Picking up the thread

There’s over half a century between these Porsche Spyders, yet they are linked by more than a badge. The genetic strands which connect them are fine, hard to see at first, but, as Chris Harris discovers from the driving seat, they’re strong too

Photography: David L F Smith

The announcement in 2005 that Porsche would in the next year return to sports car racing with a purpose-built prototype met with a mixed reaction. Aficionados were excited that the most successful producer of such vehicles was back in town. Potential customers were enthused at the prospect of being able to buy one – although this wouldn’t be possible until 2007. But a slice of the racing demographic were rather less impressed when Porsche pulled the covers off its new racer, appropriately name RS Spyder. You see, by entering LMP2 – that’s one class below the all-winning Audis – against a raft of privateer outfits was rather like Kevin Pietersen announcing his intention to join Flax Bourton cricket club of the Western League.

As it turned out, the Spyders didn’t have it all their own way. I journeyed to Sebring last year to watch their first race: neither car finished, a small transmission component failing over this track’s bumps. But the car was quick and, lest we forget, it was not a full factory team. Just as it had done in Can-Am 34 years before, Porsche had teamed up with Roger Penske’s huge operation. After that difficult introduction in Florida, the Spyders began to flourish and their eventual class title included an outright 1-2 at Mid-Ohio.

Porsche’s decision to use the Spyder moniker was entirely justified. Generations of road-going and racing Italian exotica have used the title, but the car which the majority of the population associate with that name assumed universal notoriety the day J Dean Esq lost his life behind the wheel of one. (The car was to be called the 550/1500RS, but the American importer Max Hoffman suggested that it would be easier to sell given a name.) The significance of that crash on September 30, 1955 isn’t lost on Porsche; its own 550 Spyder, currently idling in the pitlane at the company’s Weissach test track, is, I am promptly told, the chassis immediately after Dean’s. I think that rates as provenance.

Motorsport has advanced immeasurably since the 1950s, and the clean, organic shape of the 550 sits uncomfortably against the brutal aero-management philosophy of the later car. But before we drive them, there are similarities to be explored and explained. 

The first lies in the reason for their existence. Porsche’s commercial approach to motorsport was shaped by its 550 Spyder project. As the car evolved from Walter Glöckler’s Spyder, it was raced as it was developed. No two cars were the same and, as the programme progressed, a strategy emerged: Porsche would use only new vehicles for major events, and sell them after each race. And so was born its customer motorsport department. Today’s Spyder follows the same brief: yes, Porsche is trying to win in the ALMS, but this is also an exercise designed to sell cars and make money. And if you take one look at Porsche Motorsport’s new HQ at Weissach you realise how clever this strategy has been. Last winter alone it built 250 GT3 Cup cars, at least two dozen RSRs and three customer Spyders. That’s enough volume to be considered a car manufacturer in its own right.

Other similarities? Well, their engines are mounted amidships – and other than that I have to confess I’m struggling. And anyway, the new car is being warmed.

This Le Mans-type racer is, at first, an intimidating device. Every surface appears to be a brittle, costly slither of carbon fibre, and its tiny cabin is littered with electronic gizmos and widgets whose operations are unknown but whose cost is, I assume, significant. You clamber in over the side, drop into the hard carbon seat, adjust the mandatory HANS device to be comfortable under the belts, and are then harnessed in place the way you imagine those aboard Saturn 5 might have been. Scope for head and neck articulation is limited to Inspector Clouseau-style furtive eye movements.

The motor fires quickly and loudly. It displaces just 3397cc and is forced to breathe through 44mm restrictors, but somehow the alchemists in the engine shop have squeezed from it 503bhp at 10,300rpm and 273lb ft at 7500rpm. So, as Roland Kussmaul, a man with a direct link to every post-956 racing Porsche, asks me not to bin it, it’s time to consider three simple facts: 503bhp, 775kg, cold slicks.

