James Dean. Is it really because of a fifties American film star that I am pulling into an industrial estate in Dorset on a cold February afternoon? After all it was Dean who managed, in his short time on this earth, to make a small German convertible one of the most desirable cars on the road, even 50 years after it was launched. While America was, and still is, obsessed with cars that are big in every sense, and American masculinity can be judged on the size of a V8, the Porsche Speedster was an unlikely choice for an uber-cool film star like Dean.
But Dean loved the curved, slightly effeminate, look of the Speedster, which had been born out of the desire for a sleeker version of the Porsche 356. Dean will forever be linked to the car, having briefly driven and raced one of the first ever pre-A Speedsters, but it was the faster 550 Spyder that finally immortalised him, following his fatal crash on September 30, 1955. However it was his carefree, rebellious style that was reflected in the stripped-out Speedster. It was a car made for jumping into and heading off down the California coastline, Marlboro clenched between your lips as you stuck two fingers up to however was behind you. Now, over half a century on, the Speedster remains iconic, and is a car loved by both men and women.
But original Speedsters are becoming increasingly rare, expensive (£80-£100,000) and many collectors would rather tuck them away in a garage instead of shove a surfboard in the back and head to the beach. It is for this reason Dorset-based Tygan produces Speedster replicas, cars that provide the dream but in a more practical package. Tygan is one of Britain’s newest sports car manufacturers and since its birth last February there has been in excess of £500,000 worth of investment in a new manufacturing facility in Beaminster, Dorset. Each car takes two weeks to hand-build from start to finish by 11 people and customers can specify anything from a heated windscreen to discs all round. So far Tygan has sold 26 cars since trading started last June and the company is on target to make 71 cars this year.
The light metallic blue car that I first clap eyes
on when I walk into the factory looks stunning. It is a beautiful shape and, like all Tygans I am told, has been made from a mould taken from an original Speedster. Interestingly, there are a couple of small leather rear seats fitted behind the main buckets – something the original never had – and I’m told a lot of customers specify them. The cars can be painted any colour you want (Mini Pepper White is said to look particularly nice) and it is testament to the new painting facility that the cars belie their GRP composite roots. Nearby there is a black Tygan Speedster – one of 20 that have been created exclusively for Porsche specialist Gmund Cars - which sits on replica five-spoke Fuchs alloys, has disc brakes all round, a sports exhaust and a 2.0 litre Volkswagen -based engine. These cars will sell for £35,995 each, which takes them into the league of some pretty tasty classics. In the corner is a mid-engined 550 Spyder replica that will have a choice between a 2.0l or 2.2l twin Weber carb VW-derived engine – Tygan hope to
have the first Spyders ready for summer.
Production of the Speedsters starts at a Beetle but the only part that is retained is the spine, which is needed to retain the old registration, and all other parts are new. From there Tygan builds up the chassis and fits the bodyshell and all other parts. The re-engineered Arnie Levics engines are four-cylinder air-cooled 1600s, 1800s, or 2 litres, have zero miles, and are made using all new parts. The basic entry cars have a swing arm suspension, while the ‘Sport’ and ‘Lifestyle’ have independent rear suspension.
Today I will be driving a silver 1800cc Tygan with twin Weber carbs. Being 6ft 2”, I could probably do with the lowered floor option, but leg and elbow room is fine. Having owned a Beetle there is a familiarity to the way the Tygan starts, but everything feels brand new. The gear lever clicks neatly into first and the shift action is short and incredibly precise – not something I would expect from an original.
Having 118bhp and an 1800cc engine, in a 850kg car, I am expecting sprightly performance – but this is no fire cracker. Instead you find yourself thrashing the low-revving flat four while snicking the gear leaver between third and fourth. The car doesn’t feel as blustery as I thought it would, despite the screen being about a foot high.
It soon becomes clear this car is more about an ‘experience’ than making fast progress across country. The experience itself is enjoyable and the car has the kind of honest feel that has long
since disappeared from modern cars. The steering is light and the Tygan doesn’t bounce around like I thought it might and rides reasonably well, although it is not the last word in composure. The Tygan does feel like it wants to be tail happy, although the amount of power on offer doesn’t quite manage it. The only problem with the Tygan is it does remind you of a VW Beetle, and considering its make-up this is understandable. I know the 356 and the Beetle’s roots are interwoven but there is no escaping the fact that this car is more VW than Porsche.
Tygan has just supplied the first left hand-drive car to Italy where it will be used as a run-around for its owner, which admittedly does have a certain appeal. But this brings me to the price, which starts at £22,000 for the base model, through the £28,500 fully loaded ‘Lifestyle’ model, to the £36,000 Gmund car. Flicking through Classic & Sports Car I found a 356A cabrio with an MOT for £37,000.
The Tygan is fun to drive, especially on a summer’s day I imagine, and what you get is classic looks but with added practicality and
reliability. Tygans will appeal to a certain type of person, but there will always be those who will want their classic to be exactly that – classic. But if it has to be a Speedster and you haven’t got £100,000, the Tygan does come with a two-year warranty and, ironically, is a British car. I just wonder whether James Dean would have gone for the heated windscreen…