I have been strapped behind the iconic Momo Prototipo steering wheel for a little more than an hour, all windows down as I carve my way up a rugged canyon during an unusually warm Southern California evening, and I am overwhelmed with emotion. My heart is pounding out of my chest, my breathing is heavy and my palms are sweaty because I am completely absorbed by this wondrous machine.
After waiting patiently for nearly four years, I am finally behind the wheel of a classic Porsche 911 restored, modified and tuned by Singer Vehicle Design. The vehicle that surrounds me never rolled off an automaker's assembly line in its current configuration, yet its physical appearance is timeless, build quality breathtaking and driving dynamics peerless.
To this automotive enthusiast, it is the most alluring vehicle in the world.
Rob Dickinson, the creative mastermind behind the restoration work performed on the amazing Porsche 911 pictured above, wasn't born with a wrench in his hand. The Englishman actually spent most of his early adult years fronting the alternative rock band Catherine Wheel, thus helping to explain the catchy name of Singer Vehicle Design. But that's a story from decades ago...
Today, I am standing at the company's low-key Los Angeles shop looking at what appears to be four classic Porsche 911 models, each in various stages of restoration. The one closest to the roll-up bay door, imploring to be rolled into the sun, is a completed customer's car. At the back of the shop, furthest from daylight, is a bare, primed tub waiting patiently on a powder-coated steel dolly. When I last visited over 12 months ago, there was 1 car in the shop. Today, there is an assembly line. Singer has come a very long way.
When I last visited over 12 months ago, there was 1 car in the shop. Today, there is an assembly line.
The company, with Dickinson prominently at its helm, puts an extraordinary amount of effort and detail into each one of its creations. No single nut, stitch, grommet or screw escapes untouched - covering the complete and exhaustive restoration would take volumes. For this First Drive of a car we have talked about on Autoblog many times before, a two-minute elevator pitch will have to suffice.
Singer Vehicle Design was founded in 2009 in response to the positive feedback Dickinson was receiving about his personal Porsche 911. His one-off car was upgraded and modified, yet it retained the classic Porsche attributes that many purists craved. The admitted Porschephile quickly realized that there was a niche beyond the traditional restoration market. To be more succinct, a handful of people were willing to pay a steep premium for a meticulously handcrafted, lightweight, modernized and reliable rebuilt classic Porsche 911 - the company's mission had been established.
But the factory never made a Porsche 911 like the one Dickinson envisioned, so he set out to change that. The result was nothing short of spectacular.
Before diving into the build, it is important to note that Singer Vehicle Design is not an automaker or manufacturer. All vehicles are registered under the original Porsche factory VIN to his customers, who have brought them to the shop for restoration, tuning and customization. The company doesn't sell cars; they restore and modify existing Porsche automobiles. Bespoke work is costly - prices start at $350,000 and quickly rise with custom fabrications.
Singer's first prototype used an early 911 chassis (1963-1989) as a starting point. The team stripped the donor car to the tub before reinforcing and priming it. Steel body panels were replaced with resculpted lightweight carbon-fiber, and every single component was meticulously disassembled and restored to exceed factory specifications (or replaced with something superior) before it was reassembled. The torsion bar suspension was replaced with Eibach coilovers and the stock brakes were upgraded with four-piston Brembos. Lastly, a blueprinted 425-horsepower flat six-cylinder engine, engineered by Cosworth, was mated to a six-speed manual gearbox and lifted into the now leather-lined engine bay.
The passenger compartment was every bit as impassioned. Porsche's original seats were torn down to their springs and freshly upholstered, while a new, aircraft-grade wiring harness was engineered to reliably handle modern electrical loads. When the interior was reassembled, everything soft was covered in high-grade leather while everything shiny was nickel-plated in matte finish for contrast. The finishing touch was the aforementioned black leather Momo Prototipo three-spoke steering wheel, common on 70's-era race cars.
Months of exhaustive work paid off. Singer Vehicle Design rolled out its first prototype at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in 2009. The stunning orange coupe (above) not only dropped jaws, it opened checkbooks. The company was in business.
After waiting patiently for more than four years, I am hovering over the company's latest creation: a Racing Blue coupe that was recently introduced at the Gordon McCall's Motorworks Revival ahead of this year's Pebble festivities. While the exterior of the blue car looks nearly identical to the orange prototype we lusted over years ago, this sold customer car is the next-generation, meaning it is based on a newer 964 chassis (1990-1994). The more modern platform is better suited for modifications as it provides a more rigid tub, factory upgraded coilover suspension, anti-lock brakes, power steering, electronic climate control and a slew of other improvements that would further polish the finished product.
