Singer Vehicle Design’s Rob Dickinson On Building A Restomod Empire
Singer Vehicle Design has, without question, made an indelible mark on the classic car community. I can’t imagine many people reading this who haven’t already seen Rob Dickinson’s work online, in print, or in the metal. GQ’s raved about it, every buff book on the magazine rack has gone full fanboy, and all of Tumblr can’t seem to find a photo of one that isn’t worth a “reblog”.
What’s behind the hype, however, is an incredibly earnest, soft spoken man with a passion for music and an almost David Foster Wallace-esque obsession with remaining true to himself and to the ethos of the Porsche 911’s history.
I feel very fortunate that he found the time to sit down with us before opening his warehouse to our lens. Read on to gain a bit more insight into how the magic happens in North Hollywood, California.
Ted Gushue: What is the first car that you ever owned?
Rob Dickinson: The first car I ever owned was A Ford Fiesta.
TG: What year?
RD: It was beige, it must have been, the year of the car was probably a ’77.
TG: 1977, what year did you buy it?
RD: 1990 I believe.
TG: What do you remember about the car?
RD: It had a very small steering wheel on it which made it very, very, heavy and unpleasant to drive.
TG: What was the first car that you would call your first “real” car?
RD: The first car that I bought that I wanted was a ’87 911. I purchased that in 1996. It was white with blue interior, a non-sport car, which is quite rare for the UK, most of them in the UK came with sport equipment. It quickly changed hands in exchange for a semi-completed 1974 2.4S restoration project which had a lot to do with informing Singer Vehicle Design.
TG: Had you been involved with manufacturing or restoration prior?
RD: Well, I was a car designer so I was involved with manufacturing from that degree but no, I’ve never restored a car. Of course I didn’t restore it, the shop was restoring it for me—an enormous expense.
TG: What do you remember learning about that process?
RD: From restoring the 2.4? I learned that some mechanics are absolutely unreliable and that projecting how much you’re going to spend doing something, you really have to triple it to come anywhere close to being realistic on budget. I also learned that as soon as I’d completed this car that a 2.4S is very rare in England. There’s only about 12 or 13 right-hand drive cars left in the UK, makes it rarer than a ’73 RS in the UK. I had a desire to restore it back to original specifications, which I did, and of course when I completed it all I wanted to do was modify it but I couldn’t because it was too rare. That was the early sign of the itch to make something my own in the 911 world.
TG: What was the next step after that?
RD: I actually bought a 356 after that which was initially a plan to do a hot rod 356. Then I was off with the band and not using any of the cars very much, and circumstance brought me to Los Angeles in 2003 and I sold them all in England. The 2.4S and the 356, and a few other bits and pieces generated enough cash to give me enough freedom to do what I really wanted to do which was to build my own car, my own 911, my own vision of my ultimate 911, which was my 1969 hot rod.
TG: That’s the Brown Bomber right down there, right? Walk me through that build.
RD: That car was purchased off Hans Lapine who’s a very famous dude in the Porsche world. He’s head of the VW Advanced Design studio in Santa Monica. His father was Tony Lapine, who was head of design at Porsche in the ’70s and ’80s, did the 964 and 928, great car. I was living in New York in 2002 and I saw it advertised on the internet and I flew to California to meet Hans. I didn’t know Hans owned it, I didn’t know who the owner was. I met Hans and I didn’t think I’d like the color, it was Bahama yellow, and of course I fell in love with the color subsequently. I knew it was a perfect foundation for what I wanted to do, which was restore a ’69 car which was a very early long wheelbase car, basically the lightest long wheelbase car you can buy. They got quite a bit heavier in ’72, ’73.
First of all, we had a three liter engine put into it, and then we spent a lot of time modifying the rear fenders and getting the stance of the car right with the right wheels and tires. Then we stripped down the interior and painted the interior body color.
TG: How much of the stancing was based on gut feel?
RD: The stance of a car isn’t complicated, so in my mind it’s not complicated. How the tire is mounted on the rim is very important for me in terms of the amount of tension that the tire is under on the wheel and for me, the wheel and tire relationship is literally the most important building block to car design, so it was very much a gut thing.
TG: Did you have some sort of idea in your mind of what this thing was going to look like?
RD: It was an homage to the road racing 911s of the late ’60s and early ’70s. It had a bit of 911R, a bit of SC, a little bit of RS, a little RSR. I wasn’t interested in doing a replica or a recreation of any of those cars. I wanted to do something that was quintessentially café racer, a car that was obviously a road car but could be used at the track and had that vintage racing chic to it.
TG: How quickly after you finished this car did you realize that you were going to be comfortable restoring cars for other people?
