From the early Fifties to the mid Sixties, a diminutive Porsche race car was the nemesis of many bigger and more powerful competitors. Known as the 550 Spyder, it started in more than 370 races, and went onto capture 95 overall wins, along with an additional 75 class wins. All told, the Spyder’s venom was pure poison for many higher horsepower cars not even in its class.
No surprise, then, that it came to be known as the Giant Killer. Sadly, its ominous name proved to be apt for the star of the movie Giant, James Dean, who was hit by another car in September of 1955 while driving his Spyder to a race in Northern California. This tragic event actually raised awareness of the Porsche marque among American car enthusiasts, many of whom were unfamiliar with this over-achieving race car from Stuttgart.
Getting back to the origins of the 550, it was intended to build on the competition successes of the Porsche 356, in order to garner even more trophies in the belief that it would help to promote the company’s road-going production cars. (Though some observers at the time thought that the road-car operation was actually established to fund Porsche’s racing pursuits.)
A German VW dealer named Walter Glockler had already demonstrated the track prowess of a roofless, more powerful 356 called the Glockler 356. Drawing heavily from that modified car, the 550 Spyder initially ran a 1500cc air-cooled four-cylinder engine. This same powerplant propelled the original prototype, Type 550-01, to win its first race on the famed Nurburgring. Then it, along with the second example, Type 550-02, scored a First and Second finish in its class in the grueling 24 hours at LeMans. Those same two cars went on to triumph in the Carrera Panamericana, the fabled border-to-border Mexican Road Race (hence the use of the Carrera name to this day), This era represents the cornerstone of Porsche’s storied racing successes.
Later, Porsche engineers went one-better with a sophisticated (and complicated) 4-Cam engine built by Dr. Ernst Fuhrmann, which eventually churned out as much a 135hp at 7200 rpm. Less well-funded privateers ran the Porsche 356’s 1.7 Liter, 110hp pushrod engine. No two original 550 Spyders were exactly alike.
That fact gives a certain amount to freedom to builders of tribute cars, such as the RW Spyder from Rock West Racing. While not an exact replica, it carries forward the same spirit of employing ongoing engineering refinements to optimize both performance and on-road durability.
Starting with chassis, the RW Spyder features a stronger, three-inch, round-tube, DOM (Drawn Over Mandrel) frame. This approach employs hydraulic bending processes to create the correct configuration, eliminating the need for any cutting and/or welding of the main rails.
Up front the suspension is a reconditioned and upgraded VW beam axle with new ball joints and bearings, and fitted with ride height adjusters and reduced torsion plates. This is essential to achieve the correct stance and suspension compliance of the low, lightweight RW Spyder. At the rear is a custom torque tube with a splined center, torsion bars and elongated spring plates that are required for a mid-engine configuration. With an optional, high-horsepower Porsche 911 powertrain, a De Dion rear-suspension system is employed. This system has a transverse tubular beam (dead axle) to hold the opposite wheels in parallel under extra loading and hard cornering. To accommodate this larger engine and transaxle, the chassis is slightly modified.
Rather than an aluminum body, the RW Spyder uses a fiberglass composite, laminating multiple layers of fiberglass cloth, matte and Coremat® by saturating them with premium-quality resin and hand-laying them into the mold. After they are thoroughly cured, the Spyder’s frame is placed into the body in the mold, the chassis is adhesively bonded to the body shell and also mechanically fastened with rivets and bolts. This operation takes place in the mold to ensure that the body and chassis are correctly aligned.
The body-to-chassis adhesive is a modern, two-part methacrylate that bonds tightly to both composites and metals. Yet it has sufficient flexibility to handle vibrational loads and exposure to heat. Once the body/chassis assembly is removed from the mold, an additional bulkhead cross-member is added in the back to ensure the correct alignment and suspension stance.
Pricing starts at $15,500 for the base kit, which allows for a wide range of customizing options. If an all-in-one package is preferred, the deluxe kit sells for less than $21,000, and includes items such as the windshield assembly, upholstered seats, wiring harness, engine grille, lighting, and fuel tank. A virtually complete assembled roller costs under $28,000, and includes a VW Type 1 transaxle, ready for engine installation.
Whichever level of customization and assembly desired, the RW Spyder represents a leap forward in technology while hailing the glory days of road-course racing. It delivers both exhilarating performance and contemporary construction, paired with the compelling style of a racing legend.