Bloomberg automotive critic Jason Harper, right, test drives a replica...

Bloomberg automotive critic Jason Harper, right, test drives a replica Porsche 550 Spyder in Danbury, Conn. (July 17, 2013) Credit: Bloomberg News

I’m behind the wheel of one of the rarest and most desired Porsches ever made, the 550 Spyder.

The sensuous curves of the tiny two-seat convertible are unmistakable as the model driven by James Dean when he met his death on a California highway in 1955.

Only this Spyder is a fake. Or more precisely, a facsimile. Porsche itself has nothing to do with the car. Its maker, Prospect, Conn.-based Spyder Creations, says that it is officially a kit car, albeit one that costs between $320,000 and $470,000.

Only 90 of the original mid-engine 550 Spyder were built in the 1950s. Handmade and tailored as racecars, no two are exactly the same. Last year one was auctioned off in Florida’s Amelia Island for $3.69 million.

A number of companies have made replicas over the years, often with fiberglass bodies and Volkswagen engines, but the owners of Spyder Creations say their car is as close to the original as possible. The bodies are hand-hammered out of aluminum, just like the originals, and period-correct Porsche engines and parts are installed.

“When I say this is an exact reproduction, I mean exact,” says co-owner Rob Edwards. “The word exact has no wiggle room in its definition.”

The fascination with making a 550 replica began after his father Ben, 78, bought and sold an original some 15 years ago without ever having driven it. “I still can’t figure out why in god’s name I sold it,” says Ben.

Reverse Engineering

The Edwards own a firm that works with custom metal fabricators, so they had relevant contacts. The process began with scans of an unrestored original, leading to a 3-D model and four-years of reverse engineering the entire car. After the prototype was finished, they figured others would want one, too.

The aluminum body was handmade by Alloycars Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., while the powertrain, electrical and suspension tuning is being done by Speedsport Tuning, in Danbury, Conn. The Edwards hope the second Spyder, which will cost $470,000, will be ready by fall.

At Speedsport I met the Edwards and Jeff Adams, who installs the vintage Porsche engines. Adams explains that while the $320,000 prototype has a push-rod engine from a 1959 Porsche 912, in the future they plan on using the iconic “Type 547,” four-cam, air-cooled engine, often found on late-model 550s.

$150,000 Engine

Porsche only produced about 1,800 of these motors, which now cost a “minimum of $150,000,” says Adams, for which the Edwards charge “market price.” The younger Edwards adds, “I don’t know if my car will appreciate, but the engine sure will.”

Production will be limited. “I think you’d ruin the market if you made more than two a year,” says Edwards.

While I’m no expert on vintage Porsches, the 550 prototype certainly looks the part. It is startlingly small, with doll- sized doors, a tight cockpit and a half windshield. It makes a Mazda Miata look hefty.

The rear deck is hinged and secured by buckles. Inside you’ll find the engine compartment and a spare tire tied down with leather straps. The interior has period-correct vinyl upholstery, an oversized steering wheel and a four-speed manual transmission.

The engine-whisperer Adams, who’s spent more time testing the car than anyone, comes along on my test drive. He zips us along the narrow roads outside of Danbury, the engine behind us buzzing throatily.

Authentic Ride

“I’ve driven an original,” says Adams, “and this one feels just like it should.”

I take over. I haven’t a clue how an original drives, but as I push the Spyder to 6,000 rpm in third gear, the car is alive. It is incredibly light, floating over crests in the road and razoring through curves. So narrow it takes up half a lane, the 550 is a sprite compared to modern cars.

Forget about frills. Adams and I bump elbows it’s so tight. While I relish the wind blowing into my face over the half windshield, sunglasses are a necessity rather than a fashion statement.

Adams gets into the chase car, leaving me to my own reverie about the deeply romantic nature of this machine. No wonder James Dean was so enamored.

I find myself on a busy highway when the 1.7-liter engine begins missing. Something’s wrong. I coast into a parking lot as the motor dies. Have I broken it?

How typical is this? When Adams shows up, he starts the car with no issue. I’m only vindicated when he drives it back to the shop and it dies in the parking lot. Turns out that modern ethanol-laced gas is giving the old motor problems; so you’ll have to seek out ethanol-free stations.

With such pure thrills and breakdowns, I realize the Edwards have done it: They’ve recreated the true experience of driving a 1950s racecar.

    The Spyder Creations 550 at a Glance
    Engine: 1.7-liter push-rod flat-four with 130 horsepower.
    Transmission: Four-speed manual.
    Speed: 0 to 60 mph in eight seconds (estimated).
    Price as tested: $320,000.
    Best feature: Wind blasting in your face as you hammer down
    the road.
    Worst feature: With only one prototype finished, it’s
    rarer than the originals.
    Target buyer: The collector who can’t get his hands on (or
    afford) the real thing at auction.

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