Before becoming a giant itself, Porsche had a reputation for being the giant killer. A huge portion of that fame was courtesy of the Porsche 550 Spyder, the first racing car built by a small family-owned company and a group of close associates.
When it emerged from the workshops, the 550 Spyder marked a new beginning for the Porsche family, carrying the essence of their magnetism to this day as one of the most collectible automobiles on the market.
Let’s rewind to the times when Porsche was a boutique manufacturer far from the automotive giant it is today. On the contrary, he was closer to being a persona non grata due to his World War 2 involvement which didn’t only produce the Beetle, but a series of military vehicles.
After the end of the war, Ferdinand Porsche’s expertise was needed for developing cars for allied manufacturers. However, his work for Renault and the prospective continuation of Volkswagen’s operations in post-war France never happened due to his arrest on war collaboration charges.
Ferdinand was arrested alongside his son Ferry and Anton Piech, another prominent engineer of the era and Porsche’s associate.
The company managed to survive based on its involvement with Piero Duso’s Cisitalia, a revolutionary Italian carmaker gathering around the most revered engineers of its time to create the most advanced road and race cars the world had ever seen. During that period, Porsche’s business operated from Gmünd in Austria where Ferry started developing the 356.
In 1949, the Porsche family returned to Stuttgart and Ferry Porsche managed to resurrect the brand by collecting orders from prospective customers and establishing a network of Volkswagen dealers to offer the 356.
Meanwhile, the ally-owned Volkswagen needed Ferdinand as a consultant in the Beetle’s development program. By sharing his expertise, Ferdinand Porsche secured royalties for his involvement, thus setting up constant income for developing the family-owned company.
Ferdinand Porsche didn’t get a chance to witness the rise of his name to all-time automotive greatness after suffering a stroke in 1950 and passing on 30 January 1951.
Development of the Porsche 550 Spyder
By growing the business abroad and with the Beetle being a best-selling car in post-War Europe, Ferry Porsche guaranteed the growth of his road car business but was aware of the fact that the brand lacked recognition on the race tracks.
In the early 1950s, racing was still an enthusiasts’ sport, still far from being a multi-billion industry. Even top tier racing consisted of a few works teams, followed by individuals wealthy enough to afford a quick car and daring enough to test its limits.
For that reason exactly, every sports car manufacturer was on the tracks and since Ferry was no stranger to racing, he naturally wanted to enter these unforgiving proving grounds.
What they lacked was not experience, nor it was ingenuity, but a budget. So, to successfully enter racing, he needed a car based on preexisting 356 mechanics, yet lighter, lower and more potent.
The in-house development began in 1952 with the help of Walter Glöckler, a Volkswagen dealer who already modified and raced the first variants of the 356.
Glöckler’s inputs guided Ferry to adopt the ladder frame construction and mid-rear engine layout, while the initial spark for the car’s looks was the Glöckler-Porsche Weidenhausen Roadster that Walter raced during 1951 and 1952.
Being their 550th project, the car was named 550 Spyder and unveiled at the 1953 Paris Auto Show.
Its production spanned until 1956 with exactly ninety examples made. Additionally, 40 thoroughly improved Porsche 550A cars were built from 1956 to 1957.
While the Porsche 356 featured a unibody construction, the Type 550 had to be laid out in a different manner.
The sports car utilized a ladder chassis, tubular frame, and sheet steel internal structure, a typical sports car layout for decades to come. The bespoke frame enabled a light, strong and rigid foundation, ideal for a car intended to race with a small-displacement engine under the hood.
During the production span, the tubular skeleton of the Porsche 550 Spyder received several revisions and was constructed by three separate companies.
Being the coachbuilder who constructed Glöckler’s race cars, the Frankfurt-based Weidenhausen Karosserie created the first two prototype frames, while the rest was completed by Karosseriebau Weinsberg and Wendler.
The majority of cars were completed by Wendler, both prototypes and customer cars. Talking about differentiating 550 RS Spyder race cars from customer cars, they made 15 racing prototypes and 75 customer cars. The former were numbered from 550-01 to 550-15, while the latter got 4-digit numbers starting from 550-0016 and ending with 550-0090.
The prototype shown at the 1953 Paris Auto Show was a Karosseriebau Weinsberg-built 550-05 chassis and it showcased the look intended for customer cars.
Body and Interior
Speaking in general, Porsche 550 Spyder was an aerodynamic compact roadster with a low-slung all-aluminum body granting it a low center of gravity. With a soaplike swooping silhouette and a miniature windshield and as such was an emblematic race car of the era.
The looks of the Type 550 were laid out by Erwin Komenda, a highly regarded designer who collaborated with the Porsche family from the earliest days of the company and who penned the 356, thus creating the silhouette we associate with the company to this very day.
