Along Comes a Spyder To celebrate the 50th anniversary of its ur-roadster, Porsche brings out a limited-edition Boxster worthy of the legend.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – To evoke history is a perilous marketing ploy, mostly because the past can be messy. It includes all sorts of nasty, unpleasant things, one of which I will now describe in some detail. On a late Friday afternoon in September 1955, actor James Dean was racing along Highway 466 from Los Angeles to the rural town of Salinas. As Dean neared a lonely intersection 25 miles east of Paso Robles, a college student named Donald Turnupseed, driving a blocky 1950 Ford sedan, approached from the opposite direction. The Ford began to veer across the center line, turning left onto Highway 41. Blinded by the setting sun, Dean noticed Turnupseed an instant too late and plowed his roadster headlong into the Ford. Turnupseed's car erased the left side of Dean's vehicle, snapping the 24-year-old actor's neck; Dean's passenger, a mechanic named Rolf Wütherich, flew a dozen feet on impact before striking down, suffering a shattered jaw, a broken leg, and several other nonfatal injuries. Turnupseed climbed out of the Ford with only minor scrapes and later returned to college.

The car James Dean was driving that day was a two-seat, mid-engine convertible Porsche, a model officially known as the 550 Spyder but which he lovingly called the Little Bastard. After seeing tabloid photographs of the bloody front seat of Dean's accordioned Little Bastard, a rational person has but one thought: Buy a Ford sedan. Instead, sales of the Spyder soared. Salvaged pieces of Dean's 550, including the engine and frame and tires, were repurposed during the next few years, and urban myth has it that as many as 13 additional accidents ensued, leading some people to proclaim that the car was cursed. Again one thinks: Ford sedan. By then, however, the Spyder had passed through notoriety into legend, where it remains. Porsche likes to attribute the Spyder's status to a string of remarkable racing achievements, but in truth it was the high-profile accidents that made the Spyder's, um, bones.

Even so, Porsche has dug up the old moniker to commemorate the 50 years that have passed since the introduction of the 550. The modern incarnation is a slightly sweetened version of the Boxster S, the company's current two-seat, mid-engine convertible offering. Among other homages to the Spyder, only 1,953 Boxster S Anniversary Edition vehicles are being produced, a limited run that guarantees collector status for the car, and nifty resale values too. (Just to underscore the rarity, a small silver badge on the dash tastefully announces the vehicle's number--mine was 6. Pity the soul who purchases 666.) Wherever possible, Porsche has dressed up the Boxster in the Spyder's old clothes: lovely dark-silver metallic paint, stainless-steel tips on the exhaust, and an interior redone in deep cocoa brown, from the leather seats and dash to the carpets. It's an undeniably handsome tribute. The anniversary model tracks just a little wider than the off-the-rack Boxster and has 18-inch wheels, a shorter-throw six-speed gearbox, and a few extra horses, which can take the car to 165 mph--though, as history cautions, you really ought not.

Somehow it's fitting that Porsche draped all this anniversary bunting over the Boxster, because the car has some heavy baggage of its own. Nothing vehicular, mind you. The Boxster came out in 1997, was improved in 2000 with the Boxster S model, and improved yet again in 2003. It's a dramatically good roadster: nimble, fun, sexy. But it hit showrooms just as the new economy bloomed and was soon the default car among the snotty set. "Boxsters became more numerous than Camrys in Silicon Valley," one angel investor groused on CNN, during an economic autopsy in December 2000. When the market crashed, sales of Boxsters died right along with it, and they've only lately begun to show stirrings of life. For 1,953 buyers hoping to relive a little history, the timing is perfect.

Late one afternoon I took the anniversary Boxster out on Highway 466--now called Highway 46--which runs like a stitch up the central coast of California. As did its forebear, the car has an engine mounted just in front of the rear axle, which lays the center of gravity--of which the driver is part--almost perfectly in the center of things. Thus the Porsche doesn't turn so much as pivot: One instant you're headed into the sunset, and the next you're chasing the car's lengthening shadow, yet the whole swoop feels as if you've merely spun your bar stool. Porsche lowered the anniversary model's ride, fattened up the damping and springs, tightened the gearbox, and made this limited edition even more responsive than the standard Boxster S. The engine is a bit more basso, and when the top is down--and the top should always be down--there's an addictive whoop-whoosh as you shift into and out of curves.

Though the automaker could not match the slippery beauty of the original Spyder, it managed to polish this model into fine form. And in almost every way, the car beats the one it commemorates. Gone is the Spyder's goatee windshield, replaced with a perfectly raked screen that burrows a hole in the air and silences the outside world. Porsche has swaddled the driver with front and side airbags, stability management, a Bose sound system, and, as an option, a GPS device to alert you to approaching intersections that might go (sadly) unnoticed. Add the beefed-up brakes and a suspension that's noticeably stiffer than the standard Boxster's, and you have a car that is faster, more responsive, safer, and just plain cooler than every other Boxster--not to mention every other roadster--on the streets today. About the only thing Porsche overlooked was a good pair of polarized sunglasses, which come in handy late in the afternoon on highways such as 46. Several hours into my drive, as the glare sliced across the brown hills, I pulled over long enough to fish my shades from a pocket, then punched the Porsche back into traffic, which had clogged and slowed. Cars stacked up in clots of three and four, and I zipped the Boxster up the line and finally overtook the problem: a family of tourists in a blocky sedan. Once passed, they were history.