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Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

The Tyger ~ William Blake

Michael May strode down pit-lane…resolutely heading in the direction of the Ferrari garage. It was Saturday morning, and May’s promised car had not arrived for the 1962 Pau Grand Prix. He no longer had any illusions that Porsche had any intention of making good use of his talents. Ostensibly head hunted from Mercedes to help sort out fuel injection issues on Porsche’s forthcoming engine, May was instead unceremoniously shoved into a back room to twiddle his thumbs. Ferro Porsche had failed to correctly read the mood of his engineers. There was no way they were going to have some juvenile up-start show them up at their own game.

Eventually, May was given the diversion of tinkering with the stopgap four-cylinder engine with which Porsche was making do until their cutting-edge eight-cylinder configuration was ready. The boss had assured him that if he could coax another twenty horsepower out of their ageing powertrain, he would be rewarded with the opportunity to drive it at a race. The Porsche engineers were confident he had no chance of success. They were wrong. But it was the engineers who packed up the machinery for the forthcoming race weekend. May had already embarrassed them in the workshop. They didn’t want him to embarrass them on the track. That was easily fixed. They didn’t bring his car.

May grew up in post-war Germany with an inventor and engineering father. He had easy access to tractors, bikes, cars, and, most importantly, a workshop filled with all the tools a practical and inquisitive youth might desire. He built boats. He rebuilt engines. He tinkered with motorcycles, dreaming of setting the world alight with new speed records. He demonstrated his latent engineering talent when, at the tender age of 22, he entered the 1956 Nurburgring 1000 with the lofty ambition of winning his class. His cousin, Pierre May, had bankrolled the car in exchange for being the second driver. Pierre evidently had more than a modicum of money to splash about as the aforementioned car was a Porsche 550 Spyder.

However, its appearance was unlike any of the other numerous Porsches in the field. Perched over its mid-section was a sizeable expanse of silver metal, shaped like an unturned aeroplane wing with a winglet at each end. Not only that, it was able to be adjusted horizontally through a variety of angles, and so vary the amount of downward force exerted on the car. Correctly foreseeing that this alteration might cause some consternation in the paddock, he booked an appointment with Doctor Angel to discuss his bodywork variation. Angel headed up ADAC, the team in charge of setting technical regulations.  After examining May’s calculations and being given a practical demonstration of the wing in full flight, he gave it the green light.

In the end, it made no difference. No one said anything…to begin with…but that didn’t last long. By the close of the second day of practice, there was talk in abundance. With the track soggy and slippery, May’s car was in its element, clocking the 4th fastest time. Wolfgang von Trips, driving the highly tuned and tweaked Porsche factory entry, was a distant 20th. Porsche racing boss Huschke von Hanstein had no intention of allowing some second-rate privateer outdo them driving their own car.

He got the wing banned on safety grounds. This wasn’t difficult as the tragedy of Le Mans the previous year was still fresh in everyone’s mind. The Mercedes involved had sported a flip-up air brake over the rear wheels, and it didn’t take much embellishment to strike abject fear into the hearts of the organisers over what weird metal objects attached to racing cars could potentially do to fellow racers or bystanders in the event of an accident.

1955 Porsche 550 RS Spyder 550-0031

May’s 550 Spyder with Wing
Photo: Sports Car Digest – Tim Scott

After a repeat experience later that year at Monza, Michael May arrived at the realisation that racing was neither a stable nor a reliable occupation – especially when your inventions were summarily banned. He proceeded to study engineering, writing his final thesis on direct fuel injection. Despite this change of direction from the practical to the theoretical, racing remained on his agenda. He competed in Formula Junior, winning the inaugural 1959 championship driving a Stanguellini. After graduating in 1960, he initially worked at Mercedes Benz before heading off to Porsche in the July of 1961. He was 26.

Fifteen years earlier Ernst Fuhrmann arrived at Porsche at the age of 28. His studies temporarily interrupted by WW2, he received his Doctorate of Machine Construction in 1950. In 1952 he was put in charge of the development of a new engine that would go on to be so successful that it would eventually bear his name…the Fuhrmann Engine. Porsche’s 550 sports-car chassis had been designed specifically for racing. To make full use of it, they now needed an engine to match.