The car’s aggressive appearance and disjointed boarding procedure has prepared you for the worst, but an unexpectedly friendly character is confirmed within 100 yards of pulling away: it’s easy to drive. A simple foot clutch gets you moving, after which the Spyder becomes a strictly two-pedal, two-paddle device. Flick the right paddle to shift up, the left to shift down. It sounds simple. And that’s before you suss the uncanny accuracy with which the electronic systems blend the changes. Like any race transmission, it likes to work under maximum duress, and there’s significant slip from the cold rubber, but even so I have never driven a car that assists its driver so comprehensively. 

The traction control system has many different maps for changing weather conditions and is understandably set to ‘full wally’ for my purposes, allowing me to lean on the rear axle from cold (although the car will still spin with the traction control on, apparently) and marvel at this six-speed transmission. Flat shifts from second to third send only the faintest flutter through the body. Remarkably, it’s even smoother coming back down the ’box. From 140mph in fifth, the driver simply flicks the left paddle, then waits the few milliseconds it takes for the black box to assimilate the difference between crank and cog speeds and apportion the precise number of revs to bridge that gap. This process is seamless, making a mockery of jerky road-going equivalents.

And the brakes – 380mm front and 355mm rear carbon discs – are mind-blowing. With some tyre temperature, it’s now possible to carry more corner speed and thump down the straights. Acceleration is strong up to about 140mph, but then begins to tail off because the Spyder runs more wing than a Fokker Triplane. Lift off the throttle at 155mph and it decelerates like a modern road car using half its braking performance. This means that the Spyder’s initial retardation is aerodynamically assisted, that you can punch the middle pedal as hard as you dare, bracing yourself in the belts as the car pulls 3g. But as speed is shed, so is aero effect, and this means that, just at the point your brain tells you to push a touch harder on the pedal, actually you must reduce pressure in preparation for mechanical grip’s takeover. It’s a strange feeling, but becomes instinctive fairly quickly.

The car’s agility, though, is more difficult to comprehend. Weissach is a technical circuit shrouded in concrete obstacles, yet the Spyder slices at 100mph through turns which a GT3 RS couldn’t manage at 65mph. The final banked right-hander generates in the region of 2.5 lateral g, and after 10 laps my neck is throbbing. Modern racing drivers need to be incredibly fit.

Given the vigour with which it spun its V8 into life, you could assume that the new Spyder’s starter motor is as powerful as the 550’s engine. The air-cooled flat-four has been warming for a few minutes, but I lean in and switch it off. Whereas I was desperate to jump in and drive the other, I want to walk around the 550, absorb its shape and details. Only time will tell if future generations will stalk around surviving RS Spyders 50 years from now and coo with delight – but I doubt it.

The 550 is a tiny racing slipper of a car, a machine shorn of everything superfluous, thus reducing mass and therefore maximising performance. Its shape was dictated by lengthy spells in a wind tunnel, and yet, like so many contemporary designs, its basic beauty suggests that function played no role in its creation. 

Turn the key and that opinion changes. The opposed-four motor fires with enthusiasm. Brush the throttle pedal lightly and the rev-counter’s needle immediately fidgets through 2000rpm and energy fizzes into the lightweight body. 

There is little about the controls that would concern the driver of any air-cooled 911: floor-hinged pedals, familiar typefaces and a gear lever jutting from the floor. As enjoyable mechanical operations go, there are few to rival the gearshift of a healthy 550. Whereas the later car works its magic with competence, the joy in the old-timer lies in its action. The throw is relatively long, but the linkage has little slack and those last few inches as the cogs engage remind us why a manual gearbox is so special. 

People in the 1950s must have been staggered by this car. Its Type 547 engine is now a thing of legend, and with a reliable 125bhp at 6500rpm from 1498cc, such status is well deserved. Kerb weight is in the region of 490kg, giving a power-to-weight ratio of 255bhp per tonne. It was very expensive at the time – nearly $7000 brand new – but so exceptional was its engineering, so strong its performance, there really was no competition substitute. 

There are some interesting similarities and differences at work here. For starters, despite its huge power advantage, it’s the modern Spyder’s engine which is better contained by its chassis. The 550 accrues speed with disarming ease. Contemporary tests show that standard cars could hit 60mph in a little over 8sec and top 120mph, but its braking performance and mechanical grip is, predictably, a long way short of that potential.

