The little German giant killer

The Porsche 550 is a true icon of Porsche history. Known as both a race car and a sports car, the 550 was the kind of machine you could drive to the track, take the win, then drive back home. The famous British-American racing driver Ken Miles called it the “greatest long-distance racer in the world,” and despite its low power figures, this plucky little two-door could take down cars with far more power and straight-line speed. Eventually evolving into the even-quicker 550a, the 550 is now widely recognized as one of the more desirable collectible Porsches in the world.

Continue reading to learn more about the Porsche 550a Spyder.

Porsche 550a Spyder Exterior Styling

First offered as a coupe, later as a open top
Simple, functional styling
Very low to the ground
Looks great in bare aluminum
Aesthetic carries over to modern Porsche models
Wheels sized between 15 and 16 inches
Painted tails used to differentiate on track

1958 Porsche 550a Spyder
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Over the years, Porsche offered the 550 in two different body styles, first as a hard-top coupe, and later as an open-top Spyder.

One quick glance at this thing confirms its status as one of the most iconic shapes in Porsche history, offering a lithe, slinky style that’s both elegant and exciting.

Finished in aluminum, this thing looks absolutely exquisite; it’s polished panels glinting in the sun with undeniable old school cool.

Up front, the 550 is wide and sleek, hugging the ground with a broad nose before rising into high-flying fenders - exactly the sort of shape we see throughout the Porsche lineup today. The headlights are rounded, punctuating the fender line before it leads the eye rearwards towards the flat shoulder line.

Viewed in profile, the 550’s simple, straightforward design can be seen in its full flower. The doors are simple and square, while the proportions front to back are more or less equal. The wheels are relatively small, but they fill the curved fenders perfectly. Just ahead of the cockpit, you’ll find a small windshield section, plus tiny sideview mirrors, while behind the cockpit, there’s a roll bar and reinforcement section that tapers back into the tail section. Vents can be found just ahead of the rear wheels.

Finally, the rear section looks to mirror the front end, with large fenders that fall into a similarly broad, flat tail.

Additional air venting is offered by twin squared grated sections. Spent gasses are sent into the atmosphere by way of a single exhaust tip.

Between the two model types, the 550 and the 550a, the exterior changed a little bit. For example, the newer 550a received updated 15-inch wheels as a replacement for the 550’s 16-inch wheels. The 15-inchers offered a wider offset as well, and the end result was a lower center of gravity and a larger contact patch, even with the period’s surprisingly thin tires mounted on top.

1958 Porsche 550a Spyder
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Viewed in person, the 550’s stance is quite a sight. The model is known for being exceptionally low to the ground.

In fact, the 550 is so low, famed racing driver Hans Herrmann actually managed to drive it underneath a railroad crossing gate during the Mille Miglia race in 1954.

Vin Diesel, eat your heart out.

Most 550’s were silver in color, so to help distinguish between the individual cars, the Werks models each came with a unique tail coloring, which consequently helped the team pick them out while they zinged around the race track. After all, it wasn’t uncommon for multiple examples of the 550 to participate in the same race, and thus they required some kind of visual identifier.

1958 Porsche 550a Spyder
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One of the more famous examples was the red tail of the 550 driven by Hans Herrmann, a car also known for its long list of victories in competition.

Occasionally, privateers would even use house paint to outline the doors with their chosen racing number.

This particular example you see here pulls its body from another Porsche 550A Spyder, namely serial number 550A-0135, which provided the shape for the wooden buck used a reference point for the car’s body. The final product was created by the Kimmins brothers out of Lake Havasu City in Arizona, who meticulously recreated the 550’s lines and voluptuous curves.

This example also includes all five original wheels. However, one of the most alluring aspects has to be the bare aluminum finish, which we think looks utterly superb!

Porsche 550a Spyder Exterior Dimensions

Wheelbase 2,100 mm (82.7 inches)
Overall Length 3,700 mm (145.7 inches)
Overall Width 1,610 mm (63.4 inches)
Overall Height 980 mm (38.6 inches)

Porsche 550a Spyder Interior Design

- * Stripped-down interior spec
- * More bare aluminum
- * Raced by Ernest Vogel in 1958

1958 Porsche 550a Spyder
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As you might expect, the Porsche 550 gets a very barebones interior spec. This thing was all about speed and performance, and as such, the cabin space is stripped of any and all extraneous features.

This particular example is even more bare bones than most other 550 Spyders.

Bare aluminum is the finish of choice throughout, and the seats are fixed-back metal buckets with nothing more than a thin cushion to coddle your backside. Metal tubes provide the rest of the structure.

The 550a Spyder pictured here also keeps its original VDM-trimmed wood steering wheel, which utilizes a large diameter and three metal spokes. The shifter sits on the floor between the seats, while the gauge pod consists of three rounded gauges with a central tachometer, and left-mounted speedometer, and engine vitals on the right.

Previously, this particular 550a also managed to snag multiple podium finishes during its competition career, taking home the glory in 1958 with Ernest Vogel at the wheel. Vogel worked as a professional concert pianist and a virtuoso composer during the week, then on the weekends, he would take the 550 to the track - and win.

