Leering over the edge of the thin aluminum door tucked tightly under my right arm, I see the thin ribbon of mountain tarmac curve out of sight as the nearly 70-year-old race car negotiates yet another climbing off-camber corner, darting away from the dizzying vertical drop awaiting anyone who overcommits with the limits of grip and this old Porsche’s manual drum brakes. The engine strains for revolutions as the next corner, another in a complex series of mountain switchbacks, sweeps by high above the idyllic Austrian hamlet of Zell am See.
Following closely behind a low-slung 718 RSK, our convoy of vintage German metal is laid upon the Austrian countryside like jewels in a necklace. Passing over a crest in the road, the massif of the Hohe Tauern fills my view, a relentless wall of rock, ice, and snow that swells to the highest point in the range, the 12,461-foot peak of Grossglockner.
I struggle to take in the view from the right seat of a cream-white Porsche 550 Spyder that was once the company vehicle of a man whose family name is proudly applied to its tail. Next to me is Tony. Tony is in control and knows this car well. With both of us pretzeled into the tiny cockpit, my feet seemingly entombed somewhere in the death zone beyond the front wheels, I joke with Tony that I’ll do my best to keep my long dancer’s legs out of his way. His hand grazes my thigh as he deftly pushes the tiny Porsche into third gear. I don’t think Tony speaks English.
But I believe I’ve gotten ahead of myself, let’s go back down the mountain.
Day One – Into Thin Air
My trip started in Solothurn, Switzerland for a tour of Porsche Design’s watchmaking studio and manufactory, I then traveled across the Alps into Austria to see Porsche Design’s longstanding home at the F.A. Porsche Studio in Zell am See. After working on some projects for the future – please stay tuned – the week was set to end on a literal high note, with a couple of days of experiencing the rare and very collectible Porsche 550 Spyder and 718 RSK on the Grossglockner for a special event with GP Ice Race. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, I suggest you dig into Cole’s coverage of the brand’s main event. Given that I have never seen either of these classic Porsche race cars so much as move under their own power, my excitement built as we drove towards the staging area just outside the toll booth at the Grossglockner’s northernmost terminus.
The real story begins at the bottom of the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, a public mountain toll road in the Central Eastern Alps of Austria. If you’ve never seen a European pass, it’s among the best and I am fortunate to say this wasn’t my first time on the Grossglockner with a car I couldn’t possibly afford to crash. The road was built in 1953 and offers 48 kilometers of buttery-smooth and endlessly winding roadway, along with unforgettable views for cars, motorcycles, and even buses full of tourists.
As I stood next to a series of trailers, each opened to reveal the stuff of dreams. Despite the fact that looming snow had pushed the event forward by a day, the roster included some seven 550s and two 718 RSKs, including two 550s and a 718 RSK owned by the Porsche family. The Porsche Museum brought a couple along as well, including a 1954 550 that was driven to a class win by Hans Herrmann in the 1954 Carrera Panamericana (a famous race held in Mexico). If you were at the Porsche Museum this weekend and wanted to see the Telefunken 550 Spyder but couldn’t, blame retired F1 driver (and all-around lovely guy) Mark Webber. He was driving it.
Slack-jawed and planning to follow the 550s up in a modern Cayenne, I was told in a very casual way that we’d be leaving shortly and that I would be in the creamy white 550 with Tony behind the wheel. In front of me was Ferdi Porsche (the great-grandson of the company’s founder), driving Ken Miles’ 718 RSK, and in front of him was Tino from the GP Ice Race team, piloting a 550 that was rumored to have once been test-driven by James Dean.
While I won’t attempt to compress the extensive recorded and oral history of these very rare cars, the 550 Spyder represents Porsche’s earliest work in designing a purpose-built race car. Somewhere around 90 examples were produced in several iterations between 1953 and 1956 and they quickly became popular options for a variety of racing, most notably in North America.
550s are mid-engined and use aluminum bodywork over a steel tubular frame and house a 1.5-liter flat-four motor that makes about 110 horsepower. They are tiny, only weigh roughly 1200 lbs, and are drop-dead gorgeous. The 718 RSK Spyder was the higher-performance model that followed the 550, and 34 examples were produced from 1957 to 1962. These two models represent some of the most sought-after and valuable cars ever produced by Porsche and are the genesis of the brand’s now long-standing history in motorsports.
Once we had driven as far as the Fuscher Törl parking lot, the group was led by photographers Stefan Bogner (of the wonderful Curves magazine) and Malte Dressel for a session of driving and staged photography on the surrounding road. I kept my seat next to Tony and was able to shoot car-to-car while the group made several passes on a beautiful stretch beyond the alpine parking lot.
In case you were wondering, no, I don’t really fit in a 718 RSK, either.
Day Two – An Alpine Start
My second day on the Grossglockner started before dawn as the 550s roared to life in the cool mountain air. My plan was to head back up for some additional photography before the GP Ice Race event, which would see well over 100 cars – old and new – make their way up to the large alpine parking lot adjacent to the deeply Austrian and down-right charming Fuscher Törl restaurant.
Excellent coffee is being brewed in the parking lot and it’s easily the best I’ve ever had over 2,000 meters of elevation. Just down the road, the GP Ice Race team will set up an additional stop next to Mankei, an alpine hut, and restaurant which Ferdi Porsche has recently redesigned. Construction is well underway and the space will soon open as a physical location for all things GP Ice Race – including food, merch, and even lodging – mere feet away from the velvety smooth surface of the Grossglockner.
A Surprise Visit
Later in the day, the collected crowd was treated to a visit from Ferdi’s father, Dr. Wolfgang Heinz Porsche. He arrived in style, behind the wheel of a Racing Green Metallic 992-generation 911 GT3 Touring and was wearing one of Porsche Design’s Custom-Built Chronographs, which can be customized via an online tool to match several elements of customization available for a new Porsche vehicle.
Dr. Porsche’s watch has a dial ring in the same Paint To Sample color as his car (a first for the Custom-Built Chronograph), along with a leather strap in the same leather as the car and a winding rotor in the same shape and color as the wheels on the car. The impending pressure of snow in the forecast didn’t keep Dr. Porsche, 79, or his brand-new Touring off the mountain and he soon had a crowd of fans surrounding and photographing him and his uniquely-colored 911.
As always, it’s tough to beat a day or two in the mountains and if you ever get a chance to experience the Grossglockner for yourself, be it in a rental car, a bus, or next to a fella like Tony – run, don’t walk. The event brought not only an insane collection of rare and special Porsches but also a wide variety of enthusiasts and their cars.
Amazing cars, great coffee, and one hell of a road. I might have pinched myself, but why bother waking up?
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For more information about Porsche Design watches, visit their website.