► Hoping for a lighter, simpler Porsche
► Our Gavin picks Michael Mauer's mind
► Could a back-to-basics Porsche be due?
While touring the Porsche museum for a story in the June 2020 issue of CAR magazine, I asked Porsche head of design Michael Mauer to name his favourite car. The 964 (third-generation 911), he replied. Then he asked me to pick mine. This is tough, but I concluded it was probably the 550 Spyder of the mid-’50s. It subscribes to so many values that I hold dear in sports cars.
It was poetically beautiful, so simple and minimalist. The stance and proportions were so right that it needed no frills. Its bodywork was exquisitely wrought in curvaceous aluminium. It was small and light, just 550kg. It had just two seats, because any more in a sports car is usually unnecessary and, when offered, frequently unusable. The 550 was mid-engined, the best place to put a motor when driving enjoyment is paramount. It had a small engine, a magnificent 1.5-litre four-cam flat-four. That was all it needed. Its small engine didn’t stop it winning the Targa Florio in 1956 and taking class wins at Le Mans and in the Carrera Panamericana, plus many other victories. Top speed was almost 140mph, 0-60mph in about seven seconds.
Unfortunately, it’s now best known as the car in which James Dean was killed. Nicknamed the Little Bastard, his car struck Donald Turnupseed’s Ford sedan on Route 466 near Cholame, California, on 30 September 1955. Dean was on his way to race his 550 at the Salinas road races in Monterey county. He’d just finished filming Giant.
Mauer and I were admiring the Porsche museum’s 550 when he said he’d really like to do a car like this again. ‘I’d love to do a pure new sports car, reduced to the maximum. We will see. There is a lot of discussion. I think it’s possible, especially with new materials.’
He spoke about Porsche’s history of doing small lightweight cars, of which the 550 Spyder was one of the finest examples. The noblest of all was the 909 Bergspyder of 1968, at just 384kg the lightest Porsche ever. This Ferdinand Piëch-developed open-top racer was used for hillclimbing and had a lightweight glassfibre body that weighed just 10kg.
Mauer insists that lightweighting is still crucial to Porsche, never mind chunky Cayennes and expansive Panameras. So might we see a 550 Spyder for the 2020s, minimalist, beautiful, fast and light? I think it’s possible. A call to European editor Georg Kacher helped piece together the logic.
The next 718 (Boxster/Cayman), codenamed 983, will be fully electric. That is understandable but regrettable. But, surely, the 718 platform is too good to scrap? So is the 718’s flat-four engine. And now that Audi has decided not to replace the TT, surely the VW Group will want to stay in the small combustion-engined sports car segment, at least for another decade or so until the whole world goes electric? A new mechanical 718 derivative also sharpens Porsche’s sports car focus, currently imperilled by the inconvenient truth that 65 per cent of all Porsche sales are SUVs.
So, here’s the hope. The 718 platform (above) will live on, stripped down to cut weight, and clad in a gorgeous new lightweight aluminium body offering more than a hint of 1950s 550 Spyder romance. The 718 flat-four engine will live on, too. The minimalism will extend to the cabin, stripped out, metallic and functional. Naturally, there would be just two seats.
Let’s hope Mauer gets his way against those at Porsche who don’t think such a car will make any money. Can you imagine how wonderful it would be? Take the Cayman or Boxster 718. Take out 300kg or so. Make it smaller. Make it lower. Make it more beautiful. Stick shift essential. Ideally take off the turbos for added throttle sensitivity. Here, surely, would be the most desirable sports car of the 2020s and a wonderful end-of-the-era full stop to mechanical Porsche sports cars before everything goes electric.
It would probably be my favourite Porsche. And almost certainly Michael Mauer’s too.