In offering this original, unmolested and intricate “time machine” 550 RS Spyder, Bonhams is privileged to present what is considered to be the world’s best-preserved, never-restored example of this seminal Porsche model surviving today.
There are inevitably some panel ripples, minor paint cracks, and scuffs and discoloration in places on chassis 0090, but these fall squarely into the category of utterly compelling fine patina.
In 2010, under the special awards category of the pinnacle-level international Pebble Beach Concours, s/n 0090 was recognized by the Pebble Beach Judging Committee with the FIVA Post-War award. One of the most highly respected members of the car collecting community has remarked that “people were all agog just to see the car.”
Porsche 5500090 has never been offered publicly for sale, and it has been very rarely seen. Its presentation at Goodwood offers a superb opportunity for Porsche aficionados to examine and appreciate this historically important and iconic piece of Porsche lore.
|Vehicle:||1956 Porsche Type 550/1500RS Spyder|
|Number Produced:||90, plus seven spare chassis|
|Original List Price:||$6,000 (U.S. list price, 1956)|
|SCM Valuation:||Median to date, $4,185,100; high sale, $6,104,365 (this car)|
|Tune Up Cost:||Minor, $1,500 with spark plugs, filters, fluids. Major, $5,000 adds wires, distributor caps, and valve adjustment.|
|Chassis Number Location:||Wendler “production” cars: aluminum tag on inside passenger’s side quarter panel; welded-on plate on chassis traverse tube back of engine bay|
|Engine Number Location:||Horizontal boss to left bottom of fan housing casting|
|Club Info:||Porsche Club of America, 356 Registry|
|Alternatives:||1954–57 Jaguar D-type, 1953–55 Aston Martin DB3S, 1955–59 Maserati 300S|
This car, Lot 140, sold for $6,121,188, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival auction in Chichester, U.K., on September 12, 2016.
The 550 Spyder was Porsche’s first prototype sports racing car, introduced in 1953. The early cars carried either Weidenhausen or Weinsberg “flat-front” bodies that were a tad ungainly, to be succeeded by Wendler-built sloped-front, smooth-tail bodies starting with chassis #16. The Wendler cars are considered by most aficionados to be the most beautiful Spyders, among the most perfectly proportioned and yet purposeful race cars ever built.
They were thoroughly successful small-bore 1,500-cc-class race cars. They were also “giant killers” that occasionally whipped much larger, faster race cars, cementing the Spyder’s reputation.
The first three Spyders were initially powered by basically stock Type 356 pushrod engines. Some were later updated when the Ernst Fuhrmann-designed and now iconic four-cam engines were adopted. That Type 547 engine became standard for all 550 Spyders.
Although complicated, and for five years built around Hirth seven-piece crankshafts, these small engines were powerful, long-lived in race applications (even if less so in start-stop street cars), and surprisingly light given their many gears and shafts. The combination of a strong tube frame, light aluminum body and powerful four-cam engine led to many racing successes — some of them legendary.
Racing to sales success
One famous result was the 1954 Carrera Panamericana, up the length of Mexico, where Hans Hermann drove 55004 to 3rd place overall, placing it ahead of many more powerful cars.
In those days, the Carrera was a publicity magnet. Foreign and domestic car manufacturers entered factory-supported teams. Car fans reading either Mechanix Illustrated or Road & Track were treated to Carrera articles and Ferrari and Lincoln ads extolling their victories overall or in class. Similarly, Hermann’s 3rd overall and class victory helped put Porsche on the map in the United States, which soon became Porsche’s single largest market, accounting for over 50% of sales.
In 1953, Spyders finished one-two in the 1,500-cc class at Le Mans, repeating with two class wins in 1954, the 1,500-cc car finishing on three cylinders. Spyders accumulated noteworthy class wins at the Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, Nürburgring, Sebring 12 Hours, and many other venues. Over three years, 550 Spyders earned an estimated 488 podiums in class in road races and hillclimbs. It was the best small-displacement race car in the world.
Data indicates that Porsche built 90 Type 550 Spyders (1953–55) plus seven spare chassis, followed by 40 Type 550As (1956–57), 35 RSKs (1957–59), and finally, 36 RS60/RS61s (1960-61). The 550s and RSKs are the most beautiful, but the RS60/61s are the most capable race cars. They are all collectible, rare and valuable.
The unicorn Spyder
5500090 is more than rare and valuable. It is the unicorn Spyder — an almost completely original race car with under 20,000 miles and all matching numbers.
Early on, it was fully documented as the “salon” car in the June 1971 issue of Road & Track. I know this car well, as for 30 years it belonged to my friend George (“Gerry” to his friends) Reilly of Wheelwright, MA. When Gerry purchased the Spyder circa 1971, some half dozen items were wrong replacements. To his credit, Gerry assiduously sourced correct items to make the car as original as possible.
My 1968 911 T/R was placed next to Gerry and his Spyder at the 1998 Vuitton Classic in Rockefeller Center, where the 550 won best preserved car. I had hours to study it — actually, to lust after it. I studied it more at the 1994 Porsche Parade historical display at Lake Placid. I later visited it in Vijay Mallya’s collection in Sausalito, hoping to buy it for a friend. Finally, I saw the car when Mallya displayed it at Pebble Beach in 2010, where it placed second in the Post-War Preservation Class and won the prestigious FIVA award for post-war cars.
The magic is in the details
Three aspects of #90 impressed me from all those viewings. First, probably because it never raced, it suffered no repairs, so its patina was pervasive and consistent. Although the paint on Spyders was always just race car appropriate — thin to keep weight down — it was astonishing to see it survive in almost any form. Sure, the finish was spotty and discolored, and the aluminum skin had numerous dings. That’s called lovely patina.
Second, the original rarities are all present: the complete ribbed vinyl interior, the vinyl-wrapped wooden foot tray, the horsehair weather flaps on the inner fenders and frame, and the felt under the gas tank straps and the wood shims at the tank’s bottom. Lastly, the car had all its rare accessories, usually long lost to the ravages of time: toolkit, vestigial top (of no use in any weather except as sunshade), the lift jack, the spare-tire cover, and cloth spare-tire holding strap.
All in all, this 550 Spyder is the one that all others should emulate for originality. And that has happened. It was side-by-side with Ralph Lauren’s 550 Spyder during that car’s restoration.
At Bonhams Goodwood, the car was estimated at $6.3m–$8.3m. A recording of the proceedings made by Andrew Reilly, son of the aforementioned Gerry Reilly, shows us that bidding was leisurely. It opened at $3.7m, and several bids took it to $4.1m. Later, a second phone bidder joined in, and slowly, 5500090 marched up to $5.5m, where it hammered sold. With premium, that’s $6,121,188 — a new record price at auction for a 550.
For what this car is and what it represents, the price paid feels like a relative bargain. Okay, there’s no McQueen provenance here, but where else will you ever find 5500090’s equivalent? You won’t, and with that, I’d call this well bought. ♦
(Introductory description courtesy of Bonhams.)