Porsche 550 Spyder

A legend in the making

This car, considered the cornerstone of Porsche's involvement in competition, is also known to the general public thanks to the actor James Dean who owned one.

Right from the start of the manufacture of the Porsche 356 and later the 550, engineer Ferry Porsche wanted to give his cars a sportive spirit directly derived from racing experience. The Porsche 550 Spyder, launched in 1953, was a perfect example of this industrial philosophy, even though the initiative for this 356-derived sports car was taken by an independent tuner, Walter Glöckler. For almost a decade, the 550 and its various evolutions were to give their competitors a hard time.

The Porsche 550 Spyder took part in most of the important races of its time, such as here at the 1955 Mille Miglia, where the Ernst Lautenschlager-Rudi Scholl team finished 23rd. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo © Porsche

The history of this founding model goes back to a few years earlier. It was Walter Glöckler, a Volkswagen dealer in Frankfurt and well-known racing driver, who was the first to design a Porsche specifically for racing; a Spyder that was to become the basis for the Porsche 550. At the end of 1949, he and Hermann Ramelow, who was responsible for the Glöckler workshop, built a two-seater with  bodywork by Weidenhausen of Frankfurt. The lightweight tubular chassis was fitted with many of the 356's mechanical components and was equipped with the 1086 cc VW-Porsche engine that produced 58 hp.

Four Porsche 550s were registered to take part in the 1954 24 Hours of Le Mans. No. 39 of Johnny Claes and Pierre Stasse finished 12th (1st in Class 1 101 to 1,500 cm3). © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo ©  Porsche

The early days of the 550  

With this car, soon to be renamed Porsche-Glöckler, the designer won the German Championship in the Sport 1100 category in 1950. A second car was built for Porsche's American importer Max Hoffman, who successfully raced it across the Atlantic. Finally, a third version, with a 98 hp 1500 engine and a streamlined roof, enabled Glöckler to win the German championship in its class again in 1952. In the light of the numerous successes of the Glöckler Spyder, Ferry Porsche decided to produce a racing model in-house, using the valuable experience acquired by Glöckler. 

In the winter of 1952, construction of the prototype began and the first Porsche 550 was ready the following spring. The chassis was of the ladder type, with a flat bottom and made of welded steel tubes. The body, which was manufactured in Weidenhausen from a single piece of aluminium, formed a self-supporting shell. The suspension was independent, and at the rear there was a Hooke’s-type pendulum axle. After a test drive at the Nürburgring in August 1953, the Porsche 550 was presented at the Paris Motor Show in October. Its racing debut took place at the Eifelrennen in 1953, where Helm Glöckler (Walter's nephew) won his class. The Porsche 550 Spyder also made its name in the Carrera Panamericana Mexico, a particularly demanding 8,000 km race over eight days. After their first entry in 1953, the factory Porsche 550s won the following year, winning the Sport 1500 class and finishing 3rd, 4th and 12th overall.

Porsche's importer in the US, Max Hoffmann, came up with the name "Spyder" for the latest sports car from Stuttgart. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo ©  Archives & Collections

A new flat 4 engine

In the autumn of 1953, a new Type 547 engine with a capacity of 1,498 cc was introduced, designed by the engineer Ernst Fuhrmann. It was a flat four-cylinder (opposed) engine with a double overhead shaft. It was very compact, with an aluminium crankcase, light alloy cylinder heads and cylinders, and chromed liners. It developed 110 hp at 7,800 rpm and had a maximum torque of 13.2 mkg at 5,300 rpm. 

Air cooling provided by a vertical turbine placed above the engine and driven by a belt from the crankshaft. The crankshaft, manufactured by Hirth, was supported by four bearings. The lubrication system, with separate oil tank, is a pressure system. The Type 718 gearbox mounted behind the rear axle and consisting of four gears, of which the first is not synchronized. Transmission was complemented by a ZF self-locking limited slip differential. The Fichtel & Sachs dry single-plate clutch is hydraulically operated.

The legend of James Dean is closely linked to the Porsche 550 Spyder that he bought in September 1955 and with which he crashed a few days later. © IXO Collections SAS - Tous droits réservés. Crédits photo ©  Porsche

Developments

From 1956 the 550A RS (Rennsport) model was introduced, similar in appearance but with some mechanical modifications. The chassis was now entirely tubular, making it more rigid and resilient in torsion. The engine also been improved, while retaining its main characteristics. It now developed 135 hp at 7,200 rpm and was equipped with a new Weber type 40 DC inverted twin carburetor. In 1958, the Type 718 RSK replaced the 550A. 

This version had a lighter chassis and its engine developed 148 hp. Then followed the final models called RS 60 in 1959 and RS 61 the following year. These models were equipped with various types of engines ranging from 1,498 cm3 to 2,196 cm3. The RS61 Spyder was entered until 1964, while Jo Bonnier and Carlo Abate won the 1963 Targa Florio with a 718 GTR version with a 2-litre 8-cylinder engine.

Fiche technique

Porsche 550 Spyder RS 1500 (1954)

• Engine: Type 547, 4 cylinders opposite flat, rear center 

• Displacement: 1,498 cm3 

• Bore x stroke: 85 mm x 66 mm 

• Power: 110 hp at 7,800 rpm 

• Power supply: 2 solex PJJ 40 inverted double body carburetors 

• Ignition: double ignition, coil and distributor 

• Distribution: double overhead camshaft per bench, 2 valves per cylinder 

• Transmission: Type 718, rear wheels, 4 gears + M.A. 

• Tyres: Continental Racing 5.00 X 16 (front), 5.25 X 16 AR (rear) 

• Brakes: Simplex Type drums, diameter 28 cm (front and rear) 

• Length: 360 cm 

• Width: 161 cm 

• Height: 98 cm 

• Wheelbase: 210 cm 

• Front track: 129 cm 

• Rear track: 125 cm 

• Weight (empty): 590 kg 

• Maximum speed: 240 km/h

Participation in Le Mans

The Porsche 550 competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans from its debut in 1953 through the 1959 edition, totalling seven entries. From 1953 to 1958 it won its class (1,101 to 1,500 cc) six times, as well as the 751 to 1,100 cc class in 1954. The 1955 edition was the most successful with three 550 Spyders finishing 4th, 5th and 6th overall. That year the car, entered by Porsche K.G. and driven by Helmuth Polensky and Richard von Frankenberg, also won the 1954-1955 Biennial Cup and the Performance Index. The following year, Wolfgang Von Trips and Von Frankenberg finished fifth behind the mighty Jaguar, Aston Martin and Ferrari. Finally, in the 1958 edition, Edgar Barth and Paul Frère finished fourth.

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