Porsche 550. The Giant Killer

  • 11 November 2023
  • 2 min read
  • 5 images
Porsche 550. The Giant Killer image

Photo credit: Porsche, Wheelsage

Who. Ferdinand Porsche, the extraordinary creator of pre-war racing cars such as the Auto Union Grand Prix, and the mind behind the popular “Beetle” designed by the German regime, along with his son Ferry (Ferdinand Anton), are the masterminds and creators of this small but unbeatable sports car from the 1950s.

The challenging post-war period, during which Ferdinand Porsche had been imprisoned in France for collaboration, gave the two Porsches the idea to create sports cars based on the renowned Volkswagen model to meet the growing demand from gentleman drivers participating in road races in addition to track events.

Porsche 550. The Giant Killer - 1Ferdinand Porsche with his son Ferry are the masterminds and creators of the Porsche 550. Pictured here inspecting the technical drawings of the VW Beetle.

Where. Porsche initially relocated its operations from Stuttgart to Carinthia in the early post-war years, where it began producing sports coupés and spiders based on the Volkswagen. There was a brief period before the final relocation to Stuttgart, where Porsche continues its operations today. The sports model, named 550 RS, made its debut at the 1953 Paris Motor Show and immediately gained incredible popularity in racing due to its ingenious design principles: lightness and aerodynamics.

Porsche 550. The Giant Killer - 2The 550s in the courtyard of the Porsche factory in Stuttgart.

How. Porsche’s experience with the 356 led them to understand that for a competition vehicle, the engine should be placed within the rear axle for optimal weight distribution. They designed a tubular chassis engineered to push the limits of strength during races. To prevent structural failures, the chassis was pressurized, and a dashboard gauge alerted the driver to any loss of pressure that might occur due to potential cracks, inviting the driver to stop. The aluminium bodywork, designed by Erwin Komenda, like the chassis, underwent extensive wind tunnel testing to achieve a race-ready weight of just 550 kg. The engine, developed on the principle of the air-cooled four-cylinder Boxer, had a displacement of 1498 cc (to compete in the up-to-1500cc category). It featured dual overhead camshafts, dual ignition, and twin-body Solex carburettors, producing 110 horsepower at 6200 rpm. Only 90 Porsche 550 RS units were ever produced.

Porsche 550. The Giant Killer - 3Designed in a wind tunnel, the 550 had a low and central center of gravity, very clean lines, a large fan for cooling the engine, and a rear gearbox and differential.

When. The true debut of the 550 RS was not at the Paris Motor Show but rather its victory on its debut at the 1953 Eiffel Race at the Nürburgring. From that moment, it emerged victorious everywhere: not only at the Mille Miglia, the Carrera Panamericana, and the Targa Florio, thanks to its kart-like agility and precision but also in endurance races, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Its successes were not limited to class victories either. In many cases, such as at the Targa Florio and in hill climbs, the wins were outright. In total, over its four years of activity, it won 95 races.

Porsche 550. The Giant Killer - 4The Porsche 550 at the Karussell corner at the Nürburgring Nordschleife. On the German track the car made its racing debut in 1953.

Why. The Porsche 550 RS was celebrated for its modernity, which gave it a decisive advantage over the cars of its era, which had traditional front-engine layouts. Additionally, its remarkable power-to-weight ratio benefited not only its performance but also fuel efficiency. It was aptly named “The Giant Killer” because, on twisty tracks like the Nürburgring, it could outperform larger sports cars of the era. Unfortunately, the 550 is also associated with the tragic death of James Dean, who drove it both in races and on the road. A crossroads accident during a transfer proved fatal.

Porsche 550. The Giant Killer - 5Despite its small, 1498cc, four-cylinder, air-cooled engine, the 550 always managed to hold its own with the big cars.