1953 Porsche 550 Spyder

Post-war Austria was not the easiest place for Ferry Porsche, son of founder Ferdinand Porsche, to grow their automobile company. Even the Korean War, which broke out in 1950, interfered with their plans when the US Army held on to their primary factory in Germany. Oddly enough, it was spectacular action on the race track that helped develop the 1953 Porsche Spyder. From the book Porsche 70 Years: There is No Substitute is a close look at the interesting events leading up to the creation of this classic sports car.

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Racer: Devised

It was increasingly clear to Ferry Porsche that his business idea was succeeding. But it could not do so in Gmünd, where the nearest railway station was 15 kilometers away, a fact that to Allied bomber strategists made it seem inconsequential. Most of what Porsche needed to expand his business was 500 kilometers away in Stuttgart. In Germany, the economic recovery had begun. As Herbert Giersch, Karl-Heinz Paqué, and Holger Schmieding wrote in The Fading Miracle: Four Decades of Market Economy in Germany, the revaluation of currency and the new American, English, and French attitude toward reindustrializing Germany sparked 24 percent industrial growth in 1949 and about 12 percent in the first half of 1950. Between June 1948 and the end of 1949, some eighty thousand new jobs appeared beyond the expansions and contractions of wartime industry shutdown and peacetime industry resurrection. Still, the systems of business financing and the infrastructure of worker housing were a drag on growth.

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By mid-September 1948, Porsche was engaged with Volkswagen in Wolfsburg, concentrating on beginning series auto production there. Ferry had moved much of the Gmünd operations to his sister, Louise Piëch’s, facility in Salzburg, which, by late spring 1949, was Austrian distributor for VW (while Blank still handled Switzerland and elsewhere for Porsche). Gmünd cars sold; however, they brought too little profit to the tightly run company. Ferry wanted to return to Porsche’s larger facilities— and a much larger pool of skilled workers and parts suppliers—in Zuffenhausen. He contacted Stuttgart’s Lord Mayor Arnulf Klett and another friend, Albert Prinzing, about regaining access to their shops that the US Army had commandeered as motor pool headquarters for its occupation forces. Klett and Prinzing were encouraging, so Ferry took the bold step of inviting subcontractors to bid on car body production. Reutter Karosserie—a neighbor at Porsche’s shops in Zuffenhausen—signed on for five hundred units in November 1949. Buoyed by ambition and burdened by the large commitment, Ferry sent Prinzing and another friend off in a Gmünd coupe and a Beutler cabriolet to sell cars throughout Germany. Orders came in with dealers paying in advance. Porsche was solvent at last.

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But nothing happened easily in those days. In June 1950, as Ferry planned a year-end relocation to Zuffenhausen, war broke out in Korea; the US Army held on to the Porsche shops. To make do, Ferry acquired a cramped building next to Reutter. Porsche delivered its first Zuffenhausen-assembled coupe in the spring of 1950. Body manufacture continued at Reutter.

In January 1951, Ferdinand Porsche died at age seventy-five following a stroke he suffered the previous November. The company his son, Ferry, had rebuilt was growing, and the cars he made and sold increased in number. Back in Gmünd, they had entered the midengine open prototype 356-001 in local “round-the-houses” races in 1949, and Ferdinand’s competition gene carried on in Ferry. Father and son recognized that racing forced engineering improvements and, with corresponding newspaper coverage, helped promote the abilities of Porsche’s car. This brought sales.

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The 356 models competed. But it was purpose-built racers, constructed by Porsche’s dealers and other outsiders, that inspired the company’s next development. In 1951, Stuttgart businessman Heinrich Sauter commissioned a local body shop to fabricate a lightweight open racer using a Porsche chassis and its new 1,500cc engine. Porsche acquired the car in 1952, and engineers used it as a test mule for the new, more potent 1,500cc Super engine, the Typ 528. In Frankfurt, well-known VW dealer Walter Glöckler created a series of ultralightweight open cars using ladder-type tube frames and a sleek body. Starting with 1,100cc VW pushrod engines in1950, he achieved success and steadily graduated up the line of Porsche engines to their 1,500cc standard. Ferry and others within the company supported the outsiders’ efforts, but they also wondered if those efforts might be more successful as a marketing tool in a full-fledged Porsche race car. The final run of Gmünd coupes—the so-called SL models—no longer were competitive against those racers like those by Sauter and Glöckler, who used Porsche’s superior engines in cars of their own sleek design. A lightened open car, Porsche’s America Roadster Typ 540, appeared in 1952 in limited numbers, but it still came up short against the outsiders.

Porsche’s chief body engineer, Erwin Komenda, had expanded his staff when the company returned to Zuffenhausen, and among new hires was a local baker, Heinrich Klie. Klie had made his talent and imagination known to Ferry with a birthday present he and his brother made for him—a loaf of bread baked in the shape of the 356. When asked how they formed the shape, they explained the process. “Can you do this with clay?” Porsche asked.

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The first two Typ 550 Spyders appeared in early spring 1953, and at their competition debut in May at the Nürburgring Eifelrennen, Walter Glöckler’s nephew, Helm, won the 1.5-liter class in a Porsche-engined, Porsche-badged race car. Two weeks later, Porsche entered both racers at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where one of the new cars placed first in class and set a record for distance traveled. This set the legend in place, and by the time the factory updated the first model 550/1500 RS with the second-generation 550 A, and the successor Typ 718 RSK, the Porsche Spyders tallied hundreds of outright victories and class wins throughout Europe and North and South America in attention-getting international events such as Sicily’s Targa Florio and Mexico’s Carrera Panamericana.

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Porsche is one of the most important and iconic automotive manufacturers in history. From its first 356 to today’s technical tour de force, the 918, Porsche has advanced from strength to strength for nearly seven decades.

In Porsche 70 Years: There is No Substitute, author Randy Leffingwell offers a richly illustrated and detailed book that captures the full story of one of the world’s leading automotive companies. Beautiful, contemporary, photos and rare historical images accompany in-depth analyses of milestone cars and events.

Created with Porsche’s cooperation, the book brings to light the engineering anddesign stories behind Stuttgart’s most famous cars–such as the 356, 904, 917, 911, 928, 935, 956 and others–as well as its key players. Comprising the most comprehensive overview of the company’s entire history, Porsche 70 Years truly has no substitute.