1956 Porsche 550 Rennsport Spyder, chassis 550-0090. Photos courtesy Bonhams Auctions.
Built from 1953 until 1956, Porsche’s 550 Rennsport Spyders have always been desirable cars. Most were raced in-period, subjected to the slings and arrows of motorsport fortune, meaning that few survivors can claim a high degree of originality. Chassis 550-0090, a car that never saw competition, is one exception to this rule, and on Saturday, September 10, this particular 1956 Porsche 550 Spyder sold for a fee-inclusive price of 4.6-million pounds ($6.1 million) at Bonhams’ Goodwood Revival sale, establishing a new auction record for the model.
Influenced by the racing spyders developed by Walter Glockler and engineer Hermann Ramelow, Porsche’s 550 Spyder was a car designed to serve two masters. Light in weight and blessed with impeccable balance and handling, the 550 Spyder was a racing car designed with an advanced overhead-camshaft, air-cooled, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine that squeezed 110 horsepower out of just 1.5-liters. Equipped with lights, directional signals and a horn, it was also capable of being driven on the road, eliminating (in theory, anyway) the need to trailer the car to and from events.
The 550 Spyder used a welded steel tube frame wrapped in aluminum bodywork to form a light but exceptionally stiff platform. Independent suspension was fitted in all four corners, with the front getting twin trailing arms and transverse, adjustable torsion bars, while the rear suspension used a swing axle with trailing arms and a torsion bar on each side. Hydraulic drum brakes were used in each corner, as they proved more than sufficient to scrub speed from the 1,300-pound car.
Inside, the cockpit was focused more on function than comfort. The seats were wrapped in a durable fabric (though leather was also an option), as was the rear bulkhead and parts of the doors. A radio wasn’t available from the factory, but neither was a heater, as 550 Spyders weren’t intended to be raced in the coldest of months. A cloth top did come with the car, but given its ungainly form, this was largely an afterthought, or perhaps a part necessary to define the 550 Spyder as a production car for homologation purposes.
By late 1955, the legend of the 550 Spyder had been firmly established with wins in competition too numerous to count on both sides of the Atlantic. Actor James Dean was on his way to a race in Salinas, California, behind the wheel of his own Porsche 550 Spyder when fate (in the form of a 1950 Ford Custom) intervened at the intersection of routes 46 and 41, further adding to the car’s mystique. The very things that made the 550 ideal for the track (light weight, low profile, stiff suspension) made it sub-optimal for use as a street car, but some buyers simply didn’t care.
One such 550 owner was television executive Willet H. Brown, chassis 550-0090’s initial buyer. Perhaps the Porsche proved too punishing to use as a daily driver, or perhaps he experienced one too many close calls behind the wheel, but roughly a year after purchase, and with just 634 miles on the odometer, the car was sold to its next owner, a Porsche enthusiast who racked up 12,000 miles behind the wheel before selling the Spyder to Vasek Polak’s dealership.
There, the Spyder was purchased by Fred Sebald, owner of Fred Sebald’s Foreign Auto Shop in Glendale, California, and a man with intimate knowledge of the diminutive German sports racing car. A body man by trade, Fred had grown accustomed to pounding dents from 550 Spyders raced by local clientele, and justified the acquisition of 550-0090 for advertising purposes. Though a restoration of the car was initially planned, its overall condition gave Sebald second thoughts, and the Porsche was preserved instead.
In 1971, the car was piloted by Richie Ginther for an article in Road & Track magazine, and before the year was out had been sold (for $4,500) to its next owner. If the supplied history is correct, this owner kept the car until it changed hands in another private sale to the consignor. That makes this a five-owner car, complete with extensive records documenting its six-decade history.
Auction houses like to speak in superlatives, but in the case of this particular Porsche 550 Spyder, describing it as “the world’s best-preserved, never-restored example of this seminal Porsche surviving today” may not have been off the mark. The previous record for the model was set at a 2012 Gooding & Company auction in Amelia Island, Florida, when a well-documented but previously restored example sold for a then-remarkable $3.7 million. In the case of 550-0090, the patina, scuffs and occasional dent enhanced its value significantly, establishing this 550 Rennsport Spyder as the $6.1 million benchmark against which all future sales will be measured.
1950 Frazer Nash Le Mans replica.
Other lots in the Goodwood Revival top-10 included a 1950 Frazer-Nash Le Mans replica, which sold for £603,333 ($801,778); a 1967 Aston Martin DB6 Vantage, which sold for £455,100 ($604,788); a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 coupe, which sold for £455,100 ($604,788); a 1928 Bentley 6½/8-Litre Sports, which sold for £406,940 ($540,788); a 2000 Aston Martin Vantage Le Mans V600 coupe, which sold for £354,300 ($470,834); a 1971 Ferrari Dino 246 GT Berlinetta, which sold for £299,420 ($397,903); a 1956 Bentley S-Type Continental, which sold for £281,500 ($374,089); a 1962 Jaguar E-Type Series 1 roadster, which sold for £253,500 ($336,879); and a 1986 Aston Martin V8 Vantage Zagato Coupe, which sold for £253,500 ($336,879).
For complete results, visit Bonhams.com.