Top Gear drives Singer's mighty Porsche 911
By the third corner, my soul is wrapped in rough brown paper and packaged for sale, addressed FAO Lucifer. Faust himself would be slack-jawed with horror at the glib speed of the transaction. But then again, he's probably never driven a Porsche 911 like this. If he had, he'd understand the immediate need to eBay personal eternity. In the first 20 minutes of driving, I've gone from mildly charmed to completely besotted with this daft little silver Porsche, a fist of feeling curled tightly around my heart. After a mayfly first hour, I've done some back-of-fag-packet calculations and worked out that, if I live on bark and rainwater until death, I could afford one. This is not like me. I think I might be ill. I don't even like classic cars.
Photography: Webb Bland
This feature was originally published in the January 2012 issue of Top Gear MagazineAdvertisement - Page continues below
But this - says evil voice-in-head, who abhors children and doesn't have a mortgage - is not a classic. For those of you who thought Top Gear had taken an unfortunate slip through the rubbery fascia of spacetime, all is not what it seems. This is definitely a Porsche 911, but more so. And it's confusing, so I'd better explain. Singer Vehicle Design does not make 911s. Only Porsche does that. What Singer does - for £160k-ish - is take an air-cooled, flat-six 964 and modify it to be Something Else. But ‘modify' seems like a stingy, weightless word for what the company does, which is more than just a bit of aesthetic amendment.
Essentially, Singer will remake and remix an old Porsche - usually from the 1990-1994 era - by taking a basic car and gutting it. Then, with little sense for the aggravation, they seam-weld, strut-brace, gusset and strengthen the monocoque, much like a racing car, and replace the front and rear bumper assemblies, bonnet, engine deck lid, roof and other bodywork with what is described as ‘military-grade' carbon fibre by composite specialists Aria Group. Only the doors remain steel, mainly because they retain the side impact beams of the later 911s, and it makes them shut with a reassuring thunk, rather than the hollow clap of a carbon door.Advertisement - Page continues below
Everything else is replaced with upgraded OEM Porsche parts, or new, improved and generally heinously expensive items that don't stare down the rifled barrel of Porsche Accounting. Suspension is replaced wholesale. Brakes are upgraded to Brembo items, the gearbox to a Getrag G50 six-speeder, with optional LSD. Interiors morph into either serious-browed pseudo race ('cage, race-spec Öhlins suspension, harnesses, one-piece carbon seats, manual windows), to the specification we have here, which is more of a GT (sunroof in a steel roof, big electric seats, Bilstein adjustable damping, electric windows). Engines are reworked courtesy of motor impresarios Cosworth (yup, Cosworth), and come in three incarnations: a 3.6-litre Touring with 300bhp, the 3.9-litre Sport with 360bhp and the 3.9/4.0-litre Cup car with 400bhp+, depending on how drivable you need it to be on a daily basis. Throttle bodies, balancing, head work, RS plenums - the litany of blueprinted righteousness never seems to end.
But it's not the fact that Singer does all this stuff that really makes the back of your neck tingle and your palms drip guilty sweat. Plenty of other cars manage materials science somewhat in advance of this, or have considerably more power and performance. Nope, the truly genius bit about the Singer, the bit that has you looking over your shoulder and considering a bit of part-time drug-dealing, is the fact that the car is slathered with a generous dose of subtlety and then polished with a dollop of poise.
The carbon is completely covered in deep ‘Singer Silver' paint, relevant bits nickel-plate over composite, the high-tech of the construction segued into a secret covenant between car and owner. A Superman to Clark Kent make-under. Slick enough to turn appreciative heads, subtle enough to whisper loudly of taste and restraint. Seemingly perfect, but discreetly - brilliantly - wrong. The shapes and details bleed and fall into one another like the lines of a well-spoken poem, or a song well sung. It's marvellous.
Even lightly browsing the specification pornography, I was a bit excited to drive one. So when we arrive at the SVD premises in Sun Valley, CA, to find the car we've come to America to drive is in pieces, I wedge on an emergency smile and hope that people write it off as jetlag. Or possibly chronic indigestion. The 911 appears to have burst. The team from SVD have that scratchy-eyed look of too much cheap coffee and too little sleep. There's a palpable air of tension woven through the warmth of the welcome, like cheap brandy in expensive hot chocolate. And I can't help thinking this might all be about to go horribly, long-way-from-home wrong.
There's a bit of slightly forced light-heartedness as everyone dances around the issue. There have been problems with the electric seat adjustment. The engine - in this 3.9-litre spec - felt a little loud without the standard catalytic converters in place. Sounds minor, but when you see the car you've travelled several thousand miles to drive looking reasonably terminally spatchcocked on the workshop floor, you'd be forgiven a little involuntary puckering.
