Who can deny the attraction of a classic sports car? Perhaps you've had your eye on a Porsche 356 Speedster or Jaguar E-Type, or can't stop salivating over the Ferrari 250 GTO? But unless you have plenty of disposable income, most of us can only dream of such cars, maybe dipping our toe into the classic car market with an air-cooled 911 perhaps. Yet it doesn't have to be this way...
There is a short cut to classic car ownership that could see you driving something as rare and collectible as the Porsche 550 Spyder, but at a fraction of the cost of the real thing.
In case you hadn't guessed, we're talking about classic replicas; the acceptable side of the rather forlorn kit car industry that previously embarrassed itself with awkward-looking Ferrari F40s based on the Pontiac Fiero, or a Lamborghini Countach that sounded like an old VW Bug.
Fortunately, the industry has come of age and most of the horror stories have disappeared into oblivion. We're left with companies like Carrera Coachwerks (CCW) in San Diego, CA, to fulfill our sports car fantasies.
Formed in July 2012, the company bought the assets of Thunder Ranch Cars from Tom McBurnie. He came to fame after creating the Corvette-based Ferrari 365 GTB/4 Daytona used in the Miami Vice TV series, but a lawsuit from Ferrari would see the show switch to a genuine Testarossa.
Thunder Ranch went on to create a number of replicas based on classic Porsche sports cars, including the 356 Speedster, 550 Spyder and 718-RSK, among others.
With Tom advancing in age, Theo Hanson had been looking to build his own 550 Spyder replica for nine years. He investigated Thunder Ranch as a potential supplier and eventually saw a business opportunity, bringing in friend Alan Cassell to combine their business experience.
After researching the replica market, the pair realized it was dominated by versions of the AC Cobra. However, they felt Porsche replicas were more recognizable to the average enthusiast and expected the market to grow as interest in older Porsches continued to expand.
They also hoped the new business would sit in between the cheaper Beetle-based companies creating 356 replicas, and the very high-end specialists charging six-figures for the ultimate custom creation. As a result, they'll either sell you a kit to build yourself, or construct a replica you could enter in a car show.
The majority of Porsche-based replicas use Beetle parts to some extent, from suspension or engine to the complete floorpan. CCW is no different, but with its own tubular chassis and suspension components, plus the ability to incorporate Subaru or Porsche boxer engines, the products are moving away from their humble origins.
That said, the kit car business has always been about flexibility: providing the customer with the means to an end. In the end, you want a Porsche replica, so where do you begin?
With CCW, you can purschase one if its DIY kits, whether it's a 356A Coupe, 356 Speedster, 550 Spyder or 718-RSK (plus a Ferrari 250 GTO based on a Datsun Z-car).
We'll use the 550 as our example, with the basic kit comprising a fiberglass body, tubular chassis and A-arms starting from just $12000. Once in your possession, you can build your own car, installing the engine and transmission of your choice, interior, brakes, etc.
The bodies are built in-house from hand-laid fiberglass. They're fitted to a custom steel tubular chassis that can accommodate a number of different engines.
The suspension can either be lifted from a Beetle donor car to save money, or aftermarket pieces used. Increasingly, customers are buying an older Porsche 911 and transferring the parts to the kit. However, CCW is in the process of building more of its own suspension pieces, currently offering in-house shock towers and A-arms, with more to come. They're trying to reduce the number of components that must be sourced from old cars or that are becoming scarce.
For the interior, CCW has its own seats and carpet available in kit form, but some customers choose their own. Whatever you decide, there are several recommended upholsterers who will ensure the desired quality.
Starting from $25000 you can buy the Premium Upgrade Kit, which is essentially a rolling chassis. It further includes the engine cover grilles, logos, installed windshield, fitted carpet, seats and vinyl trim, wiring, lights and gauges, plus torsion bar suspension. All you need to add is the engine and transaxle.
Of course, these prices are approximate because the customer can change any of the specifications. You want better seats, carpet or suspension... It's utterly flexible, and that's the attraction to this type of kit car.
The company can also provide your engine and transmission, if required. Again, these are built in-house, including 1.9L or 2.2L air-cooled VW, 2.5L Subaru, plus anything from 1.8L 356 to 2.7L 911 Porsche motors. The choice of trans includes a VW Type 1 four-speed, Porsche 901 five-speed and even auto options.
