I'm behind the wheel of what is to all Intents and
purposes a 1957 Porsche 356 speedster, high up on a
quiet and winding 'B'-road overlooking some of the most
glorious countryside in Britain. There are meadows and
rolling moorland to the left, and the English Channel
- today as smooth as a piece of plate glass - to my
right. And there it is: Chesil Beach, the long bank
of shingle that runs halfway between Bridport and Weymouth
on the Dorset coast.
Far below, stretching eight miles into a sea mist that
is at this moment completely hiding the substantial
mass of the Isle of Portland, is this implausibly thin
fillet of land, a unique geological phenomenon created
by the centuries-long build-up of pebbles of varying
sizes cast aside by the waves.
The lagoon behind it - known as the Fleet - is home
to one of the country's most celebrated swan sanctuaries
at Abbotsbury. And then it strikes me. Am I really driving
a sublime swan, or is this machine, widely regarded
as one of the most desirable production Porsches of
all time, an ugly duckling? The truth is that the vehicle
of which I am in command isn't, despite its appearance,
a Porsche. In fact, it's a Chesil Speedster, built by
the Chesil Motor Company, back up the road at Cogden
near Burton Bradstock.
So it's a replica, then. Well, yes, but a damned good
one. Even so, die-hard devotees of the Porsche marque
might now be on the point of turning the page. But I
would strongly urge you not to. To dismiss the Chesil
simply because it is a copy - or perhaps a pastiche
- of one of Stuttgart's very finest, rather than the
real thing, is completely to miss the point.
Look at the economics. The basic Chesil Speedster or
its Cabriolet equivalent, the Convertible 'D' model,
costs around £18,000 tax paid in the UK. That would
get you into a genuine 356, certainly, but it would
be a coupe, not a convertible, and it would probably
be in need of some attention - if not complete refurbishment.
The Chesil, on the other hand, is fundamentally brand-new.
You've probably drooled over those gorgeous lines of
the 356 for years, and here they are, in convertible
form at least, and accessible to all. The package is
about as classic as they come, too. The powerplant is
a brand-new, hand-built VW Beetle or Transporter engine,
and the suspension and running gear is all Beetle, with
the useful option of the later four-joint rear axle.
How's it done?
Chesil buys in late-model VW Beetles and strips them
to their floorpans, which are then subjected to a rigorous
anti-corrosion process that includes both shot-blasting
and etch-priming, and then reassembles the rolling chassis
using all-new components. Each is also shortened - on
a jig for accuracy- by 10 inches in the process. Just
about everything else from the donor car is discarded.
On top of the now-painted floorpan is bolted a fabricated-steel
box-section sub-frame, which incorporates heater channels,
seat-belt mounts and door hinges, and is sufficiently
rigid practically to eliminate scuttle shake - no mean
feat in any open-top car - and also to offer a welcome
measure of side-impact protection.
As well as bracing the floorpan this frame-work also
supports the Chesil's body, which is made of reassuringly
thick (and beautifully finished, it must be said) glassfibre.
The gel-coated shells are moulded nearby, and if a special
colour is required, such as Polar Silver, it's sprayed
by Chesil itself on site. Plain silver, together with
lighter greys and blues, seems to be the most popular
choice - just as they were on the real thing. Like most
of what can be termed the UK's specialist car builders,
Chesil buys components in from outside suppliers (currently
around 300, believe it or not) rather than slavishly
making everything itself.
Indeed, the factory, if such an idyllic place can be
described using such a prosaic term, is simply the combined
paintshop and assembly line. On average Chesil turns
out just two complete cars a month. But you can go your
own way if you prefer to, and instead buy a Speedster
as a kit to assemble yourself. The company also holds
a small and constantly changing stock of second-hand
cars if you prefer instant gratification, but thanks
to strong residual values they're certainly not what
you could call cheap.
Chesil was founded in 1989 - which by happy chance gave
we Britons one of the best summers of the last 30 years
- by Peter Bailey. He chose the name because the eponymous
beach is by far the most distinctive geographical feature
in the area, and its gentle curves are reflected in
the Speedster's logo and bonnet badge. Bailey was confident
that if he weathered the first few years he could succeed.
And so - despite a recession in the early 1990s - it
has proved. But why create a Porsche 356-based lookalike?
Why not build something more, well, adventurous? 'The
356 has always appealed to me,' confesses Bailey. 'It's
a beautiful shape, and we've found over the years that
that's what people seem to like. Often they don't even
connect it with Porsche, and they like it simply for
what it is. It's hard to believe, I know, but some people
today just aren't aware of any Porsche models prior
to the 911. Back in the 1950s it was probably the same
for Porsche itself. Not many people knew what they were;
they just liked the look of the cars.'
