Small engine – great sports: two more Mille Miglia participants
In the final posting of our miniseries on Mille Miglia (An Aston, an Alfa 8C and an SSK…, 2018 Mille Miglia Participants and Their Cars) participants and their cars, we feature a small beast brought from Liechtenstein and a car designed by the Maserati brothers that now lives in Japan.
Fritz Kaiser (FL) and his 1956 Porsche 550 Spyder 1500 RS
Classic Car Collector and founder of The Classic Car Trust Fritz Kaiser returns to the Mille Miglia for the third time with his third legendary race car: a 1956 Porsche 550 Spyder 1500 RS. He began his Mille Miglia career in a Cisitalia 202 Gran Sport, a model that now celebrated as an icon of car design. Pininfarina’s forward-looking bodywork for the Cisitalia included features that would later be found on the most iconic Ferraris of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In its time, the Cisitalia also provided impressive confirmation that the Italian car industry was alive and kicking right after the Second World War.
Fritz Kaiser subsequently returned in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Coupé. This more civilized version of Stirling Moss’ Mille Miglia winning 300 SLR was an impressive performer in its own right in the original Mille Miglia. Three 300 SLs came in 5th, 7th and 10th in the overall rankings in 1955. In 1956, there were five so-called “Gullwings” in the top 20.
Kaiser’s car of choice this year became a major icon of the 1950s, in part because of James Dean’s tragic accident in 1955. The Hollywood actor lost his life when he crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder. The 550 was Porsche’s first really successful race car. The concept of an extremely light mid-engine car proved a winning combination when it was presented in 1953. Although lots of chassis elements were borrowed from the 356, the alloy body mounted on a tubular frame and the alloy flat-four-cylinder engine kept the weight down. The drum brakes were also extremely effective, with an exceptional performance for the period.
Although it was a flat-four construction, like the Volkswagen engines of that era, the 550 engine was a brand new design. The engineers used a couple of tricks to squeeze 110 hp (and later even 135 hp) out of the 1.5-liter engine: dual ignition, four camshafts, two carburetors and many more tweaks. Due to this complexity, it was reputedly harder to tame than the standard 356 engines. But the 550’s immediate racing success proved beyond doubt that the concept was a winner.
The 550 showed its class in its very first races. At the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1953, Richard von Frankenberg and Paul Frère won their class in a 550 Coupé. Hans Herrmann then celebrated a class win at the 1953 Carrera Panamericana, leaving many stronger cars in the dust. It was this result that gave birth to the car’s reputation as a giant killer.
At the 1954 Mille Miglia, Hans Herrmann came 6th overall with Herbert Line, despite battling several technical issues. Herrmann’s performance in the 550 Spyder was especially celebrated because he drove through a level crossing just seconds before the train arrived. Thanks to the low height of the car (less than 1 meter!) the driver and co-driver managed to crouch and slip through the descending barriers to help secure their remarkable result. In 1956, a further developed version, the Porsche 550A driven by Umberto Magnoli won the Targa Florio. With a lighter and stiffer frame and the further refined 135 hp engine, it had finally made it to the top – a position that Porsche would reach in many races to come.
Hidemoto Kimura (JP) and his 1953 OSCA MT4
Hidemoto Kimura is well known as an artist, but as an avid car collector he also plays an important role in the international classic car scene. He founded the Concorso d’Eleganza in Kyoto, Japan, in 2016, and in promoting this event format in his home country he advocates the importance of originality and beauty.
Kimura has strong ties to Italy, having participated in the Mille Miglia several times, as well as in the Mille Miglia organization’s Japanese showcase. His car of choice for 2018 is a 1953 OSCA MT4. The Maserati brothers set up O.S.C.A after losing their factory amid financial difficulties. Restarting their business, they concentrated on special race cars and one-offs. The MT4 was their most successful model. Several different bodies were used for the Spider, but overall only 40 were built. The cars proved successful in sports car racing and not just in the 1.5-liter class. The MT4 won its greatest prizes overseas: Lloyd Cunningham and Stirling Moss won the 12 Hours of Sebring five laps ahead of the field. Stirling Moss later praised the MT4 as one of the most beautiful cars to handle, with no bad features. In the rain at Sebring, the small car with its perfect balance was more maneuverable and less exposed to brake problems than its heavier competitors.
Kimura has already competed in the Mille Miglia in another small Italian race car, the 1939 SIATA 500 Pescara, the only known survivor of the two cars produced. This tiny Spider, designed by Bertone, had a very special look. As with so many cars back then, there was a 500cc FIAT engine under the hood, which SIATA tuned for additional competitiveness. Such an early and unique Bertone design will most likely be a sought-after guest at all the best concours events around the world.