We've all got favorite cars. One of those cars exists in our minds as a hypothetical über-favorite car, one built from all the best traits of every year our favorite car was made. For most of us, this remains a drool-producing daydream, but not for the people at Singer. They're actually building these no-longer-imaginary cars.
For Singer (especially its founder ex-Catherine Wheel frontman Rob Dickinson) that car is the Porsche 911. And while Singer doesn't build 911s — I had to sign a multi-page document confirming that I absolutely understood that Singer is not building entire cars that they call 911s — they do restore and largely rebuild Porsche 911s, and the resulting car is known as the Porsche 911 Reimagined by Singer or something like that. But I'll just call these cars 911s, and you'll know what I mean and nobody will get sued. Deal?
These 911s are pretty much exactly how most 911 fans would want their cars if money was no object. And, for the people who buy these cars, which start at around $350,000, it isn't. There's not many of them around just yet — about 11 total have been or are in the process of being built, and around the workshop the cars are referred to by their destination country. When I visited, "Dubai" was in the process of being built and "Indonesia" was essentially done, with "Sonoma" (US cars are named by cities, being the only country so far with multiple Singer-rewhatevered 911s) starting production.
These 911s started life as the pentultimate of the air-cooled 911 line, the 964 models, made from 1989-1994. So the base mechanicals start from the pinnacle of air-cooled 911 development, while the look and feel are from a much earlier source, the first-generation, original, long-nose 911.
It's actually even more specific than that. There's a car at the workshop that's really the spirit animal of all the Singer-reworked 911s, and that's Rob's own 1969 Porsche 911E, modified to be close to a 911R, the period racing version of the 911. This lovely little orange brute has many of the visual cues and overall look that the Singer cars aspire to: the exposed hood-mounted fuel filler, the oil cap on the rear quarter panel, the bumperlets on the rear, and a certain plucky gutsiness that gets lost as the 911 ages and grows more refined.
A Singer-reprocessed 911 is a 964 base car with most of its body stripped off and replaced with carbon-fiber panels that make it look much more like an early long-nose 911. Lighting and other details are similar to, but not exactly like the original sources. They're better.
Let's take something as mundane as the lights, for example. Rob wanted the look of the vintage lights, but found the screw holes and heads that you could see in the original parts too, I don't know, crude. He loved the design, but wanted to make it a sort of Plationic ideal of what it could be, so he had the entire light units remade, lens, buckets, everything, so he could use advanced bonding compounds instead of screws to create beautiful, unblemished, sleek units. And they are amazing. He made some modifications for safety and modernity — the former horn grille is now a driving light, for example. This attention to a detail light the lighting unit construction is just a sample to how the whole car is treated.
Everything that's salvaged from the donor car is disassembled, cleaned, and refreshed. That goes for HVAC air boxes to mounting hardware to, well, everything they keep, which isn't all that much. The whole interior is redone to a degree that makes a Rolls-Royce interior look like a good place to eat a chili dog. References to the original car abounds, but re-worked. The original stamped-vinyl basketweave pattern on the early 911 dash is remade with real basket-woven leather straps, in whatever color the client wants. Everything that sits still for five minutes gets nickel-plated, and modern entertainment systems are seamlessly integrated into the dash with subtle and period-resembling controls.
What I find most appealing about what Singer is doing to these Porsches is that they are creating a very modern car with race-bred engine (making about 350 HP/275 lb-ft), suspension, and body components, but maintaining the raw, machine-like feel of a vintage sports car. It's a direct response to modern 911s (and really most any modern sports car) which every year insulates the driver more and more from the fundamental feeling of controlling a large, powerful machine. Yes modern cars are more comfortable, safer, and easier to drive than ever, but the process of achieving that has a pretty substantial cost in feeling and soul.
Of course, to get that feeling and soul back, there's a pretty substantial cost in, well, cost. To be fair, the stomach-dropping price tags do make a grudging sort of sense when you see how these are built. Everything, every little detail on these cars is considered and made the best way it can be. From eliminating rubber bushings in favor of race-grade spherical bearings to the routing of the control lines to the freaking quilted leather in the engine compartment, nothing is taken for granted.
I took a picture of a wall of Singer's workshop around where the donor cars are stored. On it, spraypainted in the cursive script of a man who's stayed up way too long, is the phrase "everything is important." Rob told me he spray painted that there one loopy night, and, really, I can't think of a better way to sum up what makes these cars special. Everything is important. From the HVAC fan to the big orange tach to the material of the seats to the intake plenum to the headers to whatever — all parts are treated with respect and care, and it all adds up to one stunning car.
That's not to say the cars are perfect. I get the sense that each one is sort of a perpetual work in progress, and improvements and tweaks are happening all the time. At the Willow Springs, I saw Tiff Needell hoon the Indonesia car around the track. When Rob asked him if it ws a sub 5 second to 60 MPH car, Tiff told him no. Then I think he laughed. You could see Rob cringe, and Marlon start doing some math in his head, because it's clear this car will get to that point before long. But it'll still take some work.
The Singer workshop is clean and organized, and also a lot smaller and more modest than you might imagine. Everyone was very friendly and open, and let me take pictures of almost everything, more of which I have below. There's also a two-part interview with Rob, and another one with Marlon Goldberg, the mechanical genius behind the technical side of things. Listening to the two of them talk should give a good idea of what makes these cars so compelling. Plus, I have a shot of some whiteboard goofiness in there that I'm looking forward to hearing everyone's theories on.
They said I could drive one of these when they're ready. I can't wait.
Have some more pictures from the workshops:
This trunk is finished nicer than my whole house. Note the fuel filler rubber funnel which makes the unit look like a speaker.
These mirrors are custom-designed, nickel-plated units that mount right in the glass. That's the sort of indulgence you usually only see on concept cars. I'm told they're a huge pain in the ass to assemble and install.
Here's the non-proprietary whiteboard. Squashing bugs I get, but I'm not sure about the rest.
The orange tach is a Singer signature design element.
These headers are custom-made just for Singer, and provide more ground clearance along with looking incredible.
Tiff Needell tosses the Indonesia-bound car around the track at Willow Springs.
The requisite three-quarter view.
Here's part one of the interview with Rob Dickinson:
... and part two:
And let's not forget Marlon Goldberg, the head wrench: