The Porsche 356 had served Porsche well in racing, but by the early 50s, it was clear that even the most heavily modified versions of the production car, the Gmünd coupes, weren't going to win the big races Porsche was targeting. So they designed a car with a singular purpose: To win races.
The Porsche engineers learned from observing the reversed-engine Glöckler specials that there was something to the mid engine-configured layout. That became the foundation for Project 550 – a whole new mid-engine chassis program for Porsche. The first purpose-built race car Porsche. Genesis for the 908, the 917, the 962... All purpose-built Porsche race cars.
The target of the original program was to have two cars ready to compete at the 24 Hours of LeMans. They quickly constructed a prototype car, constructed around a steel tube ladder frame with six crossmembers. The suspension and engine were pulled from an existing 356. Power came from a 1500 Super engine. They fitted it the first prototype with a roadster body and inaugurated it at the Nürburgring. Piloted by Helm Glöckler, the prototype car won it's class in that first outing.
To further prepare for LeMans after the learnings from the Nürburgring, that first 550, as well as a second car, were fitted with coupe bodies designed by Erwin Komenda. Even in coupe form, the car weighed in at a featherlight 1200 pounds, with an incredible amount of attention to detail to get it to that weight. The closed coupe would allow them to go faster down the Mulsanne straight of LeMans. Paul Frére, driver and journalists, talked about the almost-unbearable noise level and poor ventilation of the coupe. Despite those annoyances, both cars finished within the same lap of one another at the end of the 24 hour race, finishing first and second in class.
Later in 1953, Porsche showed a more defined version of the 550 with a four cam engine and a more defined roadster body. They retained the coupes as they were, however. Both of them were shipped to Guatemala. One of them won La Carrera Panamericana Race in the 1500 cc class, and the other won the Buenos Aires 1000 km race.
After those victories, both of the coupes were retired from racing. The incredibly successful coupes only saw a handful of races, and won them all.
The 550 Coupe and Spyder body styles were designed for maximum aerodynamic efficiency with all the knowledge they had of aero at the time. Both these classic body styles were clearly cornerstone inspiration for the modern era Porsche Boxster and Cayman. And they both still hold up well on their own today.