As their first dedicated sports racing car, the 550 RS Spyder was raced to Porsche’s first major victory at the grueling 1956 Targa Florio. This early success marked the arrival of Porsche’s dedicated race car program, one which went on to win more races than any other manufacturer and largely fueled Porsche’s ongoing commercial success.
At the 1953 Paris Motor show, everyone got a first glimpse of the production worthy 550. It’s simplistic lines, scant interior, tiny windscreen and purposeful engineering left little doubt towards the intended nature of the car. It was a refined, lightweight and agile race car meant to outclass the heavier, less forwarding thinking competition. And it worked.
The 550 was built around a simple tubular ladder chassis covered by a taught aluminum body refined Erwin Komenda from the early prototypes. Sitting near the center of this was a complex engine which Ernst Fuhrmann designed to make the most of the 1.5 liters provided.
Designated the Type 547, Fuhrmann’s engine sat at the forefront of Porsche performance for over ten years. Since its inception, the unit has pained every mechanic being somewhat over engineered and overly complex.
The Type 547 uses the same 4-cylinder boxer layout from the 356, but in an entirely different way. To achieve maximum efficiency, the valvetrain uses a complex system of bevel gears and camshafts to offer a true DOHC setup per cylinder bank. This so-called 4-cam setup was exceptionally difficult to setup but allows for domed pistons and a better combustion chamber shape.
Further adding complexity to the unit is a dual-plug ignition system that uses twin distributors of the intake cam. Both circuits could be controlled by levers from the cockpit.
The engine also introduced a dry-sump lubrication system which was fed by a tank behind one of the rear wheels. This made the aluminum block relatively small and light.
The engine gets it name from the distinctive double-sided cooling fan surrounded by an elegant shroud.
With it’s exceptional power to weight ratio, the 550 easily won its 1500cc class at the top level of motor sport including a signature class win at 1954 Carrera Panamericana. Afterwards, all cars featuring the Fuhrmann flat-4 were named Carrera in honor of this victory. Years later, the 550 would score its most remarkable feat by taking its first overall win at the 1956 Targa Florio, which was also the first major victory for a mid-engine sports car.
Racing accomplishments aside, the 550 was probably best known as the car of choice for cultural icon James Dean. He tragically died in his, at a young age, which piqued general interest for both him and the car. Supposedly, his car was cursed and many people involved with the remaining wreck had misfortune until it vanished into obscurity.
With Dean’s mystery, the multiple class victories and the recent relaunch of Porsche’s mid-engine roadster (the 1998 Boxster), the 550-era was easily the most defining era for Porsche history. In 1956 the car was updated to the 550A specification with a space frame chassis and better engine, before being replaced entirely by the 718.
Air-Cooled, Type 547 Flat-4 w/Dry Sump Lubrication
1955 Porsche 550/1500 RS Spyder 550-0077 – sold for $3,750,000 From The Peter and Cheryl Dunkel Collection. Four-Cam Type 547 Engine No. 90089, 3rd and final engine installed by Porsche factory. Original Blue interior color combination. Featured by Porsche as the Brussels Salon Auto Show Car in February 1956. Offered from the collection of Peter and Cheryl Dunkel after nearly 25 years of ownership. Auction Source: The Daytime Auction in Monterey by Mecum