Inspired by the success of the Porsche-based Glöckler specials of the early 1950s, Porsche set out to construct the company's first proper racing car. Although stripped out competition versions of the VW based 356 had proven moderately successful, the team in Zuffenhausen agreed that a more specialized machine was required to continue their racing success. Despite the limited funds and time available, two separate programs were initiated at the factory. Ernst Fuhrmann was in charge of designing a competition engine (project 547) and Wilhelm Hild headed the development of a new chassis (project 550).
There were only a few months available for Hild's team to construct the new racer for its scheduled debut in the 1953 24 Hours of Le Mans. The design was very similar to the mid-engined Glöckler, which was equipped with a modified 356 drivetrain reversed with the engine between the driver and the rear axle. A simple steel tube ladder frame was created with six cross members. The front and rear suspension were similar to the production Porsches with some small revisions to handle the expected higher load. The brakes and wheels were also sourced from the 356 parts bin.
Two chassis were constructed, but with Fuhrmann not ready yet, a 356 1500 Super engine was fitted. Close to 100 bhp could be produced by the engine when fueled by alcohol and running a very high compression. For the 550 a compression of 9.0:1 was chosen for reliability reasons, which was still enough for 78 bhp. Equipped with a Roadster body the first 550 debuted in the Eiffel Races at the Nürburgring. Although troubled by a failing carburettor and very poor weather, Helm Glöckler piloted Porsche's first racing car to a debut victory, despite strong opposition from EMW and Borgward.
Porsche subsequently entered two cars at Le Mans. Like the second car, the Nürburgring winner was fitted with a coupe body that was expected to be better suited to the high speed track. The 1101-1500 cc class competition was easily beaten without really stressing the cars and at the end of the race both cars had covered an identical distance and finished 15th and 16th overall. The organizers eventually awarded the class victory to the Richard Frankenberg and Paul Frere driven 550-02. After Le Mans the cars were raced twice more in German events, with Hans Herrmann scoring another win in 550-02.
In the meantime Ernst Fuhrmann's all-new engine was taking shape in the Zuffenhausen workshop. He was told to stay within the 1500 cc limit and to get the most out of the small displacement he felt overhead camshafts were the way to go. Compared to the OHV engine found in the 356 road cars the new 547 had a larger bore and shorter stroke to displace 1498 cc. Each set of two cylinders was equipped with two overhead camshafts, driven by shafts instead of the more traditional chains or belts. A similar design was used for the flat 12 engine Fuhrmann had previously designed for the Cisitalia Grand Prix engine.
A third 550 chassis was constructed with a more refined tubular frame, ready to accept the new engine. Erwin Komenda was commissioned to pen a new roadster body that vaguely reflected the original 550's body, but like the chassis it was much more refined. The complete package was first seen in public at the 1953 Hockenheim Grand Prix where Hans Herrmann put in some practice laps, but could not yet match the speeds of the 550 Coupe, which he drove to a victory in the race. A week later Hans Stuck drove the quad cam roadster to a third place in a hillclimb. At both events Porsche was reluctant to open the rear deck and reveal their all-new engine design.
A month later Porsche used the Paris Motorshow to not only showcase Fuhrmann's new engine, but also to announce the production of the 550 RS Spyder. It would be available in 1954 as a race-ready car for privateers. The show car was the fifth 550 constructed and featured various amenities like a full width windscreen complete with wipers, a lockable glove compartment, two seats and a convertible top. Before the 550 RS Spyder was actually deemed production ready, many more minor modifications to the engine and chassis were carried through.
Back on the track the quad cam engine had shown potential, but the peaky power delivery require some work to fine tune. Meanwhile, the two Coupes were prepared for the Carrera PanAmericana race for two South American customers. Complete with bright sponsor stickers, the two Coupes again dominated the 1500 cc class. Jaroslav Juhan's 550-01 was the faster of the two, but his retirement left the victory for Jose Herrarte's 550-02. A year later a quad-cam 550 Spyder (550-04) matched Herrarte's class winning performance and placed third overall. Soon after, the 'Carrera' name was adopted for 356 models equipped with the Fuhrmann engine.
Although the 550 Spyder had been announced as a production model late in 1953, Porsche spent most of 1954 finalizing the customer car's specification. On the track there was now little stopping the agile racer in its class and even larger engined competition was not safe. At the end of the year the production cars finally became available turning many privateers into race winners. A sad side note in the 550 Spyder's history was James Dean's fatal accident in 1955, which ironically only helped to further build the car's legendary status.
With over 70 examples produced the 550 RS Spyder was not just a big success on the track. The Porsche works team replaced the 550 for 1956 with the much improved 550A. Although it looked similar to the earlier version, the new 550 featured an advanced spaceframe chassis and packed the latest 135 bhp version of the 547 engine. The 550A RS Spyder continued where Porsche's first racing car had left off and formed the basis of the company's sports cars for another five years to come. With the 550 RS Spyder Porsche started a process that would eventually develop into many Le Mans winning vehicles like the 917 and 956.
they came from Guatemala, they were Central americans, Jose Herrarte born in Guatemala and Jaroslav Juhan born in Czech Republic but he was Guatemalan citizen (he is still alive and lives in Geneve, Herrarte died in the late 70 s), the sponsor you can see in front of herrarte´s 550: "CAMINOS" it was the ancient Office of Highways from guatemalan government.
This is a very beautiful automobile. It was very successful on the track, and, as Steven said, they are almost impossibly expensive. They are however in the game Need For Speed Porsche Unleashed. They are a very nice car, and although I will never own one, I am in awe of this great car.