The Giant Killers


While most automotive designers of the era were focused on creating slippery body shapes in order to cheat wind resistance, 22-year-old German-born engineer Michael May believed there was great potential to harness the air flowing around the car to channel horsepower to the ground more effectively, simultaneously improving handling characteristics in corners and adding stability at speed.

He experimented with a narrow wing that resembled an inverted airplane wing which at speed would force the car downward toward the road surface. In order to minimize drag in the straights where it would hinder performance, he devised a system where the wing pivoted at the front of the uprights and could be adjusted on the fly by a cable connected to a lever mounted in the cockpit beside the parking brake handle. This allowed the wing’s angle of attack to be in a more aggressive forward position at braking points and through corners and horizontal on high-speed straight sections.

The talk among of the paddock preceding the 1956 1000km of Nürburgring was of a 550 Spyder with a dinged and dented body, adorned with a tremendous orange wing mounted above the driver. It was entered by two young German cousins who were unknown at the time, but made a great impression when they lapped the 14.2-mile-long track four seconds faster than the Porsche factory’s own brand-new 550A entries.

The 550A wasn’t simply an update to the 550, it was considerably more rigid, lighter, and more powerful than its predecessor- to be outshined on its first outing by the older model with a homemade wing would have been detrimental to its public image.

Huscke von Hanstein rushed to the event organizers to protest Michael and Pierre May’s 550 competing with the wing, citing the catastrophic failure of the strut-mounted air brake on the 300 SL and the disaster at Le Mans involving a 300 SLR. Von Hanstein’s request was granted, but the official reason was because the wing obstructed the view of the cars behind it. They were forced to remove the wing, losing their competitive advantage against the 550A models, but the concepts behind the unusual wing had been proven effective.

In Porsche’s unrelenting pursuit of improvement, the 718 RSK implemented a completely reworked chassis with revised torsion bar front suspension and a redesigned rear suspension with coil springs and shock absorbers with Watts linkages in place of the previous trailing arm setup, as well as an improved braking system. Most drastically, though, was the revised lightweight aluminum bodywork that lowered and smoothed the nose for better aerodynamics and the implementation of yet another iteration of the potent four-cam engine- the 547/3 which produced 150 horsepower and revved to 7,800 RPMs. In the 1959 Targa Florio, three 718 RSKs not only survived ten laps of the punishing 44.64-mile circuit- they managed to take first, second and third place finishes ahead of more powerful competitors. The RS60 and RS61 became the ultimate evolution of the Spyder program. These cars, which were still known as the Type 718, had a tubular space frame that was similar to the 1959 RSK, but they utilized a wheelbase that was four inches longer and featured a revised rear suspension that had been implemented in the 1959 werks RSKs.

While similar in appearance and equipment, these cars were noticeably different from previous Porsche 718 Spyders due to tightening FIA regulations, with the most visible of these changes being the installation of a larger windscreen, an increase in cockpit size, and space for the FIA-required suitcase. While other marques added even more horsepower in an attempt to gain an edge- and anticipating Porsche would do the same- the RS60’s powertrain remained largely unchanged.

The four-inch addition to its wheelbase made for drastically improved handling and an increase in legroom. The RS60 was offered to privateers in an almost identical format to the cars campaigned by Porsche themselves. Only 17 examples of the RS60 were constructed in total- Porsche kept four RS60s for their Werks racing team and the remaining 13 were delivered to Porsche’s privateer racing customers. Only six of those cars were delivered to the United States, where it mirrored its successes overseas and successfully fought for the top position in a number of SCCA-sanctioned races throughout the country.

Its success in competition around the world only bolstered the Spyder program’s well-earned nickname as… “The Giant Killers”.

latest from rs insights

stay up to date.

Get RS Insights sent to your e-mail monthly.