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70 years of Porsche: Mystery of the rare, killer Spyder 'buried' in SA solved?

2018-06-08 09:02

Ferdi de Vos

Image: Supplied

Porsche celebrates its 70th anniversary today, as it was on 8 June 1948 that 356 No. 1 Roadster – or ‘number 1’ for short – was certified for road use by the state of Carinthia in Austria.

From small beginnings in a shed in Gmünd (it took Porsche two years to build 50 cars) the marque has over seven decades grown to one of the most recognisable and respected vehicle brands in the world, and in South Africa, today.

It was two small, lightweight, four-cylinder sport car models, the Type 356 and the Type 550 racing car, that established the Porsche legacy – gaining renown among enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic for their aerodynamics, handling, and excellent build quality.

The aluminium-bodied racers also built up a reputation as giant-killers – beating cars with twice their engine size and power – on racetracks all over the world. Such was their reputation and allure that over time they became revered motoring icons and prized collectors’ items, with many modern-day celebrities (such as Patrick Dempsey, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Levine and Pharrell Williams) owning one; and they are also among the most frequently replicated classic cars.

                                           Dawie Gous, second owner of the Porsche 550SA Spyder RS #0140

However, it is the association with Hollywood heartthrob James Dean that ultimately imparted cult status on the 356 and 550 – not just because of his untimely death behind the wheel of his 550 in 1955, but also due to the mysterious disappearance of the wrecked “Little Bastard” (the nickname for his Spyder) after his death and, to add insult to injury, the white 356 Super Speedster he owned before it …

This has made Spyder #0055 perhaps the most famous “pre-A” Porsche 550 ever (only 90 were built) and even now, more than sixty years after Dean’s demise, the mystery of his “cursed” Porsche Spyder continues (or read the book by Lee Raskin, James Dean At Speed).
 
Yet, strangely enough, Dean’s Speedster (#80126), also “lost” for over six decades, suddenly surfaced in France two weeks ago (coincidence, much?) …

The Porsche “entombed” in SA

Anyway, “Little Bastard” is not the only 550 Spyder surrounded by mystery and suspense… 

Sixty years ago, the first and only Porsche 550A RS Spyder in South Africa, also one of the first in the country, was imported through the Lindsay Saker dealership by local racing driver Ian Fraser-Jones.

                                                 Ian Fraser-Jones in the Porsche Spyder with his wife, Jeannette.

The car, with VIN number 0140, one of only 55 "A-specification" models built, came off the assembly line in March 1958.  It was powered by an all-aluminium 1.5-litre air-cooled four-cylinder twin-cam boxer engine known as the "Fuhrmann Engine" (Type 547) that produced 81kW and 121Nm. 

Fraser-Jones, or "Frones" as he was known, had some successful outings with the car in the erstwhile Rhodesia, Mozambique and at the Roy Hesketh circuit in Pietermaritzburg in 1958 and 1959, before he entered the RS Spyder for the second South African 9-Hour race at the Grand Central circuit in Johannesburg.

                                                      Ian Fraser-Jones on the East-London races grid 1959.

He and team mate Tony Fergusson finished fourth overall, winning their class. 
Shortly thereafter Fraser-Jones sold the Spyder to Dr Dawie Gous, and in October of that year Gous and John Love won the final 9-hour at Grand Central raceway in the Porsche (now with some RSK spec), entered by Arthur Pillman. 

The pair again teamed up for the 1961 event, the first to be held on the new Kyalami circuit, and again they won, covering 1,082.509km – and giving the marque its first of many 9-hour victories at the track that now belongs to Porsche South Africa.

                               The Porsche 550A Spyder RS #0140 imported by Ian Fraser-Jones to South Africa.

After this season Gous sold the RS Spyder to a businessman, Peter Engelbrecht, but in 1963 its new owner was killed in an accident with the car during a race at Kyalami. After this tragic accident Spyder #140 was sold to Laddie Chester. 

The damaged car was fixed by his stepson, Paul Richards, but three years later, on 28 May 1966, the 21-year old was killed when he crashed in his first race with the killer Porsche, also at Kyalami.

