A 1955 Porsche 550/1500 RS Spyder headlines Mecum’s upcoming Monterey sale. Introduced to the public at the 1953 Paris Motor Show, the 550 was Porsche’s first dedicated sports racer, an open-cockpit design inspired by the earlier sports cars built and campaigned by German Volkswagen dealer Walter Glockler in 1949-50 using Porsche mechanicals in lightweight tubular frames. It was Glockler’s success that encouraged Ferry Porsche to authorize the 550 project in 1952.
The need for such a car had become quite evident by then. Porsche was beginning to face stiff competition from a new breed of sports cars specifically geared for racing on the larger European circuits. The dual-purpose production Porsches were no match for such barely streetable competition machines as the Mercedes-Benz 300SL and Jaguar C-Type racers. Worse, companies such as Gordini and OSCA were fielding the same type of racers – “production” cars stripped down and practically devoid of creature comforts – in direct competition with Porsches at the class level as well. There was obviously no future for production-based Porsches against such competition; only a dedicated sports racer could solve the problem, and Glockler had already shown the way, collaborating with Porsche on a series of German championship-winning specials that wore the Porsche nameplate. Indeed, the most famous of the Glockler specials was widely promoted as a Porsche, even appearing on the company stand at the Geneva and Frankfurt auto shows in 1953.
Unlike the rear-engined production 356, the 550 followed both the original Porsche and the Glockler designs, its engine mounted ahead of the rear axle in a simple ladder-type frame layout. To accommodate the design, the entire powertrain and rear suspension was reversed, placing the engine ahead of the transaxle and using leading rather than trailing arms to operate the torsion bars. The front suspension was typical Porsche, with trailing arms and transverse torsion bars.
The first two prototypes used alloy bodies built by Weidenhausen of Frankfurt, who had earlier dressed the Glockler cars. The goal was to enter them at Le Mans in June 1953, but in a rain-soaked trial race at the Nurburgring on May 31, Walter Glockler’s cousin Helm staved off entries from Borgward and East Germany’s EMW to make the first prototype, 550-01, a winner on its very first outing. That victory and a 1-2 class win at Le Mans were accomplished with the 1500 Super engine, which developed 80 HP on pump gasoline. The two prototypes were raced in Europe for the rest of the season, during which they made another appearance at the Nurburgring along with a third prototype. It did not race, but onlookers noted the distinctly harsh bark emanating from its single large exhaust outlet, the source of which was a brand new powerplant designed in conjunction with the 550: the Type 547 engine.
Designed with considerable input from Dr. Ernst Fuhrmann, an expert engineer who later became chairman of Porsche, the 547 was much more than the 356’s 1,500 CC 4-cylinder air-cooled boxer engine; it was the first Porsche engine to use twin camshafts per cylinder bank. Conventional thinking dictated an end-mounted chain or gear drive system that would have added to the overall length of the engine. However, Fuhrmann wanted to ensure that the Type 547 would fit within the confines of a regular production 356, an inspired foresight that soon spawned the legendary Carrera. Fuhrmann drew on his experience with the ingenious and ill-fated Cisitalia Grand Prix car to design a diabolically complicated cam-drive system using nine drive shafts and 14 bevel gears to route the crank’s rotation first to the exhaust cams and then to the intake cams. The entire affair was tightly packaged between the cylinder banks to further complicate the 547, which also bristled with roller crank bearings, dual distributors for its twin-plug combustion chambers, twin Solex 2-barrel downdraft carburetors and a highly efficient dual-inlet cooling fan arrangement.
The 547’s unparalleled complexity meant that it took a skilled mechanic over 120 hours to assemble one; Fuhrmann himself once observed that it took a minimum of 8 hours to properly set the timing if one was lucky, and up to double that if tolerances were not exactly right. The first Type 547 engines produced 110 HP at 7,000 RPM but subsequent tuning revisions eventually raised that figure to 180 HP. This incredibly complicated yet powerful and reliable engine was at the heart of the 550 legend, which grew by leaps and bounds.
Soon after class wins at the Mille Miglia, Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana in 1954, Porsche began building customer cars using alloy bodies by Wendler. Late in 1955 Porsche improved the 550’s high-speed stability by replacing the ladder-type frame with a lighter and far stronger space frame. This 1955 550/1500 RS Spyder, chassis number 550-0077 is believed to be the first car fitted with the new space frame chassis. In January 1956 the car was delivered to Belgian race driver Christian Goethals, and in February 1956 was featured by Porsche as the Brussels Salon Auto Show Car. Goethals actively campaigned the car in Europe, winning the 1500CC class at the GP des Frontiers in Chimay and the Coupe de Salon in Montlhery among numerous excellent overall showings before heading to the United States, where it would continue racing for the next 5 years at the hands of female racing pioneer Suzy Dietrich and future Shelby team driver Tom Payne.
After a small handful of subsequent owners, Chassis 550-0077 was acquired by collectors and present owners Peter and Cheryl Dunkel in late 1989 from the estate of Harry Keeler. The Dunkels later commissioned a full restoration that was completed by Bill Perrone’s Part Shop in Huntington Beach, California, and Jim Ansite’s Ansite Inc. in Los Alamitos, California. The car’s engine restoration was completed by Bill Doyle, the world’s leading authority on the 547 4-cam engine.
Porsche historian and author R. Stephen Heinrichs has determined that three different 4-cam Type 547 engines were installed in the car by the Porsche factory, and that the present engine, which bears both the stamped factory internal number 212 and the serial number 90089, was the third and final engine installed, after the car was delivered to Goethals. It is correctly equipped with dual Solex 40 PPJ double-downdraft carburetors and mated to a racing-spec 4-speed gearbox. During the restoration the Dunkels decided to have Bad Company of Sun Valley, California, paint the car in a later factory Metallic Silver, with Blue rear fender scallops and the Porsche name emblazoned across the front bonnet for high visibility during vintage track events. A prominent and interesting detail is the list of races run by original owner Goethals painted on the aluminum tonneau cover as part of the restoration. The cockpit demonstrates the stark simplicity of the 550’s design, with Blue fabric upholstery on the seats and inner door panels, a three-point roll bar; banjo-style steering wheel, floor-mounted shifter and pedals, tach, speedometer and oil temperature and fuel gauges.
Chassis no. 550-0077 is a well-known member of the Porsche community. In 2011 it was shown at the Quail Lodge Porsche Race Car Classic to benefit lung cancer research and at Rennsport, the largest-ever gathering of 550 and 4-cam Porsches, where Brian Redman and other judges gave 550-0077 an award for its history and restoration. That same year it was also named winner of the Design Achievement Award at the Dana Point Concours d’Elegance in Orange County, California. Now being offered after 25 years in the Peter and Cheryl Dunkel Collection, Porsche 550/1500 RS number 550-0077 is a seminal machine in Porsche’s long and storied racing history.
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