Chamonix Australia 550 Spyder Review

By: Nik Bruce , Photography by: motophoto.com.au

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Retro rocket: Chamonix 550 Spyder. Want to be cool like James Dean, but don’t have the bank balance? This re-creation of the iconic porsche roadster is sure to entice.

Chamonix Australia 550 Spyder Review
Retro rocket: Chamonix 550 Spyder

 

Chamonix Australia 550 Spyder

[Jul 2008} Racing has always been the lifeblood of Porsche. From the day the first 356 prototype won its class at Innsbruck, just weeks after it rolled out of the sheds at Gmünd, Germany in June 1948, competition has been at the core of Porsche's psyche, driving virtually everything it has done during the last 60 years.

In its long and illustrious history, the Stuttgart factory has arguably produced some of the greatest and most successful race cars the world has ever seen. Cars like the mighty 917s and all-conquering 956/962s, which in turn gave rise to the 911 GT1 of the '90s and the LMP2-winning RS Spyder of today; cars that can trace their ancestry to one of the most seminal Porsches of all - the iconic 550 Spyder.

Penned by Erwin Komenda, and built around Ernst Fuhrmann's revolutionary quad-cam flat-four, the mid-engined, aluminium-bodied 550 RS Spyder was Porsche's first true race car.

Light, agile and deceptively quick, the robust little two-seater was everything Ferry Porsche thought a race car should be. On debut, it took a surprise win at the Nürburgring Eifel Races on May 31, 1953, before taking class honours not only at Le Mans that year, but on the gruelling Carrera Panamericana too.

With it dominating the 1500cc class in all the major races during subsequent years, the 550 quickly became the car to have among professional and enthusiast drivers alike when the production version was released in '54.

Of course, of all those who snapped up the 100 or so 550s that were made none would be more famous than James Dean, who was infamously killed while driving his 'Little Bastard' to a race in Salinas, California in 1955.

With Dean's untimely death adding to the car's legendary cachet, it's little wonder that the rare and exotic 550 Spyder has become one of the most collectable Porsches around. But with the best examples fetching over $1million, it is now a car only the seriously wealthy can afford.

So it was inevitable that a few enterprising souls would get around to building replicas, with American Chuck Beck widely acknowledged as the first to make a decent fist of one back in 1982. Using a genuine 550 Spyder as a template, Beck's cars were almost exact replicas of the curvy originals - save for a few tweaks here and there to accommodate more modern running gear and safety equipment.

Powered by air-cooled VW flat-fours, the 550 replicas proved hugely popular; so much so that by 1987 production would be handed over to Brazilian company Chamonix Cars. Well over 1000 customers from all over the world have since fallen for the Spyder's unique blend of old-school appeal and modern-day reliability.

As it goes, one such enthusiast to be turned on by the 550's retro chic was Sydneysider Peter Gillard. After previously owning a Super 7 clubman, Gillard's hunt for a sports car he could actually persuade his wife to get in to eventually lead him to the door of Chamonix Cars, and set him on the unlikely path to becoming what he laughingly refers to as Australia's sixth car manufacturer.

"I still love Super 7s - they're fantastic cars," chuckles Gillard. "But they are pretty full-on. There are no doors, and they're very open, and wives typically don't like them. Well, mine didn't at any rate. So, what the Spyder offered from my perspective was a slightly softer, more usable version of the Seven."

Already a big fan of the 550's seductive curves, Gillard started to do some digging and quickly discovered that the Chamonix/Beck Spyders were widely considered to be the best replicas around. But while getting a 550 into the country would have proved relatively inexpensive and easy to do, getting one complied and on the road would be anything but.

"We looked into it and worked out that we were going to have to re-engineer it pretty significantly for Australia," says Gillard. "And it didn't make a lot of sense just to do it for one car."

Instead of giving up and settling for something else, it occurred to Gillard that there could be a market for the Spyders Down Under. So it was that after some fairly informal market research, Peter took the bold decision to set himself up as a low-volume manufacturer in order to comply and sell the cars himself.

Even for a specialist auto engineer with years of experience helping comply individually constructed cars for others, it was still a daunting challenge. So instead of going it alone, Gillard enlisted the help of long-time friend Alan Marshall who, as a seasoned race mechanic with some of Oz's biggest teams on his enviable CV, was the ideal choice to help develop the car.

Knowing there was no way in hell they'd ever get the air-cooled Vee-Dub motor through ADR noise and emissions tests, the pair decided to import the cars as rolling chassis while they sought out alternate motive power. Needing an engine that would not only comply with Euro IV standards, but also emulate the original boxer's low centre of gravity and driving characteristics, Subaru's 2.5-litre flat-four (together with its five-speed 'box) proved to be the obvious choice.

