Features

Archive

Tuesday 28th June 2011


PH INTERVIEWS: THE MAN FROM SINGER PORSCHE

PH talks to Rob Dickinson, the man behind the Singer Porsche - the classic 911 're-imagined'



When people first saw the Singer 911, some areas of the motoring world into a meltdown of excitement. So to see what all the fuss is about, on a recent trip to Los Angeles, PH paid a visit to top Porsche bloke, rock star, and Creative Director of Singer Vehicle Design, Rob Dickinson.

Oh and yes, we did ask if we could have a car on long term test with the PH Fleet. He said no. Pity.


PistonHeads: Is that a British accent, Rob?

Rob Dickinson: It is. I was born in Norwich and studied Industrial Design (specialising in transport) at Coventry University, then I worked as a designer at Lotus in the eighties. But the thing was, I knew even before I began working that I didn't want to be a car designer, I wanted to be a rock star.

PH: ...did that work out?

RD: Well I spent the next twenty years pursuing that idea with a reasonable amount of success. It was an interesting time. Throughout that period my love of cars - specifically my love of 911s - grew, which I don't think it probably would have done had I stayed in the car industry.


PH: So, how did a love of 911s grow into what you're doing today?

RD: I've owned quite a few and have always been deeply into the Porsche world both in the UK and the US. When I moved to LA in 2003 I built my own 1969 911E with a lot of design inflections of the early racing 911s, like the 911R from 1967, through to the 911ST of 1970, and quickly found that there were a lot of other people who liked doing what I was doing.

There was something called the 'R Group', which was a fiercely anti-car-club kind of club - very low key - and there were a lot of cool cars there, and a lot of guys who were similarly afflicted with this passion for these cars. As the R Group grew between 2006 and 2008 I began to notice that a different kind of car was turning up; less of a grass-roots machine like mine and more of a real high-dollar car, like a 1973 911 chassis with a 1998 vario-ram, last-of-the-line, air-cooled engine.


I was fortunate enough to drive a few of these - some were better than others - and it occurred to me that these things were a hot-rodder's delight - the fact that you can fit a '98 engine to a '65 chassis for example. I thought that somewhere in this mega-mix of interchangeable parts lies the ultimate combination, and that maybe this would be a thing that other people would like to buy.

PH: But you didn't want to make the car a 'replica' as such?

RD: What I wanted was to make my car an amalgamation of the best of Porsche and not a specific replica of any model. It was kind of a 'café racer' if you like - built for driving from one cool place to another and basically having fun.

I thought that if we built something that embraced this romantic notion of what a lightweight, sporting 911 could be with our own, updated design flourishes that it would be popular. I wanted to build the car that I would build for myself if money was no object. I knew which parts worked the best and I also knew which people did the best work, and I had a very clear vision of what the car needed to be to have a broad appeal.


PH: How long ago did you decide to go for it and actually build a car?

RD: I've lived and breathed the idea of the Singer 911 now for more than five years, and it's very flattering that the whole thing has been so well received. Although building the car itself was almost the easy part - what we're into now is the hard part. I hoped this would happen, but didn't really expect it to.

PH: You mean the reaction to the first car?

RD: Well yes, the reaction and the fact that I'd sold this idea to people who invested money so that we could do this - build a car that we could sell. We knew it would have to be expensive so that we could do justice to arguably the most important sports car in the world. To even attempt to present an ultimate version of it...you know...who the hell were we to attempt such a thing?


PH: But here you are. The first car must have cost a lot to build?

RD: I had to be able to do it properly, and we spent a lot of money getting into the position to build one car. 'Build it and they will come' was the cliché I kept boring people with, but we did it...and they did!

PH: You could say that this paid off then?

RD: Well we're selling cars - which is great - and we seem to have resonated with the type of buyer we needed which is very exciting. Now the problem is that we need to continue to produce them like jewellery, treat all our customers like family, and continue to lay the foundations of a company which will have deep integrity. That is a very difficult process, and just as important as the car.

PH: Is the order book full?


RD: Yes. But this is not a limited car; we will always take orders for more.

PH: And has the reaction in the US been similar to the reaction on PistonHeads?

RD: Yeah, we've had the same reaction from France, Spain, China, Russia, the Emirates, Malaysia... It's been nuts, seriously nuts!

PH: And Germany?

RD: Oh yes. Impressing our German friends is very hard because their standards and expectations are so high, so to be validated in Germany was extremely important. We have a crazy amount of requests from people who want to drive this car, which is wonderful. We never expected the massive mainstream interest from non-Porsche people.

PH: There must have been some huge engineering issues getting the first car completed to such a high standard. Are there further developments in store?


RD: The gestation of the car is kind of interesting. My initial plan was to follow the old hot rod philosophy of taking an early chassis and fitting a more powerful, more modern motor. That's what the orange prototype car was, although we're radically developing that as we speak. The plan is to bring the car a bit closer to the present in terms of its underpinnings. We're still building our cars on the early 911 torsion-bar chassis which were built up to 1989, but we're going to base most of the future Singer 911 production on the 964 chassis from 1990-1994, which by common consent in the Porsche world is the sweet-spot for performance and handling.

PH: So are you going to keep everything strictly air/oil-cooled?

RD: We plan to do a water-cooled car one day, but that will be a totally different machine. This car is homage to the 1965-1998 history of the 911. The newer chassis will give us access to ABS brakes and more sophisticated front suspension. That will be a very, very fast car.


PH: Back to the current car, can the customer have whatever they want?

RD: Only if I think it looks good! We've spent a huge amount of time and attention on the options for a Singer 911, so people can make it their own. You can have luxury touring at one end of the spectrum, and a seriously fierce track weapon which can still be driven on the street at the other. Or you can have something which is the sweet-spot in the middle. That's the classic 911 duality; you can drive our car to-and-around the Nurburgring, or just as easily take the kids to school.

PH: Anything you'd like to say to PistonHeads community?

RD: To anyone who said either good or bad things about what we're doing 'thank you for caring enough to say anything'. It takes some balls to put your hand up and say 'this is what I think'. You know you've done something right when some people say that they don't like what you've done!

PH: Really?


RD: Sure, there are people who aren't big fans of this car. Maybe it's the concept - there are lots of 'originalists' out there who aren't into this kind of car and I've enormous respect for that. I've met some of the nicest people who'd run a mile from one. I just hope that when I force the keys into their hands they'll take it up a mountain road and then perhaps to San Francisco and back before making their final judgement, and tell me if we haven't built a car that is true to the 911 spirit. We hoped that it would generate some debate, and the fact that it gets talked about is all good.

PH: Thanks for your time, Rob. Now, about that drive to San Francisco and back...

Author: silversixx