Featured Events/Sales

No Listing Available

Event/Sale Search

Search in
For Sale   Events  
In State
Banner
Banner

Porsche 550 Spyder

Porsche 550 Spyder

by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.


Porsche 550 Spyder

It is hard to separate the Porsche 550 Spyder from the legend of actor James Dean, so why don't we get it all out of the way right now. On September 30, 1955, Dean, fresh off the film Giant, left George Barris's shop in Los Angeles to go racing in Salinas, a farm town inland of Monterrey made famous by John Steinbeck. (Dean, of course, had recently starred in the movie of Steinbeck's novel East of Eden, set in the same area.) The young actor was at the wheel of his Porsche 550 Spyder called "Little Bastard," a term that Dean might well have applied to himself.

By that time, Dean had done more than a little racing. A Porsche fan, he had just traded his 356 for the racier, LeMans-winning 550 Spyder, and he was desirous of testing its mettle (and his own) on the track in Salinas. But as he drove toward the sun on that late Friday afternoon along Highway 46, a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Donald Turnupseed, was driving home in his 1950 Ford. Not seeing Dean's car in the twilight, Turnupseed turned into the path of the actor's speeding car, and, with little time to react, the 550 Spyder crashed headlong into the Ford. Dean's side of the Porsche got the worst of it, and he was killed instantly. His mechanic, Rolf W├╝therich, who was riding shotgun, was thrown from the wreck and survived with a smashed jaw, a broken leg, and multiple contusions, cuts and abrasions. Turnupseed, who escaped with just a gash in his forehead and a bruised nose, was not charged by the California Highway Patrol officers who investigated the accident. They reasoned that the glare from the setting sun made it impossible for him to see Dean's rapidly approaching car, and when I recreated Dean's drive for a 1985 Motor Trend article, I encountered the same conditions, so I can attest to the decision of the police.

The tragic crash spelled the end for a legendary actor who seemed always to be plunging forward toward oblivion, but it marked just the mid-point in the fabled success of the 550 Spyder. Born of Porsche's desire to gain publicity (and sales) by winning in the world's most prestigious races, the 550 Spyder still had two more years of race wins ahead of it.

Though the Porsche name had been associated with topnotch automotive engineering since right after the turn of the 20th Century, the first car to bear the Porsche name wasn't built until after World War II. Emerging from Allied captivity, Ferry Porsche, son of famed auto engineer, Ferdinand Porsche, returned to Gmund, Austria, to pick up the pieces of his shattered company and toy with the idea of building a sports car based on available components, mostly from Volkswagen.

The car he drew up, the first to bear the Porsche name, used a very rigid welded space frame and positioned its diminutive air-cooled engine amidships, just ahead of the rear axle. This, of course, was the configuration that would be used to great effect in the 550 Spyder. Porsche's Gmund-based group assembled a running prototype of the little roadster in June 1948, and it was shown off to the gathered press at the Swiss Grand Prix one month later. The press was wowed by the vehicle, which was called the 356 because that was the number of the design in the company's organization scheme. The public seemed quite willing to buy, but Porsche realized that making his little sportster a commercial success would be difficult, because the hand-hammered aluminum skin over the space frame would be cost-prohibitive. So Porsche wasted no time in drawing up a completely different chassis that significantly altered the basic layout of the car. Rather than a space frame, the new car had a monocoque chassis formed from sheet steel, and the midships engine placement was jettisoned in favor of a rear-engine layout. This served to open the cabin space, and simplified the installation of the modified Volkswagen flat-four engine.

The production 356 then went on to become a commercial success. In 1949, after the production of 50 356s in Gmund, Porsche returned to its traditional home base of Stuttgart, Germany, and the 356 underwent another transformation, this time from an aluminum body to steel. With deals in place with various European distributors and American import maven Max Hoffman, the Porsche enterprise then began to crank out 356s in a fairly conventional way, although sales volume was always low by mass-market standards.

Though the 356 had become a sales success, Porsche engineers realized that the model had a number of shortcomings when it came to international racing. The steel body, while excellent for a production car, was just too heavy, and its monocoque structure was too flexible for optimum handling. So when Porsche contemplated a new vehicle for full-on competition, the designers revisited the first Porsche, the space-frame, mid-engined original prototype 356.

Work on the new racer commenced in late 1952, and by spring 1953 the mid-engined Type 550 was ready to go racing. It was a simple design: ladder frame with six cross members made of welded tubes topped with a hand-built aluminum body. The Volkswagen-based Super 1500 opposed four-cylinder engine was mounted inboard of the rear axle, giving the design nearly 50/50 front/rear weight distribution with a driver aboard.

Producing a scant 70 horsepower in street trim, the 1500 S engine wasn't going to frighten the Jaguars or Ferraris, but out of the box the Type 550-01 won its first race on the famed Nurburgring, and then it, along with the second example, Type 550-02, scored a one-two finish in its class in the 24 Hours of LeMans, the world's most prestigious sports car race. Those same two cars went on to triumph in the Carrera Panamericana, the fabled Mexican Road Race, whose name continues to be emblazoned on Porsches today.

Set to capitalize on its racing successes, Porsche unveiled a mid-engine, two-seat production car prototype called the Type 550 at the Paris motor show in October 1953. But it wasn't until late in 1954 that the Porsche factory actually had a production 550 Spyder to sell. (The "Spyder" name is said to have been coined by American Porsche importer Johnny Von Neuman.)

With initial success under their respective suspenders, Porsche engineers set about making the 550 better, and a logical place to look for improvement was in the engine compartment. The pushrod 1500S engine was just a tweaked VW powerplant, so Porsche commissioned Ernst Fuhrman to draw up a more sophisticated engine more befitting a LeMans winner. The result was the Type 547, an incredibly complicated roller-bearing-equipped quad-cam that initially produced 110 horsepower at a screaming 7800 rpm. The substantial percentage increase in horsepower led to a similar increase in performance, and the Fuhrman-designed engine, though complex, proved very reliable even in long-distance events. Before the 550 series was retired, the engine would be revamped to produce 135 horsepower at a slightly less frenetic 7200 rpm.

For 1956, Porsche decided to renew the 550 chassis, essentially re-designing the car in the process. The lighter, stiffer space frame resulted in a car that weighed just 1170 pounds, and it was dubbed the 550A. The car immediately proved itself by winning a 1,000-kilometer endurance race at the 'Ring and finishing a surprising first in the Targa Florio. By the time the 550A ceased big-time racing after the 1958 season, it had not just established its own legend, but it had also begun to create the mystique of the Porsche brand.

Autoswalk.com has partnered with Studio One Networks to provide you with the history of the world's greatest cars. All of the pictures and information are copyright of Studio One Networks and Autoswalk.com, and are brought to you by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.

loans online . But at the same time, it acts only with sexual arousal. Viagra has a number of advantages in comparison with injections in the sexual organ or other procedures aimed at treatment of impotency.
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Copyright 2017 Classic Cruising Connections
All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy | SiteMap