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SPECIAL REPORT: DREAM MACHINES

Reinventing the Wheel

Chuck Beck: Civilized Race Cars

October 29, 1998|JOHN O'DELL

For Chuck Beck, the goal is speed, and the vehicles are his improved, street-legal versions of two classic race cars, the 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder and the 1954 Lister, an open sports car that then was powered by a growling Jaguar engine and now, in Beck's interpretation, uses a screaming Corvette power plant.

Beck is not given to a lot of introspection, so he has a pretty simple--and simply elegant--explanation for what drives him.

"I do it because that's what I enjoy," he says.

Beck, 61, says his last "real job" was in 1967, as a mechanic for Carroll Shelby's racing team. "That's if you can call building Ford GT40s and going off to Europe to race them a job," he says with a laugh.

"If I had been born wealthy, I'd still be off in a corner somewhere, building cars and screwing around with them."

Beck chose the classic '55 Spyder for its look but devised his own suspension, replaced the original 45-horsepower VW-derived engine with a modern 120-horse power plant and refashioned the body in lightweight fiberglass, adding embellishments like interior carpets, door seals and comfortable seats to a car Porsche sold as a race-only model, stripped to the bare metal.

Demand for the $21,000 sports cars lets Beck keep a factory with 10 employees running at full capacity in Brazil. The cars are built there and shipped to his one-person shop in Upland, where he installs the final trim pieces and tweaks the engines before turning them over to customers. He says he has sold 980 Beck Spyders in the last 15 years.

In 1986, Beck tackled another project, improving the Lister, a car whose looks he had loved since he first saw one in the 1950s.

Beck's version is longer, lighter, more rigid and a lot faster, with engines that start at 350 horsepower and go wherever the customer desires. Like the Spyder, it also comes with amenities, including weatherproof door seals, that the original didn't have.

"We have civilized race cars for the street," he says of his tiny company.

For Beck, it's a vocation that keeps him elbow-deep in the thing he loves most.

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