This blue coupe is every bit as remarkable as the orange prototype - but elevated.
That said, this blue coupe is every bit as remarkable as the orange prototype - but elevated. A glance at the interior reveals more refinement, yet with an extra dose of classic throwback tossed in for good measure. There is less leather on the floor, revealing more of the beautifully painted chassis, and the climate control system has been updated with more modern controls for convenience. The simple lightweight door panels have been retained, again with leather straps for releases, and there are two small nickel-plated exterior mirrors instead of one. Like the prototype, the blue car is fitted with a racing-style 21-gallon fuel cell in the nose, with a filler neck cutout in plain view in the center of the hood (the right rear quarter panel features an oil fill cap for the engine's sump tank, buried inside). Most notable from the driver's perspective are the two adjustable carbon-fiber bucket racing sets, each covered in woven orange leather with brass buttons for ventilation (Singer will clad your chairs in whatever style of hide you like – basketweave, perforated, smooth or diamond-quilted).
Mechanically speaking, most cars are upgraded with a KW coilover suspension. However, this customer requested a hardcore Ohlins sports suspension package with Ohlins dampers, Eibach springs and solid race bushings. The brakes are Porsche's famed four-piston 'Big Reds' up front and Brembos in the rear, all chomping down on ventilated and cross-drilled iron rotors. The wheels are absolutely gorgeous deep-dish forged aluminum Fuchs look-alikes (fronts are 8.5x17 inches and the rears are 10.5x17) wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires (225/45ZR17 and 265/40ZR17, respectively). Note the brass lug nuts.
Hidden under the rear decklid, beneath the electrically operated rear spoiler, is a Cosworth-engineered 3.8-liter flat six-cylinder engine assembled with a 996-chassis GT3 crankshaft. The naturally aspirated powerplant is rated at 360 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. If those numbers don't sound impressive, consider that the coupe weighs but 2,650 pounds – its horsepower-to-weight ratio is on the same level as the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.
Its horsepower-to-weight ratio is on the same level as the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray.
A 1991 Porsche 964 is a subcompact car by today's standards, but there were no issues dropping my six-foot, two-inch frame into the snug front seat (customers may order any size, shape or color they choose). While it squeezed my hips tightly, the sport bucket was surprisingly comfortable despite a lack of rake adjustment without wrenching. My shoes slid over the adjustable pedals and the steering wheel and shifter aligned perfectly with my reach. Overall, I found the car's pilot seat retro-excellent, meaning the cockpit was uncluttered and simple while the platform afforded excellent outward visibility in just about every direction thanks to broomstick-thin roof pillars and an expansive greenhouse.
With a twist of the key, indisputably inserted into the slot left of the steering wheel, the flat-six fired to life with a sound that jellied my spine. The masterfully assembled air-cooled engine idled with a deep and mechanical purr that genuinely caught me by surprise. My senses of hearing and touch were gratified as each tiny detonation in the combustion chamber synchronized with a single vibration in my backside. Soothing massage aside, the audible track pouring from the rear of the 911 was smooth, genuine and almost tranquilizing.
It required firm pressure to force the bottom-hinged clutch against its wood floorboard, which allowed me to gently slide the six-speed manual gearbox into Reverse so I could back out of the shop. Clutch take-up was progressive and easy to modulate, and it didn't require any unnecessary slippage on the pressure plate for smoothness. Back in first gear, I pressed firmly on the accelerator and zoomed onto the surface streets.
I had deliberately rolled the windows down minutes earlier, simply to enjoy the exhaust note.
Weaving through LA's afternoon traffic, I made my way north towards the canyons of Angeles National Forest. While the upgraded air conditioning blows ice cold, I had deliberately rolled the windows down minutes earlier, simply to enjoy the exhaust note. At city speeds, warm breezes were blowing pleasantly through the cabin. While the sound of the air rushing by the two open windows was pronounced, I could still make out the authoritative exhaust note from the flat-six and the unmistakable whirl of the aft-mounted alternator fan pulling in the surrounding air for the cylinder's cooling fins.
Unlike every other $300,000-plus car I have hustled through city congestion, which all seem to elevate my pulse as I worry about unexpected potholes, scratched quarter panels and meandering distracted drivers, this Porsche had me at ease with its manageable approach angles, unimpeded view of the surroundings and tractable power delivery that provided plenty of low-end grunt to scoot into the clear if I sensed danger. Nearly all of the city travel was done in second or third gear, and I frequently switched between the two just for the pleasure of rowing the smoothly polished gears.
