On an icy day at Circuit Zandvoort, in the province of North Holland, Netherlands, a paddock door opens, and the excited, guttural sound of an air-cooled flat-four racing engine breaks the silence. A red 550 Spyder drives out, with ‘118’ painted on its doors, a ‘K’ on its nose, and Dutch racer Gijs van Lennep at the wheel. He has the honor of giving this 68-year-old Porsche, which has never put a wheel on a European circuit before, his shake down at the site of many a Dutch Formula One Grand Prix. All surviving 550 Spyders have a story. This one, chassis #0069, emerged from a shipping container on a hilltop in California after 36 years of solitary confinement.
This car found a new home with Mark Wegh, the owner of Porsche Centrum Gelderland, in Heteren, Netherlands. He has been looking for an original 550 Spyder for practically all his life, and finally, he was able to fulfill his wish. But it was not without a struggle—more on that later. First, we dive into the story of chassis 550-0069, while the 1.5-liter four-cylinder with its exotic four-cam setup is carefully warmed up by van Lennep, a multiple winner of Le Mans and countless other races with Porsche.
Our feature 550 was delivered new on October 14th, 1955, with 30 miles on the odometer. The buyer was Al(bert) Hosking from Pasadena, California, a man who was passionate about motorsport. He already owned several 550 Spyders, which he ran with various drivers at the wheel. The brand new #0069 had to go to work right away, during the Nassau Speed Week in the Bahamas in December. There, Johnny Mantz drove and finished 3rd, 28th, 4th, and 11th. The Spyder wore #26 then and was red. According to some research, #0069 had been delivered finished in white paint, which suggests that Hosking painted the car red, perhaps to increase the ability to spot it among his other 550s.
In the two years that followed, the Spyder was entrusted to Jean-Pierre Kunstle, who decorated the car with the number 118, plus a large letter ‘K’, for personal recognisability on the track. The 550 Spyder was a fast and sought-after racing machine in the U.S., and you were rarely, if ever, the only one to start with such a Porsche. Kunstle was a highly competitive driver who captured the public’s attention in another 550 Spyder in October 1955 at the Torrey Pines Road Races near San Diego. He then fought a fierce duel with Ken Miles in his MG Special ‘Flying Shingle’. He eventually lost that battle and drove that Spyder across the finish line with heavy front and rear damage from contact with the hay bale barriers.
Kunstle had quite a few successes with the red car wearing 118 K in 1956 and 1957—almost always in the top three. The SoCal sports car racing scene at the time consisted largely of competitions at tracks such as Pomona, Paramount Ranch, Palm Springs, Bakersfield, Pebble Beach, Santa Maria, Riverside, and Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, many of them no longer exist, or the roads that were on are now part of a national park, a residential area, or a golf course.
Spyder #0069’s racing life in the continental U.S. ended in April 1957, when Al Hosking sold it to Ray Turnbull, who had the Spyder shipped to Hawaii, where he lived. Turnbull was the organizer of the First Hawaiian International Sports Car Week and may have wanted to personally contribute to the quality of the grid. He promptly won with the Spyder.
The Porsche remained on the islands and was successfully raced by Turnbull and his sister Loretta. She was a not to be underestimated opponent at the wheel, who drove the 550 Spyder to first place several times. Loretta was fond of speed, on land and in water. For a long time, she satisfied her hunger for it with speedboat races, in which she was so fast and successful that she was nicknamed ‘Queen of the Seas’. She even set a few speed records.
So far, the 550 Spyder’s life had been business as usual, at least for a race car. That ended in 1963 when Les Gunnarson bought it through a dealer in Hawaii, who had advertised it in a newspaper. The text read: “Porsche 550-RS Spyder minus engine. Good Condition. Will ship to Los Angeles. Best offer or trade Chevy or Pontiac.” The corresponding address was 45-620 Kamehameha Highway in Kaneohe, on the island of Oahu, where—according to Google Maps—an Aloha gas station with outbuildings is now located.
Gunnarson, an electrical engineer living in California, paid $2,000 (about $19,800 in 2023 dollars) for the Porsche, a hefty sum at the time, especially for a car that had been raced for several years and no longer had an engine. However, Gunnarson has managed to find the original four-cam four-cylinder—#P90075—and placed it where it belonged: in the back of his 550 Spyder.
Gunnarson had a soft spot for Porsches. He also owned a 356 Carrera Speedster and a 904 Carrera GTS, which he modified slightly for street driving. At some point, however, he developed an even greater love for British motorcycles and turned more and more to them. He still drove his Porsches, but in the 1980s, fearing that they would attract unwelcome attention and possibly be stolen, he decided to withdraw his show jewels from public life. In the mid-’80s, he drove the 550 into a shipping container on a hill near Orange, California, not far from Disneyland. There the Porsche remained for 36 years.
Gunnarson had taken good care of the rare Porsche, by the way: the Spyder has gone under lock and key in 100 percent original condition. He kept the car registered until 1994, with registration number 697 DFE, in the name of himself and his three daughters, Marjorie, Carol, and Leslie Ann. After Les Gunnarson’s death, his daughters were faced with the task of selling their father’s collection of motorcycles, as well as the cars.
Blue Nelson, a dedicated car enthusiast who grew up with Porsches and has many contacts in that world, learned that there was a collection of motorcycles for sale in Orange County. He was interested in it and went to see it with some friends. When the doors of Gunnarson’s shipping containers were opened, he came across not only those motorcycles but also a super-original 550 Spyder, in very good condition, except for flat tires.