No matter, it has balance to spare. And this is the most striking similarity between two cars separated by half a century: both were created to allow the driver to flourish. Not only was the 550 the fastest sub-1500cc sports car of its day, it was also the easiest to drive, and when you’re trying to sell cars for endurance racing, that last point is important. Its chassis is remarkable. Lightweight, mid-engined sports cars are not famous for being forgiving souls, but this one is happiest slithering about deep into the meat of third gear. I’m certain the fastest way to coax it around Weissach would be to lean on the front axle until understeer sets in and then stabilise the throttle. But there is such a temptation to introduce more right foot and feel the back arc around that you soon find yourself adopting what can only be described as the line of maximum slip. Light, accurate steering and skinny radials only serve as further encouragement. You can see why these cars proved so devastating at Le Mans: the combination of useable performance and mechanical strength was irrepressible. In 1955 Helmut Polensky and Richard von Frankenberg finished fourth there, beaten only by two D-types and an Aston DB3S, cars with engines twice the size of the Porsche’s.

And what an engine this four-cam motor is. It loves to rev. The shove is impressive from 1500rpm to around 5000rpm, which is when the induction noise assumes a more serious tone, and it hammers on to 6500rpm. They were capable of revving well into the sevens, and driving it now, I can only assume that some ran them harder even than that, such is the mechanical smoothness and lack of inertia felt.

It’s an addictive machine. You exit the final right-hander in third gear, grab fourth and, as the air rushes over your head and the 550 begins to wander, you begin to wonder how something with a quarter of the horsepower of Porsche’s latest toy can prove almost as thrilling. Even more remarkable is the fact that this particular example feels as though it could lap for hours, but then I suspect it is rather expertly maintained.

The modern RS Spyder is an incredible machine: so amenable, so nimble, so damn fast. It continues the lineage begun by the 550, and even though this sounds like an emotionally clouded observation, strands of that gorgeous little silver car’s DNA are very much apparent in the yellow monster. Long may such genetic excellence continue.

Jenks on...

…the 550 Spyder, Moss and Porsche

1953 Paris Salon

The German firm showed a delightful open two-seater competition car based on the factory Nürburgring cars, fitted with the latest ohc engine; this follows the normal Porsche flat-four layout, but has twin camshafts to each bank of cylinders, the camshafts being driven by bevels and shafts. A large double-choke downdraught carburetter is used for each bank and the distributor is driven off the end of each inlet camshaft, supplying sparks for two plugs per cylinder… A power output of 110bhp is claimed and a speed of 225kph (140mph). October 1953

1954 Le Mans 24 Hours

The three Porsches were the new 550 models, the prototype of which ran in the Mille Miglia. They were open two-seaters, with the engine and gearbox behind the driver, but in front of the rear axle, suspension being IFS at the front by trailing links and torsion bars with swing-axles on torsion bars at the rear. The three cars were perfectly turned out, coloured flashes along the rear wings giving identity, these being blue, green and red, for the pairs of drivers. June 1954

1955 Lisbon Grand Prix

Never having even sat in a Porsche Spyder before, Moss soon mastered the technique of handling and found the lightness and responsiveness of the car very agreeable. His best time of the two training periods was 2min. 27.27sec, 12sec better than the rest of the field with but one exception. Portuguese J Filipe Nogeuira, driving his own Porsche Spyder, made the excellent time of 2min 30.6sec.

The race was naturally dominated by Moss with the factory car, but as in practice Filipe Nogeuira was the outstanding driver. The Portuguese driver kept the silver Porsche in sight, losing only two or three seconds a lap. When the traffic became heavy, the hallmark of a great grand prix driver began to make itself felt and Moss drew right away, but even so, during the 25 laps of the 5.4-kilometre circuit the Portuguese driver only lost 63 seconds. September 1955

Team spirit

One is often tempted to refer to ‘typical German thoroughness and orderliness’, but this is never possible while the Porsche firm continue to be successful at racing, for they have the slap-happy sporting attitude of most English teams, their set-up being anything but ‘typical German’. October 1955