October 31 2012
Simon de Burton
If you subscribe to the belief that small is beautiful, there’s a good chance you’ll appreciate the Porsche 550 Spyder. Completed in 1953, it was the first purpose-built racing car to be designed by the German firm and, when compared with its contemporaries manufactured by the likes of Ferrari, Maserati and Jaguar, it seemed far too diminutive to possibly pose a threat in competition.
But within months of its unveiling, the 550 had already earned an unofficial moniker: “the giant killer”. The first victory came at the car’s inaugural outing, the Eifel Races held at the Nürburgring in May 1953; then followed first and second in class at Le Mans a few weeks later, a first in the 1954 Carrera PanAmericana, a first in class at that year’s Mille Miglia (after Hans Herrmann drove beneath a railway-crossing barrier to make up time) and a decisive win in the 1956 Targa Florio when Umberto Maglioli came in ahead of the second-placed Maserati by a remarkable 15 minutes.
The 550 (it was Porsche’s 550th design project, between 549, a truck transmission, and 551, a three-speed gearbox) was designed by Ferdinand Porsche using the same mid-engined configuration he had created for the mighty Auto Union prewar grand-prix racers. Available first in 550 guise with a flat, welded, tubular chassis, it was upgraded to a spaceframe as the 550A; the majority of cars used a 1,500cc, four-cylinder, four-camshaft engine which produced 110 horsepower.
The fact that the aluminium-bodied 550 weighed a gossamer-like 590kg meant it boasted a top speed of 136mph and the type of delightful handling that enabled it to leave larger, far more powerful cars in its wake on the narrow, twisty roads of events such as the Targa Florio. But the production span of the 550 proved to be a relatively short four years, with the final 550A models being completed in 1957 before giving way to a more sophisticated successor, the 718 RSK (although variations on the Spyder called the RS60 and RS61 remained available, in tiny numbers, until the early 1960s).
The 92 original 550s built were largely dispersed throughout Europe and America, with the most famous US-export model being number 55, the one in which James Dean died while driving to the Salinas road races in 1955.
In recent years, however, even 550s without such Hollywood provenance have soared in price – an example in excellent, original condition that might have cost around £250,000 a decade ago would almost certainly command an astonishing 10 times that figure today.
“The 550 Spyder is one of those cars that has shot up in value while remaining largely under the radar to a wider audience,” explains Geneva-based classic car authority Simon Kidston.
“Only four years ago, one of the Le Mans winning factory cars changed hands for around $1m – yet in March this year, US auction house Gooding and Co sold an admittedly superb example for $3.68m, the most ever paid. They have achieved legendary status because of that “giant‑killing” reputation, and the fact that they are eligible for a huge number of prestigious historic races has boosted prices significantly.
“Despite the high value of the cars, many owners – especially those in Europe – compete in them on a regular basis. As many as 10 take part in the annual Mille Miglia each year, always driven by people with huge grins on their faces and flies between their teeth.”
The rarity and value of the 550 Spyder has inevitably led to the production of a large number of legitimately built, high-quality replicas – but it has also resulted in plenty of fakes and many non-original cars, either with incorrect bodywork, substitute engines or both. Identifying a truly genuine 550 takes an expert eye.
“The record-priced car we sold was an exception,” explains Gooding and Co’s Jakob Greisen. “It only made that price because it was so original, it was in superb condition and had impeccable provenance. Many people were annoyed about the sale because they believe it skewed the market – at least half of the 550s offered are not worth owning.”
One man who thought he had been caught out is Bruges-based private equity investor Wim van Gierdegom, who bought his 550 Spyder at a Coy’s auction in Monaco in 2007.
“For some reason, I was able to buy the car for a very reasonable price. As a result, I hesitated to believe that it was genuine and I became very concerned that I had simply wasted a large amount of money,” explains van Gierdegom. “Kidston suggested I have the car checked over by the renowned UK historic Porsche specialist Andrew Prill, who discovered I had bought the very first 550 to be sold to a private owner.
“More remarkably, we were able to track down that original owner who revealed that the car had an amazing history and was raced at Le Mans, Hockenheim and the Nürburgring. It was even used by the German driver Heini Walter to win the Swiss hillclimb championship in 1957. We have since found many archive photographs of the car in action,” says van Gierdegom, who spent €300,000 returning his 550 to pristine condition.
“But the best part about owning a 550 is the driving. It is so pure and so light. I regularly use it to compete in events such as the Mille Miglia, and it is delightful to drive on the mountain stages with superb handling. And because the car is so small and simple, it remains reliable and doesn’t result in the big repair and maintenance bills that go with owning its more exotic contemporaries by Maserati, Ferrari or Jaguar.
“Of the seven classic cars I own, it is my favourite by far – worth much more to me than the €3m I’ve been offered for it.”