USA TODAY - August 2017 - The joy of replicas: A $5 million car for $50,000

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By: Marco Della Cava

Link to original article: https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/08/28/joy-replicas-5-million-car-50-000/554110001/

The joy of replicas: A $5 million car for $50,000

CHANDLER, Ariz. — While much of the automotive world is fixated on the arrival of the 21st-century's first commercial self-driving car, Daniel Verwers is living back in 1955.

The 31-year-old self-taught engineer and former amateur racer spends his days building artful recreations of one of Porsche's most iconic sports cars, the 550 Spyder.

Built in small numbers in the mid-'50s, the 550 effectively launched the German company into the forefront of international racing thanks to its nimble handling and light weight. Its fame was solidified when actor James Dean died in his 550 on the way to a race near Salinas, Calif., in 1955.

With only around 100 ever made, a real 550 costs big bucks: Porsche collector Jerry Seinfeld recently sold his for $5.3 million.

You might be able to spot a genuine 550 in tony places such as last weekend's annual car-a-palooza, the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance on California's Monterey Peninsula. But at that kind of stratospheric value, maybe not. 

Enter Verwers and his company Seduction Motorsports, which for around $50,000 will build you a meticulous 550 replica that looks the part and actually handles a bit better than the original thanks to a 2017-era suspension.

"You could drive into a Car and Coffee gathering in a $300,000 Ferrari, and I'd be willing to be you'd get more heads turning at this car," says Verwers. "It's just not something you see everyday, because new ones are off in someone's collection. It makes people smile."

Verwers has built more than 30 over the past few years — among his repeat customers is car-crazed Intel CEO Brian Krzanich — and his waiting list is growing. While he mainly delivers completed cars, around 20% of buyers opt for a body and running gear and handle the powerplant addition in their home garages.

Verwers' tributes — like everyone in this line of work, he doesn't market them as being in any way connected to Porsche, and the cars come stripped of all such badging — take at least six months to assemble. The main option is either a more traditional Volkswagen Type I air-cooled engine in back, good for around 160 hp, or a water-cooled, turbocharged Subaru engine for even more power.

Replica cars occupy an increasingly popular niche as a result of two trends.

First, cars today are increasingly mobile computers, devoid of the driving satisfaction inherent in the entire mechanical era from 50 or more years ago.

And second, the value of most legendary old sports cars is skyrocketing, which makes owners loathe to drive them.

"They used to be a rarity, but you go to an outing like (the annual) Hot August Nights meet-up in Reno, and you'll see more and more replica cars there among the real muscle cars," says Dean Hornbacher, president of the Replica Car Club and owner of a replica Cobra that he spend years building at home.

"I'm 66, and back when I was young we knew all about fixing our own cars, which isn't the case now," he says. "But even though most of the people with these cars have grey hair, you're starting to see some interest from younger folks who are just fascinated."

Consider the case of Pur Sang, a southern California-based company whose main workshops are in Argentina. Pur Sang builds wildly accurate recreations of legendary racing cars from Bugatti and Alfa Romeo, circa 1930. 

Today, a Bugatti Type 35 Grand Prix machine could set you back more than $3 million, if you were lucky enough to find one at auction. While Pur Sang commercial director John Bothwell won't say precisely how much his vehicles cost — "You can assume it's less than the price of restoring a real one" — he's seeing growing interest from buyers that go well beyond the tradition Baby Boomer market.

"I'm proselytizing to the younger generation, guys who may buy a new (Porsche) 918 Spyder but quickly see that they're not offering a truly analog driving experience," says Bothwell, who grew up in a family of pre-war car nuts and decided to use Argentinian craftsmen because of their skills in the often lost arts of panel beating and hand-craftsmanship.

"You drive a Bugatti, whether a real one or one of mine, at 70 mph and you feel like you're in a spaceship," he says. "You're part of the machine, nothing is automated."

Pur Sang's customer list also includes well-heeled collectors who have the real thing, but don't want to risk being the ones who totaled a multi-million-dollar museum piece while wheeling around a track, he says. 

There are plenty of vintage car races these days, but no one really flogs their cars the way racers did back in the day, and why should they?" says Bothwell. "But that's why I say the true future of historic racing is in high quality recreations, which give you the feeling of the real car but without the guilt."

Replicas could well start booming soon due to creeping interest by collectors and millennials in search of a retro thrill. Helping the cause is the “Low Volume Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Act of 2015," which gave a federal blessing to anyone making fewer than 325 turn-key cars celebrating real vehicles that are at least 25 years old.

"The law recognizes the unique challenges faced by companies that produce a small number of custom cars," enthused the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Association, which had lobbied for the law for two years.

"There a few dozen companies out there that were waiting for this green light, because they want to respond to not just Boomers who grew up with these cars, but a growing number of younger consumers who are starting to get intrigued by replicas," says Stuart Gosswein, SEMA's senior director of federal government affairs. 

Among the companies poised to take advantage of the new law is Factory Five, which for year has done a brisk business selling engine-less kits for Shelby Cobras, perhaps one of the most celebrated American sports cars of all-time, a winning partnership between racer Carroll Shelby, Ford and British builder AC.

Today, real Cobras sell for millions — the very first Cobra was hammered down for $13 million at auction last year. For $20,000, Factory Five will outfit you with the parts needed to build a Cobra, but not make it run. Starting soon, however, founder Dave Smith plans to offer turn-key replicas under the new law for around $60,000.

"You'd think our business should be falling off in an age of iPhones and digital everything, but it's not," says Smith.

"This isn't just about nostalgia. It's about having something that's beautiful but that you can also work on. Tinkering with cars is just part of the core of the American experience. In fact, I bet this gets more popular the closer we get to autonomous cars."

Spending a few hours in Verwers faux-550 shop just east of Phoenix is indeed a trip back in time. About six cars sit in various states of undress, from simple, unpainted fiberglass bodies to cars that are ready to be trucked to their new owners.

Verwers has various subcontractors who handles various aspects of the build, and he makes sure the final assembly is up to his highly picky standards. "You could probably get a replica 550 Spyder for less, but I'm interesting in selling something special that will last," he says.

On a ride around the warehouse district near the Seduction Motorsports garage, the Verwers-built 550 appears to summon up most of the magic of its rare namesake.

There's brisk acceleration thanks to its trim 1,300-pound weight. Sharp handling due to modern running gear. And a wind-in-the-face and roar-in-the-ears experience that would likely delight the men who drove Porsche's original giant killer. 

"Does it get better than this?" Verwers asks with a grin. He stabs the gas pedal and is gone.