Bailey readily admits - drawing our attention to it,
in fact - that much ot the detailing inside his Speedster
- such as the cream dials, the wind-up windows and the
seats, and all of it executed to a high standard - is
only vaguely similar to what you'd find in a genuine
356. They simply give it a period ambience', he argues.
'On the other hand,' he says, 'we're not try to produce
a modern car. It's a question of striking a balance
between classic looks and modern equipment. The Chesil
doesn't have servo-assisted brakes, for instance, but
then it doesn't need them. And the boot space isn't
very big, either, but then it never was in the genuine
article. 'Most of our customers want a sports car that's
not too ostentatious,' argues Bailey, 'Some people save
for years to buy their dream car - a 911, maybe - but
then they're confronted by hostility from other road
users. The Speedster doesn't challenge other drivers.
In fact, it has the opposite effect. People smile and
wave. and generally behave as models of decorum on and
Bailey is proud of his product - and with good reason.
'We work hard to give the car a first-class finish.'
he says. 'There's not a hint of orange-peel in the paintwork,
for instance, and it has a top-quality mohair hood.
People have this notion that glassfibre is an inherently
sub-standard material, but Lotus and TVR have been using
it forever. In many ways it's more durable and robust
than steel.' The shape of the Chesil's bodywork is identical
to the 356's - not surprising, really,' since that's
what the moulds were based on - although Bailey and
his workforce have made a few detail changes here and
there to bring the car's equipment levels up to date
and to comply with current legislation. There is thus
no question that it complies with SVA (single-vehicle
The introduction of SVA in 1998 gave these cars a lot
more credibility.' The tests they go through are quite
strict from a safety point of view.' That said, we didn't
have to crash-test the cars, because that's really to
do with things like checking the movement of the steering
column in an impact,' and that can be assessed using
data from the VW Beetle. 'It's more to do with details
such as seat-belts, headlight heights, getting rid of
sharp edges, that sort of thing. The mirrors, for instance,
aren't quite the same as the originals, because they
have to break away immediateiy from the bodywork if
they're hit, but they're a good approximation of a genuine
period mirror that you'd see on a real 356.'
Inevitably most Chesils are sold in the UK. There's
considerable interest in mainland Europe too, says Bailey,
and particulary from Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia and
even Germany, although the high value of the pound has
to some extent restricted the European market. Cars
have also been sold to Hong Kong, Australia and New
Zealand. Chesil wisely hasn't forgotten that many of
its target audience like to build their Speedsters themselves.
'Our cars have always been available in kit form,' says
Bailey, 'and a lot of people clearly still get a huge
amount of pleasure out of building their own vehicle.
It's really quite amazing that you can still do that
in this day and age! Many people in the UK are prepared
to wing it, and put money into a relatively small manufacturer
in order to get something that's interesting and a little
bit different,' suggests Bailey. 'That's just one of
the factors that keeps us in business.'
Indeed, Chesil ownership appears to be so special that
many potential buyers make the pilgrimage to the Dorset
coast to view their prospective purchase, and if required
the company will happily arrange accommodation at the
unpretentious llchester Arms hotel. 'It's all part of
owning a Chesil Speedster,' smiles Peter Bailey. 'You
don't just buy a car. You have to come and stay overnight,
enjoy the Dorset countryside, and take a walk along
Chesil Bank with the waves crashing on the shore. It's
an experience, basically.' The company also offers servicing
and repairs. But there are VW Beetle specialists in
most major cities up and down the country who could
- and do - happily take care of servicing. And there
can be few fundamental mechanical components that wouldn't
be available almost anywhere in the world.
What you pay for your Chesil Speedster depends on whether
you build it yourself from a kit, or take the easy way
out and buy a fully finished so-called turn-key car.
The standard-specification model leaves the factory
for just £17,950 including VAT. It's available with
either left- or right-hand drive. By assembling a Speedster
yourself, though, it's possible to undercut the price
of a works-built car by about £5000, although most customers
buy factory-built cars and spend around £20-22,000.
There are different levels of suspension, powertrain
and trim as well, and a host of upgrade packages for
the driveline and cockpit can lift the basic cost to
The standard engine is a 1600cc flat-four developing
a modest 60bhp, but there are also four extra-cost options.
The first is a 1600cc Mexico-sourced item with fuel
injection and a three-way catalytic converter. The next
step up is an 1800cc unit with twin carburettors and
a useful 90bhp, and judging by the cars in the workshops
this power unit seems to be a popular choice. Then comes
a special 2000cc twin-carburettor engine with larger
cylinder barrels and pistons and a long-stroke crankshaft
that delivers a claimed 110bhp. The newest option, meanwhile,
is the water-cooled 1.9-litre engine sourced from the
later VW Transporter. This is both smoother and quieter
than the air-cooled engines, and thanks to its radiator
it supports a more effective cockpit heating system.
