The Porsche 550 Spyder Is a Lot More Than Just James Dean’s Last Ride

Porsche’s lightest two-seater is an outright giant slayer.

byMáté Petrány| PUBLISHED Feb 2, 2021 10:00 AM
The Porsche 550 Spyder Is a Lot More Than Just James Dean’s Last Ride

Apart from being nearly a decade older, mid-engine with a flat-four, and made of aluminum instead of steel and fiberglass, the Porsche 550 Spyder is just like an original Lotus Elan in spirit. As light as engineering would allow it, powered by an innovative, rev-happy engine, and tough enough to go endurance racing against the always bigger and more powerful competition.

Introduced in 1953 and weighing in at just 1,212 pounds, the 550 Spyder was designed to dominate the small displacement classes. It had a spaceframe chassis made more rigid by tricks such as a load-bearing dashboard, and the 1.5-liter flat-four behind the driver was developed by Austrian engineering master and later Porsche chairman Dr. Ernst Fuhrmann. It featured a Hirth-type crankshaft, double-overhead cams and twin-spark ignition, all driven by bevel gears in the name of reliability. Retired after just 90 units left the Porsche factory, the 550 Spyder also became an icon in America, mostly thanks to motorsport fan and rebel without a cause James Dean.

Porsche AG

As Porsche now explains, there are at least twice as many 550 Spyders out there today thanks to faithful replicas often tuned beyond the original cars' 108 horsepower and 89 pound-feet at 5,000 revs. Back in period, plenty of the originals got crashed, only to be discarded as technology moved on. 

When it came to their main purpose, the works cars that were painted silver started winning straight away in 1953, first at the Nürburgring and then with class wins at both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the equally demanding Carrera Panamericana. The upgraded, even lighter and better handling 550A then managed to grab the overall victory at the 1956 Targa Florio, just before Porsche would replace the 550 Spyder with the 718 RSK for the 1957 season.

While a number of the factory race cars wore colorful rear fenders to help their crews identify them from the pits, actor James Dean's 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder came with the number 130 instead, only to be known as "The Little Bastard." According to Lee Raskin, author of the book James Dean At Speed, the 24-year-old superstar asked pin striper Dean Jeffries to paint his number on the hood, doors and rear deck lid in black, along with a discreet "Little Bastard" script across the rear cowling.

With his 356 traded in, Dean owned his Porsche 550 Spyder for nine days. Regardless of his untimely misfortune, Porsche's lightweight special remains a masterpiece of minimalist car design.

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