“The savage, lunging character of the car under full acceleration is
unforgettable. Up to about 5,000rpm it feels like one of the thrustiest
machines you’ve ever driven, but then the cams hit their stride and the power
really comes on” Experienced
American tester Griff Borgeson on the new 550 Spyder in 1955
There are some cars, such as Colin Chapman’s original Lotus Elite, that
warrant the title ‘groundbreaking’. This Porsche 550 Spyder, with a moveable
and highly effective aerofoil that pre-dated Can-Am and GP cars of the late
1960s, is another.
And it’s the only one.
The Porsche 550 Spyder
The Porsche Typ 550 Spyder made its motor show debut at
the Paris Salon in October 1953. While early works cars were raced with the
356’s pushrod engine, the show car was fitted with the new Typ 547
unit, an exotic dry-sump, four-cam jewel that became the model’s trademark,
variations of which powered Porsche prototypes well into the 1960s.
The new car found a ready market, particularly in the US where countless
professional and amateur drivers won hundreds of races with it. Drivers of the
calibre of Ken Miles, Pedro and Ricardo Rodríguez and Richie Ginther made their
names in 550 Spyders while often also driving big capacity Italian sports cars.
Stirling Moss drove a works machine twice in 1955, winning in Lisbon and
leading his class at the Goodwood Tourist Trophy until spinning out on oil from
Around 100 550s were produced before a 550A was introduced in 1956, of
which around 30 were built. Porsche 550 Spyders competed at every level, with
extraordinary results at Le Mans, the Targa Florio, the Carrera Panamericana
and the Mille Miglia.
This Motor Car
This 550 Spyder, chassis 0031, was completed on 12 March 1955 with
a silver body and red accents and delivered new to Swiss hotelier Walter
Ringgenberg, a friend of Ferry Porsche. The great Porsche historian Karl
Ludvigsen mentions it by chassis number in his standard work on the
marque, Porsche, Excellence was Expected, when immediately after
delivery on 18 March it established many class records at the Montlhéry speed
bowl near Paris. Ringgenberg shared the car with factory driver and journalist
Richard von Frankenberg, whose name appears on the Spyder’s period
documentation as ‘first owner’, quite possibly to save import duties to
The pair set six new international 1,500cc figures at 200 miles, three
hours, 500km, 500 miles, 1,000km, and six hours, reaching average speeds of
between 207.7km/h and 212km/h. The feats was written up in the Porsche house
magazine Christophorus with the headline ‘Sechs auf einen
Streich’ – ‘six in one go’. The journal (published by von Frankenberg) noted
that the engine had been run on the dyno for 5-6 hours before installation in
the car, which completed a 100km test on the Autobahn before travelling to the
outskirts of Paris where by then the odometer read 700km.
In April 1955, German magazine Auto Motor und Sport carried
a half-page feature on the event with photographs of Ringgenberg, and the car
on the banking and in the pits. An advert for Castrol oil congratulates the
team for setting a ‘new Porsche world record’.
Afterwards, Ludvigsen reports, the car’s regular road equipment was
bolted on again for the drive south to compete in the April 1955 Rallye
Soleil-Cannes, an event in which it slid off the road to retirement.
Later that year it was campaigned at Hockenheim (von Frankenberg, 1st),
the Le Mans 24 Hours (Ringgenberg/Gilomen, retired, engine), Nürburgring 500km
(Ringgenberg, retired, gearbox) and the Avus GP in Berlin (Ringgenberg, result
to research by the previous owner, in 1956 the car passed directly to Swiss
national Hans Gerber for whom Swiss cousins Michael and Pierre May
possibly raced the car.
Born in 1934, Michael May is an inspired engineer with a fertile brain
who, as a child, had created a model GP car with a wing. He was a student when
the Porsche came into his ownership, recalling later: “I wanted to get into
racing and already had a wing in my mind. I was always crazy. A 550 was by far
the best way to get into top competition. I needed a basic car I could make
faster in corners and under braking.”
May decided to mount the carefully calculated, NACA 6412-profile wing
amidships, bolted directly to the chassis rails. Even the over-size end-plates
were deliberate: they tricked the airflow into thinking the wing was larger
than it actually was. A lever in the cockpit allowed its adjustment while
driving at speed – feathering on the straight, increasing the angle to the
maximum in corners – a feature only seen on Chaparral Can-Am cars 10 years
later, which also had wings with large end-plates. The young
engineer calculated that at 150kmh (93mph) the downforce would be equal to
the weight of the car.
