Car and Driver , September 2007
THUNDER RANCH 550A SPYDER
ROME WASN’T BUILT IN A DAY,
AND NEITHER WAS THIS 550 TWIN. MORE LIKE 200 HOURS.
We’ve never driven a Porsche 550 Spyder and probably never will. Only 115 were made in the mid-1950s, and if you can find one for sale, expect to write a check with a half-dozen goose eggs on it.
For about $20,000 – a measly tow percent of the price today of an original – the Thunder Ranch 550A Spyder is a suitable replacement. It uses a steel-tube chassis modeled after the Porsche’s, and the fiberglass body is built using molds that were shaped from the genuine article. Owners an use a twin-cam Porsche engine – a flat-four or flat-six – but most are built, like the one we tested, with hopped-up VW Beetle engines.
The basic 550 kit runs $7745, but that only covers the unpainted body, frame and rear suspension. To get seats, carpet, windshield, clutch assembly, and headlight requires upgrading to the $11,985 deluxe 550 kit. From there, the builder will have to plunder the plethora of VW aftermarket companies for the flat-four engine, a Type1 VW transaxle, a front suspension, brakes, a steering shaft, a shifter, and a handful of other detail parts. It’s not as daunting as it sounds because 550 kits have been around for about 20 years and Thunder Ranch provides a detailed list of the needed parts and recommends suppliers.
Plus, the 550 Spyder is a simple car. Although shorter than a Mazda Miata by almost a foot, the mechanical components are hardly crowded and everything looks relatively easy to access. Tom McBurnie, the owner of thunder Ranch, is a kit-car veteran who built the fake Ferrari Daytonas for the ‘80s Miami Vice TV series. He estimates that a novice builder could put together a 550 in about 200 hours.
Beetle engines are available in various horsepower levels, from well under 100 to turbocharged beasts making over 200. For $5000, our test car’s 175-hp 2.3 liter was plenty powerful for a 1423-pound vehicle.