While we tend to remember the Type 550 as a car with uniformed design, there have been numerous variations of its basic looks during the production process. Some alterations were subtle, like the position and number of the grilles, while some were more radical, especially on the racing prototypes as each of these cars was modified to meet specific requirements of the races it entered.
As far as the customer cars go, the design of the Porsche 550 was much more consistent, especially given the fact that the majority of examples were produced by Wendler.
The build process was typical for low volume cars of the era: each panel was hand-built by skilled aluminum craftsman using wooden bucks to maintain minimal differences between the bodies.
The interior of the Porsche 550 Spyder followed a simplistic layout with barely anything besides the three-spoke steering wheel, a 3-instrument dashboard and a number of flip switches on a slightly curved aluminum panel.
The only upholstered part of the interior was the seats and that Spartan featureless cockpit was more than enough for a mid-1950s racing car.
As a result of bare-bones philosophy, the Porsche 550 Spyder weighed just around 1300 lb. To put it in perspective, that’s a half of what’s considered lightweight by today’s standards.
Engine and Transmission
The first Porsche 550 Spyder prototypes were powered by the Type 528 engine, a flat-four unit taken from the 356 1500 S road car, and a direct derivative of the VW Beetle engine.
Even for a car as lightweight as the 550, 70 horsepower just wasn’t enough, so Ferry Porsche commissioned Ernst Fuhrman to construct a new one. The famed engineer thoroughly reworked the basic concept of a flat-four, creating the Type 547 engine.
The Type 547 engine was an aircooled 1.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder with dual overhead camshafts, dual ignition, roller bearing camshaft, aluminum pistons, aluminum crankcase and aluminum cylinder heads with one intake and one exhaust valve per cylinder.
To keep the powerhouse lubricated even during hard cornering, Type 547 utilized dry sump lubrication. Equipped with dual Solex 40 PJJ-4 2-barrel Weber 40 DCM double-downdraft carbs, it produced around 110 horsepower at 6,200 RPM and 89 lb-ft of torque at 5,200 RPM.
The close ratio transaxle gearbox sending the power to the rear wheels was four-speed, fully synchronised, with helical gears and was coupled to the engine via Fichtel & Sachs K 12 Porsche Special clutch. Keeping the car under control during cornering, the 550 was also fitted with a ZF locking differential.
Due to the car’s extremely low weight and efficient aerodynamic profile, the Type 547 engine provided a well-balanced output and was able to propel the 550 Spyder to speeds around 140 MPH on long straights.
Suspension and Steering
For maximized handling capabilities and mechanical grip in the bends, the suspension of the 550 featured longitudinally-mounted front suspension with outside needle bearings in the front and oscillating half axles at the back.
Damping was provided via a pair of transverse four-leaf adjustable torsion bars at the front and transverse solid torsion bars with two telescopic shock absorbers at the rear.
The steering system was a ZF Gemmer worm gear with divided tie rods, a standard for the day.
Brakes, Wheels, and Tires
Completely obsolete by today’s standard, the brakes of the 550 Spyder were ATE hydraulic all-around 280 mm drums. Still, we’re talking about the early 1950s and in a featherweight car, this system provided adequate stopping power.
The slotted wheels combined a steel center and an aluminum rim, resulting in lightweight. The wheels measured 16×5 inches in the front and 16×5.25 at the back.
An evolution of the 1500RS 550, the 550A was a thorough rework of the original car with a different aerodynamic profile and improved internals too.
The 550A appeared in 1956 with a newly designed body, again hand-built by Wendler. As its defining visual feature, the 550A had louvered panels behind the doors, but the majority of changes were hidden beneath the aluminum alloy panels.
The 550A utilized a lighter and more rigid full tube spaceframe strengthened by rear supportive cross-members, redesigned rear axles and as a result of structural changes, it now weighed a little over 1,200 lb.
It also featured the Type 547/1 horizontally opposed four-cylinder with the power upped to 135 hp at 7,200 RPM and 107 lb-ft of torque coupled with a revised transaxle featuring an extra gear for smooth starting of the car. The bump in power and a diet increased the top speed of the 550A to 150 MPH.
Porsche 550 Spyder in Racing
Being a purpose-built race car, the Porsche 550 RS Spyder appeared in numerous events both in Europe and the Americas.
It was driven by professionals and amateurs alike and it appeared at the grids of races both big and small.
Being restricted with its compact engine displacement, the 550 RS was short of scoring overall wins on major racing events, yet it was a dominant force in its respective classes.
In a relatively short racing career, the 550 RS was just unstoppable wherever it appeared, both in the hands of Porsche works drivers and talented privateers.
That being said, it’s important to underline the 550’s paramount victories and some influential and otherwise important examples and their pilots.
