Is the Porsche 911 4.0 by Singer the greatest car you can buy today?
Modern classics are ten a penny nowadays, but this is the best of the bunch, says Pat Devereux
Everyone knows it’s stupid to say something is the best or worst of anything. There’s always something better or worse than whatever it is you’re talking about. I know that, you know that, so maybe I’m stupid for what I’m about to say.
But I’m going to say it anyway: the Singer-renovated Porsche 911 with the 4.0-litre engine might just be the best car in the world.Advertisement - Page continues below
Obviously, you can’t go around dropping gold-plated, ermine-lined pronouncements like that without some fairly comprehensive reasoning. So suspend your disbelief for a few minutes and let me give you some background on how and why a reimagined, air-cooled Porsche 964 from the early Nineties could be transformed into possibly the finest car on the planet. The story is almost as good as the car. Almost.
The Singer saga starts with a 10-year-old Rob Dickinson – cousin of Iron Maiden front man Bruce Dickinson, which will become more relevant in a minute – lulling himself to sleep in Norfolk trying to find the answer to the petrolhead’s eternal question: if you could only have one money-no-object car for the rest of your life, what would it be? The first bit was easy for Rob – it’d have to be a 911, his obsession since he first saw one in France five years before. The second bit, which 911, wasn’t.Advertisement - Page continues below
Several of them were nearly right, which made them precisely wrong. So he started conjuring up a Frankenstein creation that borrowed from models past, present and non-existent. Then added his own layer of detailing to bring it up to the full dream spec. The only problem was building it. Being the 10-year-old son of two teachers, on 50p-a-week pocket money, he wasn’t in a position to start renovating much more than a Matchbox car, so he had to wait.
And wait. Fast-forward 10 years, the idea still burning in his mind, Rob enrolled in Coventry Uni’s Automotive Design course. He had the idea; all he needed was the professional chops to bring altogether. So he did the course, got offered a job at Lotus by Peter Stevens, working with Julian Thomson, now head of Jaguar’s Advance Design dept, which he did for a few years before putting away his pens and leaving.
Not to start Singer the company. To be a singer in a band called The Catherine Wheel. That started out as a realisation of another childhood dream, which Rob describes as “to make a single and then maybe do a tour of the UK”. But which, in a recurring theme in Rob’s life, became more than he expected.
In six months, the band had launched an EP, then another. Ten years, five albums, a ’73 911 2.4S and a bunch of touring later, Rob left the band, went solo and moved to America.
While crooning and strumming his way around the US, Rob also spent his time restoring classic 911s. But as satisfying to behold as those cars were, they still weren’t the dream 911 Rob had been brewing in his mind for all those years. He didn’t want a standard 911, he wanted a hot-rodded 911. However, he wasn’t about to rip up a perfect car, so he sold his 2.4S, bought a 1969 model and went to work on that instead.
Inspired by the minimalist chic of the 911C R – particularly 2BRX, a famous classic road racecar – Rob started to personalise every area of the car. Being the tireless detail fanatic he is, nothing remained untouched. He did all the work for himself originally, to please his inner café racer, but before long he started to notice that he was a long way from the only one who appreciated it.
“It started getting a lot of attention from people who wanted to buy it,” he says. “People wanting to be photographed with it, girls who wanted to be my friend in it. And that idea mutated into taking my car, a personal vision, and turning that into a blueprint for what we do now at Singer.”
The final piece of the puzzle was found at something called R Gruppe, a Porsche owners’ club in California which Rob had joined years before.
Here, he noticed some of the club members, turning up in fabulously renovated cars, boasting, in true California style, bigger engines, better brakes and extraordinary finishes. After one drive in a particularly well set up car, the light bulb went on in Rob’s head. There was no need for the hot-rodded cars to be rough and ready, they could be just as exquisite – if not more so – than the original fully restored cars. And there was clearly a demand for them.Advertisement - Page continues below
I know that doesn’t sound like many, but each one takes 10 months to a year to renovate. So that’s actually not bad going; it’s not like they have a huge, hospital hangar-like facility to work in. The super-modest HQ looks more like a back-street bodyshop than a builder of watch-quality supercars, perfect pearls emerging from a rough oyster shell.