Porsche 550a Spyder Drivetrain And Performance

- * Rear-mid engine, RWD
- * 1.5-liter boxer four-cylinder engine
- * Five-speed manual transmission
- * 108 horsepower, 89 pound-feet of torque
- * Tubular space frame
- * Neutral handling
- * Weighs just 1,212 pounds

1958 Porsche 550a Spyder
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The Porsche 550a Spyder uses a rear-mid engine, RWD drivetrain layout.

Providing the motivation is a 1.5-liter double overhead cam flat boxer four-cylinder engine, with all-aluminum construction.

Routing the muscle to the rear wheels is a five-speed transmission, which was added as a replacement for the original 550’s four-speed unit in 1956.

This particular example is equipped with the Type 547 Carrera 4-cam engine, which was originally designed by Dr. Ernest Fuhrmann specifically for application in the Porsche 550. One of the most prominent features is obviously the quartet of overhead cams, with two mounted per side, giving it a double overhead configuration per bank and two valves per cylinder. The valves are bumped by vertical actuator shafts.

Juicing it all is a twin-set of 2-barrel Solex PJJ carburetors, while dual ignition (two separate ignition manifolds, plus twin ignition coils) provide the spark. There’s also two double fall gasifiers, plus a six-piece Hirth crankshaft that gets caged roller bearings for both the engine main bearings and the large end of the connecting rods, all of which helps the engine rev more freely.

Engine displacement is rated at 1.5 liters or 1,498 cc’s. Interestingly, the engine manages to produce a whopping two-and-a-half times the power levels of its push-rod-operated predecessor.

That said, the 550 still wasn’t exactly breathtakingly powerful. In its initial configuration, peak output came to 108 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 89 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm.

1958 Porsche 550a Spyder
- image 796118

As for this particular example, you’ll find the space behind the cabin stuffed with an authentic powerplant built to exacting Porsche RennWerks spec. Responsible for the balancing and blueprinting was the late Bill Doyle, a well-known name among Porschephiles, who also restored the car’s original five-speed transaxle, suspension bits, and brakes to boot.

Underneath the aluminum panels, you’ll find the 550’s tubular space frame, which Porsche added as an upgrade over the preceding model’s ladder frame design.

The tubular space frame gives the 550 greater rigidity, which definitely helps it to achieve even greater handling prowess on the track.

Another part of the equation is the drivetrain configuration. In the 550, the engine is mounted ahead of the rear axle, giving it that “mid-rear” layout. That means the weight distribution is more evenly balanced between the front and rear, and as a consequence, the 550 handles more neutrally than something like the rear-engined 911.

Speaking of weight, the 550 tips the scales at 550 kg, or 1,212 pounds, which is pretty damn light, especially by modern standards. It also puts that four-cylinder power output in perspective. Finally, to manage it all, there’s an independent torsion bar suspension set-up with trailing arms and shocks.

Porsche 550a Spyder Prices

1958 Porsche 550a Spyder
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The Porsche 550a Spyder is a highly desirable sports car, and for a number of reasons. Not only is it relatively rare, but it also handles extremely well, and is well known for its vast collection of impressive wins in motorsport.

As for the rarity, Porsche built just 90 examples of the 550 in total, all of which were constructed between 1953 and 1956.

The 550a Spyder is even rarer, with just 39 example built in that same time period.

This particular example you see featured here went under the hammer at the Mecum Auctions event held during Monterey Car Week in 2018. Known by its chassis number (550A-0141), this 550a Spyder is one of the last to roll out of the factory.

Constructed at Porsche RennWerks, this 550a Spyder was originally raced by the Porsche Salzburg team, the same team that managed to grab the 550’s first overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Because of its pristine condition and provenance, the estimated value for 550A-0141 is quite high, slotting in between $4.5 million and $5 million when it went to the Mecum Auctions event in 2018.

Porsche 550a Spyder Competition

Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing

1957 - 1962 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing (W194)
- image 658617

Often credited as the world’s first true “supercar,” the 300 SL Gullwing has all the makings of a hugely desirable collectible. Easily recognized by its upward swopping door design, the Gullwing mated luxury, presence, and speed into a single package, the latter of which came courtesy of a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder making upwards of 215 horsepower. Properly motivated, the 300 SL could top out at an impressive 160 mph, making it the fastest production car in the world in its day. Although far more common than the Porsche 550, with 3,258 examples built, the 300 SL still commands a pretty penny at auction, regularly breaking the seven-figure mark with ease.

Read our full review on the 1957 - 1962 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing.

Ferrari 860 Monza

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- image 796119

Created as a follow-up to the 750 Monza, the Ferrari 860 was designed as a racing machine for the World Sportscar Championship. Under its long hood line, the 860 came to the party with a bigger V-shaped four-cylinder engine, with up to 3,431 cc’s in terms of displacement. Although the 860’s ‘four was one of the last of its kind before Ferrari’s next line of V-12’s hit the scene, it still managed to produce a sizable 280 horsepower. Known for a string of wins in the hands of famed U.S. racing driver Phil Hill, the 860 Monza also looks excellent thanks to its open-top two-seater roadster exterior design, with swooping bodywork and curvaceous lines front to back. A four-speed manual transmission sends the power aft, while an independent suspension keeps it shiny side up. You can still find these machines at auction, but if you do, expect to dole out $1.6 million to $2 million.

