The Beck 550 Spyder - Porsche or Pretender?The bite of the Beck 550 Spyder
Critics chatter endlessly about art imitating life, and vice versa, but how do they view an imitation that's even more popular than the authentic item? The Beck Spyder is one of those rare examples of a replica becoming worthy in its own right, nearly as respected as the original Porsche 550 it sought to emulate.
For those unfamiliar with this Fifties-era racecar, Porsche presented the 550 Spyder to the public for the first time at the Paris Motor Show in October 1953. Weighing just 1,213 pounds, the lightweight Spyder was known as a giant-killer in its day, regularly thrashing much more powerful competitors.
The 550's racing success was a major contributing factor to Porsche's commercial success. Although only 90 were ever built, they swept the global competition, running with a mere 110 bhp from its 1498cc engine. At Le Mans, from 1953 to 1955, the Porsche Spyder dominated its class. In the 1955 Le Mans, the Porsche 550 gave a win, place, show performance in the 1.5-liter class, and a 1st-2nd performance in the 1.1-liter classes.
The Porsche 550 is perhaps even more famous (or rather, infamous) for being the "death car" of actor James Dean. He was killed in a collision with a Ford station wagon near Cholame, California, on his way to a race in Salinas.
Spyders in a Row
Originally, he built a number of his Beck Spyders in the United States. His first effort was developed in the early '80s from an original car that he had access to in Ventura, California. Even though the wheelbase of the custom tubular frame was exact, 82.7 inches, he found the car to be too cramped, so he later lengthened it to 85 inches.
After building about 100 Spyders here in the U.S., he met Kevin Hines of Special Edition, who was importing a number of VW-based pallet cars (Puma, Adamo, and Laufer) from Brazil. From there, Beck decided to move his operation offshore to take advantage of reduced production costs. After a few miss-starts, he eventually set up a facility near Sao Paulo in the late '80s.
At last count, Beck says he's produced more than 1,300 Spyders since he introduced his first model in 1983, more than two decades ago. Beck is working on new replica projects as well, including a Lister and a Porsche 904 currently under development through some other companies. He's since sold his Spyder operation to Dean Rogers and Chad Haggar, a couple of die-hard car guys who made their fortunes in other types of businesses.
Rogers cites several refinements in the cars since he acquired the Beck operation. He's made improvements in the shifting mechanism, latches, door hinges, and carpeting. Chuck Beck Motorsports, as the new firm is called, also offers a much wider range of colors and options to allow for more personalization.
VW Type 1
Plans are being considered to offer a kit version, but currently Beck Spyders are sold only as rollers, without the engine. For a base price of less than $20,000, the Beck 550 comes partially assembled with the transmission, VW front suspension with disc brakes, and five plated steel wheels with tires. Just about everything comes already installed: the interior, instruments, glass, wiring, brake lines, fuel tank, lights and exhaust system. The body is already painted and bonded to the powder-coated tubular chassis, with doors, trunk and engine cover attached.
Two VW Type 1 engines are available, either a 1915 or a 2165 cc, the latter being the more popular for obvious reasons. But Beck also recalls some really crazy cars he's built over the years, including one with a carbon fiber body and some Indy-car parts that weighed less than 1,100 pounds. It had 250-hp, 2.7-liter six-cylinder Porsche motor stuffed under the rear hatch. "When it hit 140 mph, the front tires would begin to lift off," he laughs. Too much is just about right for him, something all those Beck 550 owners would totally understand.
Chuck Beck Motorsports, 14120 Live Oak Ave. Unit C, Baldwin Park, CA 91706, 626/337-8440, www.chuckbeckmotorsports.com
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