Purely a two seater.

Elegant Spyder has a tale to tell

Car: Beck 550 Spyder

Drive: Les Corniche, France (100km)

Pix: Dawn Green


Those given to superstition should read no further. I’m driving a car that flauntingly pays homage to one in which a giant of the big screen suffered a grisly death.

And, although half a world away, I’m nearing the very spot on a road where another Hollywood legend crashed and later died. To some, this might seem like I’m courting my own date with destiny.

In case you haven’t figured: luminaries – James Dean and Princess Grace (nee Kelly) of Monaco. Car – Beck 550 Spyder (replica). Road – Route de la Turbie, Cote D’Azur, France. 

Apologies for the tales from the crypt intro. At the time of driving, up in the magic mountains above Monte Carlo, it’s more about living in the moment which you invariably do when braking, downshifting to 2nd and winding on the just-so increment of lock in a lightweight roadster to take a downhill hairpin safe and sound. Especially when there’s only a small stone wall between you and a vertiginous drop. 

Low and lean.


The D37, to use its official nomenclature, is a partner in sublime with a trio of roads, Les Corniche, running parallel to each other east from Nice towards Menton. 

Highest is the Grande Corniche which rises to more than 450m (on average 150m) above sea level. Built by Napoléon I, the D2564 traces the route of the Roman-era Via Julia Augusta from Nice to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.

One level down is the Moyenne Corniche (M6007), while the Basse Corniche (M6098) courts the coastline.

Les Corniche have provided a stunning backdrop on the big-screen; think How to Catch a Thief (starring, incidentally Grace Kelly), Grace of Monaco (Nicole Kidman, playing Princess Grace), and 007 classics, Diamonds are Forever and GoldenEye. 

Built by the small specialist firm of Beck in Michigan, the Spyder 550 Replica from Rent a Classic Car Nice evokes the spirit and mechanicals of the iconic Porsche original convincingly.

The tube-frame chassis is a well-made replication, though the body is glass-fibre, not alloy, and the Volkswagen flat-four is 600cc bigger at 2.1-litre and more powerful at 112kW (versus 101kW from the Porsche’s unit). 

Dean’s car sported red leather seats, red flashing on the rear bodywork and ‘Little Bastard’ (his name for the car) signwriting. ‘Our’ particular Beck is finished in white with black leather seats, red darts on the wings and period-correct Mobil Pegasus signage. 

What the Spyder lacks is a roof of any kind. This does not impress my wife, whose English complexion, despite the best part of a lifetime in Australia, fares poorly when exposed to the direct sun, the likes of which the Cote d’Azur is bathed in.

Nor is there a port in which to plug our TomTom, so we’ll be relying on street signs and a ‘mud map’ to get into and out of bustling Nice. 

All of which has pretty much ruled out driving on to Monte Carlo, primarily to cut a lap of the F1 street circuit still being pulled down a couple of weeks after Daniel Riccardo’s cracking win in his Red Bull.

We do get there, but by train and walk around. Smart move, what with the traffic frustrations.

Porsche 550 Spyder Beck Replica 1
Rear-engined, air-cooled flat-four, just like the original.


While the tiny doors open and shut via a simple pull-cord release, I slide in using the top of the seat back and large, thin-rimmed steering wheel for support and sink into the, err, minimal bucket seat. Buckling up the vintage, aircraft-style lap belt further adds to the period feel. 

The three pedals are set a little high and close together for my liking, but I turn the key and hit the starter, the flat-four bursts into life and I wait for the revs to settle.

I shift into 1st, let out the floor-mounted clutch pedal, release the handbrake, roll on the throttle and drive off into once upon a time in Hollywood.

First up, the Basse Corniche. Built in the 1860s, the M6098 sweeps by elegant 19th century villas in joining the postcard-perfect Villefranche-sur-Mer, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Èze-sur-Mer and Cap d’Ail. 

