasured 914/6; Porsche’s Trans-Siberia event for Cayennes; several outings to the Baja 1000, including a win.

Zwart talks proudly of his achievements but is no bragger. He doesn’t mention his two sold-out books, Porsche 917 x 17: The Cars and Drivers in Studio and Porsche Rennsport: 125 Cars, nor the fact he collaborated with Ken Block on several projects and was second unit director of photography on the Hollywood movie The Art of Racing in the Rain. And he talks only briefly of taking the pictures for the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 fighter jet advertising. But when your life is as busy as Jeff Zwart’s is, you’d run out of breath trying to relate every last detail.

This story was first featured in evo issue 297.

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