The Porsche Spyders were classic...
The Porsche Spyders were classic racing cars. This original RS60 is a rare survivor.
Porsche racing cars of the '50s and early '60s were called Spyders, named for the basic two-seat, horse-drawn buggy with a spindly top of the 1800s. Today, replicas of these early Porsche racers are some of the most popular kit cars on the market, but it wasn't always so. In the early '50s Porsche had their hands full getting the 356 into production and had not built serious racing versions. They did build a handful of 356 America roadsters, which were lighter versions of the production 356 but still not all-out racing cars. But all that changed in the mid-'50s. Let's take a look at the various Porsche Spyder variations and the replicas they inspired.
Porsche dealer Walter Glckler built the first serious Porsche-powered racer in 1950. In 1951 Porsche offered assistance on his next car, which was simply called a Porsche to gain publicity for the new company. In return Glckler received full-race 1.1- and 1.5-liter engines from Porsche. Glckler only built six cars. In the '80s Mike Mroz in California decided to replicate the fourth car built in kit form. The new kit was called the Mroz. It was a simple kit with no doors and fit on an uncut VW floorpan. It wasn't an exact replica, but not too bad, and certainly different.
Type 550 And 550A
After helping with the Glckler project, Porsche was ready to make some racers of their own. They had a sudden influx of cash from a design project for Studebaker, and although the Stude project came to naught the money came in handy for developing the new 550 Spyder, which came out in 1953. The mid-engined chassis was based closely on a Glckler design. Porsche pushrod engines powered the first ones. Most 550s were roadsters, but a few were converted to coupes for Le Mans.
The Mroz was an '80s replica...
The Mroz was an '80s replica of a Glckler Spyder.
The 550 proved to be a winner right out of the box. Porsche was soon cranking out customer versions that were raced all over the world. Many were driven to and from the track, while a few were sold for street use. Only the first few cars had pushrod engines, as Porsche soon developed the famed Carrera four-cam mill. This was a super-serious four-banger, but it was also complex and a nightmare to tune and rebuild. They had roller bearing crankshafts and dual overhead cams driven by a train of bevel gears at the front of the engine. Adjusting the valves could take days.
The Type 550/1500RS had a simple ladder frame with torsion bar/swing axle rear suspension similar to that used on the street 356 models. The engine was now in the middle and the brakes had larger aluminum drums (these became known as "Spyder brakes"). Although all customer Spyders were roadsters, there were minor variations in frame and body design from car to car. An infamous moment in 550 history occurred in 1955 when actor James Dean was killed driving his Spyder to a race.
With 78 produced, the 550 became the terror of small-bore road racing from 1953 to 1956. By 1957, the lighter and better-handling English racers from Lotus and Cooper forced Porsche to upgrade the 550. The new 550A replaced the ladder frame with a stronger and lighter space frame. The swing axle rear suspension was improved with a lower pivot point, while the frontend was revamped as well. The 1,500cc Carrera engine was spiked to 125 hp. The new 550A began wiping up the tracks again! The bodies looked similar to the first 550 models. To improve aerodynamics, racers utilized removable tops on a few cars at the faster tracks.
This 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder...
This 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder competed at the Monterey Historic races.
The 550 was a lovely car. Accordingly, many kits replicate the 550. The most famous are the replicas built by Chuck Beck and sold by Beck, Special Editions, and Thunder Ranch since the '80s. These are still in production today and most feature mid-engined chassis with VW-derived suspension and running gear. There are also special wide-bodied versions that accept Porsche 911 six-cylinder engines. Some even sport Subaru mills. Perry Design also sells 550 replicas, but theirs are rear-engined kits based on a standard VW floorpan. ACI (later Vintage Spyders) was another early 550-replica builder. One of the most accurate 550 kits was built by Classic Motors International (also Legend Classics) in the '80s.
Today, you can buy a special fan shroud for VW pushrod engines that makes them look a little like the old four-cam Carrera. Considering that a used original Carrera engine is now approaching $100,000 (and can cost $25,000 to rebuild), this is a reasonable substitution.
A new Porsche racing car was developed for the 1958 season. The chassis and rear suspension were similar to the 550A, but the front suspension was completely changed. The VW-derived frontend was upgraded with a refined trailing-arm design that featured revised torsion arm and upper arm locations. The new frame was shaped like the letter "K" resting on its back when viewed from the front, so the new car, officially the Type 718, was nicknamed the RSK.
