Chesil Articles - 911 & Porsche World - John Tipler writes....

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 courtesy.'

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 approval).'

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 around 23,000.

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 3595.

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 motorway cruising.

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 angle.

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 them.

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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Copyright 2003 Chesil Motor Company