At just £1860 it's the cheapest of the extra-cost engine
options, too, with the 2.0-litre unit the dearest at
This writer even spotted one chassis back at the factory
that had been fitted - to the customer's special order
- with a 3.0-litre 911SC engine, but apparently said
owner had barrel-rolled the car after getting just a
little too carried away by the performance, albeit sustaining
remarkably little damage either to himself or to the
vehicle. Not surprisingly, the Chesil's engine compartment
needed to be enlarged in order to accommodate the bigger
flat-six. For this reason alone Bailey and his team
don't like installing anything other than the standard
VW flat-four, although they were in the throes of fitting
a Porsche 914 engine into yet another chassis during
my visit. In all cases drive to the rear wheels is via
the common-or-garden VW type 1 four-speed transaxle,
with a slightly higher-ratio final drive for improved
Becoming acquainted with the Chesil Speedster forced
me to question a number of preconceived ideas. First,
and most important, it's certainly impressive enough
quickly to sweep away any suppressed notions that Porsche
replicas are something to be looked down upon. Then
there's the added bonus that you (probably) won't have
to pay road tax, because such are the arcane regulations
that govern this corner of the motor industry that your
Chesil will currently almost certainly retain the registration
number of its donor chassis. Hence (just in case you
were wondering) the silver-on-black registration plates.
Would I have one? You bet, for high days and holidays,
at any rate, and knowing me I would probably end up
driving it at least as much as my 911 Carrera 3.2 -
in which case I would probably hold on to what's left
of my driving licence for a little longer, too.
What's in a Name?
Although widely used in this context, writes Chris Horton,
the term 'replica' isn't strictly the correct way to
describe cars such as the Chesil. Our ancient but none
the less serviceable edition of Webster's dictionary
defines a replica as 'a close reproduction or facsimile,
especially by the maker of the original' - and, significantly,
a facsimile as 'an exact copy'.
Further investigation suggests that 'reproduction' might
be a better term - 'an exact or close imitation of an
existing thing' - and it has long been used to describe
furniture, of course, but at the end of the day 'lookalike',
itself a rather contrived synthesis, might serve rather
better. Even pastiche - 'a literary, artistic or musical
work that imitates the style of previous work' - might
be appropriate were it not for the pejorative implications
the word has come to assume.
The fact remains, then, that 'replica' is probably the
most appropriate way of defining this enduringly popular
automotive phenomenon. And certainly we all know what
we mean, even if the etymologists and pedants might
disagree with us.
On the road in the Chesil Speedster:
Since the Chesil is based on a VW chassis and suspension,
and uses a Beetle engine and gearbox. It's not surprising
to find that it drives rather like, well, a Beetle -
albeit a rather more gutsy Beetle than you are probably
accustomed to. Certainly I quickly felt at home. Out
on the road there's little sense that you're driving
a high-performance car, even with the optional 1800cc
engine. But it feels a harmonious package none the less.
Progress can be as brisk as most of us would wish, and
it's both entertaining and absorbing, partly because
it requires you to pay attention. And you are having
the cobwebs blown away when the top's down, which always
adds an extra thrill to any journey.
Initially the steering (by means of a now very old-fashioned
recirculating-ball mechanism, like the original) feels
rather vague around the straight-ahead position, although
it seems to firm up through the corners, I think that's
something one adapts to or, in my case at least, regresses
back to from my Beetle-owning days. Likewise the floor-hinged
pedals aren't a problem, and the Empi gear shift, with
its lift-up trigger-guard device to lock out reverse
gear until needed, is agreeably notchy. The windows
wind up and down most effectively (the original Porsche
Speedster had only simple sidescreens, of course), although
in the demonstration the handles seemed a little loose
on their mountings - as did the inner door handles,
come to that.
The interior is nicely carpeted, though, and the seat
can be ratcheted up and down, as well as moved backwards
and forwards to find the ideal driving position. It
also has lumbar-support adjustment, which is a definite
improvement over the real thing. Being fairly tall,
though, I would have liked a little more under-thigh
support. The Speedster has perfectly adequate back seats
for children, and behind those lives the battery, 12-volt,
of course. There are plenty of pockets in the leather
upholstery for storing your sunglasses, binoculars or
box Brownie, and slide-to-open hot-air vents are set
into the sills, with a heater control between the seats
next to the handbrake.
Smart black-on-cream instruments grace the painted dashboard,
with the wooden toggles for the two-speed wipers and
the lights immediately below. The indicator stalk is
on the left-hand side at the steering column, opposite
the ignition switch. The main anachronisms - the switch
for the obligatory hazard warning lights, and the Pioneer
stereo - are discreetly hidden beneath the scuttle.
The effect is completed by neat details such as the
polished-aluminium air vents, those wondertul lozenge-shaped
rear-light clusters, and stainless-steel luggage rack
- and not least those wide-rim Brazilian wheels with
bulging, chromed hubcaps.
