Chesil Articles - VW Motoring - John Clewer writes....

Depending upon your age group, you may best remember the typical Porsche of the 1950's as the Spyder-bodied 550 version in which the late, great James Dean met his end. For another it may be Michael J. Fox crashing his 356 in 'Doc Hollywood', or even Eddie Murphy in '48 Hours', but for me it has to be for the one so aggressively driven by the delectable Kelly McGillis in the chase sequence of 'Top Gun'!

All very well for the film stars who get to drive these dream cars, but what about the rest of us? Fortunately, the dream is an attainable one and although you'd be hard-pressed to save upfor the genuine article, you can quite reasonably expect to be able to buy or build a Beetle-based replica from a small company down in Dorset. Overlooking the English Channel may seem to be a slightly strange place to a find a motor manufacturer. But just off the Dorset coast road between Bridport and Abbotsbury you can find the Chesil Motor Company, creators of one of the best-looking Porsche Speedster replicas around.

Why such a location for a specialist car manufacturer one may ask, 'why not' would no doubt be the reply of local man Peter Bailey, the founder of the Chesil Motor Company. 'You can carry out this type of business anywhere, if you have to, but why not make sure it's somewhere pleasant'. 'This part of the coast is so beautiful', added Peter, 'I always think that the curve of the Chesil Beach so compliments the curves of our Speedster!'

The Dorset coast road certainly offers a superb route along which to take an exhilarating test drive, as you try to sell your product to an enthusiastic punter, but the Chesil Motor Company is also a little bit 'off the beaten track'. Finding them is the first problem; tucked away amongst farm buildings at the bottom of a long driveway, the only clue where to turn off the main road is a small sign on the end of an old ivy-covered brick wall. It is all too easy to miss whilst you're enjoying the spectacular scenery of this part of the coast, although the original sign has now been joined by a couple of more modern ones, along with an extra entrance, and safe arrival is now guaranteed. Around the side of the building lies the graveyard of Beetles, all in various states of disrepair having given up their innards to help make beautiful Speedsters.

The actual company buildings surround the old farmyard and consist of offices, showroom, stores and the all-important workshops from where the four friendly mechanics create a stream of cars which emerge, in various specifications, into the sunshine. On the day of my visit, the yard contained a number of customers' cars in for modification and servicing along with a couple of bodyshells and two newly imported Brazilian Beetles, ready to give up their mechanicals in the interests of the perfect Speedster.

Born in the late 1980's out of Peter Bailey's love for Beetles and associated replica vehicles, the Chesil Motor Company has developed to become a well-established firm dedicated to the creation of classic motoring vehicles, with the Chesil Speedster widely regarded as the ultimate in Speedster replicas. Closely resembling the 1957 version, it's distinctive lines never fail to impress, although the more modern mechanical parts make for a more practical car than the original ever could be. The Chesil Speedster maintains it's link to the past, though the company continues to develop and improve it's product, with a variety of modifications being incorporated to give a driver some of the creature comforts of modern motoring - like wind-up windows!

Advantage has been taken of various bits of modern-day technology (such as fuel-injected engines from those aforementioned Mexican imports), using them in a sympathetic manner to produce a better product, whilst still maintaining the classic character of the original. The Speedster is available as a fully-built vehicle (from around 17,000) or as a kit which can be supplied to the customer in either deluxe or basic specifications, depending upon the mechanical qualifications or capabilities of the builder.

Just two cars a month is the normal production of turnkey Speedsters, with any surplus time being taken up with the manufacture of kits. These days, more than half of the output comprises completed vehicles, ready to drive away. To call the Speedster a 'kit car' is harsh; the phrase 'component car' being much more appropriate. For those self-builders, the starting point is - as ever - the ubiquitous Beetle floorpan and running gear; this can be purchased from Chesil as a rolling chassis or you can source your own. Any Beetle can be used; from the earlier swing-axle rear/torsion-beam front suspension car (1300/1500) to the later independent rear/MacPherson strut front suspension (1302/1303) type, although the later models will require the frame head swapping to accept the torsion beam suspension. The swing-axle suspension is the most authentic, whilst an IRS rear end gives better roadholding.

Once the car and chassis has been stripped down to basic parts, those to be kept can be put to one side for servicing/reconditioning, whilst the body panels, glass and seats can be sold off to fund the project. At this point, before any rebuilding can begin, the chassis needs to be shortened by 10.75 inches, another task which can be carried out for you by Chesil. The company have their own jig which checks for distortion and accident damage, whilst also ensuring accurate alignment during the shortening process. Deluxe rolling chassis are available direct from the VW factory; these are used for the ready-built Speedsters and are produced to a very high quality, with a specification too long to list in this article. Prices start at around 3000 +VAT for the swing-axle version.