Eager to explore its capabilities on the road, I unabashedly exercised the blue Porsche.
Big Tujunga climbs from the LA Basin eastward until it collides with Angeles Forest Highway, which channels traffic north before dropping down to California State Route 14 and the Mojave Desert. The route is well maintained, wonderfully curvy and the few locals who commute on it know how to drive (they hustle their weary Pontiac 6000s along at breakneck speeds). Now familiar with the vehicle's driving dynamics, and eager to explore its capabilities on the road, I unabashedly exercised the blue Porsche.
My attention first focused on the marvelous flat-six hanging off the back end of the car. Delivering 113 horsepower more than the 964's stock 3.6-liter and tasked with 380 fewer pounds to propel, the blue 911 was brisk off the line and wickedly quick above 3,500 rpm. The power delivery of the naturally aspirated engine proved perfectly linear, with nary a hiccup to be found all the way to redline and the eventual fuel cutoff (I'll admit that I hit that point several times because the engine's true redline was hard to decipher as there wasn't enough contrast between the red needle and orange face of the gauge). Unlike most of today's four-second cars, which often seem too powerful or unpredictable for mid-corner full-throttle application, the restored 911 was perfectly behaved when the pedal was mashed at the apex - it simply hunkered down on its sticky tires and scooted ahead as if swatted by a giant invisible hand.
The three-spoke steering wheel ... was transmitting gigabytes of data to my fingertips in real-time.
The steering also had me in awe. Porsche introduced hydraulically assisted power steering on the 964 chassis, a welcome addition that greatly improved parking maneuvers without numbing feedback or sensitivity. Unlike today's electric systems, which are nicely weighed yet still isolated from the road, the three-spoke steering wheel on the coupe transmitted gigabytes of data to my fingertips in real-time. While initial turn-in wasn't razor sharp (in contrast to a late-model GT3), small steering inputs quickly turned the nose of the chassis almost telepathically. The feedback, ratio and effort bordered on flawless.
The suspension was expectedly firm, per the customer's request (I would suggest slightly softer polyurethane bushings, if you are ordering), but I wouldn't call it harsh, as the coilovers did a commendable job absorbing the biggest impacts. Body roll was minimal, and the 911 cornered confidently. My familiarity with Porsche's early rear-engine cars had me expecting a strong dose of lift-off oversteer if I got sloppy. This restored Porsche will play those games, but it seemed to require a deliberate poke, rather than an unexpected prod, to encourage its tail to come around. Each time I felt a bit uneasy, I knew that a forceful press on the drilled brake pedal would effortlessly bleed off some of the speed, just like that. An amateur could drive this classic 911 quickly and not leave a wet spot on the seat cushion.
The vehicle was damn-near perfect - I blinked to brush aside a welling tear.
About 20 minutes after entering the canyon road, I found myself completely spellbound by the pale blue Porsche. After sitting behind the wheel of hundreds of vehicles, of which only a handful I would call genuinely personally compelling, I was driving a machine that was rousing my automotive enthusiast soul. It was astonishingly fun, thoroughly engaging and unconditionally obedient to all of my commands. Hell, the vehicle was damn-near perfect - I blinked to brush aside a welling tear.
But why is the Singer different from any other restored classic Porsche 911?
Nobody can match Singer's obsession with exquisite perfection to the minutest detail.
Countless shops, including the Porsche Museum in Germany, work meticulously to refurbish early cars back to showroom condition. Yet Singer Vehicle Design takes things many steps further by not only restoring, but customizing the cars to capture the factory's best attributes over a three-decade span. The company's modified, or reimagined, vehicles boast the desirable long hood of the early cars, flared fenders of the appealing Turbo and effective electronics and HVAC systems of the later years. When parts don't exist to meet its specifications, the company fabricates them (e.g. 17-inch Fuchs-style forged wheels and custom Hella HID bucket headlights). Even if there are others who offer similar restoration services, nobody can match Singer's obsession with exquisite perfection to the minutest detail.
Each finished customer vehicle is as unique as a fingerprint and intimately tailored to the tastes of the discrete client. Volume is low, pricing is justifiably high and exclusivity is unrivaled. There is no automobile on the planet like a Porsche 911 revived by Singer Vehicle Design - for this critic, it is the most alluring vehicle in the world.