Giant Killer

We drive a very special 550 Spyder that ran in the 1954 Carrera Panamericana.

December 10, 2015
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In the days before television, smartphones and the internet, one of the best ways a car company could advertise itself was by racing its machines. Post-war competition regulations allowed essentially stock cars to be raced without much preparation. While this made for less complicated cars, it also meant that these vehicles were quite unsafe.

Back in the 1950s, few race car drivers were interested in safety gear like roll cages and seat belts. Even the use of helmets wasn’t mandatory (some racers of the day even though that using one as a sign of weakness!). Back then the news about fatal crashes was practically as common as reports about spectacular victories.

The car that epitomizes Porsche from this bygone era in motorsport most is undoubtedly the mid-engined 550 Spyder. Being that the 550 is also where the Porsche Spyder moniker got started, we decided to check one out. But the one we’ve got isn’t just any Spyder.

Today, we’re in Stuttgart, Germany with Porsche 550 Spyder serial number 550-04. This is the actual car that Hans Herrmann drove to a third-place finish and a 1,500-cc class win in the fifth and final original Carrera Panamericana through Mexico in 1954. In that event, 04 covered 1,910 miles in 19 hours and 32 minutes, averaging 97.67 mph. The only cars quicker than the Spyder were a pair of much more powerful V-12-powered Ferrari 375s.

The Porsche Museum is 550-04’s current owner, and the entity that graciously allowed us to experience this car up close and personal. Porsche wasn’t its only owner since 1954, however. After the Carrera Panamericana, Porsche sold 04 to Robert H. Davis of Bloomington, Illinois for $6,000 so it could keep its racing program going. This was actually normal procedure for Porsche back then, as there was no interest in building a company collection of its cars. The Spyder changed hands many more times until Porsche bought 04 back and restored it to its original condition. How original? Let’s find out for ourselves.

Behind the Banjo-Spoked Steering Wheel

Just climbing into the 550 Spyder is an experience. First, you grab a tiny door handle fitted to a flimsy aluminum door and pull it open. To climb onboard, you have to throw your right leg over a broad doorsill and place it firmly against the front bulkhead located right in front of the seats. Your left leg then joins in the same manner. You can then finally slide into the small bucket seat. Just be sure not to bang your knees on any of the hard objects surrounding your legs!

Also from Issue 234

  • The 2016 Boxster Spyder
  • 991 & 964 Targa Face Off
  • Market Update: 1952-1965 356
  • Pushrod-engined 356 Carrera GT Speedster
  • Barn Find, Jersey Style 911
  • The First Flat-Six-Powered Porsche
  • Rennsport Reunion V
  • 911 Suspension Evolution
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