The 547 was a four-cylinder, air-cooled, boxer engine…in other words…typically Porsche. Being aware of over-square and under-square engines, I initially thought that boxer meant square, like a box. Instead, it indicated that the two pairs of pistons were situated at 180 degrees and moved towards and away from each other, like two boxers hitting one another’s fists. It had four camshafts, each controlling either four intake or four exhaust valves, driven by an elegant and intricate network of bevel gears.

The four combustion chambers had dual spark plugs…a fact which means a lot more to me now that it did a few weeks ago. Incredibly sophisticated, it took three weeks to build, and another 12-15 hours to painstakingly perfect the timing. Placed in a 550 Spyder, Umberto Magiloli piloted it to Porsche’s first overall race victory at the twisty 1956 Targa Florio…Magiloli the sole driver for the almost eight hours it took to finish the 720 km race.


Porsche 550 Spyder/Fuhrmann 547 Engine –Hans Hermann drove it to a class victory at the 1954 Carrera Panamericana
Photo: Jennie Mowbray

The following year saw the return of the Formula 2 championship with engine size limited to 1.5 litres but no stated requirement for an open wheel chassis. Maybe it was just assumed that no-one would enter with a sports-car but if so, they were wrong. Porsche turned up for the 1957 German Grand Prix with three 550 Spyders…which looked like stately and elegant poodles compared to the sleek greyhounds that surrounded them.  It was a mixed race where both the Formula 1 and Formula 2 cars raced together. Porsche won their category…Edgar Barth finishing 12th overall and only one lap down…while Fangio overcame a 48-second deficit to pass Hawthorn for the lead on the final lap. It was the first Formula 2 win for Porsche and the last Formula 1 win for both Fangio and the Maserati 250.

1957 German Grand Prix

Carel de Beaufort in a Porsche 550 Spyder pursed by a couple of Maserati 250Fs at the 1957 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring
Photo: Unattributed

All this was enough to entice Porsche to join the fray when, in October 1958, the new Formula 1 regulations were announced for the 1961 season. With engine capacity dramatically reduced from 2.5 litres to a mere 1.5 litres, it appeared to be a match made in heaven for Porsche. They spent two more years paddling around in the waters of Formula 2, and it seemed warm and inviting. Their 550 sports-car had evolved into the 718…sharing much of its DNA. This was then slimmed down into the single-seater 718/2. Porsche won the last five races of the 1960 Formula 2 season.

With ambitious plans for a faster engine and a slimmer, more streamlined chassis, at the dawn of the 1961 season, neither was yet in readiness. Their now ageing Fuhrman engine had held its own in Formula 2, but more would be needed if they were to have any hope of realising their high expectations for Formula 1.  Initially, they attempted to squeeze a bit more power out of their engine with fuel injection. This, however, had to be tempered with the substantial disadvantage of also making it unreliable. They quickly returned it to the old configuration; at least the original was capable of finishing a race.

Additionally, their chassis was far from streamlined. Despite the fact that its wheels had been released from its bodywork the genetics of its sports-car body was still clearly visible. An interim chassis (the long wheel-base 787) proved to be even more unwieldy and was discarded after only two races. As the season advanced, progress on their new engine stalled. With a fortune being sunk into its development, failure was not an option. Ferry Porsche had the brainwave that fuel injection would solve all their problems. It was at this point that Michael May came into the equation. But Porsche’s engineers didn’t agree. They didn’t want help. They could sort this out themselves.

Fuhrmann 547

Fuhrmann 547 Engine
Photo: Jennie Mowbray

Eventually, May requested permission to tinker with the old Fuhrmann engine. At least he wouldn’t be standing on anyone else’s toes as Ernst Fuhrmann had left Porsche in 1956. Already extensively developed, it was thought to be well beyond any hope of further improvement. The first issue that came to May’s attention was oil…there was far too much of it. Although an essential ingredient for reducing friction between parts in motion, too much lubricant became sticky and viscid, increasing resistance instead of the opposite as initially intended. This was not in the realm of “if a little is good, then more is better”. May plugged up the oil holes to decrease their diameter. The result was a drop in oil pressure from 8 to 1.5 psi…a surprisingly simple measure which resulted in a net gain of 8 hp.

