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MICHAEL MAY’S MARVELOUS IDEA

YOU MIGHT think that somewhere in Zuffenhausen, Porsche’s legendary home outside Stuttgart, Germany, there’d be a statue honoring Michael May. Alas, to the best of my research, there is not. Nor is there one in Ferrari’s Maranello, Italy; nor in Jaguar’s Coventry. England. More’s the pity.

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Michael May, German-born in 1934, talented automotive engineer and his innovative Porsche 550 Spyder, 1956. This and other images from Type550.com.

In retrospect, and reverse chronology, the 1981 Jaguar’s 5.3-liter HE engine owes its Lucas fuel injection indirectly to May. The engine’s high efficiency (HE) comes in part from May cylinder heads, their high-swirl design the work of this talented German-born engineer.

In the late 1960s, the downforce-generating wing on Ferrari’s 312 Formula One car was encouraged by May, who was a consultant. He also had a hand in Maranello’s adoption of fuel injection in lieu of classic carburetion. May knew the benefits of fuel injection from his time with Daimler-Benz, whose direct-injected engines had powered its all-conquering sports and grand prix cars in the mid-1950s.

In fact, May’s principal claim to fame—and to that earned statuary— came in the mid-1950s as well, with his winged Porsche 550 sports racer.

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May’s idea of an inverted airfoil for producing racecar downforce, 1956.

Michael was an engineering student at the Zurich Technical University and, through good fortune, had a banker cousin who bought him a Porsche 550 Spyder, number 31 of a small batch of privateer race cars produced by Zuffenhausen.

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May’s winged Porsche 550 Spyder, 1956.

Michael and his brother Pierre recognized that an aero device could do more than enhance stability; it could increase grip of the road through downforce. The wing was mounted on struts that fed loads directly to the car’s center of gravity. What’s more, May designed a mechanism to optimize the inverted airfoil for the car’s location on the race track, adjustable for high downforce in cornering and trimmed for low drag on the straights. At 150 km/h (93 mph), the wing could generate a downforce equal to the car’s weight.

Impecunious privateers they were, the brothers flat-towed their winged 550 Spyder to the Nürburgring 1000 Kilometres event on May 27, 1956. Its oversize wing generated skepticism, not to say downright ridicule, but passed official scrutineering—at first.

This was Michael’s first time at the Ring, it was raining, but he and his winged Spyder were fourth quickest that day. This put him up there with Juan Manuel Fangio’s Ferrari and Jean Behra’s Maserati. And considerably ahead of other 1500-cc cars, including the Porsche Werke’s new 550A.

Porsche’s Huschke von Hanstein strong-armed the organizers into recognizing safety implications of the privateer’s wing. This was less than a year after the horrendous crash at Le Mans of a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, the flipup airbrake of which had been highly controversial.

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Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, as fitted with its driver-actuated airbrake, 1955.

Similar reasoning was applied to the May wing: Supposedly, the device could block the view of those behind the car. It went without saying this would be particularly distressing if those in arrears happened to be in Porsche’s new 550A.

May had no choice at the Ring but to run without the wing. Later in the season at Italy’s Monza track, the wing was rejected again. Once more, the horror of 1955 Le Mans was invoked: A wing could be a scythe-like hazard to spectators caught in an off-course incident.

Organizers never allowed May's 550 Spyder to compete in winged configuration.

Organizers never allowed May’s 550 Spyder to compete in winged configuration.

Porsche’s Von Hanstein is said to have had other influence in the May career. In the early 1960s, Benz lent May to Porsche to work on the team’s Formula One engine, his potential payoff being an F1 ride. In 1961 May had already run three Grands Prix with a German privateer, Scuderia Colonia (named for its home city of Cologne). Previous to this, he was the 1959 Formula Junior champion, giving Stanguellini its first Formula Junior victory, at Monaco that year.

May’s fuel-injection expertise got the Porsche engine its extra 15 to 20 hp and earned him a promised drive at the 1962 non-championship grand prix at Pau, France. However, one source, Type550.com, reports that on race day, April 23, 1962, Von Hanstein persuaded Porsche to renege. This was when May turned his talents to Maranello and, later, Coventry.

I met Huschke von Hanstein, a charming, albeit complex, man. To the best of my research, there’s no statue of him in Zuffenhausen either. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.says, 2015

One comment on “MICHAEL MAY’S MARVELOUS IDEA

  1. Harry Hurst
    May 21, 2016

    I distinctly remember seeing modified sportsman circle track cars at Sunshine Speedway in Tampa with wings in the mid-1960s. Here is a site with photos from other tracks:http://mvrcp.20m.com/birdply2/birdplymouth2.html.
    Any idea when wings actually started on America’s short tracks? Yankee ingenuity?

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