Cars We Love: 1954 – 1955 Porsche 550 RS Spyder

1954 – 1955 Porsche 550 RS Spyder

Porsche probably has the most storied history of motor racing success of any car manufacturer ever. That’s a broad statement, but consider the following numbers: Porsche has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans 17 times; the Twelve Hours of Sebring and the Daytona 24 Hours 18 times each; the European Hill Climbing Championships 20 times; and World Sports Car Manufacturers Championship 14 times, all since 1954. That was the year that Porsche took its first steps into the world of serious sports car racing with the introduction of the 550 RS Spyder.

The 550 RS Spyder was a lightweight, mid-engined two seater that was designed and built with the goal of succeeding on the race track. The body had hand-formed aluminum panels mounted on a steel tube ladder frame to keep the weight to a minimum. Power was provided by a 1,498 cc, 4-cylinder air-cooled double overhead cam engine that produced 110 horsepower at 6,200 rpm. The 550 RS weighed in at about 1,350 pounds and had a top speed of 137 mph.

The engine was famous not only for its output, but also for its notorious complexity. It had an aluminum case that housed a complicated system of bevel gears to drive the four overhead cams; a dual plug ignition that used twin distributors; and a dry sump lubrication system. Its designer estimated that it took a skilled mechanic over 120 hours to assemble one and 8 hours just to set the timing, assuming that all of the other clearances were correct.

1954 – 1955 Porsche 550 RS Spyder
Replica of James Dean’s Spyder

Regardless of its successes on the racetrack, and there were many, the Porsche 550 RS will always be remembered as the car that movie idol James Dean was driving the day he was tragically killed. Dean was a noted sports car fan and race driver, and had purchased his 550 RS just nine days before the accident. He was driving to a race in Salinas, California when he collided with another car at Cholame Junction. He was 24 years old.

Interestingly enough, Dean’s Porsche 550 has surfaced recently in the news. Nicknamed “Little Bastard,” the supposedly cursed car disappeared mysteriously in 1960. Now a man named Shaun Reilly has come forward, claiming that he was present in the 1960s as his father and other men hid the Porsche behind a false wall in a building in Bellingham, Washington. Ten years ago Brian Grams, owner of the Volo Auto Museum in Chicago, offered to pay $1 million for the wreckage of the car.

Grams may need to revise his offer, as the other 77 Porsche 550 RS Spyders built have become very valuable collector cars today. One sold at auction in 2012 for $3.575 million and another in 2013 for $3.75 million. Astronomical prices certainly, but with the rarity and the pedigree of the 550 RS, the price will likely only increase in the future.



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Photo by Sicnag and Rusty Clark

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