In 1956, Swiss Hans Gerber acquired the Porsche and raced it together with his cousins Michael and Pierre May. 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
He experimented with an narrow wing that resembled an inverted NACA-6412 profile airplane wing with oversized endplates 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. By his calculations, the downforce generated at just over 90 miles per hour would equal that of the vehicle’s actual weight
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, along with besting the times of other manufacturer entries with considerably higher horsepower.
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. This led Porsche’s motorsport director, Huschke von Hanstein, to rush to the event organizers in protest of 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 reasoning behind their decision was that 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.
After being raced in a number of various races in its unmodified form, 550-0031 passed through two Swiss owners, one German and one Dutch owner before being acquired by Fritz Kozka in Dresden in 1998. With the help of Michael May himself, Kozka had a replica of the unique wing built- even down to the correct Porsche Orange color which the wing was painted in period. It appeared at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 1998 in the same configuration that it caused such a stir at the Nürburgring with in 1956, and continued to race in various events through 2000 thanks to its FIVA and FIA certifications.
The 550 was sold to Ugo Gussalli Beretta, the CEO of the Beretta arms factory. An extensive restoration was commissioned through Quality Cars in Padova, where once again Michael May was enlisted to help to ensure the functionality of the wing. In 2015, 550-0031 was shown at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance where it was awarded second in the ‘Postwar Racing Car’ class. In 2016, it was invited to be displayed at the prestigious Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este, before passing into new ownership in April of 2017. It returned once again to the 2018 Goodwood Festival of Speed, and was shown at the 2022 Amelia Island Concours under its most recent owner where it was awarded the Spirit of 1000 Miglia award.
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-two 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.