                                                                  The Porsche 550A Spyder RS #0140

Now, legend has it that his step-dad was so upset by this that he buried the car, apparently under a building in Randburg still under construction at the time...

The giant-killer resurrected?

Over the following years, the story of the mangled Porsche entombed somewhere in South Africa re-emerged every so often, becoming a local urban legend, enveloped in suspense and mystery.

                                         The restored Spyder surfaced at a motor show in France 2015.

It also led to searches for the missing Spyder, the latest attempt in 2014 when local Porsche aficionado Wernher Hartzenberg and filmmaker and artist Frank Pretorius again followed the trail of 550 #0140 in their quest to find its last resting place to possibly excavate it.

They interviewed many key role players in the saga, including Quentin Fraser-Jones, son of Ian Fraser-Jones, Alois Klesse, engineer on the Spyder for Fraser-Jones and later Dawie Gous (he later found Peco Motors), Francois and Rita Pillman, son and daughter of team entrant Arthur Pillman, and Mervyn Richards, brother of the deceased Paul.

                                         Ian Fraser-Jones with the Spyder in front of the family home circa 1959.

Pretorius also started work on a documentary titled Unearthing the Giant-killer and produced footage on the interviews and the possible site where the car may rest. However, it seems the project has now stalled.

Part of the reason for this may be a recent book by the internationally renowned Porsche experts Rolf Sprenger, Ernst Fuhrmann and the late Steve Heinrichs. In Carrera, The Book, published in 2015, new information on the possible whereabouts of #-0140 emerges.

New information

According to their research, it seems that, contrary to popular belief, the usable parts were not stripped, and the damaged chassis was not buried with a building on top of it. No, somehow Spyder #0140 was resurrected and by1972 found its way to Italy.

                                                     The Spyder in action in East-London 1959.

Interestingly, the man apparently instrumental in exporting the damaged car to Italy and refurbish it is none other than the collector Corrado Cupelini from Bergamo, who was also involved in getting the first Ferrari in SA  back to Europe.

Numerous efforts to contact signor Cupelini failed, but the vintage car expert Martin Schröder, who used to work with Cupelini, confirmed there reportedly was some transaction involving a 550 Spyder from South Africa.

Completely restored

The car was completely restored between 1977 and 1979 and then sold to Italian businessman Paolo Malatesta in 1981. During this period, it evidently partook in Italian hill-climb events before being refurbished again, this time to correct 550A specification, between 1987 to 1990.

                                                       The restored Spyder surfaced at a motor show in France 2015

From there the trail gets faint, but then in 2015 it suddenly reappears, looking splendid at a Concours d’Elegance in France, even sporting a FFVE (Federation Francaise des Vehicules d’Epoque) classic car sticker and seemingly with original chassis number and chassis plate intact.

                                         Fraser-Jones and the Spyder in action in Lourenco Marques 1958.

However, questions remain; such as what happened to the car between 1966 and 1972 before it left the country, and when and how was it shipped. Also, what happened to the ownership papers, as the original owner’s handbook, the workshop manual for the engine, 16” aluminium rims taken off the car to fit the 15” racing tyres and the winning trophy for #0140’s first 9-hour win in 1960 still resides in South Africa.

                     The trophy for winning the 1960 9-hour race at Grand Central (photo: Wernher Hartzenberg)

With no pictures of the chassis and engine numbers available, it is also difficult to verify authenticity. But, it seems that Spyder RS #0140, for all intents and purposes, has been resurrected and is alive and well and living in Europe – bringing to an end the decades-old mystery of the Porsche buried in South Africa...

And if recent auction prices are taken as the benchmark, this championship-winning Porsche – now revived to its former glory – can be worth over R65 million! Certainly a better ending to the mystery than wondering how much is left of it after over fifty years underground…

Credits: With recognition to Glen Smale, Porsche Road & Race
Images by: Virtual Motorpix, Robert Smale, SCC and the Fraser-Jones family collection, with thanks to the Fraser-Jones Museum, and pbase.com  

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