I first lusted over the car I’m now test driving parked outside the shop doors off Vancouver’s Main Street with another six cars parked inside in various states of assembly. Glossy and pulsing red, it stood out from the blues, blacks and silvers of the other Intermeccanicas in assembly.
Whether it’s the scents of ocean or spring, blurring pavement, rushing air or the warbling rasp of an engine behind me, I suddenly want to stretch up both hands to feel the wind force flowing over top the stubby windshield. Arms to be thrust up, shoved back by the wind blast, the assault of warm air at 100 km/h. Face skyward, a joyful shout no one would hear in the din. Henry Reisner, the Vancouver automobile manufacturer whose family has built this model for more than two decades, has been quietly selling this exhilaration worldwide. Earlier this year he shipped one of the nimble little cars overseas to England to a customer who chases hot-air balloons, the open-top roadster charging along rural dirt roads, dodging the interminable rain showers. (Convertibles, ironically, are immensely popular in soggy England.) In a few days the little red sports car that’s now hurtling me along will be on the back of a truck and shipped to Florida where it will exercise its modern air conditioning, the cloth roof up to block the relentless sun. But Vancouver, like England – a quixotic climate of downpour and sunshine – is the ideal place to appreciate the changing seasons and to seize the day with the top down. I haven’t felt this intoxicating mix of speed and sound since I was last behind the wheel of my own now-vanished roadster, a silver 1980 Alfa Romeo Spider with lines nearly as lovely as an Intermeccanica. In my most vivid memory, the Alfa’s black canvas roof is peeled back, pulling every particle of dust up, out and twisting off the gentle curve of the Spider’s trunk, like a vapor trail from a jet. In addition to the joy of driving topless, my finicky Alfa also taught me that owning and driving an old sports car – like spiritual fulfillment – does not come easily. Minutes of ecstasy behind the wheel are paid for by hours stooping over a rounded fender, a trouble light casting yellow and shadows into places where brackets, nuts and bolts are sure to fall. Or lying supine beneath the car in a dark garage, muttering softly and thinking, too late, about safety glasses as bits of dried grease, road tar and sand fall into your eyes. The Alfa Spider is gone now. Its awful memories left a scar. Of course, so did losing thousands of dollars on Nortel. But, as in the stock market, confidence returns. It’s time for another sports car – the kind that provides the charm and character of the old, but none of its chronic malfunctions and maladies. I first met the car I’m now test driving parked outside the shop doors off Vancouver’s Main Street with another six cars parked inside in various states of assembly. Glossy and pulsing red, it stood out from the blues, blacks and silvers of the other Intermeccanicas in assembly. Eight craftsmen build 24 roadsters each year, mainly for the U.S. and Japanese markets in addition to the odd car sold at home in B.C. (the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Transport Canada forbids sales in the rest of the country). In addition to the Roadster RS – a new, updated reproduction of a 1959 Porsche 356 that’s superior in many ways to the original – Intermeccanica produces the occasional Speedster (another early Porsche model similar to the 356) and the Kubelwagen, a reproduction of the Second World War German version of a Jeep. Reisner moves quickly through the tour of his 740-square-metre shop, where production doesn’t look any more modernized than back in the 1960s when the first Intermeccanica-designed car rolled out of Italy. Headed by Henry’s father, Frank Reisner, the manufacturer relocated to San Bernardino, California in 1975 and to Vancouver seven years later. The company has stayed put since. Despite having cut deals with General Motors and Ford for engine supply on its models in the 1960s, Intermeccanica doesn’t owe anything to Henry Ford’s cookie-cutter production methods. “For f***ing ever” is Henry Reisner’s estimate of the time required to build a new roadster. From Day One, when the box-section steel frame is welded together, to the shake down and final tune done by Reisner, the assembly takes about four months. But the whole process, from signing the contract to agonizing whether to choose a classic period-correct color versus say, a blazing red, takes about a year. In 1959, amid a sea of lumbering winged Cadillacs and behemoth Pontiac Biscaynes, the tiny Porsche 356 upon which the Intermeccanica Roadster is based must have seemed like an inverted alien bathtub from beyond our galaxy. There are no flat planes, folds or creases. Only gentle curves and swooping lines. Intermeccanica’s machines are primly ignored by Porsche AG, the German sports-car giant with corporate linkages to Volkswagen AG. (By the way, Intermeccanica uses new Volkswagen mechanicals today, as did the original Porsche 356.) The Intermeccanica Roadster is not so much an imitation of something else, in this case one of the most beautiful Porsches ever produced, but a faithful rendering of something no modern manufacturer could possibly do in an age of airbags, million-dollar crash testing and stringent emission standards. And unlike the New Beetle and the New Mini, the Intermeccanica is not an interpretation of yesterday – it is yesterday, the best of yesterday. Intermeccanica has a history as a designer and builder of sports cars only one year younger than the Porsche 356, upon which the B.C. company’s Roadster RS is based. In 1959 Henry’s father, Frank Reisner, a Hungarian-Canadian chemical engineer with a background in automotive paints, moved with his new wife Paula (today, her son’s business partner) to Italy, a hotbed of automotive design and independent coach-building. Once there, he opened his