Even at low speeds, the Spyder is a hoot to drive, engaging all five senses. We have unimpaired sight to the front and sides, hear the raspy exhaust rise when powering on and crackling on overrun, smell the tangy, salt air, and can almost reach out and touch the roadway, such is the tiny sportster’s ride height. Only taste is missing, although metaphorically the drive itself is truly something to savour.

We turn off to the Moyenne Corniche. Built between 1910 and 1928, the M6007 was hewn out of rock to link Nice, Col de Villefranche, Èze and Beausoleil.

The climb and succession of bends brings out the athleticism in the Spyder and we sweep upwards nearly 500m to be rewarded with OMG views of the azure Mediterranean and ochre-roofed villages below.

The dollar shot is an ancient, arched stone Devil’s Bridge leading into the must-see hill-top village of Eze, a monumental legacy of the might of Rome that conquered these parts in 200 BC. 

7 Monaco with the F1 circuit still in pull down
Monte Carlo, with the F1 circuit still in pulldown.


The Moyenne also leads to the D37, the Route de la Turbie and scene of Grace’s fateful crash.

The nature of the road makes it unsuitable to stop at the very location, so it’s best to push on into La Turbie for coffee and close inspection of the imposing remains of the Tropaeum Alpium, built by Roman Emperor Augustus to celebrate his victory over the Ligurian tribes in 6 BC.

In much more recent times, it’s made an evocative photographic backdrop for the WRC Monte Carlo Rally winners.

By now, the day has now turned into a proper scorcher and we’re not just contending with the sun beating down, but chronically-strong petrol fumes infiltrating the cockpit. My wife is at the point of being nauseous and I’m not far behind.

I check for a loose fuel line or other obvious sign of trouble, but find nothing. Very reluctantly, we make the decision to cut short our day and return to Nice.   

On the way, I mentally perform an autopsy of our drive, one that over-promised but, due to circumstances, under-delivered.

The Spyder revealed itself as a frisky, if pesky, character. The narrow (by modern standards) rubber and relatively stiff suspension and light weight meant it skipped around on anything short of smooth road surface. 

That said, the overall feel was of a litheness and liveliness mostly missing in modern sportsters offering a surplus of grip. This made the non-assisted steering seem suitably weighted and turn-in feel precise and reassuring.

With such little heft all-up, the front disc/rear drum brakes worked well. It all made for a driving experience that is best summed up in a word – visceral.

But, oh, those petrol fumes. Given that James Dean called his car ‘The Little Bastard’, maybe ‘our’ Spyder today acted out its role of replica a little too realistically.



Beck 550 Spyder

Price: N/A

Engine: 2.1-litre flat four-cyl

Power: 112kW+

Torque: N/A

Transmission: 4-spd manual

Weight: N/A

Drive: Rear-wheel

0-100km/h: N/A


The Story Behind the Story

I’m figuring anyone visiting this website would be acquainted with the life and death story of James Dean and his 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder.

Suffice to say, he died on September 30, 1955 at the Cholame intersection of Route 466 in California, when another vehicle pulled out in front of him. The violent crash, as all know, immortalised Dean and The Little Bastard in popular culture and motoring folklore.

Princess Grace’s demise is perhaps not so well known, at least among car buffs. On September 13, 1982, she and daughter, Princess Stephanie, set off together from home in the family 11-year-old Rover 3500. The pair had train tickets to Paris, where 17-year-old Stephanie was about to start school. About 3km outside of La Turbie, Grace missed a particularly sharp turn, with the Rover plunging over a 40m slope.

Stephanie later revealed that her mother had been suffering a headache, and seemingly blacked-out momentarily. Then the car began to swerve, before going full speed ahead over the cliff. It’s surmised that she might have either confused the brake with the accelerator, or didn’t have full use of her legs.

Days later, doctors confirmed that they found evidence of Grace having a “cerebral vascular incident.” She died a day after the crash, from a second haemorrhage, aged 52.


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