People give all the credit in the world to the Jag E-Type for being the most beautiful car ever built (at least Enzo Ferrari did). I think that is because not enough people know about the 550. It was a design created for the singular purpose of motorsport, yet its simple curves and the silver paint job that accentuated the shape so well puts it in a special place in the hearts of those who know and understand its beauty. Understanding the 550 is understanding the path to Porsche’s motorsports heritage.
With the 918 Hybrid on its way, Porsche tapped into quite a lot of its heritage. Not only essentially naming the vehicle as a followup to the 918, but its shape (certainly Porsche in nature, but more linear than a 911) is one that has been shared by previous range topping models. The proportions are actually quite similar to that of the Carrera GT, and the idea of a stretched 911 was also exhibited on the insane 959. Yet this shape and idea of a less-beetle-like Porsche that is slotted above the 911 (and 356 before it) all started with the 550.
The Type-550 was produced between October 27 1952, and production ended in 1956. Only 90 examples of this performance machine were ever produced, and it is perhaps Porsche’s most stunning design, making the 911 look more like the Beetle upon which it was loosely derived.
For the iconic design, Porsche went to the Glocker racing team who was already working with Ferry Porsche on developing a class-winning sports car that was race ready from the factory. The car was designed by Wilhel Hild under Ferry’s tutalidge. The blueprint called for a mid-engined racer on a ladder-frame chassis, and a body made from a light alloy.
Beneath those beautiful lines was four-wheel independent suspension and a 1.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine. Its 110 horsepower was sent through a four-speed synchromesh transmission, derived from a 356. The result of their work was stupendous. The low, low, low lines and body work, that almost seemed to skim along the ground. The gorgeous, curvaceous lines that were hyperbole of a 356 speedster when it debuted at the Paris Motor Show. But as we all know, the 550 was not here for the beauty pageants.
The 550 was known as the “Giant Killer” for a reason. It took down the greats like Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar. Those teams, including Ferrari had already been established when the 550 came onto the scene.
A key early win for the 550 was a class victory in the 1054 Carrera Panamericana. If part of that name rings a bell, you can find it in many Porsche vehicle names. Following the race, every Porsche with the same-design flat-four would be adorned with the “Carrera” monicker. Today, every non-Convertible, Targa, or Turbo 911 has Carrera in the name, commemorating that milestone victory.
The lightweight and low profile of the 550 allowed it to finish first in the 1956 Targa Florio- Porsche’s first overall win in motor racing. During the 1954 Mille Miglia, Hans Herrmann drove the super low racer under a closed railroad crossing gate!
It wasn’t all rosy with the 550, and it is synonymous with one of the most well known automobile accidents in celebrity history. Of the first 90 Porsche 550′s built, one belonged to James Dean, which he called the “Little Bastard.” Dean had perviously owned a 356 Speedster, but traded it in in September, 1955 for the 550. Dean, as the movie name suggested, was quite the rebel, and entered the lightweight performance machine in a race that was scheduled for Oct 1-2 of 1955. The day before the race, Dean was entering the junction of highways CA 46 and CA 41, when he crashed into a 1950 Ford Custom. The ultra thin body panels and lightweight frame structure were no match for the heavy American metal, and as we all know, the crash proved fatal.
Many know of the crash, and perhaps it is a black mark on a the flawless design of one of the most iconic cars in motorsport. As we begin to see the advent of the hybrid supercar, with the KERS-like powertrain of the 918, as well as complicated hybrids from Jaguar and others, you would do well to remember that at one time, one of the most focused performance vehicles in the world- one that was actually taken racing- ran a simple boxer engine that only displaced 1500cc.