The Porsche 550 Spyder: the greatest Porsche of all time?


When talking about Porsche, it may seem, at first glance, to be impossible to pick out a definitive model. There have been so many classically beautiful editions to have rolled out of the factory that to focus on any single model seems arbitrary and altogether subjective.

But there’s nothing wrong with a bit of subjectivity. In fact, the thing about classic cars – especially the truly great ones – is that any level of intimacy with them leaves an indelible mark on a person. Subjectivity breeds passion. And this is certainly true of my encounter with a Porsche 550 Spyder.

550 Spyder on grey background
Image: Porsche AG

My all-too-brief moments with the little Porsche changed my perceptions of the driving experience forever. It was all the more special, I think, because I was in my early twenties and at the time (the early eighties) I was aspiring to be a writer about cars. This was, remember, the car in which James Dean – a personal hero of mine at the time – had met his messy demise in 1955. It was infused, therefore, with the sort of glamour shared by very few other models.

An illicit encounter with the Le Mans class-winning 550 Spyder

This was, too, a fundamentally illicit encounter, which even further added to the feeling of fleeting, excruciating beauty. It took place over a couple of stolen laps of a Californian circuit (one that shall remain nameless) under the supervision of a wayward dealer who had recently brokered a lucrative deal on this particular 550 Spyder – the very car that had been a class winner at Le Mans.

Porsche 550 Spyder at Targa Florio in 1956

I had met the dealer at a party in San Francisco the week before. The guy, introduced to me by a female friend, had mentioned in a drunken swagger about the ‘Little Bastard’ sitting in his garage.

We stayed in contact, and, flexing that typical American can-do attitude mixed with a splash of typical classicist bravado, he didn’t Welch on the deal to let me have a play before the Porsche Spyder was crated and exported back to the new owner in Switzerland.

I had to hassle him a little to make it so, but what self-respecting Porsche aficionado and wannabe motoring hack wouldn’t have done the same?

This, unfortunately, is all I can share about the details of the car – any more and I would have to kill you, or at least bombard each and every one of you with a Non-Disclosure Agreement.

So for now we’ll stick to the main thing about these cars: the sublimely tactile, engaged experience they shored up on the lucky few who got to drive them. And I am one of those lucky few.

What makes the Porsche 550 Spyder so great?

Artwork of the Porsche 550 Spyder
Image: Shin Yoshikawa

What made the little Porsche 550 Spyder so brilliantly successful is the unbelievably positive handling. The secret of its hilarious nimbleness can be traced more directly than anything else to its clever suspension and the lightness of its frame. It had independent front suspension which was sprung on transverse torsion bars. At the rear, too, was a transverse torsion bar setup with a swing-axle system controlled by trailing arms. Combine that with the welded-steel ladder frame chassis that weighed only 59kg and you have a piece of rolling stock with huge potential – and one at the cutting edge of mechanical tech for the period.

And then, of course, there was the engine. It was, for its time, a complex little rear-mounted lump with four cylinders arranged in a flat configuration. The engine was air-cooled and had four camshafts arranged over the pistons. It was aspirated by Solex carburetors and developed around 110bhp and – this is the crux – the cranks turned happily and produced maximum output at over 7500 RPM. In the mid-fifties when this car was conceived, this was an almost unimaginably high figure.

The Porsche 550 Spyder’s acceleration was unforgettable

Porsche 550 Spyders on a race track
Image: Porsche AG

The fact that this very car was one of a small handful of Spyders pieced together with La Circuit De La Sarthe in mind might have added to the experience of slipping behind the wheel.

Through the mists of a trio of decades of time passed what remains locked deep into my memory banks is the way the car accelerated – and how its centre of gravity seemed impossibly low. The pick-up wasn’t progressive and smooth as in modern Porches (I have since owned several). Rather, it was immediate and sparkling and induced very real and instant emotion.

The note produced by the exhausts was high pitched and insistent, the tone varying relatively little as you changed up and down through the box. The shifting was a relatively long throw if memory serves correctly, but engaged with an incredibly positive feeling. I remember, too, how faithful the brakes were.

Historical grey Spyder 550 on grey background
Image: Porsche AG

I had learned to drive in my father’s cars – a constantly evolving collection that included a couple of Jags, numerous Coopers and Lotus racers and one or two Maserati from around the same period. I was terrified by their lack of stopping power and general heaviness.

It’s no wonder the 550 Spyder was so successful

Therein, I think, is further evidence of the efficacy of lightness in the 550 Spyder’s design. It was able to defeat much beefier opposition because of the combination of its high revving engine, its svelte chassis, and its lightweight body – which in turn enabled drivers to become intimate with the absolute limit.

Throw Porsche’s legendary reliability into the mix and it’s unsurprising that these cars were so successful.

But what truly remains of these two laps is the feeling that when engineering exactitude and racing passion met, true beauty of experience could arise. In my opinion, the 550 Spyder may not have been infused with the absolute beauty of other Porsche racing cars (the 907 is my personal favourite from a visual point of view) but as far as experiential driving is concerned, I doubt I will ever drive anything nearly as emotion-inducing as this German sports car. It was an experience that came to define me on so many levels.

James Peter LeGrand let go of his aspirations of becoming a car writer – and is now a leading Media Lawyer, an enthusiastic but unskilled fly fisherman and a collector of classic sports cars.