Porsche 550 (1953-1956)

Porsche 550
© James Herne

550 was Porsche's first production racing car. The car was completely street legal, so it could be driven to the races and back home. A really special engine was developed for it, engineered by Ernst Fuhrmann. It was a flat DOHC engine, meaning it had 4 overhead camshafts like the Porsche type 360 design for Formula 1. Although with just 4 cylinders, the engine was really complicated and took a lot of time to build. Compared to the "regular" 1500 cc engine in the 356, the Fuhrmann 1500 didn't have anything in common with it. The 4-cam Porsche engine developed twice the power compared to the single-cam unit based on the pre-war Volkswagen design (which was also a Porsche design).

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1953 Le Mans 24h: 550 coupé (hardtop spyder) #45 Richard von Frankenberg/Paul Frère. They finished 15th overall (1.5-litre class winners).© Porsche

The 550 started its life in a coupé-like hardtop configuration, but that was not a typical shape of the car which was designed as a spyder. Spyder or roadster is a 2-seater open sports car. Spyders are usually mid-engined, but that is not a rule. The first cars had long front lids and regular engine lids while just a few months later at the 1953 Paris Motor Show a 550 with a 356-like "regular" front lid was shown. It was a show car, another 550 prototype, the only one with "regular" front and rear lids. Out of all 550 made, the Paris show car looked the most as a series production street car. The next prototype was a humpback version (Buckel-Spyder) which came with a completely new feature – instead of the rear engine lid, the complete rear part of the car opened up to allow better access to the engine. Although the humpback was quickly dropped, from 1954 all the 550 were made with fully openable engine compartments.

The 550 had aluminium body on a frame similar in design to Ferdinand Porsche designed Auto Union racers of the nineteen thirties – with two large tubes running from front to the rear and the rest of the frame built of smaller diameter tubes.

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1954: photoshooting before the Le Mans race. The #47 car is a 1.1-litre, others have the 1.5-litre engines.© Porsche
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1954: Porsche's workshop in Teloche, just 6 km from the Le Mans 24h track's southern end. As can be seen, the #41 car in the back with white circle under its number has got a replacement car (the other #41 without the white circle)© Porsche
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1954 Le Mans 24h, before the race. The #47 of Zora Arkus Duntov/Gonzague Olivier would score 14th overall (and 1.1-litre class victory), the #41 replacement car of Hans Herrmann/Helmut Polensky wouldn't finish due to engine problem, #39 of Johnny Claes/Pierre Stasse would score 12th overall (and 1.5-litre class victory), #40 of Richard von Frankenberg/Helmut Glöckler wouldn't finish because of the engine problem and finally there's the "original" #41.© Porsche
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1955 Le Mans: photoshooting before the race © Porsche
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Le Mans 1955, Porsche 550 Spyder #37 Helmut Polensky/Richard von Frankenberg
1955 Le Mans: the quickest 550 Spyder is #37 driven by Helmut Polensky/Richard von Frankenberg© Porsche
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1955. 550 Spyders in the Porsche yard in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen.© Porsche

For 1956, the 550 evolved into more powerful 550 A, which had a 5-speed transmission and an enhanced spaceframe. The engine cover had additional service hatches with louvres on the sides. The 550 A gave Porsche its first overall victory at a major motor sport event, the 1956 Targa Florio.

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Porsche 550 A, Targa Florio winner 1956
1956 Targa Florio was won by Umberto Maglioli in a #84 Porsche 550 A Spyder © Porsche
1956 Le Mans: Ferry Porsche among his cars before the start© Porsche
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1956 Le Mans 5th: 550 A coupé (hardtop spyder) #25 Richard von Frankenberg/Wolfgang von Trips (1st in 1.5-litre class)© Porsche
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1957 Le Mans 8th: 550 A Spyder #35 Ed Hugus/Carel Godin de Beaufort (1st in 1.5-litre class)© Porsche

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