The first Type 550 RS to compete was the first prototype built, the 550-01 which triumphed in its class on the rainy 1953 Nürburgring event. It was driven by Helmut Glöckler, Walter Glöckler’s cousin.
What followed were three back-to-back S1.5 class victories at the 1953, 1954, and the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, among many others.
The 1953 24 Hours of the Le Mans was a particularly interesting race for numerous reasons. Apart from the fact that it featured the 550-01 and the 550-02, the first two prototypes built, these cars were converted into coupés to extract a greater top speed.
Moreover, two cars covered almost identical distances, so the race officials somehow ruled out the 550-02 as a victorious one. The car was driven by a duo of journalists, Richard von Frankenberg and Paul Frère.
The very same cars tested its luck at the Carrera Panamericana, courtesy of Czech-born Guatemalan automotive importer Jaroslav Juhan. His car didn’t finish the race due to a breakdown, but the 550-02 piloted by José Sala Herrarte Ariano did win in its class.
The 1954 rendition of the race saw Hans Hermann take the class victory and third overall. Following the success in South America, Ferry Porsche introduced the Carrera nameplate to distinguish a special breed of race-ready cars.
Low stance of the 550 Spyder helped Hans Herrmann and Herbert Linge to finish the 1954 Mille Miglia not only alive and unscratched, but also victorious in its class.
Exiting a sharp bend, the competing duo saw a train barrier lowering to let the train from Brescia to Rome pass. Reckoning it was too late to brake, Herman and Linge ducked and prayed for the best. The duo evaded both the oncoming train and the ramps, finishing the race sixth overall and first in the class.
One privateer’s 550 Spyder was of particular significance to the development of aerodynamic technology. It was a 550-0031 driven by Michael May, a Swiss amateur racer and engineering student who figured out the beneficial effects of downforce to grip and cornering.
May tested his adjustable wing design at the 1956 Nürburgring 1000 Kilometers and there, he outpaced Porsche’s official drivers and the great Juan Manuel Fangio. Once it became clear that he held an upper hand, Porsche race principals protested, threatening to leave the race, hence banning the car from the race.
May later worked for Benz, Porsche, and ultimately Ferrari where his wing found a way onto the 312 F1 car. The 550-0031 miraculously survived and was recently restored under supervision from May himself.
Just scratching the surface of the 550’s impact, there’s even more to this car’s impact on the racing world. Colin Chapman and Lotus might have been the pioneers in Formula One advertising with its Gold Leaf livery, but nearly two decades earlier, the 550A was painted with Fletcher Aviation and Telefunken inscriptions.
This rudimentary livery was a part of their partnership with two companies during its transatlantic campaigns
The 550A continued the success of its predecessor, winning in its class at the 1956 Nürburgring 1000 KM, followed by the in-class triumph at the 1956 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The very same year saw a heroic solo effort by Italian ace Umberto Maglioli who outpaced larger Ferraris and Maseratis in their home turf, winning the 1956 Targa Florio and cementing the 550’s reputation of a giant killer.
Porsche 550 Spyder: Little Bastard
Sadly, the greatest cultural impact of the 550 was marked by a great tragedy. Hollywood’s brightest young star James Dean was an avid racer and being able to indulge in his passion, he bought a 550 Spyder, chassis number 550-0055.
Young, famous, hot-headed, and reckless, Dean was quickly involved in several small incidents, leaving scars on the brand-new car.
That didn’t stop him from visiting the original Porsche outlaw Dean Jeffries who painted the number 130 on the hood and the doors, followed by ‘Little Bastard’ inscription on the rear.
On September 30 1955, Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wutherich set out to take the Little Bastard to its first race in Salinas, California. During the trip on Route 466, the speeding 550 collided with a Ford Custom driven by Donald Turnspeed.
The 550 was hit from the driver’s side and James Dean succumbed to injuries. He was just twenty-four and had his 550 Spyder for a week.
The Little Bastard is one of rare unaccounted examples of the 550 and is one of the greatest automotive mysteries still unsolved today.
A paramount car for Porsche, the Type 550 was the forefather of all racing Porsches that followed. In the hands of true aces, the nimble roadster was known to outpace many adversaries sporting bigger and more potent engines and as such, it was a true hero of a car.
Needless to say, a rare car of such a rich racing provenance and historical significance is a highly coveted collector car. Each car is accounted for and documented and when they change hands, it happens at highly publicized auctions held by the world’s most established houses.
For example, on February 6 2019, the 550-0082 sold at RM Sotheby’s Paris auction for €3,042,500. On the other hand, a survivor which never saw racing sold for $6.1 million at Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival sale in 2016.
Multi-million dollar prices aside, the greatest importance of the Porsche 550 Spyder is that it created a strong foundation for the company we know today. Thanks to this nimble roadster and valiant aces who pushed its limits, Porsche ensured decades of dominance on the racing circuits and amassed a cult following.