And it’s not through a lack of demand, either. There are another 13 customer 964s being reanimated the Singer way, so there is no shortage of customers, even at these prices (we’ll get to those in a minute), but there are no plans to expand yet. That would take time, add cost and slow production – none of which Rob is ready to do.
Because he’s simply obsessed with making the cars as absurdly good as they can be. Which is, and I don’t care how exacting you are, better, way better, than you could ever possibly imagine. They look right from a distance, then just keep getting better the closer you get. Even on a microscopic level, it’s still nigh-on impossible to find anything even slightly wonky or out of place. It’s just extraordinary.
Ask him how he does it, and Rob has a simple answer: “I think what we do, that other people don’t, is sweat every single detail. I can’t attack anything without attacking everything. We sweat the weave on the leather as much as we sweat the weight of the Carrillo rods in the engine. I don’t know anyone else who really does that. Not like we do.” All this sweating of details – they spend way over 4,000 man-hours renovating each car – costs money, of course.Advertisement - Page continues below
So there’s a fair amount of sticker shock for the uninitiated. The base renovation cost (which customers pay on top of how much they paid for their 911) starts at about $395,000. If you want yours to have a Targa with the big 4.0-litre engine, a six-speed gearbox and full Öhlins suspension, you’re looking at closer to $600k.
As big a number as that looks, it’s still less than it could be.
“If we priced our work the way other businesses do, the cars would be a million dollars,” says Rob.
So it’s something of a bargain. But not just because of its price, because there is also nothing quite as automotively gorgeous as the Singer-renovated 911.
Drive a Ferrari, Lamborghini or McLaren, and people look at you with a mix of envy and pity. You might have a blast driving them, but watch out for that gob of spit, key edge or sneer because it’s coming. Drive a Porsche that’s passed through Singer, though, and everyone gives you the thumbs up. Even your inner Stig.
That’s because this car’s real party piece isn’t just how it looks – it’s how it drives. The 400bhp Singer-fettled Porsche accelerates as fast as the new 991 GT3 RS and steers with a purity I can’t remember experiencing for a long time, if ever. Part of that is down to the Öhlins adjustable shocks, which tame all the old-school 911 handling foibles yet still give you complete throttle steering. But it’s mainly down to hours and hours of testing, fettling and testing again.
Blasting up a canyon above the Singer workshop in the 4.0, the roads are not unlike European back roads. All changing camber, blind crests and crazily jagged strips of over-banding. Here, the car is simply flawless. You immediately feel part of it and can drive it hard – very hard – within seconds.
Downshifts are spookily smooth – I thought there must be some kind of electronic blip as it seemed to respond faster than I thought possible. But there isn’t. It’s just perfectly set up fuelling. Likewise the brakes are exactly balanced for the car.
As fantastically quick as it is, the real genius here is that you don’t need to go fast to have fun. It’ll burn rubber with the best of them – it set the ninth fastest time ever around Laguna Seca a few months ago – but with this crystal-clear, broadband, 4K-style feedback from all the key touchpoints of the car, it’s thrilling and engaging to drive at almost any speed. I can’t think of any other car I have ever driven that’s better at doing what it was designed to do.
Which is to fulfil exactly one owner’s 911-shaped wishes and heart’s desires. Even though Singer has a vast range of possible choices, it starts every new renovation with the customer’s old 964 and a blank sheet of paper. From there, they work with the owner to create their ultimate new-old Porsche 911 hot rod, just like Rob did as he drifted to sleep all those years ago. Nothing is taken for granted other than the shape of the bodyshell. They get exactly what they want rendered in extraordinary, painstaking, fabulous detail.
So, is this the best car in the world? For the owner of Project Chicago – each car is named for the city it will reside in – yes, it almost certainly is. For me? I’d have to make a few subtle changes but then, sure, Project Hollywood would probably be the best car in the world for me, too.
Click 'NEXT' for more remastered classics
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This feature originally appeared in the Top Gear magazine Retro supplement. Singer photography by Drew Philips