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The 550 Spyder was Porsche’s first full-scale endeavour into sports car racing, and one of its most successful ever. In an era where nearly every aspect of cars was getting larger, the 550 Spyder, remarkably light, at less than 1500 pounds, was the direct opposite.
Prototypes were developed starting in 1950 by Walter Glöckler, a motorcycle racer and Volkswagen salesman who wanted to use Porsche’s 1.1-liter flat-four engine in his home-built race cars. That year, his Porsche-powered prototype won the 1,100cc sports car class championship in Germany. Porsche took notice, and began to support Glöckler’s car, eventually entering an informal mutual assistance pact. From 1951 on, Glöckler prototypes bore Porsche branding.
Successes continued to mount in the prototypes. By 1952, Porsche had started developing its own purpose-built race car in-house—the Type 550. The first factory-built 550 debuted at the Nüburgring for the Eifel Races on May 31, 1953. Despite pouring rain and carburetor troubles, the 550 won the very first race it entered, a sign of what was to come. Weeks later, a two-car effort took first and second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After a few more wins in Europe, the cars were sold off to a buyer who continued to race them.
The definitive 550 form was unveiled to the world at the Paris Salon in October 1953. The car featured a ladder-type frame and sleek bodywork. The pièce de résistance, however, was its engine, known as the Type 547.
The engine’s development, led by Porsche engineer Ernst Fuhrmann, featured a 1.5-liter four-cam (versus earlier twin-cam) engine with a brilliantly compact layout that would offer a claimed 110 hp from virtually the same dimensions as the company’s earlier flat-fours, which produced around 80 hp. The pairing of the 550 and the Fuhrmann four-cam engine would dominate competition the world over.
By 1955, Porsche’s fifth time competing at Le Mans, the 550 had become not only the runaway winner in its class but also a force to be reckoned with in the race for outright victory against larger and more powerful cars. The 550’s most important win, however, came in 1956, when an updated space-frame version took overall victory at the Targa Florio, then one of the most famous and challenging races in the world. Among the giants slain were the Ferrari 860 Monza and the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL.
Today, Porsche’s museums are bursting with racing legends. None of it would have been possible without the little giant-killer, Porsche’s first venture into factory racing, the 550 Spyder.
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