550 Spyder by Chamonix First Steer
“Almost identical to the legendary Porsche 550 Spyder, but with a 2.5-litre boxer engine and weighing a super light 720 kilos, you don’t need to ask me how it goes”
– photography Yvan Fournier
Model Tested: 550 Spyder by Chamonix – $60,880 (RRP)
James Dean immortalised the Porsche 550 Spyder when his slammed into a Ford Coupe, driven by Donald Turnipseed, on his way to an amateur race in Salinas, California on September 30, 1955.
Dean had just traded up from his Porsche 356 due to the phenomenal success of the 550 at Le Mans, where it ran a one-two finish in its class. This was Porsche’s first attempt at a purpose built race car, and they nailed it!
There were plenty of other wins too, for the quad-cam, flat-four, 1.5-litre Porsche, including a 1000 kilometre race at the Nurburgring, where it hammered more powerful rivals from Ferrari, Maserati and Jaguar.
Not only was the 550 a wickedly quick car, capable of more than 219km/h (137mph), but the speed it could carry into corners was blistering and gave it the edge over most other cars for several years. So successful was this car, that wins were barely mentioned over the occasional loss.
(real 550 Spyder)
It was also one of the coolest looking cars on the planet, so its not surprising, that there is plenty of keen buyers for replicas of Porsche’s first hero car.
And don’t think for one minute you need to spend a fortune, or look outside Australia to get behind the wheel of a new 550 Spyder. Right here in Sydney, is where you can you collect your hand built car, in any colour combo you like.
The 550 Spyder by Chamonix, is a micro operation by global car-maker standards, but that’s also what makes it special.
I didn’t quite know what to expect of this operation, when I rolled up to an old numbered garage on one of Sydney’s busiest roads, to catch a peep of what is clearly automotive eye candy to anyone who is not clinically blind.
Inside this humble establishment sat a freshly polished silver 550 Spyder, upholstered in red leather and looking finer than Jimmy Dean ever did in his Hollywood prime.
You have to have passion, know-how and a truckload of self-determination to want to build a low volume sports car in this country. The red tape and compliance with the Australian Design Rules (ADR) alone would be enough to send you loopy.
I knew the guy behind the Australian designed and built Robnell Cobra, arguably one of the best Cobra replicas in the world, who gave his all and then some, but still found it extraordinarily tough going.
The two chaps who will build your 550 Spyder, know their business very well. Automotive engineering and race car preparation is their background, and for near enough to $60,000, you can own a car that will get you more looks than a Lamborghini Gallardo.
The order book is already filling up too, so if you like what you see, best you get in sooner rather than later, before they realise these things are too damn cheap, and add on another $5000 or more – even then, it would be a bargain.
When I arrived I had to wait in line to speak to the principals of the company, as there was a famous Sydney-based artist talking through his order for a “Coke” red 550. It wouldn’t be my colour of choice, but here was a highly creative guy in his late twenties, blown away by the car’s classic lines and structural simplicity.
Built on a strengthened version of the original ladder tube-frame chassis, and a hand-laid composite body, the Chamonix 550 Spyder incorporates a host of design improvements centred around performance, safety and reliability, rather than a hard core racing function.
One element I’m not so keen on, are the chrome roll hoops, which frame the head restraints. Although both mandatory and utterly essential if you want to keep your head in the event of a rollover, they weren’t on the original Spyder and seem a tad out of place.
As well, there’s a proper full size windscreen now, complete with a rigid frame and electric wipers, which replaces the ultra-mini and ultra flimsy unit on the Porsche built car. Design wise, I prefer the ‘old school’ bare bones look, however impractical and unsafe that might be.
With a power-to-weight ratio better than both the Porsche 911 Carrera and Boxster S, the 550 Spyder is a quick piece of gear. Weighing just 720kg, there is absolutely no need for any forced induction. Acceleration from a standing start is rapid and progressive, but never violent, as I might have expected. Zero to 100km/h is achieved in just 5.7 seconds and the car will pull 1.1g in a corner.