This is the famed Carrera...
This is the famed Carrera engine that powered so many Spyders to victory. It was last used in the highly successful 904.
A new body was penned to take advantage of the lower profile RSK frame. It was a handsome design with covered headlights and headrests behind the driver. A few early cars had two small fins on the rear fenders, but these were deleted later in the development cycle. The new front suspension proved troublesome and was revised without the K arrangement, but the RSK nickname stuck. Porsche extensively revised the rear swing axle (with a Watts link) as the prototypes were developed. Power from the 1,500cc Carrera engine grew to 142 hp at 7,500 rpm. Next, 1.6L and 1.7L versions were added to the option list.
Customer RSKs were in high demand, but buyers found that they were harder to drive than the forgiving 550A had been. They were faster but needed a better hand on the wheel, and the new engines may have had more power, but they lacked flexibility at low rpm. In short, racing was becoming more competitive and the RSK had to become more serious and less user-friendly to keep winning.
The 1959 works cars threw away the swing axle rear suspension and upgraded to wishbones, like the nimble British Grand Prix cars were using. This proved to be a big improvement, but only the factory RSKs had wishbones. Both factory and private RSKs were fabulously successful.
The RSK is currently being replicated, in original mid-engined form, by Thunder Ranch. They even offer the unique rear winglets! Ryan Motors also made RSK replicas in the '90s. GP Projects in England built RSK replicas, sold in the '80s by BM Enterprises in California. GP kits would fit VW floorpans or special mid-engined chassis.
The first two 550 Spyders...
The first two 550 Spyders were fitted with roofs for Le Mans. This is the sole survivor.
RS60 And RS61
The final Spyder developments (also given internal Type 718 designations) were the RS60 and RS61. Due to changes in FIA racing regulations, the basic works 1959 RSK design had to be reworked to include a higher windshield, wider doors, and room for a "suitcase" to simulate luggage capacity. The cockpit was widened and a taller windshield could be fitted for FIA events (it was removed for sprint events without FIA sanction). There were a small number of customer cars sold that were identical to the factory cars. The RS60 looked a lot like an RSK but was a tad wider and taller. The windshield gave it more of a "street car" look, which was the intent of the FIA regulations. Only 16 RS60 models were sold (four works cars plus a dozen customer models).
The RS61 was merely a name change from the RS60 and offered no new improvements. The basic design was getting a little stale since Porsche was spending all their time and money developing their monumentally unsuccessful Formula One cars. The old Carrera engine was now up to 170 hp. Private entrants continued to collect checkered flags through the 1963 season due to the reliability of the proven RS design.
In 1961, the factory built two coupes based on the RS61 chassis, plus a longer W-RS Spyder. These were initially fitted with the Carrera four-cylinder, but were later upgraded to 2L eight-cylinder engines. In 1963, these three works cars were converted to wishbone front suspension and raced through the 1964 season with mixed results. The last great victory for the Spyder was taken by the W-RS when Edgar Barth won the 1963 European Hillclimb Championship.
There have been no RS60, RS61 or W-RS replicas built, although a number of RSK replicas have been fitted with Speedster-like windscreens, which make them look somewhat like a standard RS60/61. Thanks to the kit car industry, your favorite Spyder is only a phone call away!
Vintage Spyders also builds...
Vintage Spyders also builds nice 550s. This one competes in hillclimbs and track events.
This original RSK shows the...
This original RSK shows the way to a Lotus 11 at a vintage race.
The Perry 550 replicas are...
The Perry 550 replicas are built on longer VW chassis and are rear-engined.
Chuck Beck made the 550 Replica...
Chuck Beck made the 550 Replica a kit car classic. This Beck is shown at a track event at Louden Raceway.
Special Edition also sells...
Special Edition also sells the Beck-designed 550 replica.
A silver 1955 550 Spyder turns...
A silver 1955 550 Spyder turns inside an English Cooper powered by a Porsche pushrod engine.
Thunder Ranch built this nice...
Thunder Ranch built this nice RSK replica that was featured on the cover of KIT CAR, May 2006.
The interior of the RS60 was...
The interior of the RS60 was roomier than previous Spyders. This is an original car.