Kit cars have always had a bit of a stigma, a taboo welling up from the musty snorts of collectors wishing to purify the automotive gene pool and banish all facsimiles. While this apprehension has some well-founded justifications, there are examples that defy the naysayers.
The goal of most modern kit cars is to take the rare and exotic and make it accessible. Cars like the Shelby Cobra and GT40 are two of the most prolific examples, but what if you’re a car connoisseur of the Porsche variety? Rare racing specimens from Stuttgart are few and far between, and existing examples command millions at auction.
Porsche has made what are arguably the most involved driver’s cars, blending tactile interface and feedback with precision German engineering from the beginning. The 356 Speedster is the classic roadster sportscar; light, simple, and nimble. This car and its descendant — the 900-series — have spawned a car culture following that ranges from the most staunch purists to the most fringe outlaws.Whether you feel more at home on the rolling fairways of a gentile concourse, or under a gritty overpass with the likes of Magnus Walker and his cronies, Porsche culture runs deep. The early racing Porsche releases — those that predate the 911 — were things of languid beauty, with designs clearly informed by the industrial design push of the mid 20th century. Racing drivers like George Follmer, celebrities like James Dean, and the general public were captivated by these traditionally silver cars — and that nostalgia for enduring design, burns in the hearts of many motorists today.
Owning a piece of this history is becoming increasingly more difficult. With the relatively recent price bubble that seems to have inflated all examples of the marque, enthusiasts need to look outside the badge for driving satisfaction. This is where niche kit car manufacturers like Rock West Racing find its toehold.
Rock West Composites is a manufacturer of carbon fiber and other raw material composites for the aerospace, defense, and racing/consumer markets, and is the parent company of Rock West Racing. If you ever come across pre-fab carbon fiber plate or tube, chances are it came out of its Utah-based manufacturing facility. While much of its business is aviation-centered and of a sensitive nature, Rock West also serves professional and amateur racers with raw materials used for structural and aerodynamic aides. “The Corvette American LeMans team and Formula SAE (college teams) buy tubing and plating from us,” explained Elliot Gormican of Rock West Racing.Gormican showed us around the Rock West Racing San Diego facility, where its vintage Porsche recreations are given life. If these kit cars look familiar, you’re not wrong. Thunder Ranch was a well-known, San Diego-based manufacturer of these cars for years before a few changes of hand landed the company’s assets in the stewardship of Rock West.
“Thunder Ranch partnered up with another company called Carrera Coachwerks, and when that went under we purchased the tooling from them. The CEO has always liked these cars and when he found an opportunity to get in on them he took it. He has taken his car out to autocross events and just to cruise around. We’ve tried to be good to the customer and meet our target deadlines and everything,” Gormican assured. “We have tooling for all four of the models that Thunder Ranch had going, the 356, 550, 718, and 904. We’ve improved tools, we had to change and modify a few things.”
Most common among the replica car offerings are the 356 A Speedster roadsters. These rear-engined two-seaters are faithful reproductions of the original Porsche sports car that debuted in 1948 as a hardtop, as well as the revised version in the ’50s. Long have these cars been coveted and raced, but also resto-modded in accordance with the “Outlaw Porsche” movement. The Rock West variants employ a VW Beetle Type 1 front and rear suspension, much like the original, but with improvements such as updated IRS versus the swing axle suspension originally used.
As ridiculous as it is to call a real 356 a pedestrian and mainstream car in terms of availability and performance, we must in comparison to the successors: the 550 and 718 Spyder. These aluminum-bodied cars are famed for their runs at LeMans, Targa Florio, and in the case of the 550 Spyder, James Dean’s tragic death. These cars broke away from the Porsche proclivity for rear-engined drivetrains, and mounted an exotic four-cam, air-cooled four-cylinder powerplant mid-engine. These engines are celebrated for their rarified volumetric efficiency in the era — extracting upwards of 150 horsepower out of a mere 1.5 liters. When we’re talking air-cooled and carbureted, that is a feat.
The Rock West 550 and 718 RSK are fiberglass-bodied but still replicate the dimensional proportions of the original with the highest accuracy — a point of contention amongst many aspiring kit builders. The chassis designs reflect the original construction too, with an aviation aesthetic and propensity for small tubing triangulated throughout the cockpit.
This customers 550 features a big 2.3-liter Type 1 engine with dual Weber IDFs and Rock West's custom cast, five-blade Porsche cooling fan. A special cable shift linkage retains the traditional H-pattern, despite the mid-engine layout.
A Subaru H4 adorns the Rock West CEO’s 356 rather than a traditional air-cooled engine.
As far as engine choices go, the original four-cam engines are unobtainable. Other air-cooled performance mills swap in nicely for comparable or better performance and that iconic coarse Porsche bark and induction burble. Such power plants as the VW Type 1 and Type 4 stick to the air-cooled heritage and offer vintage looks, but millennials may feel more comfortable with a Subaru EJ25 — another option to take the power-to-weight ratio from neck straining to neck-snapping.
The most track-focused of Rock West’s current offerings is the legendary Porsche 904. This six-cylinder mid-engined coupe borrowed architecture from the 550 and 718 to make a name for itself at the same illustrious events. The original cars were the first Porsches to be fiberglass, so the Rock West follows suit, while employing a revamped chassis. The Rock West is built on a full racing chassis modernized for the demands of track duty.
“The suspension geometry for our 904 was all designed before we acquired the tooling, but was supposedly done with the help of someone from Lotus … but, as with a lot of kit cars, there are parts of the story that you don’t know,” Gormican alluded.
The last variant Gormican had to show us was a teaser for an in-house restomod concept, dubbed the Spyder RS. This Platform takes the styling from the 550 and the performance design of the 904 and packages them in a car that most (tall) Americans find more palatable.
“The Spyder RS uses the chassis of the 904, so it’s full chromoly tube-frame A-arm, and mid-engined. The body is basically the normal 550 Spyder, except it’s wider and longer to accommodate people six-feet tall and above. You can put a racing seat in it, and a full-size six-cylinder 911 engine. They’re just finishing up doing a custom steering setup that’s based off the 944,” Gormican explained.“The running gear is Porsche 944 stuff, but the suspension is all custom. The spindles are OEM 944 to mate up with the steering, but then the pedals are aftermarket — Wilwood to get a racing setup in there along with all Wilwood brakes. There’s a plan to do a carbon version of the 904 and potentially the Spyder RS,” he hinted.
Now knowing the options, only one question remains. Which car suits your taste? Deciding what your fabrication and building aptitude can be tricky, especially if you have never embarked on a project like this before. And while many first time builders choose to go the kit car route, it’s still easy to get in over their head. Rock West does its best to match a kit to the wants and skills of each customer.
“We coach them through deciding what level of kit they want, whether they want a big project of building up from just the body and chassis, or a step up to a deluxe or a roller. We guide the customer depending on which kit model they are interested in, we will do a turn-key car but we like to sell kits because it’s what we’re good at,” Gormican offered.
In our opinion, a track-bred 718 RSK with a snarling 3.0-liter Type-4, some R-comps, a wraparound windscreen, and a few modern racing accouterments would be the business. What do you think?
The lonely 718 just waiting to be built.