It’s still a mid-engine car, but its no longer air-cooled as was the original 550. With reliability a key issue with today’s sports car’s, that’s exactly what you get with the Subaru-sourced, 2.5-litre, water-cooled, four-cylinder power train, putting out 121kw and 226Nm.
You do need to keep the revs up around town though, should you require a quick response in the lower gears, that’s despite the car’s anorexic weight.
Contrary to what you might think, the 550 Spyder is a dream to drive on the freeway. You can sit in fifth gear all day long and if you need to, slingshot past slow moving traffic, in that very same gear.
Not only that, you can comfortably carry on a conversation while in freeway mode, and no, the car is not fitted with an audio system, nor does it need one.
If you’re after a tricky sequential or dual clutch style gearbox, then best you shop somewhere else, there are five on the floor (one more than the original) driving the rear wheels, which provides a good spread of ratios.
While my test car (which is actually “the” factory test car) had too much play in the neutral position, that won’t affect any buyers of the 550 Spyder. The problem was an incorrect size cable, which was fitted to the car while waiting on supply of the correct length units.
That said, shifts require a deliberate shove, but once you’re used to that, you can move through the gear ratios, with some considerable haste.
If the 550 Spyder is quick in a straight line, sorting out the twisty sections is even more fun, provided you have a firm grip of the oversize, but sticky, red leather steering wheel.
Although the non-assisted steering has plenty of meat from dead centre, there’s room for more precision, if the car’s prodigious cornering ability is to be fully exploited.
That will probably require a move to a rack and pinion unit, rather than the manual recirculating ball set up, currently employed in the car.
After ripping through my standard 11 kilometre twist-fest in Sydney’s north, I found it hard to comprehend how you could get so much grip from skinny 185-195/60 R15 tyres. I’d still like a wider footprint on the tarmac, but the traction from this narrow rubber set-up, is mighty impressive.
Lotus does a brilliant job in minimising body roll in the Elise/Exige on turn in, but the 550 Spyder eliminates the concept entirely. That would be the multi link De Dion rear suspension working in concert with the Eibach springs and Bilstein adjustable dampers, sorting it all out for you.
Thankfully, the 550’s brakes have been upgraded to discs all round, as opposed to drums, which were fitted to the 1954 Porsche car. Nonetheless, you’ll need to apply a decent dollop of foot pressure to the centre pedal, and there is no ABS to get you out of trouble.
It’s great fun to drive, just not when the mercury decides to blast through 33 degrees Celsius, as was the case on the day we chose to do our photography.
If you like to be noticed or have finally succumbed to web dating, then the 550 Spyder might speed things up for you. Wherever we parked, it drew a sizeable crowd who, mostly, thought it was the real deal.
You and your one passenger, sit incredibly low to the ground in seats, which although resembling those on Dean’s car, are suitably padded and no doubt, infinitely more comfortable than the original kit.
Best you try and avoid passengers altogether though, as even a supermodel in her prime, will affect the 550’s performance (given the 720kg kerb weight) and frankly, there just isn’t enough elbowroom in the car, for two people to ride in any sort of comfort.
The 550 Spyder is devoid of any luxury features, but you can order a rather simple cloth roof, which is best erected with the help of another. I had occasion to use it once during the week I had the car, and it didn’t leak, so I would recommend it as a mandatory option to any buyer.
There are no electronic angels whatsoever fitted to the 550. That’s no ESP, EBD, ESP or Traction Control. You are on your own in this car, but let me assure you, it is an exhilarating driving experience in a car that mirrors the authentic Porsche Spyder Type 550, in so many ways.
It’s also as green as green gets, using just 6.8 litres per 100kms with subsequent emissions of 148g per kilometre, and best of all, just 31 litres of standard 91RON petrol will fill the tank, which redefines ultra frugal sports car ownership.