Modern Boxster technology clothed in vintage Spyder style.

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September 14, 2012

WE PULL INTO THE ROADSIDE RESTAURANT AND IMMEDIATELY PEOPLE GATHER, absorbing the silver Porsche’s silhouette. The questions come quickly, often basic ones. “What kind of car is this?” “What year is it?” Owner David Howard has a simple answer: “It’s a 2003 Box­ster S that’s been rebodied as a 1955 550 Spy­der.” Patiently, he repeats that answer several times before going into a more detailed description.

Howard’s odyssey with the car began in August 2003, when he and a few Michi­gan gearheads entered a deep discussion over several bottles of good wine. The conversation swirled around a 550 Spyder they saw that day. Collectively, they lamented its rarity, with only 101 examples built. Given the going price for a real 550 — one just traded hands at Amelia Island for a whopping $3,685,000 — the group agreed there was little hope of bringing a 550 home.

Howard, however, can be pretty determined, and this was no ordinary group of car guys. One man present that night, Darin Irvine, can seemingly fabricate anything automotive. For another — JP van Raalte — the bigger a mechanical challenge is, the more he likes it. More wine was poured and the dangerous game of “What if?” began.

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There were several high-quality reproduction 550 Spyders on the market, and the group agreed that some were done to a high standard. There was only one problem: Howard didn’t want a fiberglass reproduction of an aluminum car. When Irvine suggested building an all-new aluminum body, the “What ifs?” intensified. Before long, the group agreed that an alloy body wrap­ped around a modern Box­ster S chassis was the way to go.

The fact that they would be removing body panels inspired by the very car they wanted to recreate wasn’t lost on the group. While the original, 1997-2004 Boxster drew heavily from the 550 Spyder’s basic lines, theirs would go one step further.

HOWARD IS NO STRANGER TO PORSCHES. His first was a 356C that he drove in college, and his garage has never been without a Porsche since then. Today, he’s got an outlaw 356 Cabriolet, a 356 race car, a 968, a 964 RS America, and a Cayman. He drives all of them regularly so long as the Michi­gan weather allows him to, and a Cayenne when it doesn’t.

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Some say it takes a village to accomplish great things. In this case, it would take two. Leland and Northport are quaint towns on the shore of Lake Michigan. Between them, and the occasional brown truck, Howard would find everything required for what is, by any standard, an ambitious project.

Two from the group that cooked up the idea would supply their expertise. Darin Irvine’s formal training in art and talents with metalworking made him the right guy for the project. Irvine came to his craft in the best way possible: It’s in his DNA. While attending the Kendal School of Art and Design, he worked and studied under his father, a builder of hot rods. When the younger Ir­vine opened his Northport shop, he specialized in restorations and modifications, but concentrated on sports cars.

JP van Raalte is the proprietor of Van’s Garage in Leland. Imagine a cool vintage auto repair shop on the corner of a picturesque Lake Michigan coastal town and you have Van’s Garage. It’s been a family business in the same location since 1933, with the accumulated know-how passing from generation to generation. The cars have changed, though: While in the 1930s you may have found offerings from Detroit in the garage, today you’re more likely to see Porsches. The talent doesn’t stop there, as van Raalte’s wife, Tracy, would handle the upholstery for the Boxster project.

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After a few more meetings, Howard gave the project a green light. In Sep­tember 2006, he purchased a 2003 Boxster S. As a driver first, he had one requirement: The end result would have to drive as well as the donor car — which is no small feat. To that end, he gave Irvine the car to drive for a few months to understand how the finished “550” must perform.

BY JANUARY 2007, THE PROJECT WAS UNDERWAY. Fixtures to hold the chassis true during the extensive surgery required to strip the Boxster of all exterior panels were fabricated. The lateral supports between the hinge pillars as well as the heavy Box­ster windshield frame were then removed to allow for the much lower profile of the 550-style body. New supports were designed, mimicking the Porsche design for strength.

With a skeleton of a Boxster on the floor, Irvine took the critical measurements and penned 550 lines proportional to the 986 chassis — no small task as the Boxster is larger in every way than the ’55 Spyder.

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As fate would have it, an exacting replica body of a 550A was being formed in another Michi­gan shop, Automobile Metal Shap­ing. The shop owner, Mike Kleeves, was building the car for a client, and was given use of an original example from the Collier Col­lection as a guide. A mutual customer of Kleeves and Irvine shared the respective projects with the two shop owners, who subsequently set up a meeting so Ir­vine could photograph and measure the 550A. This information proved to be vital in the design of a new, larger body.