Various people take turns running interference while the car is put back together. Brit Rob Dickinson is the Design Director and founder of SVD. I sense he would very much like me to go away until he is totally happy with the car. I also sense that he will never be totally happy. We seem to be communicating on an almost subconscious level. Rob's got that kind of smile behind his eyes that suggests he's seen a few things and managed to wade his way through to the other side. I like him instantly. We chat. We wander around the workshop with Mazen Fawaz (another boss of Singer), marvelling at the ridiculous attention to detail. I smile, nod a bit, and keep my eyes on Seamus Taaffe, Singer's ‘restoration manager', who's actually doing up bolts. Everyone holds a tightness around the eyes. And when the car eventually fires up, raw-throated and gutteral, and pulls out of the yard, Rob and the team that has spent several late nights getting this car together suddenly takes a huge collective intake of breath. I jump in, determined to make sure that I get some sort of experience before something goes wrong and, pulling out into traffic, I feel eyes boring themselves in to the back of my head. With vicious clarity, I look back and realise something. I really like these guys. Christ, I hope the car isn't crap.Advertisement - Page continues below
It isn't. The immediate story is familiar. Aim between the headlight turrets, view framed by the slim pillars of an upright windscreen. The unbagged Momo wheel is close; the driving position, offset. So far, so old 911. But some things are instantly different. There is an intimate absence of squeaks. The steering isn't the incessant gibber of a racecar, or the weighty insistence of an unassisted rack-and-pinion classic. Instead, the information slides up through your fingertips, diffuses through your arms and eases into your brain in a gentle chorus with the intelligence being passed up through the seat of your trousers. It's the same, but different.
The wheel is thin, and sits in the fleshy part of your finger pads, held rather than gripped, guided rather than wrestled. The gearbox slips between ratios without the shift-pause-shift cadence of an old car. The clutch is light. The suspension contains no slop, and there's always this insistent absence of the geriatric. Here is a middle-aged Porsche that drives better than a modern car - a paradox held casually; a big swipe of colourful cognitive dissonance that feels intangibly, perfectly right.Advertisement - Page continues below
We cruise for a little while and then park up on the side of a canyon road. I poke and prod and find that the minutiae really make your eyes water. Attention to detail that verges on high-functioning autism. Every nut, bolt and screw thread is plated. Every bracket, hinge, mount and clasp is renewed, milled from raw ingot or water-jetted into a more gratifying shape. Every panel gap is a regulation 4mm. There's a Becker Mexico - the legendary hi-fi - in the dash. Satnav, iPods and other modern-day necessities are plumbed into the back of a bulkhead milled from a single piece of alloy. The dials are just so. The gold badges on the rear deck? Twenty-four carat. The titanium/ceramic-coated exhaust an implicit nod to potential. The bullet mirrors, the radius on the arches, the three-piece forged aluminium 17-inch Fuchs-esque wheels with tall tyres - all perfect. Modernity wrought in a thick veneer of warming retro.
Up ahead, I spy some twisty roads. Rob looks at me. I look at Rob. He knows. It feels as if I'm about to take a precious daughter out for the evening, and I've just turned up on a rusty motorbike and sporting facial tattoos. "Go. Have fun. Tell me what you think."
In fact, don't think, just do. Tough, because adrenaline being the guileless hormone that it is, I'm focusing like hell and over-driving.In three corners and two hairpins, I'm soundly reminded that this isn't a modern sports car, despite the slow-speed cues. The car doesn't necessarily track true, hit a line and glue itself to it like anything post-2010. It squirms and writhes and bucks and kicks. But you're there with it, living, breathing through slightly flared nostrils, emoting like buggery. You have to concentrate.
The flat-six yowls an appreciation of revs, mining incongruous torque, second gear is a quick, precise jab with left foot and right arm, and the car tucks and rolls into an uphill left-hand corner. There's a typical scuff of understeer, just before the front finds purchase and yanks the nose back into line, something joyous about being able to really jam the throttle to the floor without waiting for boost, or the fatal deployment of some barely contained power figure. I may not be going devastatingly quickly, but there's something very involved and intimate about the process of the hustle.
A slight lift, and we're into pure old Porsche territory, all those familiar dynamic shortcomings bright and clear. Rather than pivot around a metaphysical point near the centre of the car, imagine a solid piton driven just behind the rear seats about which the 911 tries to swivel. If you're used to relentlessly modern equipment, with refined and restructured dynamics, all the hairy aspects neatly shaved smooth by design and electronics, this will feel odd and old, verging on the cheerfully lethal. But here, right now, it feels like an ice-cold breath of fresh air after time spent in an overheated old people's home. It feels like life.
It's not perfect. Just to keep things a little real, there's still plenty to fettle. The uprated Porsche RS suspension was designed for a much heavier car and tries to bounce this lighter version off the road. After a while, the seat is overly-kinky in relation to the steering wheel and pedals, and feels over-plumped. The brakes - though powerful and reliable - need a decent bleed, and the pedals require adjustment to allow for heel-and-toe gearchanges for the full immersive experience. But these are small things, easily fixed - that would be adjusted to suit the prospective owner's particular taste. My taste, if I can possibly have anything to do with it.
The Tao of Singer is simple. Strip it bare, and remake it better. Identify the weak spots and eliminate them. Improve, elasticate the remit, but don't Disneyfy the experience and asset-strip the soul. This is an early Nineties 964 Porsche 911, and there's a confusing aesthetic tangle of earlier 911 design cues littered around the body and interior, and yet - as a whole - it's pretty enough to be a visual punch in the guts. It's as easy to drive as a VW Golf GTI, but as challenging to drive fast as anything you care to mention. Singer has expanded the vocabulary of this Porsche while retaining the basic, satisfying, recognisable grammar. It is one of the best things I've driven in a very long time. The upshot? A very simple conclusion. The most exciting car ever built by Porsche... isn't.