Final Thoughts

1958 Porsche 550a Spyder
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These days, it seems like most sports car-makers are obsessed with horsepower. More output is the default when it comes to nameplates like the Dodge Hellcat, or Hennessey Venom F5, or Koenigsegg Regera, or just about any other brash and badass machine. And that’s great - you won’t hear us complaining about it any time soon. That said, horsepower is nothing without control, and sometimes, what you really want is something lightweight, agile, and engaging.

Porsche knows that, and has consequently withdrawn from the horsepower wars to instead focus on suspension and handling as its primary goal. And we can’t help but think the 550 had something to do with that.

This thing looks good, turns hard, and despite its relatively low-output engine package, has the right stuff to take down many high-horsepower rivals. It’s the definition of a Giant Killer, and for that, we love it.

  • Leave it
    • Pretty rare and very expensive
    • Not exactly comfortable
    • Barely three-digit power figures

Further Reading

1955 - 1956 Porsche 550 Spyder High Resolution Exterior
- image 663600

Read our full review on the 1955 - 1956 Porsche 550 Spyder.

The Story Behind The Car

1958 Porsche 550a Spyder
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Produced between 1953 and 1956, the Porsche 550 was originally inspired by the Porsche 356, another classic sports car created by the Ferdinand Anton Ernst Porsche, the son of the founder of Porsche and Volkswagen.

The 550 also drew its inspiration from the prototype Spyders that Porsche raced back in 1951 thanks to builder Walter Glöckler.

Given this pedigree, it should come as no surprise that the 550 was designed first and foremost as a racer - in fact, it was Porsche’s very {first} purpose-built racing car, to be exact.

As such, the 550 ended up securing a large number of wins throughout its competition career, quickly gaining a reputation for itself among performance-minded buyers and racers.

Porsche introduced the 550 to the public in 1953 at the Paris Motor Show, with the earlier prototype models bearing a hard top coupe design with a removable roof.

Not long after, the 550 hit the race track, including a stint in the Nürburgring Eifel Race in 1953, after which the Porsche managed to secure a first-place finish for its class at Le Mans in 1955.

Other notable victories include a first-place win at the Targa Florio in 1956, which was not just a major win for the company, but also helped to firmly establish the 550 as a “giant killer,” as it regularly took down cars of higher displacement and faster class designation, including top offerings from the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari.

1958 Porsche 550a Spyder
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As a follow-up to the original 550, Porsche developed the more-evolved 550a in 1956, which brought a host of upgrades to make the car even faster than it was prior.

To that end, the 550a got a new gearbox, a new, stiffer chassis, and new wheels as well.

Which brings us to the Porsche 550a Spyder pictured here, also known by its chassis code 550A-0141. The car was recently seen at the Mecum Auctions held during Monterey Car Week in 2018.

The provenance behind 550A-0141 includes multiple podium finishes throughout 1958, with noted racing driver Ernest Vogel at the wheel. It’s also one of the last 550’s ever built.

Vogel raced 550A-0141 at a variety of different race tracks throughout 1958, and on the way, collected a good number of accolades, including a first-place finish at the GP Circuit d’Opatija, Yugoslavia, a first-place finish at the Flugplatz Zeltweg, Austria, and a first-place finish at Innsbruck Flugplatz, Austria. Vogel also drove the 550a in a record attempt along the Salzburg motorway between Germany and Austria, managing an average of 135 mph over a duo of 1-km runs with a flying start.

Sometime later, 550A-0141 went to the states, where it raced in a variety of regional SCCA events up and down the east coast. Fast forward to the ‘80s, and 550A-0141 underwent an extensive restoration that lasted well over three decades. However, the work was well worth it, as 550A-0141 was subsequently featured in “Porsche Panamera,” “Excellence,” and “Classic Porsche.”

1958 Porsche 550a Spyder
- image 793031
Porsche eventually axed the 550 after just three years in production, replacing it with the original Porsche 718.

These days, the 718 provides the inspiration for the newly updated successor to the Boxster, which also just so happens to carry the same 718 nameplate.

These days, with its rarity and history of competition wins, the 550 is one of the more desirable classic Porsches out there. As such, a number of replicas and kits are offered to enthusiasts uninterested in plunking down the millions needed to get into an original.

The Porsche 550 is famous for another, more notorious reason as well. Movie fans will recognize the 550 as a model once owned by James Dean. In 1955, Dean traded in his Porsche 356 for a new 550 Spyder, giving it the nickname “Little Bastard” as a means to irk a film industry exec that forbade his participation in motorsport. Dean decided to enter the 550 in the Salinas Road Race, however, on September 30th, as Dean was out driving his new Porsche, he collided with a 1950 Ford Custom on California Route 46/41, and was killed.

Source: Mecum Auctions

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