Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

Hey, Matt:

Why do Porsches have the ignition switch on the left-hand side?

-- Nein E. Levin, the net

Because Porsches kicked butt on the sports-car circuit back in the day. Lots of stories float around about this seeming anomaly, but the Porsche folks claim it's a holdover from the annual 24-hour endurance race, in Le Mans, France, one of the premier events in Europe. It started in 1923 and still continues today, run on an eight-and-a-half-mile course that's part permanent oval, part city streets blocked off for the event. Until the 1970s, the race began in a unique way. Instead of the familiar Indy-type start, where cars take a lap before the flag's dropped, Le Mans entrants parked their cars at the edge of the track and gathered on the other side. The race began with all the drivers running across the track, hopping into their cars, starting them up, and roaring off. A so-called "Le Mans start."

The story goes that the ignition was on the left so the driver could simultaneously start the car with his left hand and shift into first gear with his right, somehow saving a few seconds. Why this was so important in an endurance race isn't really clear. The left-hand ignition was carried over into Porsche production cars as a reminder of Porsche supremacy at Le Mans. In a production car this might have some practicality, since the old manual throttles were in the center of the dashboard, right of the steering wheel, so on a cold day you could adjust the choke with one hand and crank the engine with the other.

Porsche wasn't the only car with this feature. The Pontiac LeMans/GTO had it, Land Cruisers, Land Rovers, Ford trucks, the old Olds. Mostly in the 1960s. By the way, production Porsches for England, Australia, and other right-hand-drive countries had the ignition to the right of the steering wheel. Go figure.

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