RD: I’m still not comfortable restoring cars for other people [laughs] so the idea of this being an enterprise that was part of some kind of grand plan back then is ridiculous. The enormous responsibility in transforming these cars for customers is something that still keeps us honest every day. These are expensive cars, very powerful cars, and there can be no complacency. I was convinced that there would be interest in the car, both as people noticed it as a daily driver in Hollywood, and magazines became interested in shooting it. It was quite an interesting addition to the R Gruppe.
For me it was an opportunity to learn that such a car presented in such a way had such a broad mainstream appeal other than to guys like us who live and breathe Porsche. Of course, being in the R Gruppe, it fit right in with the quintessential hot rods. That sense of putting big engines in older chassis was something that was inspiring as well. All this was very much the genesis of Singer.
TG: Do you find that when a customer approaches you to modify a car, you have to manage their expectations around what they view or imagine a Singer restoration to be like? The cars are so well-publicized and people fetishize them to such a degree that I’d have to imagine that when someone actually comes to you to place an order, there is some sort of expectation management there.
RD: Are you trying to say that they’re not as good as everyone thinks they are? [Laughs]
TG: Hah! Well, to put it in context: in my conversation with Magnus Walker the other day, he explained that the main reason he refuses to build cars for other people is that everyone builds up an image in their mind of what it must be like to drive his cars, and when they actually get behind the wheel it’s usually very different than their perception. This would end up causing a ton of stress in the relationship with the customer as they’re usually so close. Does that make sense?
RD: Well, we’ve spent five years trying to make the best driving car on planet earth, and I think we’ve done it, so, no. People can judge the way the car looks and they can judge pricing and they can judge the quality maybe from pictures or if they’ve seen the car, but most people haven’t driven the car—and of course, that’s where the magic is. I’d say our cars are the very opposite from Magnus’. I can probably understand why Magnus says that about his cars, though.
Our cars are extremely honest. I’ve been lucky enough to drive most of the important old 911s that Porsche released, and reasonably in stock form. That death grip I’ve had on trying to distill that experience into something that I’ve never experienced before, take all the good and increase it and get rid of as much of the bad as possible, not that there is a lot of bad, but there’s certainly stuff that is less desirable in the driving experience of an old 911, and present a car which is just a visceral joy. That was our goal. In terms of people’s expectations, one assumes these days that they come reasonably well-educated in what we do, and the cost, and have seen some nice things have been written about how the car goes down the road. Usually when they drive it, it’s confirmed.
TG: Is there one piece of the puzzle to Singer today that was extremely difficult for you to arrive at?
TG: Every single thing?
RD: Every single fucking thing has been difficult, except my fierce faith in that if we got it right it would be okay. That was never in the question, but getting there has been extremely challenging.
TG: Could you see applying that same passion to a different marque or a different model?
RD: Sure, we have quite a few plans for other ideas, not with other marques, though. What we’re doing is not revolutionary at all, it’s restoring a modified old car. Many people do it, some do it better than others. The focus that we went into this, I think we can put similar focus and similar meticulousness or obsessiveness—whatever you want to call it—into other things, and I think we can get it right. I think Singer needs to be careful in that anything we do has to be different than what everyone else is doing. It has to be really good. Doing things really well, that’s why things are so hard. To do a proper good job is not easy, that’s why no one really does it, because it’s not easy.
Our desire was to attack this industrial design icon with as much reverence and respect and authenticity as we could, [and] the business model for doing such a thing is ridiculous, but I had the faith that if we did it properly and I had the opportunity to do it properly, something good would come from it. I think we have to enter into any other similar endeavors with the same thought process and the same vibe, and I think we’ll be okay. I do think the process and the idea behind what we do can be transplanted onto other things.
TG: Is there anyone else in the “restomod” community that you respect or that you would say that you draw inspiration from?
RD: I’m a big fan of Jonathan Ward’s [ICON 4X4] set up. Jonathan’s been very generous with helping us understand how to make sense of the business of this. Obviously, he’s been doing this a lot longer than we have.
TG: He’s very talented.
RD: The odd thing is that we’re very close to each other geographically. Interestingly, I’m spending a lot of my time these days being forwarded links to people that are kind of ripping us off, which is interesting [laughter].
TG: Not surprising, really. I had a meeting with John Esposito who does beautiful, beautiful work, but people come to him all the time looking to recreate what you do—it frustrates him because they’ll always ask for “Singer” this, or “Singer” that.