The car was towed up to the Nürburgring from southern Germany on the end
of a rope, ready for its debut at the 27 May 1956 1,000km. When he took to the
famous track for Friday practice, after walking the 14-mile circuit twice, it
was only the second time May had driven the small Porsche. Rivals and
spectators might have found the big wing amusing. The timekeepers did not – he
had outqualified the new works 550As and most of the high-powered Italian
It was a beautifully engineered and safe device, checked and approved by
the rigorous scrutineers of the race organiser, the ADAC. The wing’s clear
advantage was not lost on Porsche team manager Huschke von Hanstein, though.
Referencing the air-brakes on the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR at the Le Mans disaster
the previous year, he persuaded the authorities to declare it unsafe as it
blocked the vision of following cars. The cousins ran without the wing and the
car retired with minor transmission trouble caused by non-standard parts fitted
by a previous owner.
A similar situation occurred at Monza that June for the Gran Premio
Supercortemaggiore, run that year for 2,000cc and 1,500cc sports cars, and the
wing was taken off for good. The Spyder was raced in a handful of further
events in 1956 including the Solitude sports car race for 1,500cc models and
sold in 1960. Michael May finished his studies and later went on to advise
Porsche and Ferrari on direct fuel-injection while working for Robert Bosch. He
is also well-known for his 'Fireball' cylinder head for the 'high-efficiency,'
high-compression Jaguar V12 in the 1980s.
again referring to research by the previous owner, the chain of ownership changed in May 1960 to Doris Raeber (CH), then:
CH Tanner (CH) in 1976; Ingo Zeitz (D) in 1978; Klaus Bernanz (D) in 1981; Cees
Neering (NL) in 1992.
In 1998, ‘0031’ passed to Dresden property developer Fritz Kozka,
where it joined a significant collection of Porsches including another 550
Spyder. He’d been searching for the car in Germany and bought it from Dutch
architect Neering, then living in Germany, who had commissioned a total
restoration by early Porsche expert Werner Kühn, a task that took six years –
but did not include the famous wing.
Locating May in Switzerland, Kozka despatched a German metalworker
to see him and, extracting data from his remarkable memory and notebooks, an
accurate wing was made in two weeks. Even the colour was exact to the original
– “A terribly ugly orange,” May remembers, “we got that from Porsche.”
The car was completed in time for Fritz Kozka and business partner
Thomas Stern to show it off at the 1998 Goodwood Festival of Speed. It was run
with and without the wing in various events and gained FIA and FIVA Identity
cards in 1998 and 2000. At this point it was purchased by fellow German
Marcus Schachtschneider, who kept it until 2002 when it passed to
connoisseur Ugo Gussalli Beretta, then CEO of the eponymous Italian firearms
Beretta commissioned an extensive coachwork renovation at Quality Cars
of Padova, the specialist with many awards to its name. The famous wing was
retained, fully functioning as Michael May intended. May himself helped with
the restoration, and in 2015 inspected the car, confirming that, “it has been
perfectly restored and the manual control of the wing’s angle of attack worked
as well as I made it in 1956.”
On completion, the car made a dramatic debut at Pebble Beach in 2015
where ‘0031’ came second in the Postwar Racing Cars class to a Shelby Cobra
Daytona, an icon of American automobile history. It also wowed an international
audience at Villa d’Este in 2016. The current owner bought it in April 2017,
returning to the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2018. The car is ready for action
and comes with a spare, correct-type steering wheel.
Legendary Ferrari engineer Mauro Forghieri acknowledges the importance
of the 550 Spyder ‘wing car’ in his 2013 biography by Daniele Buzzonetti, Forghieri
on Ferrari: 1947 to the Present. After mounting an aerofoil on Chris Amon’s
312 F1 car at Spa in 1968, he comments: “My idea started a long time ago, from
the experiences of the engineer Michael May who had worked at Maranello five
years earlier and who… mounted a wing on his private Porsche 550. The results
were better than good.”
Jim Hall does not directly credit May with influencing his Chaparral
racing cars, though the definitive book on the subject by Richard Falconer with
Doug Nye notes: “The first use on a road-racing car of a high-strutted airfoil (sic)
as Chaparral now contemplated [in 1966] appears to have been on Swiss engineer
Michael May’s Porsche 550 at the Nürburgring in 1956.” With the help of an oil
baron’s fortune and the money-no-object technical resources of General Motors,
the Texan mimicked in 1966 what May had created 10 years earlier on a drawing
board and in countless pages of mathematical calculations. Like on May’s car,
the Chaparral’s wing was moveable.
We have offered many historically important motor cars over the years.
We can think of few as noteworthy as the Michael May Porsche 550 Spyder, one of
the most significant racing cars of all time.