Despite its designation, this Spyder was a brand-new model. The 550A carried on the Giant Killer
image begun by the 550, but did so with better manners. There was a reason.
The engine was the same: the Dr. Ernest Fuhrmann-designed air-cooled flat four that combined gear
and shaft driven double overhead cams, roller bearing crankshaft, twin ignition, dry sump lubrication – and
which, to the cognoscenti, was already approaching legendary status. But whereas the 550 had a ladder
chassis, the 550A had a space frame, which made a huge difference. Chassis weight was cut by up to 95
pounds and rigidity increased. These benefits in turn permitted another 60 pounds to be taken off the all
aluminum body – all of which made a considerably faster car. But impeccable handling was the 550A’s long
Spyder man Ken Miles said the difference was “almost unbelievable.” Still, if the predecessor 550
confused drivers in a turn (one couldn’t be sure where the car would end up) and the successor RSK scared
them to death (the tail breaking away viciously without warning), winning remained a constant with all
Class victories for the 550A were so commonplace they don’t bear mention – except perhaps for the
last Mille Miglia in 1957 where Umberto Maglioli’s 88.31 mph average, 5th overall and 1st in class was
Porsche’s best ever in that Italian classic. But for sheer audacity it didn’t compare with the trip to Sicily in
1956 for which Porsche racing director Huschke von Hanstein took just one 550A, driver Maglioli and two
mechanics. The 1.5-liter Spyder won the Targa Florio outright, defeating a trio of 3.5 Ferraris, three 300SL
Mercedes and a gaggle of Maseratis.
“The greatest long-distance racer in the world” was Ken Miles’ assessment of the Spyder.
Demanding to be driven well, these Porsches provided intensive course work for an entire generation of
drivers who graduated from Spyders to stardom: von Trips, von Frankenburg, Barth, Moss, Bonnier, Behra,
Gendebien, Ginther, Gurney, Holbert, Jennings, Gregory, Penske. The list goes on and on. “We were
certified sports-car nuts,” wrote John Jerome nostalgically, “and we needed something to believe in.” The
Spyder kept the faith.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Briggs Cunningham was one of the first to use two-way radios at Le Mans in 1950 by installing them in both the LeMonstre and the Petit Pataud. You can see both cars at Revs. Learn more