"You would swear the engine was designed for that chassis," says Peter. "We engineered cross members to take the engine, but it's literally got no more than 5mm clearance than it needs in there. It works perfectly; you can even service the engine in place."

Swing the rear deck open and the reason for Gillard's enthusiasm becomes instantly apparent: the beautifully wrought steel tube chassis really does look like it was designed around that engine. There simply isn't an inch of wasted space.

Despite the fact it's just a development mule, it's amazing how tidy and well finished this silver Spyder really is - which bodes well for the finished product. The shut lines and panel gaps in the super-smooth glass fibre bodywork are uniform and neat; the doors and boot lids shut smoothly, while the carpets and leather upholstery boast similar levels of care and craftsmanship.

Pleasingly though, the Spyder is just as impressive to drive as it is to behold. Cabin space might be a bit tight, but with the seat hard up against the bulkhead, there's still ample room to fit my generous 180cm frame. The steering wheel sits high, but falls comfortably into place. However, with so little room to work with, the pedal box is inevitably offset to the left, but it's not too pronounced and you soon get used to the slightly skewed driving position.

Finding the key involves a curious fumble under the dash, but give it a twist and you'll be rewarded with the gruff bark of a Subaru flat-four bursting faithfully into life, before settling into its trademark bassy thrum.

Hook first through the slightly stiff and notchy 'box, engage the nicely weighted clutch, and the Spyder takes off cleanly and without fuss. For being a sports car, it's pretty remarkable just how civilised the 550 is.

The roads around the Royal National Park, just south of Sydney, are scored and rutted, but the supple Bilstein-equipped chassis soaks up all but the most jagged of bumps with ease, while only the worst cambers pull the little Spyder off line.

Unsurprisingly, with just 720kg to lug around, the 121kW Subaru four proves to be an astonishingly tractable engine. Its response off the throttle is clean and consistent, no matter what gear or speed, making it a doddle to just amble around. But with a power-to-weight ratio of 168kW/tonne, the 550 Spyder is good for more than just a leisurely Sunday cruise.

Sink the boot in any gear, and the 550 will launch itself at the middle distance with surprising ferocity. It's seriously quick; so much so that you'll find yourself bouncing off the rev limiter in every gear until you adjust your senses to keep up with its rampant pace.

Diving into the twisty sections of the range, the engine's elastic flexibility means you don't have to continually stir the 'box to keep things on the boil. Just leave it in third, concentrate on your lines and you'll find yourself making indecently rapid progress without breaking sweat.

With no servo assistance the 550's disc brakes do require a fair bit of effort to work though. But once warmed, they offer plenty of stopping power with good feel and resistance to fade. Similarly, the well-weighted steering offers sufficient feedback, but while it's quick and accurate off-centre it does get a little vague and wooden as it approaches full lock. It's not bad, but it's a problem both Peter and Alan are working to resolve.

Wind the wick up and you'll find that the Spyder corners flat and hard. The handling is fairly neutral, with just a hint of understeer in the slower corners. But on the greasy, moss-covered roads of the forest, it felt safe and predictable, with plenty of grip to lean on.

Despite having 226Nm of grunt on tap, the Spyder was still reluctant to break traction, even on damp corners. I've no doubt it would happily swing its tail out on command, but with precious little lock in the steering I wasn't game to try it and risk writing off the boys' rather expensive development car. 

Peter tells me it's taken them nine months of solid work to get this far, and I have no hesitation in believing him. For ostensibly still being in its development stage, the Australian Spyder feels remarkably well-screwed together despite its 'replica' status.

When Peter set out on this venture he sought to offer his customers a complete turn-key car with production standards beyond what you'd expect from a low-volume car. And he seems to have done just that. There are no real squeaks or rattles in the cabin. And very few compromises in the way it drives.

Okay, the steering isn't perfect, and the gearshift isn't the best (mostly due to the length of the cables that have to be used) but far from being a hindrance they almost lend the 550 some authentic old-school charm. Let's face it, if it was as easy to drive as a Golf, the Spyder would be a massive disappointment.

Chamonix Australia is hoping to sell around 15 Spyders per year, but somehow I get the impression that when word gets out just how good they are, they'll be struggling to get them out the door quick enough.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Chamonix Australia 550 Spyder

 

BODY: two-seat roadster, fibreglass over tubular steel frame

WEIGHT: 720kg

ENGINE: 2.5-litre flat-four

TRANSMISSION: five-speed manual

DRIVETRAIN: front eng, RWD

POWER/TORQUE: 121kW/226Nm

PERFORMANCE: 0-100kmh - 5.7secs (est.) Top speed - 220km/h

PRICE: from $57,800

 

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