Late on a fall afternoon in 1955, James Dean was heading from Los Angeles to a race meet in Salinas through California’s Central Valley in his spiffy new Porsche 550 Spyder when Donald Turnipseed swung his 1950 Ford into his path. After the dust had settled, the Porsche looked like a crumpled aluminum beer can and the 24-year-old actor was dying of his injuries.
It’s a story that has been told and retold with embellishments, analyzed and re-analyzed by everyone from psychics to the latest generation of computer geeks. But left out of most accounts of Dean’s tragic end is much more than a mention of the Porsche he was – or according to some was not – at the wheel of.
Its loss was a tragedy in itself as it was one of only 90 examples of one of the most legendary racers of the 1950s and the car that launched the Porsche brand into the forefront of the international competition scene.
The 550 was the first of Porsche’s purpose-built racers and this lightweight and aerodynamic little 1.5-litre-engined sports racer soon became known as the “Giant Killer” after humbling bigger and more powerful opposition.
Porsche created its first sports car, the 356, in 1948 and it didn’t take long for owners to prove their mettle in rallies, hill climbs and on the track. Within a couple of years, Porsche tentatively began – under Professor Ferdinand Porsche’s watchful and experienced eye until his death in 1951 – to get involved in motorsport.
Success came in classic events such as the Mille Miglia, establishing Porsche’s reputation for speed and reliability. Porsches were also proving winners in the hands of North American importer Max Hoffman and gentleman racer Briggs Cunningham.
But company head Ferry Porsche realized taking things a step further would require more than the production-356-based racers could deliver. He began the process of developing a pur sang sports racer in 1952, launching project number 547 that would create a new engine and project number 550, the car it would eventually be fitted into.
The genesis for the type 550 would be racing specials, created by Volkswagen dealer and amateur racer Walter Glockler, which had won him a number of German Championships. These were ladder-framed cars with a mid-mounted Porsche 1,100-cc engine and clad in lightweight, hand-formed and aerodynamic open bodywork.
Porsche pointed engineer Wilhelm Held at the 550 project and told him to get a move on as he intended to debut it at the 1953 Le Mans 24-Hour race in June, while Ernst Fuhrmann was set the task of creating the new engine.
Held, with the Glockler racers for inspiration, decided on a similarly simple approach and created a steel-tube ladder-type frame with Porsche-via-Volkswagen trailing link and torsion bar front suspension.
The rear swing-arm suspension came as a package with the 80-hp, 1.5-litre Super engine (as the new one wasn’t ready) and four-speed gearbox. This was turned front-to-back to accommodate the mid-engine location. Drum brakes were fitted all round. The first couple of examples were clad in somewhat-clumsy-looking alloy roadster bodywork.
The 550 was just 3,600 mm long, was just about waist high and weighed 550 kg. Top speed was about 200 km/h and their swing-axles made them notoriously tricky to drive at the limit.
The first 550 roadster was ready for the Eiffel Races at the Nurburgring in May, 1953, and won the 1,101-cc to 1,500-cc class. Porsche entered two cars, both with coupe bodies, for Le Mans and they finished 15th and 16th overall and won their class. The 550 mystique was born, and over the next few years would grow into a legend.
Furhmann meanwhile was getting his new engine ready. It was an horizontally opposed, air-cooled, 1.5-litre four, but unlike the pushrod Super motor had quad-cams driven by a compact but highly complex arrangement of nine shafts and 14 bevel gears, each of which had to be shimmed into perfect mesh. High compression, twin plugs and twin Solex carbs rounded out the spec and produced 110 hp at 7,000 rpm (later versions reached 180 hp) and a top speed of more than 220 km/h.
One Porsche historian notes the engine required 120 hours for a skilled mechanic to assemble – and an unsympathetic driver a fraction of a second to dismantle.
The third 550 this engine was fitted into wore the Erwin Komenda-designed bodywork that would come to define this classic racer’s shape.
Its first major outing was the 1,000-mile-long Mille Miglia open road race of 1954 in which it finished sixth overall and first in class. It won its class at Le Mans, too, and another 550 fitted with an 1,100-cc engine was co-driven by Zora Arkus-Duntov, later of Corvette fame, to win that class too.
The “Giant Killer” had arrived and, particularly in long-distance races, was all but unbeatable in the under-two-litre class. In 1954, a 550 finished third and fourth overall in the final Carrera Panamericana race across Mexico behind two Ferraris and ahead of two more. The original’s successor, the 550A of 1956, won the Targa Florio that year and the follow-on RKS of 1957 won at Le Mans.
The “Spyder” name was applied to the 550 by American importer Hoffman who felt the factory’s alphanumeric designation was too confusing. The price Dean would have paid in 1955, just weeks before the crash, was about $6,800. Acquiring one of the originals today will cost you more than a million, but the 550 is one of the most-copied designs in the world and complete replicas and kits are readily available.
Back in 1953
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