Once the rolling chassis is complete you will be ready to fit the Chesil bodyshell, this is available in either 'Base' (3,265 +VAT) or 'Deluxe' (4,695 +VAT) specifications. The basic kit buys you the bare bodyshell, doors, bumpers, hinges and weatherseals all unfitted, whilst the deluxe version has all the body parts fitted, plus the hood and frame. The list of options available in the catalogue appears endless and all can be fitted prior to supply to the customer.

No matter whether you decide to buy 'basic' or 'deluxe' each customer receives the same standard of bodyshell, it's quality and workmanship seemingly superb. The unstressed body is hand laminated with special matting for extra strength and finished with 2-3 layers of gel coat for greater colour depth. Just to make your choice of colour more confusing, the car is available in over 80 different gel coat finishes.

For maximum rigidity each body kit comes complete with a bonded-in subframe/chassis, constructed from substantial powder-coated box section and folded sheet steel. This incorporates the heater channels and mounts for hinges, seat belts, etc. For 1998, additional strengthening has been incorporated to allow for the fitting of rear seat belts in full accordance with the requirements of the SVA. With the body beautiful now complete and rolling around the workshop, it's time to fit the engine, steering column assembly, wipers and the fuel/braking systems. In the motivation department, the catalogue lists everything from mild to wild - all engines being built by Arnie Levics, with 100mph, 0-60 in around 9 seconds and 35mpg typically available from the 90bhp 1800cc engine.

From this stage onwards it's just a question of completing your Speedster by fitting all the different items listed in the finishing sets. These are grouped into convenient areas covering electrics, lighting, body trim, dashboard, heaters, carpets and upholstery (vinyl or leather). Each item is available individually to buy as and when your budget allows, and once again this helps to allow maximum flexibility in the build of your dream car. Personally, I was very taken by the Nardi wood-rim steering wheel and matching gearlever knob, along with the replica type chrome luggage rack which sits atop the engine cowling.

With Peter being a leading light in his position of Chairman of the Association of Specialist Car Manufacturers, it comes as no surprise to find that the Chesil Motor Company were one of the first manufacturers to pass the new Single Vehicle Approval (SVA) test.

The DVLA deems that as your new Speedster retains the chassis and at least two major components of the donor vehicle, you may keep the original number plate - the ultimate 'period accessory'. It's also a great boon if your donor car was built before 1973, as you will be eligible for exemption from road tax. The last thing to do is to complete forms V627/1 and V55/5, available from your local Vehicle Licensing Office, arrange your insurance and then it's hello to the open road.

On my first visit to Chesil, the rain lashed down and the wind blew away any chances of a decent photoshoot with the roof off, but - despite the weather - Peter gave me a brief demonstration of the car's capabilities. As we drove along the coast road - very picturesque according to my host, but I had to take his word for it as the visibility was appalling - the car felt firm and held the road well. Whilst the hood kept us dry and draught free - with very little wind noise, considering the conditions - the familiar Beetle heater kept us warm. For days like these the company are currently finalising the development of a removable hard-top.

It was with some trepidation and editor Birkitt's words ringing in my ears - 'it's and open-top sports car, so we need some shots of it with the hood down' - that I set off down the M5 for my second trip to the Chesil Motor Company and hoping for better weather. As I munched away on my fish and chip lunch, sheltering in my car from the incessant rain, I thought the day was once again going to be a wash-out but suddenly the wind dropped, the skies cleared and we were blessed with a superb afternoon.

When I arrived, the demonstrator was already waiting, sitting in the sunshine outside the workshops and - with the top down - it looked even more stunning than before. Its pearlescent paintwork, replica fittings and baby moon hubcaps set the car off a treat. It certainly looked glamorous enough to await the arrival of Ms McGillis and not just your humble scribe and photographer!

Without hesitation we set off for the open road and Peter soon demonstrated what his baby was capable of. Top down, wind in the hair, the Speedster and its passengers were really in their element. If the car felt solid in the atrocious weather of my first visit, this time around it as if on rails, and on a sunny day I could think of no better air-cooled way to travel. Whilst the Speedster continues to gain in popularity - enquiries being received from all over the world and vehicle exported to most parts of Europe, as well as the Far East and New Zealand - their exclusivity is a foregone conclusion, with just over 30 vehicle made each year.

As I drove away (into the sunset!) with a last lingering look at the beautiful blue car sitting outside the workshop, I thought, oh, please, please, let me win the lottery tonight and you'll be all mine. Goodbye boring old Astra Estate, hello Speedster and then Kelly McGillis here I come - well, it is a dream car!

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