|aka||Porsche 550 Spyder|
|Engine||1.5 litre four cylinder|
Porsche had been successful at motor racing since the word go - in fact, the company's first success was in an Innsbruck road race with a 356 Gmund coupe. The 356 was rather quick on track, but due to the small engine size, was limited by class restrictions. Porsche had a dream to produce, from the ground up, a racing car, which would sever many of the roots with the 356, and crucially, the Volkswagen Beetle. The car was called the 550, a number of no significance to the company, and was unveiled in 1953.
The First 'Proper' Racing Car
Ferdinand Porsche always viewed motorsport as a lucrative marketing tool, to show off his company's abilities. Many insiders later went on to say that the road car operation, in the early years, stood only to pay for Porsche's racing exploits. The Porsche 356 was quite successful, but Porsche wanted more, and subsequently created the 550.
The car drew heavily from a modified 356, built by German Volkswagen dealer Walter Glockler. The Glockler 356 featured more power, but more specifically, no roof. Glocker had already used the car in competition, embarassing the Porsche works effort. Porsche laid down a brief that requested a lightweight construction, but with proven mechanicals underneath. A simple steel ladder chassis was created, with an Ernst Fuhrmann designed 1500 cc four cylinder power plant placed a-midships. The engine would develop 100 hp when running on alcohol. The whole construction was clothed in aerodynamically formed aluminium.
The first race the car entered was at the infamous Nurburgring Nordschleife, where it recorded a win. On the back of this success, the car was entered by the Porsche works team into Le Mans, of the same year. The comany decided to peform major modifications to the Spyder before the race : namely by turning it into a coupe, to help the car to higher top speeds on the long Mulsanne straight. The roof also produced more downforce - curing the high speed instability of the standard short-tail Spyder. For the race, petrol was adopted as a fuel to improve reliability, and as a consequence, power fell to 80 hp. Even though, the cars were quick enough to record 1500 cc class victories.
Upgrades - and More Success
By 1954, the small Spyder had proved itself against much more powerful opposition. The car was upgraded in early 1954 to include more power - 110 BHP - and a stability-enhancing long tail, with prominent rear fins. Customer cars were being offered, and many found themselves Stateside, and immediately made their mark. The Porsche name flew into the headlines, and subsequently the conscious of the car-driving masses, when young actor James Dean was killed in an accident while driving his - this proved a sort of macabre advert for Porsche, for many Americans had not yet heard of the Stuttgart marque.
The 1954 Le Mans proved another success for Porsche, with both the 1500 cc and 1100 cc class victories falling to the 550. 1955 proved even more successful for the concern, though, with a fourth place overall in Le Mans, and the 550 filling the top four places in the Nurburgring Grand Prix support race. With the 550 RS (Renn Sport - German for Motor Sport), the car was afforded revised rear suspension and a power output boosted to 130BHP. The car proved dominant at the Targa Florio, scoring the first of Porsche's record 11 wins there.
The successful 550 Spyder was replaced by the 718 in 1958.
The 550 took the racing world by surprise - its ability to punch well above its weight did not cease to amaze. Many drivers at the time wanted some of this success, and began creating specials based upon the 550. An example of this is the 'Durlite', a special created by American gentleman racer Bob Webb. Webb had damaged his 550 Spyder in a race, and used the basic ladder chassis and the engine, and transplanted them into a car fashioned by his team. The engine itelf was bored out to 1600 cc to allow the Durlite to race in other classes, and developed around 160 BHP. The car disappeared altogether in the Seventies.
Another example of this workshop special building was the Gordini-Porsche, created in Argentina by European car specialist Carl Defosse. As suggested by the name, the car was essentially a Gordini racing car, but with the engine and running gear of a 550. The car finished third in class in the Buenos Aires 24 Hour in 1955, but was later sold as the owner pursued faster machinery.
That the car was used as a basis for so many conversions (there are countless more examples) proves the strength of the 550 concept.
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