own company, Intermeccanica, as a supplier of tuning kits for small European cars. From 1960 to 1974 the small firm designed and produced several hundred models of front-engine GT coupes and convertibles, wedding Italian design to American mechanicals. Among the best hybrid was the Buick V8-engined coupe, the Apollo GT, designed by Franco Scaglione, one of Italy’s greatest automotive stylists. (The Intermeccanica cars designed during the 1960s in Italy, which include the Apollo, Indra and Italia, are now rarities and high-priced collectibles.) The beauty of the Roadster RS – what’s become the company’s mainstay product since 1982, when it relocated from California to B.C. – is that it is built for driving, not for dry storage inside a guarded garage or vacuum-charged glass case in an automotive museum. The red car I’m in is worth US$40,000 or about what a nicely restored original Porsche 356 costs – a car you’d be afraid to drive down in value by actually driving it. The price is roughly the same as a well-optioned SUV sans cupholders, airbags or central locking. No bags of groceries or children piled in back; this machine seats only two. “More than anything, my buyers are recapturing lost youth,” says Henry Reisner, who has continued the tradition of automobile manufacturing inherited from his father. “When they were young they had one, or wanted one. Now they can afford it.” [pagebreak] I can’t afford it. Wasn’t born when the original Porsche was manufactured. Have three small kids and a wife who won’t all fit in the passenger’s seat. I want one. A few blocks from Intermeccanica’s shop, I wind the 2.1-litre engine just to hear those big carburetors gulp air and the exhaust ricochet off the concrete underpass. An hour later I’m playing the same song between rock walls on the highway to Squamish, riffing notes up and down the short and snappy gearbox. The early Porsches had a reputation for ‘oversteer’ or what happens when the tail of a car slides first. One consequence of a big oversteer slide is to drive off the road backwards. The Sea-to-Sky cliffs await the unwary. “It’s exciting, but exciting in a good way,” Henry assured me the night before, as I wondered aloud about executing an old-fashioned spin to complete the retro experience. There’s no snap oversteer or hint of nervousness in this roadster. It would blow the doors off my departed Alfa Spider, if they didn’t fall off themselves. But as much as Reisner’s cars are about driving (thankfully, without any trauma-inducing slides to recount), they’re also about circling about the machine, a cup of dark coffee in hand, sip, stare and enjoy. Not only at the shape but the details. Slender chrome bezels surround the gauges on the dash. A chromed rod emerges from the leather dash to support the windshield. The door handles fold down elegantly against the panels. Sleek shape, curves and details get more attention than any new car. On the road, children point. A woman outside a shopping mall in Squamish exclaims “How cute! What is it?” A 50-something guy wearing suspenders and a farmer’s baseball cap stops in the middle of the parking lot. He gets out, does a slow 360-degree walk around the parked Intermeccanica before heading back to his dullard pickup truck and driving off. This little red roadster is well optioned, but sensibly so. Everything from the carpet (I’ll take the German square-weave wool, thank you) to the color and the drivetrain is à la carte. The 140 horses I’m driving is about midway in performance specs between the pottering stock air-cooled VW engine familiar to anyone who has driven an original Beetle, to the blitzkrieg of a Porsche 911 drivetrain with 200-plus horsepower in a car weighing little more than 2,000 pounds total. This compares with the 60 to 90 horsepower of the original Porsche 356 of the late 1950s and 1960s. The Sea-to-Sky highway isn’t an autobahn. To do a modern Porsche justice, you’d have to push it well past the posted speed limit, double or triple. You might as well flip your driver’s licence out the sunroof before the Squamish RCMP takes it away. That, or be the subject of a coroner’s investigation. The limits of the updated, but steadfastly old-school Intermeccanica are far lower; pushing the envelope is achievable. Through hairpin turns and fast sweepers of the Sea to Sky Highway, I’m snapping up and down the four-speed transmission, the engine behind me thrumming in its mechanical sweet zone. My mechanical mojo hasn’t been this stimulated since the bad old days of my Alfa when the thrill of driving was accompanied by the agony of getting home on my feet. I’m following a small sedan heading back from Squamish, doing the speed limit yet enjoying myself immensely. Any modern sports car would make this feel as fast as paddling a canoe. As I pull off the highway to stop at the Furry Creek exit, hot tires lift gravel fragments from the shoulder, gently showering the inside of the fenders. The cooling engine pops and snaps behind me. Its heat drifts skyward out of the finned engine vent. My head tilts back. Not to shout to the open sky but to rest on the pebbled grain of a leather headrest, savoring sunshine and the post-rush buzz of driving one of B.C.’s finest roads in a roadster conceived almost 50 years ago and recreated in a gritty eastside shop today. So sweet Intermeccanica Roadster RS specs (as tested) Engine 2100 cc (bored out from stock 1600 cc) air-cooled, boxer-type flat four-cylinder 140 HP Body and chassis • Two-seat convertible; stayfast cloth top, removable rear window • Full leather interior; square-weave wool carpeting. • Fibreglass laminate body; riveted and bonded to steel tubular, perimeter frame; • Front crush zone Brakes Front and rear disc Suspension Front – independent with parallel trailing arms, torsion bars Rear – independent with trailing arms Steering – worm and roller gear Wheels Chromed steel wheels: 15” x 5” front; 15” x 7” rear Base price: US$30,750 Price as tested: US$40,000