“The sad thing about it all,” observes Seamus Taaffe, Singer Vehicle Design’s test driver and R&D specialist, “is that Rob Dickinson has made me as anal-retentive as he is. I saw a Ferrari California and its license plate was misaligned side to side by probably half a millimeter. I saw it from three lanes away on the freeway, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? The guy who put that plate on should’ve been fired!’ It drives me crazy to be like this, but our cars are the way they are because of the way Rob is.”
I spend a day with these nouveau California street-rod maniacs and try to digest every detail about the way they “reimagine” their customers’ cars, and I come away with notes that amount to 15,000 words. Lob an inquiry at Dickinson, 50, and he replies with mesmerizing monologues chronicling why the part or piece of trim in question looks and feels and works and sounds as it does. You walk away convinced you needed to know it all until finally you realize what really matters is that it all just works.
Porsche-mad since he was a boy in the U.K., Dickinson studied car design and eventually landed a job at Lotus Cars. At Hethel, he learned design from Peter Stevens (who later styled the McLaren F1), Julian Thomson (now head of Jaguar design), and Simon Cox (head of Infiniti’s design studio in London). But two years along in the car industry, the other work Dickinson had been doing with a guitar since age 14 finally paid off. As the front man for Catherine Wheel, a 1990s-era alt-rock tribe, he and his mates put “Crank” and “Black Metallic” at No. 5 (1993) and No. 9 (1992), respectively, on Billboard’s alternative chart. And so the music business carried him away from Lotus, though he also tells me he realized quickly he wasn’t yet ready for a career in the automotive business.
Art and Soul
By 2003, with music consuming less of his time if not his heart, Dickinson moved to Los Angeles and fashioned his first custom Porsche, which was based on a 1969 911. It became famous quickly within L.A. car culture, and he began to think there was something bigger in all of this. By 2009, Singer Vehicle Design was up and running, taking advantage of Southern California’s talented artisans in the custom car world as Dickinson slowly put together his image of the perfect 911. Singer has since then forged partnerships with about 150 suppliers and collaborators, including the Aria Group that supplies carbon-fiber body panels. Another shop developed a special nickel-plating process that ensures a Dickinson-created hue of “milky nickel” is applied with uniform effect on any surface, from metal to plastic to carbon fiber.
“Some 4,000 man-hours and 10 months of time goes into the making of a single Porsche 911 by Singer.”
“Without living in California, the idea for this car would never have occurred to me,” Dickinson reflects. “I was also surrounded by an immense village industry of customizers. Short of being in Detroit, I’m not sure there’s anywhere on Earth where such an ambitious project could be undertaken.”
Some 4,000 man-hours and 10 months of time go into the making of a single Porsche 911 by Singer. The process begins with a 1990-1994 Porsche 911, which is the last version of the car that remains true in specification to the original 1965 911, complete with trailing-arm rear suspension. The customer begins the process with a 911 and a vision, and then works with Dickinson and his team to make it reality. The possibilities include a $395,000 version with a 270-horsepower, 3.6-liter engine; a $440,000 version with a 350-hp, 3.8-liter engine; or a $480,000 version with a 390-hp, 4.0-liter engine. Further customer selections drive prices ever higher.
Singer strips each car to its shell and installs carbon-fiber bodywork. A different front bulkhead permits conversion to the “long hood” form seen in the classic 911 with its small bumpers, while the whole shell, if a customer chooses, is seam-welded for added structural rigidity, as it would be for a race car. Aside from engine choice, you can pick a five- or six-speed gearbox, rear- or all-wheel drive, KW- or Ohlins-supplied suspension, and steel or carbon-ceramic brakes. There are 75 initial paint choices and 150 “basic” upholstery choices. By the time Singer delivers a car, just about every original piece other than the monocoque and engine block is reworked.
In a nondescript building in nearby Van Nuys, Frank Honsowetz leans back in a chair beneath photographs from Ed Pink Racing Engines’ (EPRE) halcyon days, when proprietor and L.A. rodding kingpin Ed Pink built winning engines for top-fuel dragsters, Indy cars, IMSA sports cars, and USAC midgets. As Honsowetz, EPRE’s general manager, explains, this shop is all about best practices, which means best materials, best engineering, best machining, best assembly, and best testing—all of which is easier to provide when cost is seemingly no concern, as in the case of Singer and its clientele. When Singer approached Porsche Motorsport North America as a possible source for a highly tuned 4.0-liter engine for its customers, it was surprised when Porsche effectively said, “You need to go to Ed Pink’s.”
“EPRE” likely does not come to mind when you think “Porsche racing engines,” but there is indeed such provenance here that includes Porsche 962s of the 1980s as well as a recent rebuild of a Porsche 917 flat-12. And, no, this naturally aspirated, 390-hp, 4.0-liter flat-six does not leak oil like every stock 964 engine Porsche ever built. EPRE retains only the original engine’s block and cam towers. Some 115 hours of work go into the installation of such quintessential Porsche hot rod pieces as Mahle forged-aluminum pistons, Carrillo forged-steel connecting rods, and an Arrows Precision crankshaft. After what we guess is $30,000 in parts and labor from EPRE, Singer lavishes this engine with enough laser-cutting, ceramic coating, parts, and finishing touches that $75,000 or so might cover the total cost. Did we mention it does not leak oil?
“You killed a snake!” Taaffe shouts as the echo of the 4.0’s exhaust kerrangs off the rocky walls beside this winding mountain road high in the Angeles National Forest. I take him at his word because I’m preoccupied with looking a long way ahead as we bend the 911 through these skywritten curves—fast, slow, up, down, on and off camber, blind crests, and the rest of it. For one thing, the car punches as hard as you expect from anything with 390 hp in a sub-2,800-pound package, plus almost 95 percent of the engine’s peak torque of 315 lb-ft is available between 4,800 and 6,800 rpm. For another, I don’t want to face Dickinson if I so much as drop a tire off the road and scratch one of the wheels. Ferdinand help any wanker who dings this masterpiece of design and engineering.
The heavily sprung clutch action takes some getting used to due to the high engagement point, but it’s a nonissue after a few minutes. At regular speeds, this Porsche feels a lot like, well, an old 911, if anything, as its nose pushes wide in a corner. The three-way adjustable Ohlins dampers in this racing-caliber suspension are set today to “fast road” and not “full track,” so you feel every bump but you’re not jolted stupid. The suspension setup also allows the tires to maintain gooey contact with the road in a prodigal display of rebound control, so even when the front end gets light as you get into the gas (as air-cooled 911s are wont to do), the car stays planted enough so it never feels on the verge of spitting you off the road in a cloud of understeer.
You feel the same about the rear end. Depending on the way the chassis is loaded up in a corner, the steering fluctuates between heavy and light, and there’s always enough information about tire slip so you can keep the car on course without constant correction. The rear is always willing to play if you desire, though not in the widowmaker sense old 911s are known for. It’s more like, “I’m here to assist your antics” in a rear- engine concierge sort of way.
The only electronic driver-assist here is the ABS. It doesn’t intervene with the pulsing brake pedal that is period-correct for the early 1990s; it instead does its work like a contemporary motor-sports setup, as the pedal action stays rock hard so you can attack that brake zone with abandon. You know there is something special going on when you look forward to slowing a car into corners as much you do pitching it through them or running it to the engine’s redline. The stopping power is impressive, but the raw, unfiltered feedback that electrifies your right foot is where the satisfaction comes into play.
MacNeil might indulge in a smattering of hyperbole, but to put his assertion in context, consider: This is not a man new to Stuttgart rarities. He owns and drives coveted homologation specials including a 964 RS 3.8, a 1974 RS 3.0, and a 993 GT2, and he says his latest acquisition belongs in their company.
Still, I’ve managed to identify an imperfection in Singer’s reimagined 911. The “check engine” icon light embedded in the tachometer dial is basically the same one you see on every other average-to-exotic production car, and it resembles a carbureted V-8, complete with the air cleaner on top.
“Hey, Seamus,” I say casually, “for all this attention to detail, shouldn’t this icon look like an air-cooled Porsche flat-six? I’m going to mention that to Rob.”
The R&D manager, a burly 50-year-old Irishman with a spitfire, no-BS tongue, looks at me, speechless for what I guess is a personal record of about 0.4 second. He fires an expletive and replies, “Great. He’ll lose sleep over that. And you know who that project is going to fall to.”
A few weeks later, I catch up with Taaffe, who is back in the shop, via phone. Toward our conversation’s end, I can’t help myself.
“How’s my check engine light coming?”
“Yeah,” he says, and I’m ready for a well-played, good-natured insult. “We’re working on it now. Rob sent out a note about it the other day.”
The wisecrack never comes. In its place is merely unspoken adherence to Dickinson’s words, graffitied on a nearby wall.
1990 Porsche Reimagined by Singer Specifications
|Price (modifications only):||$575,000 (as tested)|
|Engine:||4.0 SOHC 12-valve flat-6/390 hp @ 7,300 rpm, 315 lb-ft @ 5,900-6,000 rpm|
|Layout:||2-door, 4-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA Mileage:||20 mpg (combined) (est)|
|Suspension F/R:||Strut-type, coil springs/strut-type, coil springs|
|Tires:||225/45R-17 / 265/40R-17 Michelin Pilot Sport PS2|
|L x W x H:||163.0. x 69.0 x 49.3 in|
|Headroom F/R:||36.0/34.0 in|
|Legroom F/R:||43.0/9.0 in|
|Shoulder Room F/R:||24.5/21.0 in|
|Cargo Room N/A:||7.5 cu ft|
|Weight Dist. F/R:||40/60%|
|0-60 MPH:||3.3 sec|
|1/4 Mile:||11.7 sec @ 119.2 mph|
|Top Speed:||176 mph (rpm limited)|