In short, then, the Speedster goes as well as it looks,
and while you might feel a little diffident about attending
(say) the Porsche Club Great Britain's annual gathering
in one, the fact remains that you would have just as
much fun (and probably generate rather more interest)
blatting along same 'B'-road and showing it off dawn
at the local pub.
This writer's own favourite in the real Porsche 365
line-up is the coupe, and I wondered why Chesil doesn't
make a fixed-head car, when presumably the closed body
is inherently more rigid, and brings with it fewer problems
in terms of weather equipment. 'We're sometimes asked
if we do a coupe,' replies Peter Bailey, 'but my response
is that we produce a very good hard-top for the Speedster
along the lines of the original, which satisfies that
need. Personally, I think the 356 looks best as a Speedster,
and then, of course, with the hood lowered.
'We also produce the Convertible "D" model now, which
has the same body as the Speedster, but with a higher
windscreen, taller, squared-off side windows, and a
slightly different hood. That's more suitable for taller
people, or those who want better all-round visibility.
You can also tell it apart by the overriders on the
bumpers.' A further addition to the Chesil range - the
so-called Speedster 2 - appeared as recently as April
2001. This is distinguished by its lack of conventional
bumpers which are replaced by over-riders for a racier
image. At the moment, though, this is essentially a
special edition, limited to just 25 factory-built cars.
Engine options for this model are the 1.9-litre water-cooled
VW motor with twin carburettors and 100bhp, or the 90bhp,
air-cooled 1.8-litre, again with twin carburettors.
Suspension is independent at the front by means of torsion
beam and trailing arms, and independent at the rear
by trailing arms with constant-velocity-jointed drive
shafts. One idea that hasn't caught on (so far, at least)
is the budget-priced Chesil SE, which has a double-headrest
rear deck and no bumpers at all. It was intended as
an entry-level car that owners could upgrade with a
hood and so on at a later date. But Chesil buyers evidently
want a Speedster with the hood fitted to start with,
and clearly aren't too bothered about the performance
Tested and Approved
There are two reasons why the modern car you drive everyday
is (probably!) safe. You have it MoT-tested each year
(and you're an enthusiast, so you check your levels
and pressures regularly), and it was built to strict
type approval regulations in the first place.
There are three categories of automotive type approval.
There's national type approval, which is basically what
all the major motor manufacturers now have to adhere
to. Then there's low-volume type approval, for companies
(such as Morgan and Caterham) which build fewer than
500 units a year. And there is also what is known as
single-vehicle approval, for specialist firms such as
Chesil with production levels that can be counted, if
not on the fingers of one hand, then with little more
than the usual human complement of digits.
Vehicles are routinely checked at designated SVA testing
stations up and down the country. In Chesil's case,
for example, this means that every car it builds (but
not cars assembled from kits by customers) has to be
taken to Taunton in Somerset, its closest test centre,
for evaluation. The examiners are looking at items such
as the location of seat-belts, the collapsibility (or
otherwise) of the steering column, whether the car's
brakes are man enough, windscreen-wiper speeds (whether
they could cope in a real downpour, for instance), and
whether, say, the brake-fluid reservoir has the capability
to warn of a low fluid level. They'll also be looking
for sharp edges on bodywork and trim.
The Speedster needed little alteration from its original
form in order to pass SVA (which also includes tests
on exhaust emissions and noise levels). All Chesil had
to do, basically was bring the bumpers in a little tighter
to the valances, and fit a pair of high-intensity fog
lights into the rear bumper. In the Chesil Speedster's
case certain features are exempt from scrutiny. One
is the horn grilles (there's one on either side at the
front, incorporating the front indicators), in which
the horizontal bar extend O.5mm beyond the actual grille
and overlap very slightly onto the bodywork. Normally
these would no longer be deemed grille according to
the SVA rules and the tiny bar extension would be considered
an infringement. But since these are one of the Speedster's
particular stylistic motifs, they are allowed through
the net. Neither does the Chesil have to undergo crash
test - because it's constructed on tried-and-tested
VW Beetle platform - and likewise it doesn't have to
carry side-repeater indicators because its design pre-dates
The Chesil Motor Company was the first manufacturer
to obtain SVA. Peter Bailey was involved at the outset
with the setting up of the SVA scheme in 1998 (he was
also one of the founding members of the Association
of Specialist Car Manufacturers in the mid-1990s), and
he says that the small-volume manufacturers generally
enjoy a good relationship with the DoT inspectorate.
He believes that SVA is vital not only for safety but
also as a selling point. 'We can honestly say to potential
buyers, "Look, we can meet all these requirements".
There's a full manual that details all the points we
have comply with, and anyone interested in buying a
car is very welcome to look through it. But actually,
they're just happy to know that the car has its own
special type approval.'
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