Porsche 550 Spyder Guide
Today is the second installment in our overview about Porsche. This guide is for both those new to the German performance car maker and for those who want to know just a bit more of the marquee’s history and nomenclature.
Over the next few weeks we’ll have articles covering:
- The Early Years, Porsche 356
- The Legendary 550 Spyder
- The Air-Cooled 911s
- The Entry Level Porsche, 912
- Porsche And VW Have Some Mid-Engined Fun With The 914
- The Front Engined Four Cylinders, 924, 944 and 968
- Porsche’s First V8, The 928
- The Water Cooled Mid-Engined Boxster
- Enter The Cayman
- The 911 Gets Water Cooled
- Porsche Makes an SUV, The Cayenne
- The Panamera Performance Sedan
- Another SUV, The Macan
- The Supercars, 959, Carrera GT and 918 Spyder
- Porsche in Motorsport
Today we’ll be going over the early mid-engined legend, the 550 Spyder.
The Porsche 550 Spyder
There are few cars quite as legendary as the Porsche 550 Spyder. The roadster was the first car that Porsche produced specifically for racing. It was a successful competition machine and its styling is all Porsche and yet very unique.
The first 356 prototype was a mid-engined car, however when that model went to production it ended up with the engine behind the rear axle. However, the production version of the 550 Spyder would get its engine in a mid-rear layout. This resulted in a more balanced machine designed for racing.
Porsche 550 Spyder Engine and Gearbox
At the heart of the Porsche 550 Spyder is an air-cooled flat-four engine. As we stated before the power plant is set in the middle of the car behind the seats. Power output was not bad for the time with 108 horses available at 6,200 RPMs.
The crankcase was made of aluminum with aluminum cylinders that had hard chromed walls. The 550 also featured an aluminum cylinder head. The motor used two valves per cylinder (1 intake and 1 exhaust) with 2 camshafts per head that are driven by vertical shafts. The pistons were also made out of aluminum. It used a bore of 3.35 in (85 mm) and a stroke of 2.59 in (66 mm). Displacement was 1,498 cc (91.4 cu in) and the compression ratio was 9.5:1. To help keep things lubricated and running cool the 550 used a dry sump with oil cooler and oil filter in main current. The cylinder firing order was 1-4-3-2. To feed the gas and air to the engine either a Solex 40 PJJ or Weber 40 DCM carburetor was used. To get the exhaust gasses out 2 mufflers leading into 1 exhaust pipe were used.
To get the power to the rear wheels the clutch was a Fichtel & Sachs, K 12 Porsche Special. The Porsche used a 4-speed transmission that used synchronized helical gears. The gear ratios were 1st gear, 11:35 2nd gear, 17:30 – 16:31 – 18:29 3rd gear, 23:26 – 22:27 – 24:25 4th gear, 27:22 – 25:24 – 26:23 and Reverse 1:3.56. The rear end ZF locking differential featured a spiral bevel pinion.
Thanks to the 108 horses and a dry weight of just 1,300 lbs it was plenty quick for its day. Flat out on the track it was capable of about 140 mph.
Porsche 550 Spyder Chassis
The Porsche 550 Spyder chassis used a tubular seamless steel tubing for the front springs. At the rear were 4-leaf adjustable torsion bars with a shock absorber on each side. The steering ration was 1:15.15. The brakes were operated by an oil hydraulic system. This was the mid-50’s so drum brakes were used on all four wheels.
The mid-engined car featured near perfect 50-50 front to rear weight distribution which greatly help its handling. In its day it was one of the best handling cars in the world.
The Porsche 550 Spyder in Motorsport
The first three hand-built prototypes featured a removable hard top. The first of these cars raced as a roadster at the Nurburgring Eifel Race in May 1953. The victory in the event was the first for the 550. The small car proved very competitive in motorsports. Largely thanks to the success of the 550 Spyder, Porsche was the first car manufacturer to get a race sponsorship which was through Fletcher Aviation, who Porsche was working with to design a light aircraft engine and then they later adding Telefunken and Castrol.
Production of the 550 went from 1953-1955, but in 1956 an evolutionary version of the model, the 550A, which had a lighter and more rigid spaceframe chassis, gave Porsche its first overall win in a major racing event, the 1956 Targa Florio. That victory was the one that started making Porsche a household name with racing fans.
Porsche 550 Spyder Cost
In 1955 a Porsche 550 Spyder could be had for $6,800 which was a good amount of money for the time. Just about a week ago a 1955 550 Spyder that had been owned by Jerry Seinfeld sold for $5.35 million which was the mid-range of the estimated value (other examples in recent years have sold for over $7 million). If one had purchased the car originally it would not have been a bad investment, even when you take in the cost of inflation which would put the Spyder at just over $60,000 in today’s money.
Celebrities and the Porsche 550 Spyder
Many celebrities have owned or driven Porsche 550 Spyders, including the above mentioned Jerry Seinfeld. However, none are quite as attached to the car as James Dean.
The late actor was just finishing shooting the motion picture Giant when he decided to trade in his 356 Porsche Speedster at Competition Motors for a new 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder in September of the 1955. Fatefully he decided to enter the machine in the Salinas Road Race scheduled for October 1st and 2nd of that year.
He decided to drive his car famously wearing “Little Bastard” on the rear to the event instead of having it trailered. Unfortunately, on the trip Donald Turnupseed’s 1950 Ford Custom and James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder crashed into each other at the junction of California Highways 46 and 41 on September 30, 1955. Mr. Dean was rushed to the hospital in Paso Robles, California. The drive is a long one on a single lane highway and James Dean passed away on the way to the hospital.
The sad event and the fact that the acclaimed film “Rebel Without a Cause” was released about a month after James Dean’s death helped cement him as a legend. He and the 550 Spyder will forever be linked, unfortunately not for a happy event.
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Picture source: BlueFish,