‘What if?’ is a dangerous question. In 1932 it led the Granville Brothers to attempt the aeronautical equivalent of giving Keira Knightley’s bra to Dolly Parton.
Fitting the biggest aero-engine they could find — a supercharged, 800HP Pratt & Whitney Wasp — with wings and a vestigial tail, they created the Gee Bee Model R Super Sportster. This would knock on the door of 300mph but could also flick on its back and explode in a fireball if you looked at it wrong.
Sometimes though, ‘what if?’ produces something wonderful, as when musician Rob Dickinson (ex-Catherine Wheel) decided to try his hand at cars rather than chords, setting up Singer Vehicle Design. Strictly speaking, Singer restores Porsche 911s but that’s rather like saying Steve McQueen was an actor — the truth is much cooler.
From its low-key Burbank, California workshop, Singer allows discerning individuals to create bespoke interpretations of what a Porsche 911 should be. As I arrive, the latest customer car is sitting in the workshop. It looks quietly, but deeply expensive in muted grey.
Starting with a 964-model 911, Singer recreates the body panels, bar the doors, in military-grade carbon fibre. After that it’s playtime. The Indonesia-based owner of this car has opted for a 3.8-litre flat-six that has been blueprinted by engine-specialist Cosworth to produce around 380HP (more is entirely possible). There’s a six-speed close-ratio gearbox with a limited slip differential, a custom Öhlins sports suspension package, serious brakes and more beyond.
On the aesthetic side there’s a beautiful milled aluminium fuel-filler cap sitting in the centre of the bonnet for that 1970s competition look; magnificent deeply dished custom Fuchs wheels; and paint matched to the exact shade found on the 911S driven by Mr McQueen in the film Le Mans.
To understand the attraction of these cars it helps to understand the extraordinary blend of style and substance that Singer aims at. Affable director of operations Marlon Goldberg gestures around the workshop and then remarks, a touch wistfully: “I just wish people could see the attention to detail here.”
He’s right, there’s an almost molecular approach to crafting cars at work. Wiring looms are rebuilt to standards that exceed motorsport requirements. Behind the grey car I watch a body shell destined for a customer in Sweden being painstakingly sound-proofed — Singer only wants you to hear the right sounds and that means wailing flat-sixes, not irritating boom at 60 on the freeway. If it means someone has to do the hard miles, folded into the backseat of a 911, listening for intrusive noise, so be it.
Up front, the header unit for the modern audio system has been designed to ‘float’ in the dashboard so you get the classic look, with modern sound quality. Bi-xenon headlamps light the road ahead, aniline leather covers the seats (and the roll cage, if you wish).
Tomorrow, the grey car will be taken to the Willow Springs racetrack to be tested. Singer wants its creations to be useable on public roads but still fearsome where speed limits don’t apply. Then it’s on an aircraft to the UK for a rendezvous with The Stig on Top Gear before the final leg to its lucky owner in Indonesia.
And on top of this engineering are the looks. Porsche’s original 911 silhouette, that beautifully simple, dented hemisphere, is there, not blurred by the extra width and length of the later cars. There is new hard muscle around the wheel arches and raised front wings like the launch tubes on JFK’s PT-109.
If you want visibility, it’s only a paint choice away. Next to the grey car sits an earlier creation in Viper Green. It looks as demure as John Belushi in a sorority house.
With the style and substance comes exclusivity. The number of Singer restorations out on the roads today is just into double figures. Goldberg says: “We like to help people create something unique, their own personalised 911.” For those with the means (approximately US$350,000), a tailor-made machine, with the soul of a classic and the heart of a modern supercar is the prize.