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The brave little Spyders

From the 550 Spyder to the 718 Spyder - since 1953, Porsche has been cultivating the sonorous name addition. On race tracks all over the world, this Spyder family has entered the winning lists. The story begins with a British carriage.

Text: Michael Petersen Photo: Diverse 05.11.2020 6 min

Automobile experts, and even more so Porsche drivers, know how to argue splendidly about the origin and definition of terms such as Speedster, Roadster, Cabriolet, or Spyder. For the ultimate and conclusive clarification of this question, we are conducting research at the Porsche Archive in Zuffenhausen, which is the highest authority in matters of truth-finding. In the depths of the shelves and folders, the sentence is found underlined in thick letters: »The four designations are each company-specific and not generally standardized«. And further: »The above definitions apply only to Porsche«.

We pick out the »Spyder« and search for »named above«. There you can even find a long and a short and crisp version. The long version short: »Spider« was used in the 18th century to refer to carriages whose rear wheels were larger than the front ones. This is how the spider look is created, at least that's what they say. Doublecheck: In the encyclopedia of carriage terms »Spider« is easy to find. Now enough of this, we turn to Porsche and have to go back a long way, 67 years.

Max Hoffmann, legendary USA-importer of Porsche, notices at the first glance of a 1953 Porsche that the rear tires are a little wider than the front ones. It was he who chose the term »Spyder« as an addendum, the 550 Spyder was born. Why with »y« instead of »i«? Possibly to avoid copyright issues or confusion. After all, some Italian car manufacturers use the »i« in the Spider. Now the short and concise version, valid for Porsche: »A Spyder is an open car whose very low windshield only has the function of a wind deflector. A Porsche Spyder does not have side windows or a convertible top«. Well, at least this is valid for the ancestors before the 718 Spyder. Before its birth, Porsche chose the noble title Spyder primarily for a whole range of exciting racing cars.

The 550 Spyder is even the first Porsche to be developed for racing from the very first drawing. Two events are remembered not only by automobile enthusiasts: One was the Carrera Panamericana in November 1954 in Mexico. Hans Herrmann took third place in the overall standings behind two much stronger Ferraris - with top drivers Umberto Maglio and Phil Hill/Richie Ginther - and won his class in what was then by far the fastest and toughest road race in the world. The Porsche, which was entered with large sponsor advertisements (Fletcher-Aviation, Telefunken, Castrol) and with red tail fins (»Rotschwänzle«), still adorns many posters today. This should only be mentioned here in passing, the name Carrera has been used throughout Porsche history since then. Until today.

Unforgotten however also the death of the actor James Dean (»East of Eden«, »Rebel Without a Cause«, »Giant«). The talented hobby racer christened his Porsche »Little Bastard«. On September 30, 1955, not far from the small town of Marion, Indiana, a street cruiser takes his right of way. Jimmy Dean could not avoid it. The 24-year-old is killed immediately, his co-driver Rolf Wütherich is seriously injured.

In 1956, Umberto Maglioli wins the Targa Florio in Sicily single-handedly with the 550 A Spyder. His successor, 718 RS 60 Spyder, also wins the classic in 1960. This time Jo Bonnier and Hans Herrmann take turns. Despite the stretched shape of the RS 60 Spyder, the relationship between the two racing cars is unmistakable.

This also applies to the »grandmother«. This is how Porsche mechanics christen a unique piece with a low profile but a great racing history. Porsche 718/8 RS Spyder is the name of the eight-cylinder racing sports car from 1961, with which Edgar Barth becomes the European Mountain Champion in 1963 and 1964. Why »Grandmother«? The answer is quite simple: because this RS Spyder is in service for four seasons. Only twice at the start in 1968 is the Bergsypder 909. The Porsche, which weighs only 430 kilograms and is extremely light with its driver moved far to the front, becomes the model for the 908/03. The Spyder too, of course. This agile Porsche with an eight-cylinder three-liter engine is developed for the 1970 and 1971 World Championships. Right, at that time the Porsche 917 dominated the endurance races. But this twelve-cylinder model, later chosen as the sports car of the century, did not fit in with the narrow tracks of the Targa Florio and the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

With its outstanding handiness, the 908/03 is in its element on these tracks. This Spyder won three of the world championship races held on these tracks in 1970 and 1971. Private teams used the 908 until the eighties, some of them equipped with turbo engines. There are also several versions of the 917 Spyder. The most spectacular: the 917/30 with up to 1400 hp. Mark Donohue is unbeatable with this most powerful racing sports car of all time in 1973 in the Canadian-American CanAm series.

© Porsche

A supercharged engine also powers the 936 Spyder. It won the 1976 World SportsCar Championship and in 1976, as in 1977, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For the 1981 edition of this long-distance classic, Porsche does not have a vehicle capable of winning. At very short notice, the 936 was taken out of the Porsche Museum, technically upgraded, and won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the third time.

Porsche WSC Spyder is the name of a prototype that was initially designed for the USA but never used there. For the 1996 and 1967 Le Mans editions, it was heavily reworked in Weissach for Reinhold Joest's racing team. Result: Team Joest takes two overall victories in the 24-hour classic.

In 2005 and 2007 the RS Spyder is successful on the other side of the Atlantic. The open prototype weighs 775 kilograms. It is powered by a V8 engine with a displacement of 3.4 liters, whose output is limited to 353 kW (480 hp) by an air restrictor. The team of the extremely successful entrepreneur and racing team boss

Roger Penske uses the RS Spyder in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). He scores numerous overall victories, even though he does not even start in the top category. And today? Porsche still maintains the »Spyder« name after almost seven decades. The top model of the Boxster series is simply called the »718 Spyder«.