Porsche’s Type 550 Spyder achieved so much success in so many parts of the world for so many years that it must be the greatest sports-racing car in history. Dominating its 1½-liter class, in race after race the Spyders punched well above their weight to rival vastly bigger cars. It all began with the production Spyders of 1955.
Porsche was still in its swaddling clothes as a car maker when its 550 series was born. It produced its first handfuls of cars in Austria in 1948 and ‘49. The first German-built Porsche sports car was made in the spring of 1950. It took the road in good time to be blessed by founder Ferdinand Porsche, who died at the age of 75 in January of 1951. Thereafter his son Ferry, 42 years old in 1951, took charge of the family-owned company. Ferry inherited the outstanding team of engineers that his father assembled when he set up his engineering consulting office in Stuttgart at the end of 1930.
For Ferry and his team, motor sports were high in both interest and priority. They had designed and helped develop the great Auto Union racing cars of 1934 through 1937. A racing-car project—for Italy’s Cisitalia—put them back on their feet after the war. They weren’t slow to return to the tracks. For racing Porsche used its Austrian-built Type 356 coupes, which were lighter with aluminum bodies and stiffer frames than the production cars.
A solo entry in the 24-hour Le Mans race in 1951 came home with the 1,100 cc class victory. This was followed up with another class win in the world-famous French race in 1952. Porsche was in fact a pioneer in returning a chastened Germany to European road racing, from which it was excluded immediately after the years of war.
With competition heating up, Ferry and his team realized that they would need to build special cars for racing as early as 1953. They had a convenient example to follow, that of Frankfurt’s Walter Glöckler. A year older than Ferry, Glöckler was a great racing enthusiast who, as a VW dealer, could afford to indulge his passions. Starting in 1949 he did so with the help of his brilliant workshop chief, Hermann Ramelow, who had worked on the pre-war racing Adlers.
Although using VW suspension, Ramelow replaced the platform with a ladder-type steel tubular frame that was underslung at the rear. Power came from one of the new 1.1-liter Porsche engines, mounted amidships. The driver’s seat was nearly in the center of the stubby yet handsome aluminum body built by C. H. Weidenhausen of Frankfurt, a three-man outfit that Jerry Sloniger said was “virtually across the street” from the Glöckler dealership. In the 1930s Weidenhausen had built sporting aluminum bodies for V-8 Fords. The finished car bore a deceptively modest name: VW Eigenbau or VW Homebuilt.
Walter Glöckler drove his 980-pound special to the 1,100 cc sports-car class championship in Germany in 1950. During that season Glöckler improved his relations with the Porsche company, which by then had returned to its Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen home from exile at Gmünd in Austria. Porsche had come to respect this determined businessman who obviously had a knack for building and racing highly professional cars.
The result was two-fold. On March 17, 1950 Otto and Walter Glöckler became Germany’s first Porsche dealer in the vital market of Frankfurt. This was just in time for the start of production at Zuffenhausen. As well, from 1951 all the Glöckler-built cars—of which there were several more for the 1.5-liter class—bore a simple “Porsche” nameplate and were known as Porsches in the press, giving the still-young marque valuable publicity.
In 1952 Porsche decided to design and build new competition cars to replace its faithful but aging Gmünd-built coupes. This was a new venture for Ferry Porsche and his business manager Albert Prinzing. Extending the company’s activities into a new arena brought both added cost and risk. Ferry surely rationalized that if one of his dealers could afford to build and enter racing cars, doing so should not be beyond his company’s capabilities. As was his style, however, Ferry explored this new enterprise prudently.
Ferry Porsche knew that racing, both by the factory and by private owners, had enhanced the reputation and sales of his cars. Racing had also gained a powerful new advocate within the Porsche organization from mid-1951: Fritz Huschke Sittig Enno Werner von Hanstein, usually known simply as Huschke. Mad keen on motoring of all kinds, von Hanstein had raced both motorcycles and cars before the war. He was German hill-climb champion in a BMW 328 and co-drove the winning BMW coupe in the 1940 Mille Miglia.
Huschke raced after the war as well. He was only ousted from the cockpit of one of the 550s at Le Mans in 1953 because Ferry Porsche thought he was better employed in the pits, managing the team. Heading both press relations and racing for Porsche, von Hanstein became to Porsche what Alfred Neubauer was to Daimler-Benz: the resident representative of the spirit of motor racing. He was the bright spark behind the successful commercialization of the company’s on-track activities.
By mid-1952 von Hanstein and others at Porsche could see the handwriting on the wall for their budding reputation in the racing world. In the 1,100 cc class, where Porsches had been so successful at Le Mans, Italy’s OSCA presented a formidable new threat with its purebred racing engines. OSCA was also beginning to invade the 1,500 cc class, won at Le Mans that year by a British Jowett Jupiter.
In Germany, meanwhile, Borgward and the East Zone’s EMW were presenting strong opposition in the 1.5-liter class. Against this improving competition, Porsche could no longer rely on modified and lightened versions of its production cars. If it were to defend its laurels it needed something better suited to racing.
After Le Mans that summer of 1952 two new design projects were begun under the general supervision of chief engineer Karl Rabe. One, designated Type 547, was a new engine designed to offer vastly more development potential within the same general size and structure as the old power unit. This new engine was viewed by Ferry Porsche as a research tool with which the men of Porsche could extend their knowledge of high-performance air-cooled automobile engines. The other project, Type 550, was to have more immediate consequences. The Type 550 was a new car to be used by the factory for racing…
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by Karl Ludvigsen
Photographs: Ludvigsen Library, Historic Archives Porsche AG