It was a legend in its own time, and is no less of one today.
The Porsche 550 was the German automaker's first true race car for the road, a lightweight slip of steel and aluminum powered by a tiny four-cylinder engine that won its very first event, again in its debut at Le Mans, and took home countless more trophies in the years to come.
Introduced as a coupe, it became iconic as a roofless Spyder, and today is one of the most sought-after cars in the world. Just ninety were built from 1953 to 1956, and less than 80 are known to survive.
The most famous of the lost examples is the car nicknamed “Little Bastard” that James Dean was driving to a race when he slammed into a Ford Tudor on a highway outside of Cholame, Calif., ending his life at age 24.
Auction prices for the rarely-traded 550s are now in the $4 million dollar range, not only putting them out of reach of many collectors, but turning a Sunday drive into a major financial risk. As a result, many sit in garages to be admired, not experienced.
One of them was bought and sold some years back by Ben Edwards, a 78-year-old ex-Marine and rabid Porsche collector from Connecticut who supports his habit with a successful trade show company that features only American companies at its events.
Of all the cars Ben has owned, he says the 550 is the one that got away. So, along with his son and business partner Rob, they decided to make one for themselves. Or, more precisely, clone one.
Starting with a 3D scan of the body of the last 550 produced, they had the same done to the frame of car #86 and over 360 individual parts, many borrowed from owners of original cars who were happy to contribute to the process.
From there, they tapped the network of manufacturers they’ve built relationships with through their shows to recreate each part, using materials as close to original as possible and not one strand of fiberglass.
Assembly was handled by Alloycars of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who also had the crucial job of hand hammering the aluminum body panels and fabricating the frame. After being painted, it was then shipped to Porsche specialist Speedsport Tuning in Danbury, Conn., for engine installation and final adjustments.
Rob says the entire project took four years of insanity, but they’ve made the most of it by launching an outfit called Spyder Creations that's now offering replicas of their replica for sale. For lack of a better description, the vehicles will be sold as kit cars, clearly identified as such and with no Porsche badges, although buyers are free to customize them as they like. The price is $320,000 to start.
The prototype is powered by the 1.7-liter flat-four from a 1969 Porsche 912, similar to the smaller push-rod engines used in the earliest 550s, but Spyder Creations can source a proper 1950’s motor, or one of the much-desired four-cam engines featured in most 550s. Those tiny, but potent mills have become collector items in their own right and now sell for $150,000 or more…without a vehicle attached.
This one is literally knee-high, if you’re 6’1” like me. You can literally step into it and slip down into the period-correct vinyl upholstered bucket seat. Legroom in the Spartan cockpit is virtually non-existent, but you quickly forget about that as you hit the start button, shift the pencil thin gear lever into first, let up on the floor-mounted clutch pedal and head six decades into the past.
Ever have a wind in the hair driving experience? This car is more wind in the face, its acrylic windscreen barely chin high, making glasses, and possibly an old-fashioned leather cap with earflaps a must. There aren’t even seatbelts, although you can have them installed.
While the engine only makes about 120 horsepower, the car weighs just 1,200 pounds, less than half of the lightest Porsches today, so it feels quick and nimble. An oversized Bakelite-style wheel makes up for the lack of power steering, while the sensation of speed is enhanced by the fact that you’re basically driving around in an aluminum bikini.
Buzzing along the twisting two-lanes that the Nutmeg State is known for, 25 mph is as much of a visceral experience as 100 mph would be a modern sports car. A street-legal go-kart might come close, but riding on relatively tall, but very narrow, tires, the Edwards’ faux-550 delivers a surprisingly supple ride.
After a few miles of dicing with crossovers and SUVs, I can’t begin to imagine the guts it must’ve taken to drive one of these at the limit on a racetrack, fighting for position with much larger cars, but I can definitely understand the addictive appeal. It’s a liberating and exhilarating experience.
Unfortunately, as with the authentic 550s, it’s one that not too many people will get to have. Rob says that in deference to the original, they’ll build no more than 90 cars, and each one currently takes about a year to complete.
Two and three are already under construction, and the prototype itself is for sale, but Rob actually hopes no one will make an offer for that one.
He’d hate to recreate his dad’s mistake, too.