|Vehicle:||1954 Porsche 550/1500RS Le Mans Prototype|
|Number Produced:||8 prototypes, 12+ works cars, 78 series production|
|Original List Price:||$6,800|
|Distributor Caps:||$500 each (2 required)|
|Chassis Number Location:||On plate on firewall in cockpit|
|Engine Number Location:||On crankcase|
|Club Info:||Porsche Club of America, P.O. Box 5900, Springfield, VA 22150|
This 1954 Porsche 550/1500RS Spyder “Le Mans Prototype” sold for $1,034,000 at the Gooding Pebble Beach sale held August 21, 2005.
If we examine the factors required to make serious collectors reach into their pockets, four elements can be discerned: aesthetic quality, technological quality, historic quality, and originality. The first three create distinctions among different cars, while the remaining factor applies to an individual car. On a scale of one to ten in each category, let’s rate the 550 Spyder pictured here, and then average the results to see how close it gets to a mythical perfect overall score of ten.
It gets a middling grade for its utilitarian looks, say a five. Don’t argue, this is entirely fair.
With respect to technical art, let’s give the Porsche a knockout score of ten. Remember, this car displays prescient engineering that the ’60s would show was the optimal architecture for racing machinery-a low polar moment of inertia, a mid-engine design, and an independently sprung chassis clothed in relatively slippery coachwork with a low frontal area.
Ernst Fuhrmann’s racing engine is an interesting mélange of pre-war and post-war technology. From the pre-war era we see helical gear- and shaft-driven cams, large hemispherical combustion chambers with their required twin ignition, and roller bearings at the engine’s bottom end. The rest of the engine, however, reflects the state of the art for the time, with Weber carburetors, double overhead cams (but with replaceable lobes), dry sump lubrication, short stroke design, and light alloy construction, including chrome-plated cylinder barrels. If you like engine technology, it’s hard to specify anything sexier.
For history, let’s give it an eight. Despite their small displacement, Spyders are absolute giants in the history of motor racing. In their day, they ground up anything in their class and won more than a fair number of races outright against the fastest cars in the world. This 550/1500RS Spyder is one of the mechanically definitive racers that preceded the production run of customer cars released in 1955. As a factory team car it was instrumental in building Porsche’s reputation. Further adding to its significance, this car has all the major race history as a “works” entry that you could desire.
All Spyders are first-rank collectibles. Just look at the greats who drove the things: Herrmann, Frere, P. Hill and G. Hill, Moss, Behra, Gurney, Holbert, Von Trips, and so on. As a result, if you own one, you’ll never have a problem getting accepted to any event anywhere, all the more true with a car like this one, a real Le Mans racer.
In judging originality, we’ll have to infer from the catalog’s silence on the subject that the car’s body/chassis assembly is unmolested. I would also want to know something of the history of the car’s engine, but again, let’s assume it is healthy. Finally, while “matching numbers” is of no significance with Porsche factory racers, it is extremely important to have a date-appropriate engine, gearbox, etc. It appears from the catalog that in these respects, such is the case here. So for originality, let’s tentatively give it an eight.
Adding up the numbers, you arrive at 31, which when divided by four gives you an overall rating of 7.75. That’s awfully close to a perfect ten in the collector car world, so it’s not too surprising that the 550/1500RS Spyder pictured here sold for a record-setting $1,034,000.
A sale price in the seven figures for any ’50s-vintage Porsche race car is impressive, as these cars seem to always sit outside the collector mainstream. I continue to be surprised by the number of experienced competition car collectors who profess not only complete ignorance of Porsche race cars, but also absolute bafflement at the marque. Indeed, one of the leading motor racing historians working today has confessed as much to me.
Porsche’s racing history is one of great distinction, spanning four decades and almost every conceivable form of motor sport, and is hardly congested with a surplus of models and variants. Oddly enough, both this history and the unique technology behind it have conspired against Porsche over the years.
While Porsche’s initial decade in racing focused on winning small-bore honors, by the ’60s Porsche’s crushing domination of the under-two-liter classes led it to vie for overall victories. This change in focus and gradual upsizing brought Porsche into head-to-head competition with the likes of Ferrari and Ford. Unfortunately, success in the bigs came too late to imprint much into the collective consciousness, at least with regard to Porsche’s earlier models. Spyders were “only” class winners, and didn’t get the kind of run that naturally came to the bigger cars that won races outright. The result? Despite one of the most enviable competition records on the planet, only the hardcore car nuts ever cared.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, Porsche’s iconoclastic, if not positively arcane, engineering further distanced it from the mainstream. Porsches were air-cooled, which was “all wrong” by popular perception. It put its engines behind the driver, employing a chassis architecture that was also “all wrong.” And even though these practices proved themselves sound on the track over and over again, mechanics and drivers still had to make a real commitment to learning the ins and outs of these demanding little jellybean buggies before they could have any hope of success. More conventional race cars, on the other hand, allowed for much more similarity in setup and driving styles.
What was true in the pits a few decades ago stands doubly true in the collector car world today: Spyders are great cars, but they are not for everyone. As part of the supporting cast at vintage events rather than the headliners, their bragging rights just don’t measure up to a lot of the bigger, cruder, yet more charismatic iron.
If this buyer was looking for a collectible historic race car, this early Spyder’s factory history, rarity, originality, and good scoring using the metrics discussed above make it a desirable vehicle. If he was hoping to impress those on the cocktail circuit, he might have spent his million bucks elsewhere. All in all, however, I’ll still say it was a fair deal for all concerned.