Porsche 550 Spyder “Michael May”

Recalling a stunning debut

The annual Nürburgring 1000 km race used to be the home round of the World Sports Car Championship for Porsche. At the 1956 edition, the German manufacturer entered the latest evolution of the 550 RS Spyder, only to be upstaged in practice by a year-old customer car driven by two German-born cousins nobody had really heard of.

What gave the privately entered 550 Spyder its edge was the groundbreaking high-mounted aerofoil created by one of the two cousins, Michael May. Such was the embarrassment that Porsche’s team manager Huschke von Hanstein successfully protested the device, and it was not actually raced.

Painted bright orange, the wing Michael May devised was impossible to miss.

The car entered and raced by Pierre May and his Swiss cousin Michael was the thirty-first Porsche 550 RS Spyder built, completed early in 1955. Introduced in 1953, the Typ 550 was the first purpose-built Porsche racing car. The German company and its customers had successfully raced Porsches before the 550’s introduction, but these were based on the 356 production car. Among the exceptions were the privately built racers created by Walter Glöckler and Hermann Ramelow, which used Porsche components to a varying degree.

Some of these Glöckler specials had the Porsche engine mounted ahead instead of behind the rear axle as was the case on the 356s. This was an obvious advantage as it improved the weight balance of the car considerably. It was this feature that Porsche carried over when creating the Typ 550 racing car. Unlike the mid-engined Glöckler Porsches, which used a bespoke tubular chassis, the Porsche engineers did opt to use a steel platform chassis, which was derived from the production cars. The suspension also followed familiar lines with front parallel arms and swing axles at the rear. Torsion bar springs were fitted on all four corners.

The wing was mounted on struts that were bolted directly to the chassis.

Although the first 550s raced featured a Typ 356 derived push-rod engine, the purpose-built racer was officially launched at the 1953 Paris Auto Salon with an all-new version of the air-cooled flat-four. Designed by Ernst Fuhrmann, the new Typ 547 engine had twin overhead camshafts that were driven from the build-up Hirth crankshaft by vertical shafts and bevel gears. Breathing through a pair of Solex carburettors, the new 1498-cc engine was good for 110 hp; a 30 hp increase over the similarly sized 356-based competition engines. Following a victory late in 1953 at the Carrera Panamericana road race, the engine received the Carrera nickname.

Fitted with a straightforward Spyder body, a single 550 debuted during the sixteenth Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring. Although very much a works car, the first 550 was entered and driven by Walter Glöckler’s cousin Helmut. He duly won the race for 1500-cc cars despite the dreadful weather causing problems with his Solex carburetors. For Le Mans, the car was re-bodied as a coupe. The same design was also fitted to the second chassis. The two cars finished first and second in class at Le Mans, which was a clear indication of what was to come. A third coupe was built, but all subsequent 550s were fitted with would be known as the RS Spyder bodywork.

The vertical "side-wings" increased the effectiveness of the aerofoil considerably.

Porsche successfully campaigned the 550s all over the world, which created a huge demand for the nimble sports racers. Between 1953 and 1956, Porsche produced around one hundred examples, a vast majority of which went to private, and, crucially, paying customers. Completed early in March of 1955, chassis 550-0031 was one of these cars destined for a customer. In this case, it was Walter Ringgenberg, a Swiss hotelier and personal friend of Ferry Porsche’s. The car was finished in silver with red flashes over the rear fender flares.

A week after the car was completed, Ringgenberg ran the car with journalist Richard von Frankenberg for a series of record runs at Montlhéry. Von Frankenberg was no stranger to the 550, as he had shared the driving duties of the coupe that won its class at Le Mans in 1953. The 550 was driven over the road from Stuttgart to the track near Paris. Once at the track, the two drivers set no fewer than six world records in the brand-new 550 RS Spyder. They broke the 1500-cc category, 200-mile, three-hour, 500-km, 500-mile, 1000-km, and six-hour records. The fastest of these records was set with a mesmerizing average speed of 212 km/h.

