October 03 2010
Simon de Burton
Spider? Or Spyder? Regardless of the spelling, if you’re a sports-car fan you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to: a vehicle that provides high performance, wind-in-the-hair motoring combined with an edgy feel and a sense of exclusivity.
Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and the esteemed coachbuilder Pininfarina favour the former spelling, while Maserati and Porsche, for example, have always opted for the latter. Both forms have been in use for decades, yet I have to admit that I drew a blank when it came to discovering just when the first spider/spyder car was made, by whom and, most importantly, who adopted the term for automobile use. (I can almost hear the click of fingers on keyboards as knowledgeable readers set out to supply the answers...)
Whoever it was, I think I’m correct in believing that he chose the word because it perfectly represented what they wanted to achieve, ie, a car that was agile, rapid and “spidery” in so much as it was devoid of superfluous weight. The term was, in fact, borrowed from the days of the horse-drawn carriage, when the spider phaeton was created as a racy, lightweight conveyance for gentleman drivers.
However, the majority of so-called “spider” cars that have appeared on the market of late have been heavier and less agile than the hard-topped models from which they were derived – usually as a result of rigidity-enhancing structures that compensate for the floppiness that results from chopping off the roof.
A case in point is that of the eagerly anticipated Ferrari 599 Spider that was privately unveiled to a few select clients at August’s Pebble Beach Concours. Exact figures are not available, but I’d like to bet that, with body strengthening, it weighs more than the tin-top version. If you want numbers, however, take a look at the hard-roof Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, which weighs 1,585kg, compared with the roofless Spider version at 1,675kg. To me, that’s a convertible or roadster, not a spider.
But earlier this year Porsche did the decent thing and launched a road car that is really worthy of wearing the spider badge – or the Spyder badge, as the company prefers to spell it. And it’s entirely appropriate that the first true road-going Spyder for years (Porsche has made lots of featherweight Spyder competition cars, and used to reserve the term for its racers) should come from the Stuttgart marque, because it has a history of building Spyders that started in October 1953, when the 550/1500 RS was unveiled at the Paris Salon.
Back then, Porsche used only numbers, not names, but it is likely that its enterprising US importer Max Hoffman – who was instrumental in raising Porsche’s profile outside Europe – suggested that the full numeric title was a turn-off and that the name Spyder was far more appropriate for this lightweight, open-topped sports car that was intended as a racer for the road, to be driven to the track, competed in and driven home again. (Hoffman was also the instigator of the sportier 1954 Speedster version of the 356 model.)
Little could he have appreciated, however, that the 550 Spyder would become a legend both for its remarkable racing performance – it came to be known as the “giant killer” – and for the fact that one of them was going to cut short the life of one of America’s most promising Hollywood idols.
James Dean’s motto was “live fast, die young”, but he probably didn’t have that in mind when, in September 1955, he paid $7,000 for a new 550 Spyder from Johnny von Neumann’s Competition Motors showroom in North Hollywood. Dean wanted to be a racer, and he bought the car because the performance of his previous 356 Speedster was leagues behind the 550 that was trouncing all comers in the 1100cc–1500cc class.
After only 16 months as a prominent actor and having completed just three films (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant) Dean bought the Spyder – the most expensive object he had ever owned and the first major material statement of his success. He had it customised by Batmobile creator George Barris, who applied the number “130” to the hood and doors and two red stripes, while car painter Dean Jeffries brushed the words “Little Bastard” in red onto the rear cowling (a nickname given to Dean by the actor and racer Bill Hickman). When Dean showed the car to Alec Guinness outside a restaurant, the latter described it as “sinister” and prophesied that Dean would die in it within a week.
On September 30, Dean and his race mechanic Rolf Weutherich (Porsche’s 41st employee, incidentally) left Competition Motors for the long drive to the Salinas airfield races in central California. Famously, however, the pair never made it, after a Ford coupé driven from the opposite direction by 23-year-old student Donald Turnupseed turned into Dean’s path and caused a head-on collision. Dean died in an ambulance soon afterwards, en route to the Paso Robles hospital. Weutherich survived the crash, which was estimated to have happened at a speed of around 55mph.
Ever since, the Spyder name has held a particular resonance with performance-car enthusiasts, and Porsche fans in particular, who do not take kindly to its currency being devalued through its use on an inappropriate model. Some say that happened in 2004, when 1,953 so-called “S” (for Spyder) versions of the Boxster were produced to mark the passing of the 550 Spyder’s 50th anniversary.
The mid-engined Boxster, you see, has often been accused of being something of a hairdresser’s car – rather tame and sensible compared with the wilder, more powerful and more twitchy legend that is the 911. Moreover, the only significant changes to the 2004 Spyder versions were purely cosmetic.
I was therefore prepared for a certain amount of disappointment when the latest Boxster Spyder rolled down the transporter’s ramps in advance of my fortnight’s tenure. But as soon as it sat square on the roadside, there was little doubting that this was, indeed, a Spyder worthy of the badge.
Not only does it squat a good inch lower to the ground than the standard car, but it lives up to the Spyder spirit by being a useful 80kg lighter – thanks, among other things, to the fitting of featherlight aluminium doors. Look closer, and you notice that instead of conventional interior handles, these are opened by simple nylon pull tabs that weigh almost nothing.
The seats are carbon backed (saving 12kg alone), the 19in alloy wheels are the lightest made by Porsche and the aluminium “double bubble” rear deck accounts for another 3kg of weight loss – all contributing to the most gossamer-like road car in Porsche’s current stable. On the absolute base version, there is also no air conditioning, no sat nav – not even a radio.
The most “spidery” feature of all, however, is the roof. Devoid of electric motors, it is a minimalist clip-on cap that attaches to the top of the windscreen and the rear deck, beneath which it can be folded and stored when not in use. It weighs about 5kg, including its carbon-fibre frame. Porsche has been able to pare down the Boxster like this for the simple reason that the car was designed from the outset as a convertible, making it the perfect basis for a true Spyder conversion.
The lack of weight, combined with a 3.4 litre engine tuned to provide 320hp (10 more than that of the souped-up Boxster S), means that the car is transformed from a “hairdresser’s special” into one of the most thrilling high-performance road cars you’re likely to encounter. Think Lotus Exige with a bit more comfort.
The lowered ride makes for remarkable levels of grip and the version I tried, with the seven-speed Porsche PDK double-clutch gearbox, was a truly spine-tingling drive, especially when the “sport plus” button was engaged to allow the engine to rev harder for longer and to enable the sports exhaust pipe to really howl.
I was also endeared to the car because it doesn’t immediately look like a Boxster. The altered rear-end appearance prompted several people to ask, “What is it?” and the finish of “my” car – Arctic Silver with retro-look Porsche stripes – actually endowed it with an uncanny similarity to Dean’s 550.
Since just 90 550 Spyders were made, fewer survive and those that do rarely appear for sale, the only way to own one is to hunt down a replica. Personally, I’d go for the Boxster version, don my shades and red Harrington jacket and make like Jimmy Dean – entirely safe in the knowledge that I’ve left it too late to be in any danger of falling victim to his “live fast, die young” philosophy.