The Porsche 550, The “Little Bastard” That Could

a 1956 Porsche 550 from the front
1956 Porsche 550 – photo by Lothar Spurzem

Most people associate Porsche with the 911 and rightfully so. But Porsche has an entire history of great cars racing and otherwise. The Porsche 356, which we’ll profile later, had some success racing but it wasn’t built for that purpose. The Porsche 550 was. It was Porsche’s first purpose-built race car. This mid-engine, lightweight rocket ship won its first race out the gate at the Nurburgring in 1953. Built off the success of the early Porsche 356, the 550 had thin body panels and four-wheel independent suspension. Unlike the Porsche 356, the 550 moved the engine forward ahead of the rear axle making it a mid-engine car. This design was originally used by Ferdinand Porsche in the Auto Union Grand Prix cars of the 1930s.

The car barely tips the scale at over 1,200 lbs and its tiny 1.5 L flat four made 108 hp. The car had a limited-slip and a four or five speed manual depending on the version. It’s also one of the lowest and most beautiful cars ever created. It is so low that it was actually driven under railroad crossing gates at the 1954 Mille Miglia where they finished 6th. The car was incredibly stiff allowing the driver to feel everything on the road. The gorgeous little two-seater came in that beautiful silver color and stood at 38.6” high. They were spartan race cars purely focused on winning races. Despite this they still sold them to privateers, including one very famous customer.

The “Little Bastard” Porsche 550

James Dean
James Dean had a Porsche 550

If you’re aware of this car, it’s likely because of the association with James Dean. James Dean, ultimate cool guy, was a famous actor and avid racing driver. He purchased his Porsche 550, nicknamed “Little Bastard” in 1955 after delays in receiving his Lotus Mark IX. The plan was to race the car in the upcoming Salinas Road Race in California. He was originally going to tow the car to the race but since it hadn’t reached the break-in miles needed, he decided to drive to the event. Dean would be stopped for speeding (shocker!) a few hours before the crash. He would continue getting a feel for the car on the mountain roads. Later that evening, a driver would cross the center line and hit the Porsche 550 head on killing James Dean instantly. He was 24 years old.

The “Giant Killer” Porsche 550

A Porsche 550 from the 1954 Carrera Panamericana
A Porsche 550 from the 1954 Carrera Panamericana – photo by Detectandpreserve

The Porsche 550 rightfully earned the name “Giant Killer” after coming on the scene and challenging the giants at Maserati, Ferrari, Jaguar, and Mercedes-Benz. As stated above, they finished 1st at the Nurburgring, but perhaps their most well-known win occurred in Mexico. The 1954 Carrera Panamericana was an 8-stage rally over 1,910 miles in Mexico. 150 cars entered the race including 4 Porsche 550’s. Hans Herrman would win his class with the number 55 Porsche 550 and place third overall. Porsche would carry the Carrera name into the future on certain 911 models. One of their best wins occurred at the 1956 Tara Florio where they beat out the heavyweight Ferrari and Maseratis to finish 1st overall. The success of the purpose-built Porsche would spearhead Porsche’s racing heritage and lead to some of the greatest racing cars of all-time.

Rarefied Air

A Porsche 550 kit car
An Example of a Porsche 550 Kit Car – photo by Buch-t

While the Porsche 550 may be one of the most iconic Porsches of all-time, it’s also one of the rarest. Couple this with race wins and a celebrity tie-in and prices are generally astronomic. Only 90 cars were ever built and at least one of them was totaled by a celebrity (see above). Of those, only a handful raced at famous races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans or the Mille Miglia. Just this year, a Porsche 550 that raced at the 1957 24 Hours of Le Mans sold at action for just shy of $4 million. Another one sold last year for nearly $5 million. While not nearly as high as some rare Ferrari race cars, the price is decidedly out of the realm for most normal buyers. Plus, they likely won’t drive those cars.

Luckily a solution exists! Most people myself included, roll their eyes out of their heads when they hear kit cars. But I’m not talking about your uncle’s Fiero-Ferrari here. The Porsche 550, much like the AC Cobra, are one of those cars that makes sense for a kit car. The originals are so rare and expensive, you’d never want to drive them. Vintage Motorcars makes a pretty excellent turn-key option for under $50,000. There are tons of options including either an air-cooled or water-cooled engine. One of the coolest options is 502 Motorworks who can actually build you an FIA-spec car to go racing. I could always go the American route and fit the biggest engine it will take. 1.6L Ecoboost maybe?

Porsche 550 Legacy

The beautiful and tiny Porsche 550
The beautiful and tiny Porsche 550

As we mentioned above, the Porsche 500 has a strong racing legacy. The Carrera name originated from a 550 victory and would see the decklid of countless 911s. The Spyder name also originated from the Porsche 550. The first two prototypes had removable hardtops but the remaining were all topless. Hence, the Spyder name denote a convertible Porsche. Weirdly, the Carrera name is for hardtop, non-turbo cars. The 550 also kicked off their love of racing leading to the Porsche 718, 904, 917, and 956 and countless other Porsche models built to race. I’ve been looking to replace my sold Porsche 996 C2 for years. I thought about looking for a turbo or 997 but I’m starting to think one of these kit cars would be pretty freaking sweet!

While doing some research, I came across this amazing website that has a history of individual chassis numbers. There is also a pretty good video from Mecum about one that was recently sent to auction. Next up, I think I am going to do a quick profile of the Porsche 356.

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