The orange used for the wing was actually a factory Porsche color.

Not surprising, with a journalist actively involved, the successful record attempt was well documented. The car is even named complete with chassis number in Karl Ludvigsen’s Porsche tome Excellence was Expected. Next up for 550-0031 was a rally in the south of France. It was once again driven there over the road. An accident during the event ended the charge early. Von Frankenberg and/or Ringgenberg subsequently raced the car at select events with the former winning at Hockenhem and the latter retiring from the 24 Hours of Le Mans where Hans-Jörg Gilomen joined the car’s owner as co-driver.

Ahead of the 1956, Ringenberg [Ringgenberg?] sold the car to his compatriot Hans Gerber. It was at this point that cousins Michael and Pierre May entered the already storied life of this Porsche 550 RS Spyder. Michael May was born in Stuttgart in 1934 and later moved to Switzerland. By 1955, he was an engineering student with a particular interest in motor racing. Although he was not training to be an aerodynamicist per se, he recognized that the air flowing around a racing car was not just a bad thing and could be harnessed. Up until that point car designers were mainly interested in “cheating the wind” by creating very slippery shapes.

A cross brace can be seen running behind the steering wheel, which further strengthens the structure.

There had already been other designers who figured out ways to use the airflow, most notably the Opel RAK 2 rocket car produced in 1928. This featured lateral wings with an aerofoil shape. These were mainly designed to keep the record breaker on the road when the twenty-four separate rockets were ignited. A more recent and altogether different application was devised by Mercedes-Benz during the first half of the 1950s. The German company first fitted a 300 SL competition car with a strut-mounted wing, which could be tilted upwards to serve as an airbrake. This system did not do particularly well, as the struts buckled under the extreme loads. The 300 SLR of 1955 used an airbrake that was integrated in the rear deck, which tilted upwards under braking.

May realized that if he used a device that had the profile of an upside-down aeroplane wing, he could generate downforce pushing the car more firmly onto the track. This would have considerable benefits during braking and cornering. A big downside of such an aerofoil was additional drag, which would negatively affect the performance on the straights. What he devised to get the best of both worlds was a NACA 6412-profile wing of which the angle could be manipulated by the driver with a lever in the cockpit. This allowed the aerofoil to be horizontal on the straights and then revert back to a more aggressive angle at the braking point.

Designed by Ernst Fuhrmann, the Typ 547 engine remains a mechanical work of art.

Taking a page from the Mercedes-Benz textbook, May mounted his wing on two struts that were bolted directly to the chassis of the 550 RS Spyder. The struts were very sturdy and featured additional reinforcements to support the wing in the horizontal position. An additional cross-brace running over the driver’s legs added further strength to the setup. The lever mounted on the driver’s left actuated the wing through a steel wire. Painted bright orange, the wing also featured small winglets. After inspecting the car post-restoration in 2015, May mentioned these in a letter he wrote to the owner: “The side-wings anticipated the winglets of the actual airplanes by about 40 years; they nearly doubled the aerodynamic efficiency of the extremely short wingspan.”

Convinced that the car would be up to scratch, May entered the 550 RS Spyder in the 1956 Nürburgring 1000 km race together with his cousin Pierre. This race also saw one of the first outings of the new Porsche 550A RS Spyder. The type name would suggest that this was merely a minor update of the well-known and very successful design. This was very far from the truth as the 550A featured an all-new tubular chassis. Not only was the bespoke frame lighter, it was also considerably more rigid, which allowed for a lighter body to be fitted. The exterior was also similar, which meant that the 550A was a brand-new racing car hiding in plain sight.

