As Porsche began to hit its stride with the 356, the company doubled down on its competition models with an extraordinarily sophisticated mid-engine design, laying the engine ahead of the rear axle with only the transmission behind it.
The engine is a highly complex double overhead cam unit displacing 1498cc and developing110 bhp at 7000 rpm, far more performance than pushrod 356 engines of the same displacement. The simple body was constructed of alloy panels and the entire rear half hinges backwards for easy mechanical access.
The new Porsche 550 was a stunningly simple but well thought out design that followed its much-acclaimed launch at the Paris Auto Show with proof of performance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and at Mexico’s Carrera Panamericana road race. Coupe versions of the 550 won their class at both grueling events. Success in the 1953 and 1954 Mexican race led to Porsche adopting the “Carrera” name for its new four-cam engine, and the company continues to use Carrera in model designations to this day.
The Porsche 550 went on to claim dozens of race victories in events all over the world as late as 1965. Only 90 550s were built before a further 40 550As were constructed in 1956-57 using a lighter spaceframe in place of the original’s ladder chassis. This design further evolved into the 718 RSK, RS 60, and RS 61.
Road testers were effusive about the 550’s performance, neutral handling, and superb brakes. On track, meanwhile, the 550 established Porsche’s reputation as a builder of giant-killing sports cars, as 550s frequently dominated the smaller displacement sports car classes and could even compete much larger and more powerful machinery. On tighter circuits, the nimble 550 could even compete for overall wins.
Perhaps the 550’s most impressive victory was Umberto Maglioli’s outright win in Sicily’s 1956 Targo Florio. Driving alone over the tortuous 45-mile course around the island, he beat dozens of other teams with two drivers and far more horsepower on tap.
The most famous (or infamous) 550 Spyder, however, was actor James Dean’s “Little Bastard,” in which he was killed on his way to a road race in California on September 30th, 1955. Dean had already raced a 356 Spyder and traded it in on the 550 shortly before the crash.
Porsche 550 Spyders are very competitive and usable vintage racers, but they seldom come to market, and value is very closely linked to competition history. Replicas are common, but since they lack the mechanical sophistication (they often have pushrod engines) and history of the originals, they can be found for a tiny fraction of the price, depending on their quality and accuracy.