After the drawing was complete, a 1:1 line drawing was generated and mounted on Irvine’s shop wall. While it’s tempting to think such drawings are merely inspirational, the truth is that they are working blueprints used to make plywood profile guides that can be attached to the chassis so that a new skin can be formed.

Computer-aided design drawings of the doors followed and, through the magic of CNC machining, male and female hammer forms were made in wood by Thomas & Milliken Millwork in Northport. One of the more interesting aspects of the project is the fact that the original Boxster door openings remain. Irvine formed new doors to fit just the opening rather than having the door skin extend over the A- and B-pillars like a modern car. The result is a smal­ler door that goes a long way to making the 550 proportions believable. A single Jaguar E-type hinge swings each door.

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Before the actual body panels could be formed, one critical piece of the performance and looks puzzle had to be completed: the road wheels. After designing a wheel center with a vintage mechanical flavor, Irvine had Alan Meredith reverse-engineer the mounting surfaces of the Box­ster’s 18-inch Sport Design wheels and then CNC-machine four custom wheel centers. The wheels were shod with Miche­lin Pilot Sports in a non-stock size (235/50ZR18) to add the crucial taller sidewalls that fill the large wheel housings of the 550 body.

With the finished wheel combination in place, body fabrication continued, beginning with the door sills and “B-pillars.” The deep, rolled rocker panels were another key element that give the doors their appropriately short look on the vertical plane. Moving rearward, the braces and roll bars behind the seats were removed and lowered. Since these pieces incorporate structural suspension points, special attention was paid to ensure structural integrity.

By this point, it was apparent that the Boxster’s original rear struts were too large to work with the taller tires and the lower body profile. Working with Racer’s Edge, van Raalte sourced a set of Leda coil-over shock absorbers for all four corners of the car. With that problem solved, Irvine began the work of forming the rear body panels.

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The great part about building a tribute car — rather than an exacting replica — is that liberties can be taken. When it came time to form the rear quarter panels and decklid, Irvine and Howard decided there was no need to duplicate the 550’s flip-up tail section. This would eliminate the seam in front of each rear wheel, and the Box­ster’s engine could still be accessed through the passenger compartment and from below the car. Likewise, they decided the 550’s license plate light was a distraction from the simple body lines. It too was excluded.

When it came time to fabricate the engine grille, the pair wrestled with the problem for weeks. This car is larger than a 550 and, without the engine cover seam or the twin air scoops, the rear deck looked too long. Twin short grilles seemed to exaggerate this feature while twin long grilles simply crowded the flowing lines. After a lot of trial and error, a single, long grille was hand-formed and latched using the original 986 trunk latch. It covers the dipstick and filler caps for vital fluids.

After cutting ten inches off the front of the 986 platform, the forward aluminum panels were formed. A key 550 design feature is the headlights. The original 550 is so small that its headlights look huge, a design proportion that Irvine knew must be carried over into this larger interpretation.

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To that end, he sourced a set of halogen reflectors and bulbs designed for a 1934 Ford headlight. He then hand-formed the headlight rings from brass and had them chrome-plated. The Lexan headlight covers were custom made by Great Lakes Aero Products over bucks formed by Irvine.

While body fabrication continued, van Raalte was busy moving the 986 steering column inboard three inches, along with the pedals. After weeks of trying to make the factory master cylinder work, the team opted for a Kugel Kom­ponents under-dash master cylinder. Van Raalte removed the car’s full wiring harness and then carefully removed all wires for systems that would be deleted — and there were many. There would be no HVAC, no air­bags, no power seats, no power windows, no power top, no rising rear spoiler, and on and on.

The body fabrication and re-engineering process took two years. By March 2010, the 0.063-inch-thick, 3003 aluminum body panels had all been form­ed — first TIG-welded from the inside of each seam and then top-welded and metal-worked. A single radiator holding twin cores was fabricated by Steve Long of Indianapolis to preserve the original coolant plumbing of the Box­ster. The bare metal body panels were then removed and the extensively modified 986 chassis was prepped and painted in 2004 Porsche GT Silver.

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Final assembly of the mechanical components was followed by installation of the body panels in Septem­ber 2010. After the body was reinstalled, the car underwent 500 miles of test driving before final finishing. The fact that it was late fall in Michigan did little to deter the group from driving the car sans windshield.

Sorting the car was a matter of dealing with minor details and problems. The original plan called for a cut-down windshield much like the original 550. A Lexan windshield was fabricated and mocked up, but it simply didn’t look right. Using mostly hand-formed brass along with the lower corners of a Jaguar E-type windshield, Irvine created a windshield surround to fit cut-down E-type glass from Fire Fox Glass in Pontiac, Michigan.