The one thing that Porsche did not need when it introduced a new competition car to the German public was a year-old machine with a funny-looking contraption strapped to its chassis, being a full four seconds faster around the Nordschleiffe. Of course, this is exactly what happened. Rulebook in hand, Porsche team manager von Hanstein rushed to the event organizers. In the fine print, there was a stipulation that the stewards could revoke a car’s entry for any reason they saw fit. Pointing at the public failure of the strut mounted airbrake on the 300 SL and the subsequent Le Mans disaster in which a 300 SLR had been involved, von Hanstein’s request was granted. The official reason was that the wing blocked the view of the drivers in the cars behind the 550.

The wing is shown here in its fully upright position.

The Mays were eventually allowed to take the start but only if the wing was removed. The car lost its advantage and was no longer a challenge for the 550A. It eventually retired from the race with a damaged synchromesh. The car, or more specifically the wing, was protested again at the subsequent Gran Premio Supercortemaggiore after which it was removed, not to be fitted again in period. In standard trim, May raced the car at a handful of events before selling it in 1960. In 1961, he even stepped up to Formula 1, racing a Lotus 18 Climax at two Grands Prix.

Despite having experienced firsthand how effective the modified 550 RS Spyder was, neither Porsche nor any other major manufacturer for that matter hired Michael May. Especially at Porsche, the emphasis would remain on reduction of drag for well over a decade. May eventually did end up at Porsche and later Ferrari, initially advising on fine-tuning Bosch direct fuel injection systems. During the early 1960s, Ferrari hired him outright and he mentioned the wing to chief engineer Mauro Forghieri. A seed was planted with Forghieri and in 1968, he pioneered a wing on the back of a Tasman / Formula 2 car. All of a sudden, the famously conservative company was at the forefront of the wing revolution. May would later also work for Jaguar where he designed the HE or High Efficiency heads for the company’s V12 engine that were used throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s.

Thanks to von Hanstein’s successful plea to the stewards May’s greatest design has been largely forgotten. Today, American designer Jim Hall is usually credited for creating the modern wing. First used on the Chaparral 2E of 1966, Hall’s “revolutionary” wing was eerily similar in concept and execution to the wing May had already conceived a decade earlier. In their book on Chaparral cars, authors Richard Falconer and Doug Nye do mention Michael May and his Porsche 550 RS Spyder in the section on the Chaparral 2E. The paragraph does not, however, explicitly mention if Jim Hall and his partners in the General Motors aerodynamics department had been aware of the Swiss’ pioneering efforts.

Designed to race at the Nürburgring, the Michael May 550 also looks right at home on California's Highway 1.

Following its contemporary racing career, chassis 0031 remained in Switzerland for several more years before being repatriated to Germany. During the 1990s, it was completely restored. In 1998, the car was acquired by German Porsche enthusiast Fritz Kozka, who had been actively seeking this particular chassis. Upon acquiring the car, he reached out to Michael May and worked with him to have a brand-new wing made. The device was ready in time to demonstrate the car at the 1998 Goodwood Festival with the groundbreaking wing in place. In 2002, the car was sold on to Ugo Gussalli Beretta, of the firearms company.

Beretta commissioned a full cosmetic restoration from Quality Cars in Padova. The work was completed in May of 2015 when it was inspected by Michael May. He was eighty-one years old at the time but nevertheless drove to Padova from his home in Zurich to be reunited with the car. In the letter mentioned above, he later wrote to Beretta: “The car (…) has been perfectly restored and the manual control of the wing’s angle of attack worked as well as I made it in 1956.” Beretta and the subsequent Italian owner proudly showed the car at many major events, including Pebble Beach, Goodwood and Villa d’Este. More recently, the unique and very important machine was offered for sale by Swiss specialist dealer Kidston SA.

Thanks to the efforts of recent owners like Fritz Kozka and Ugo Gussalli Beretta, the world has become fully aware of the pioneering efforts made by Michael May in 1956, when he was just twenty-one years old. Had any of the manufacturers competing in the Nürburgring 1000 km that year properly appreciated May’s bright orange contraption, motorsport history could indeed have been very different.