At the top level, Carrera Coachwerks will sell you a turn-key sports car, "Which is where more of the market is heading," explained Alan. Continuing with our 550 Spyder example, a car such as the one featured here would cost $85-90,000, depending on your final specifications.
This might seem like a large chunk of change for a fiberglass kit, but the beauty is that only you and a handful of experts will ever know. To everybody else, you own an incredibly rare piece of automotive art and must therefore be a highly successful dude who's good with the ladies - it's all about first impressions!
The car featured here is the result of Theo's nine-year quest for the perfect 550 Spyder. Having tracked down and eventually bought the company producing a good replica, he didn't simply want to build yet another 550 kit car. After all, there are several companies building something similar, so CCW wanted to distinguish itself from the rest. So while the purists might repulse at the 19" wheels, racing stripes and modified bodywork, Theo and Alan wanted to highlight the flexibility of their business. This is their "AC Cobra".
Building the car you want is central to CCW's thinking and this 550 is the proof. It's the result of extensive research into the replica market, while combining their favorite elements of other Porsche models. It was designed to be fast, with a bold "Euro" look that features big wheels and lowered suspension. It's deliberately less dainty than the original Spyder, yet it's no less beautiful in person.
"We make cars for the purist, but the market is dominated by companies selling lower-end kits. To make our mark, we needed to do something different and realized nobody was touching the restomod movement. We want to build cars for people who already own a Porsche 911 or Aston Martin and are used to the power and handling of a modern car, yet want the beauty of a classic sports car," Alan explained.
Carrera Coachworks is calling it the 550 Evolution because it exaggerates the lines and proportions of the original. The body is 3" wider and 4" longer, the fenders are taller and again wider, the back is longer and the chin is deeper. It has exhaust ports in the rear deck and a radiator exposed up front. It's more of a musclecar than the original ever wanted to be, but looks healthy on its protein diet.
The design called for a 2.7L engine from an early Porsche 911 under the hinged rear body panel, complete with go-fast parts to scare passengers. With 230hp and weighing 2000 lb it's an unforgettable drive.
The coilover suspension hung from the 3" tubular frame ensures the wide rear tires can provide maximum grip, but wheelspin is a necessary evil in something this light.
The connection between the steering wheel and road is the old-fashioned kind - direct and very talkative, with nothing to garble the information from the front tires.
Inside you find low-back seats and the minimum number of gauges to get the job done. There are embellishments in alcantara and carbon fiber that seem at odds with the car, but in keeping with the restomod spirit.
Finished in a classic silver hue, the bold stripes add a hint of AC Cobra, but it's the massive wheels that dominate from every angle. We've argued about the dimensions, finish and design, with everybody having their own preference, but again that emphasizes the custom nature of these cars. They can be what you want. And this is what Theo and Alan wanted. If you want different, build your own!
Inevitably, California is one of the hardest places to register a replica, with other states being the same or more lenient. A turn-key car meets CA regulations by incorporating a certain number of parts from the donor vehicle. So a $35-40,000 356 Speedster might be based on a 1969 VW Beetle and carry forward its registration. Or you can buy a 911 and incorporate it into the chassis to acquire a Porsche registration document.
Alternatively, CA does allow a limited number of Special Builds to be registered each year, which is another route to consider. Either way, CCW can provide information on each State. Bear in mind the States are more interested in meeting the emissions requirements than, say, the safety standards.
It's also worth knowing that a number of insurance specialists will provide you with specialized coverage. Companies like Hagerty are recommended for their knowledge of the industry and can offer agreed values, etc.
Perhaps the grey area concerns the reproduction of the classic cars themselves. Although Ferrari took legal action back in the '80s, there are a number of companies making replicas of Porsche and AC/Shelby bodies without much interference.
It appears that as long as you're not messing with modern designs, and not trying to pass yourself off as the original manufacturer, some leniency is granted. Whatever the legal standpoint, there are several companies to choose from when deciding what car to build and who will supply it.
So with renewed interest in classic cars, and the value of originals being driven up by people looking for investments outside the stock market, the kit car industry again offers a tantalizing route to sports car ownership without the stratospheric prices of the genuine article. And since you're not dealing with a museum piece, it's perfectly acceptable to update the mechanicals for reliability and/or performance to create the sports car you want to own and, more importantly, can afford.