The car turned out to be light, weighing in at 2,631 pounds including a full tank of gas. Van Raalte corner-balanced the chassis while accounting for the weight of the driver and achieved a cross weight of 15 pounds and a weight split of 1,326/1,487 pounds front to rear. While he assures us he could have dialed it in closer, he felt that was an acceptable street balance.

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By June 2011, the car was in final paint and Tracy van Raalte had stitched up its rich, burgundy leather interior. The car was delivered to Howard’s garage on February 20, 2012 and made its first public appearance on May 26, 2012.

BUILDING A ONE-OFF CAR OFTEN RELEGATES IT TO LIVING IN A BOX, but the whole point of this exercise was to build a 550 with modern running gear — one that could be driven. That’s exactly what Howard does on a regular basis, and what a drive it is.

After a spirited run through the gorgeous Michigan countryside with Howard at the wheel, we pause for lunch. Then he hands me the keys. Entry is as easy as getting into a Boxster, and the aluminum doors click closed using the factory 986 latch system. The spartan padding on the Fibersteel reproduction Spyder seats is surprisingly comfortable, and everything you need to drive is in the perfect location.

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The pedals, the shifter, and the hammered aluminum insert holding a covey of Palo Alto Speedometer-sourced gauges make you feel instantly at home. Gripping the appropriately thin steering wheel makes you feel like you’re driving an old car, yet there is nothing old about the way the car drives. A trained eye picks up on traces of the Boxster S — the shifter, parking brake, and inside door handles come to mind — but most people won’t realize that’s a Boxster carpet set on the floor. These modern bits are at home with the vintage styling of the car, no surprise since they were meant to echo the 550’s forms. A custom center console fills the void between the bucket seats so well that the seats appear to be made for this car.

Hit the starter in a genuine 550 and an exotic, oft-temperamental four-cam flat four will roar to life. Turning the key in this car fires a four-cam flat six — one with Vario­Cam and more than twice the power. The Stebro exhaust is vocal, and the stock 986 shifter slides easily into gear after depressing the stiffer-than-stock clutch pedal. If I have any complaint at all, it’s that my longer legs barely fit under the steering wheel because the seat is non-adjustable and installed to fit Howard perfectly.

Once underway, the car is simply a joy to drive. Unlike many modified cars I have driven, this one is totally competent. Past the seating position, there’s nothing to “get used to.” No, this one drives without special effort and with virtually no drama.

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Shaving over 400 pounds off a Boxster S makes everything better. Acceleration is amazing — and yet it is not until you look down at the vintage speedometer that you realize you are quickly approaching triple digits. The car isn’t scream-like-a-12-year-old-on-a-roller-coaster fast, but it has a seamless and seemingly endless surge that gets you up to speed quickly. Very quickly.

At 80 mph, the only hint of speed in the cockpit is our pair of large grins. The car is begging to go faster, but the realization that I’m driving a handcrafted, one-of-one car keeps things in check. Happily, the weight loss also contributes to improved braking and cornering and, even with taller tire sidewalls, the car simply turns-in on command with perfectly neutral balance. The Leda dampers are “performance firm” without being harsh, and I never experience one bit of cowl shake or hear so much as a squeak.

Getting modern feedback through a thin-rimmed banjo steering wheel is a sensory contradiction. Fortunately, it’s one that you fall in love with. You’re probably wondering about wind noise. Strangely enough, there isn’t any. Behind the low, custom-fabricated windshield, Howard and I barely have to raise our voices to carry on a conversation.

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All of the great Porsche engineering is somehow heightened by the envelope of hand-formed aluminum and the gorgeous flowing fenders — a melding of two Por­sches 48 years apart. As we enter Leland, summer tourists turn and stare as we glide by. Over the last three days, I’ve come to appreciate this incredible project and, even more, the people involved. It was a group effort brought about by a handful of talented Porsche lovers who overcame significant obstacles to build what I’d qualify as the best modified car I’ve ever driven.

Maybe Howard says it best, though: “This car just makes you want to drive. Leland is about six miles from my house, and I can generally get there and back in about an hour because every time I leave in this car, I take the long way home.”

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Also from Issue 205

  • 2014 918 Hybrid
  • The Vault
  • 1983 911 SC, rally style
  • 2012 Panamera GTS vs. 4S
  • 1967 912 Polo
  • PCA Parade Autocross in an early 911
  • Smart Buy: 1995 993
  • Windshield protection
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