Although ordinarily reliable, the engine had a limited life at peak power, only capable of sustaining maximum revs for a few minutes before hairline cracks started to emerge on the crankshaft. These then put the engine in danger of imminent failure. Development of a new crankshaft was far beyond the bounds of May’s much more modest objectives. What was needed was a way to enable the current one to take more stress and so improve the longevity of the engine.  As May remembered, “Maybe one year before, Degussa had invented and patented a new hardening methodology called “teniferen”. It’s a chemical-thermal treatment. Treated parts could take double the load of un-treated parts. So I took the disassembled crankshafts, went to Degussa and asked, “Could you please…?”

A cooler engine was a more reliable engine…its numerous seals and gaskets less likely to fail than at higher temperatures. Water cooling was more efficient than air cooling, but it was also more fragile. Air cooling had the advantages of being light and reliable, requiring much less maintenance. To improve the air cooling of the 547 May placed the second fan beneath the rotating fan. It was stationary and functioned to funnel the air directly onto each cylinder. Lastly, of course, he added fuel injection…after all, it was why Ferro Porsche had hired him the first place. The engine was now not only more powerful but also better able to use the horse-power available to it due to its improved longevity.

May invited the whole engine production team to see his upgrades in action. May remembered telling them, “’First we will warm up the engine.’ Then I said, ‘Let’s go to the peak torque,’ maybe 5000 rpm or something. Everybody knew I did not change the camshafts, so, after maybe 5 minutes when their engine would have already had blown up, I said, ‘Okay now let’s go to the power run.’ Maybe it was about 8200, which they never reached with their engine. And there it was, we had close to 200 horses. We left the throttle wide open for over 5 minutes.” They left like stray dogs with their tails between their legs. They could not believe it. Putting myself in their shoes, I can imagine that it must have been a very annoying experience. I realise that now, but back then I was so naïve, I thought they would be happy as they now had an alternative until their eight-cylinder became competitive…it would have been a 100% safe winner.”

On the Monday morning after the Pau Grand Prix, Michael May drove to Maranello and met with Enzo Ferrari…signing a contract in violet ink on the dotted line.  May replaced the Weber carburettors of Ferrari’s V6 156 engine with Bosch fuel injection, giving it a significant boost in power. May didn’t just help Ferrari with fuel injection. A few years later when Jim Hall was starting to experiment with wings on his Can-Am cars, May told Mauro Forghieri about his wing – and Forghieri listened.  Formula 1 would no longer be just engine and tyres and the rudimentary aerodynamics of a slim, sleek, lightweight chassis. It would also involve wings, growing ever bigger and more complex.

Ben Pon and Carel 1962 Dutch GP

Ben Pon #15 (Porsche 787) passing Carel de Beaufort #14 (Porsche 718/2) at the 1962 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort…Pon crashed on the next lap…
Photo: Unattributed

Unlike his be-winged Porsche, May’s modified engine did get one, albeit brief, race outing – the 1962 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. Dutch racer Carel de Beaufort had his own privateer team – Ecurie Maarsbergen – his Porsche cars usually brightly clad in the distinctive orange livery of the Netherlands. The previous year Dutch sports-car driver Ben Pon had piloted a Porsche 356 at the 24 Hour of Le Mans, winning his class.  De Beaufort offered the 25-year-old entry to the Dutch Grand Prix, driving the unruly and uncompetitive Porsche 787 chassis, which had May’s modified Fuhrmann 547/3B engine ensconced in the rear. Carel de Beaufort finished 6th (ahead of the two works Porsche drivers), becoming the first Dutch driver to score points in Formula One. Ben Pon rolled his car on the second lap, and vowed never to drive a single-seater again…

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

The Tyger ~ William Blake

Further Reading:

Michael May quotes from Interview with Joris Koning: http://porschecarshistory.com/michael-may-and-porsche-interview-356-registry-mag/

Porsche 718+804 – An Adventure into Formula One during the 1.5 Litre Era by Thomas Födisch, Jost Neßhöver, Michael Behrndt, Rainer Roßbach

Photo Credit:

Main Photo: Unattibuted