Bikes were hanging above the bright red two-seater from the container’s roof, and all kinds of parts surrounded the car. The more things that were emptied, the more it became clear to Nelson that he was looking at something very special: an unspoiled 550 Spyder that had made a long journey through time. The daughters of the late Gunnarson knew that the Porsche was unique and valuable, but they lacked the contacts to find the right buyer. Blue Nelson did not—he immediately thought of his good friend, far away in the Netherlands. For Mark Wegh, the call from Nelson was a godsend.
“There were two Porsches that I have wanted for a long time, a 904 and a 550 Spyder,” says Wegh. “I have driven the Mille Miglia three times with a 550 Spyder, with the same car as Gijs van Lennep, and since then, such a Porsche has absolutely been the Holy Grail for me. You can imagine that I jumped in the air when Blue Nelson called me and said, ‘Mark, I found your dream.’ Nelson is a good friend of mine. He knows a lot about Porsches, knows a lot of people, and always keeps his eyes open for me there in the USA. I was overjoyed, especially when I heard that the car was in super-original condition, and I heard the unique story of those 36 years in the container.”
Nelson subsequently acted as a negotiator with Gunnarson’s daughters.
“The Porsche was presented in the media as a ‘barn find,’ but of course, it wasn’t that at all,” continues Wegh. “It was never lost. Several people knew the car was there, not just the daughters, and they knew full well that they had something special in their hands. The car was certainly not going to be a bargain. I soon realized that. They had already sold the 904 to an American enthusiast. For the 550 Spyder, the daughters also wanted a good home with someone who loved it as much as their father—so that was an opportunity for me.”
The problem was that the American collector who bought the 904 had already bid on the 550 Spyder, a hefty amount, in fact, which set the bar very high.
“I was prepared for the car not to be a bargain, but surpassing that price was too much for me,” says Wegh. “I made an offer anyway, which was much higher than I wanted to make before but lower than the American’s. I was convinced that a deal would not be made. I had already resigned myself to that. But Blue Nelson had a good relationship with the daughters. He put in a good word for me and explained to them who I was, what I was doing, and that the car would go to a very good home with me. Three days later, Blue called: the daughters granted me the car, and they accepted my offer.”
That was fantastic, but Wegh wanted to see the car with his own eyes first. Unfortunately, that was impossible due to Covid travel restrictions to the U.S. “I tried everything, but I couldn’t get there,” he says. “I had a hard time with that. Did I have to buy the most expensive car in my life without seeing it?!”
To help, Nelson sent him as many pictures of the car as possible and showed it to him via FaceTime video calls. Wegh knew Nelson was very knowledgeable about Porsches and old Volkswagens. His final verdict was that everything was right, and it could well be the best 550 Spyder in the world. On February 21st, 2021, Wegh took the plunge, transferred the money, and bought his dream car.
It’s incredible how well this Porsche emerged from its steel prison after nearly 40 years. If it’s not the best-preserved and most original 550 Spyder in the world, it certainly is one of them. Therefore, the mechanics at the Porsche Classic Center Gelderland did not need to do much to bring the red two-seater back into running order. They checked the engine, gearbox, and differential, supplied them with new fluids, and renewed the brake lines. Not much more was needed. The tires were replaced by new ones—temporary, by the way, pending suitable competition rubber.
The red Spyder enters the pit lane at Zandvoort, and Gijs van Lennep silences the four-cylinder boxer. He gets out and takes off his helmet for the final judgment. He puts his thumb up. The Spyder is in near perfect health.
“The engine runs well and pulls well. It shifts excellently, it has a four-speed gearbox, and it has apparently been treated well. If you neatly wait a little while between shifting from one gear to the other, you give the synchromesh time and keep them intact,” says van Lennep, who drove many thousands of miles with 550 Spyders, mostly after his racing career. Van Lennep has done
the contemporary Mille Miglia six
times with the 550 Spyder of the late Albert Westerman and raced the same car at Laguna Seca in 2007 during the Monterey Classic Car Week.
However, there are still some items that must be addressed on this Spyder.
“There are a few things that need to be done about the handling,” says van Lennep. “Such a Spyder runs best on Avons, which are very fine tires with a soft rubber compound. On the temporary tires that are now on it, it slips and slides a lot. With the Avons, the handling will get a lot better, count on that. The wheel geometry also needs to be fine-tuned.”
The most important thing, however, is giving the car some good shock absorbers, preferably adjustable ones from Koni.
“The 550 Spyder has swing axles, the position of the rear wheels continuously varies between negative and positive camber—that’s why these cars tend to drift so much,” continues van Lennep. “With good dampers, you keep the rear suspension and the position of the wheels better under control. It will make the car steer a lot tighter. I came second in the first race at Laguna Seca in 2007, and I was not satisfied because I knew it could be much better with a little work. After we installed better shock absorbers, I easily won the second race.”
Mark Wegh nods in approval and makes mental notes. He surely is going to follow those recommendations because he has big plans for this 550 Spyder. In terms of appearance, he will happily leave it as it looks now with the patina it came with when it emerged from the container in California. The 550 can now go back to doing what Porsche built it for in 1955.
“Of course, it will get a place of honor in the Porsche Classic Center so that everyone can see it, but I will certainly also drive it,” says Wegh. “My dream has finally come true. I hope to run the Mille Miglia with Charlotte, my wife, in my 550 Spyder. Registration is already out.”