Ex-Factory Works Team Le Mans and Nürburgring podium finisher Among the most original examples in existence,1958 Porsche 550A Spyder  Chassis no. 550A-0145 Engine no. P90127
The Bonhams Motoring Magazine

Motoring

Bonhams Motoring Magazine Winter Edition

Page 5

PUSHING THE ENEVELOPE

It was a perilous time for drivers, but it was a time of glory too. Richard Holt gets misty-eyed about 1950s motor racing – and a very special Porsche

Whenever a time is described as a "golden age", it is best to raise an eyebrow. With matters of taste like fashion and music, whether one era is better than another is so subjective as to make comparisons all but meaningless.

What about motor racing? The Porsche 550A Spyder pictured here – and offered by Bonhams at January's Scottsdale sale – was made in the 1950s, a decade regarded with great nostalgic reverence. The case is persuasive, with great technological leaps forward that left pre-war cars in the dust and a new breed of superstar drivers like Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio, whose track exploits are still held in awe today. But it was also the decade during which the sport lost its innocence, with an unprecedented – and unrepeated – number of fatalities among both drivers and spectators.

Misty eyes cloud the horror of those deaths, however, and with the passing of time we think less deeply about the devastation they caused. The truth is that you cannot entirely separate the good from the bad. Part of the appeal lay in how dangerous racing was then, with cars tearing round at previously unimagined speeds, drivers clinging to large, narrow-rimmed steering wheels with nothing but open-faced helmets to protect them. In the previous decade men risked their lives on the battle eld; in the 1950s, it was the racetrack.

The story behind this particular Porsche could not have been written in any other decade. The first owner was a Belgian aristocrat called Carel Godin de Beaufort, a man who by birth had been destined for a gentlemanly life overseeing the family estate, shooting birds and riding horses. But he fancied a go on something a bit quicker, and decided to leverage his privileged position to become a racing driver.

This was no talentless toff. After some decent showings in rallies, de Beaufort caught the attention of the Porsche motorsport bosses. He went on to have notable class wins in endurance races like the Nürburgring 1000km and the 12 hours of Sebring, as well as dozens of Formula 1 drives. He was popular with fans and fellow drivers due to his outgoing, extroverted manner, and for little eccentricities like driving without shoes. Reportedly, he once entertained the crowds by doing practice laps wearing a Beatles wig instead of his helmet.

In 1958, de Beaufort drove this particular Porsche in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The oldest and most gruelling motor race in the world, it is also a race with no competitors in the glamour stakes, save perhaps for the Monaco Grand Prix.

The previous Porsche Spyder, the 550, was a very ne sports car, and one that has the dubious accolade of being the model that James Dean was driving when he crashed and died in 1955 – the car that Dean had nicknamed 'Little Bastard'. But although the two cars looked similar, under the skin the 550A was substantially improved. It kept the same glorious 1.5-litre at-four engine, but had a space-frame chassis that saved a good deal of weight compared to the previous ladder-frame setup. It also had the spare wheel moved to the front for better weight distribution, and the suspension changed from swing axles to trailing arms, giving it better stability. The star engineer and driver Ken Miles calling the 550A the "greatest long-distance racer in the world".

Just 40 examples of the 550A were made, and of those the most prized are the 'works' cars like this one, built to race as part of a factory team rather than by privateers. At Le Mans that year, de Beaufort and his co-driver piloted the 550A to second in class and fifth place overall – an amazing achievement to stay competitive among Ferraris and Aston Martins with engines twice the size of that of the Porsche.

That was the best result at Le Mans for any 550A, and a career highlight for de Beaufort. This car was driven in countless other races and rallies, by de Beaufort and subsequent owners, and since retiring from competitive racing it has taken part in numerous vintage events, including ten Mille Miglia retrospectives. Today it wears the No.32 livery that it had in Le Mans in 1958.

Even if you know or care nothing about cars, this Porsche is an object of pure, simple beauty. And after the close of the 1950s, opportunities to build such things decreased. During the next decade, a combination of safety features and advances in automotive science meant that by 1970 a racing driver's face was hidden behind a full helmet and he was sitting in a car replete with aerodynamic wings. The kinds of car that only look good to car people.

Safety improvements did not come quickly enough for de Beaufort, who was killed while driving another Porsche during practice for the 1964 German Grand Prix. He had lived just 30 years, but at exactly the pace that he wanted.

The car lives on, a beautiful testament to a time before motor racing became quite such a big, serious business. Nowadays drivers keep their shoes on, and absolutely never wear wigs instead of helmets. The 1950s deserves to be remembered as a golden age of motor racing, and this car is undoubtedly one of its brightest stars.

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