RD: It’s very flattering. I’m not sure I’m complaining but it’s tough to explain how I feel about it, really. Singer’s always been about celebrating Porsche, and is always Porsche writ large, and Singer writ small for me, so it’s more that these other guys are also just celebrating Porsche in my eyes. We only have two Singer badges on the cars, because circumstances kept taking us there. The idea was that people could walk past one of our restorations and go, “Wow, what a fabulous old Porsche,” not, “What a fabulous Singer,” that’s really not the point. The point is to celebrate Porsche’s heritage in a way which is so well-executed that it can maybe legitimately step out of that arena of custom cars or resto-mods, or anything else. That was our lofty ambition, but only time and public opinion will determine whether that’s actually going to happen or not, but they were the principles that we went into it with.
TG: What else are you driving right now?
RD: I’m driving my 993. My 1995 993.
TG: How big is your personal collection?
RD: I have two cars. I have that 1969 911 and that 1995 993.
TG: Is there anything else you’d love to own someday?
RD: Oh yeah, my collection will be enormous one day. It will be extremely multi-faceted.
TG: What other collections out there do you identify as being really well curated?
RD: The Ingram Collection is fantastic, we’ve had a lot of access to that. It’s very inspiring to see all those original RSs and STs and Rs and old 356s, of course. It’s the only real Porsche collection I’ve seen up close, it’s hard to top it really. It’s an impeccable collection.
TG: When you want to go for a drive in LA, where do you enjoy going?
RD: The canyons in Malibu are great, if you pick the right time. Of course, our secret test track up in the hills is pretty awesome as well.
TG: Secret test track up in the hills?
RD: Well, here at the base of these, what are these hills called? Big Tujunga, Little Tujunga, which is where we generally do part of the road testing on the cars. They’re Porsche roads built by god.
TG: Well the secret’s out now. Tell me about the naming process that goes into each car. Is it based on the customer’s geographical location?
RD: [The] customer chooses it, but it’s usually the place of destination, where the car is going to go. That was the way we named the cars individually, internally, and it became something that stuck. We do branch out though. We’re doing cars called Fiona, Mulholland, and Topanga at the moment. They tend to be mainly destinations, though.
TG: Are there cars that you find the customers will not let you publicize, or is that part of the contract with a customer?
RD: No, the customer has total control as to how exposed the car becomes. Our clients are an incredibly different bunch of people, but honestly, in many ways incredibly similar because their tastes obviously brought them to us. I think they like to celebrate the work, which is really cool.
For me, the biggest surprise in all this is how much of a people business this has become, rather than necessarily a car business. We have this amazing opportunity to form a proper relationship with our clients during the process, and that’s an extremely valuable opportunity for us. Bonding with the client, and having the client understand exactly what’s going into the car, and the amount of work, and decisions that we both need to make on the car is very important, and usually builds a great amount of goodwill between the two parties.
It’s rare that I’ve asked a client if we can borrow their car for photography and it’s been denied, especially if people can come and meet us prior to their car being worked on. They sense that there’s a vibe here which is trustworthy. These guys know that we’re charging the amount of money we need to because we have to. No one’s getting rich quick restoring these cars. There’s a sense that they’re rooting for us throughout the process, which is great. Looking out for the customer through the process is very important. A lot of these guys have had bespoke things made for them at some point, whether it’s suits or houses or boats or helicopters. Often times they haven’t had great experiences, and getting that liaison right with the customer is so easy for us to do.
It’s something that a lot of companies forget to do. Understanding that without these clients we wouldn’t exist, looking after them like family, looking after them like royalty I would say is very important. Of course there’s the cars that are out in the field and if there’s issues, there’s a lot of good will—for instance, we’ll fix cars if they need fixing on our own dollar. The cars have warranties and guarantees but for me, looking after these cars for the rest of their lives is what we have to be prepared to do. The backend of what we’re doing is an exponential build. It’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger in that sense of looking after the clients and looking after the cars, cracking the cars. Understanding where they are, how much mileage they’re doing, and where the maintenance is required is going to become a bigger and bigger process but a vital one for building loyalty to Singer and giving people something that is utterly extraordinary which is not just a fabulous machine, but is hopefully a part of a little community and part of a family.
TG: As that community has expanded, how has your relationship with Porsche AG evolved?
RD: It’s evolving positively, I think. Porsche is aware of what we’re doing and I think we have some support with Porsche. We hope to present ourselves in a way that doesn’t offend Porsche, I like to think that we are supporting their brand. We hope for that to continue and that’s always what the company is about, celebrating this company. We’re not trying to piggyback and take advantage of them.
TG: It seems to me that Porsche has evolved a lot of its thinking on heritage in the last five to ten years. For instance they’re rebranding Boxster as the 718. They’re probably realizing that a lot of their new clients are status symbol purchasers. If you see someone in a vintage Porsche and you wave at them while driving a vintage Porsche, you just wave at each other because you’re out doing the same thing. I did it twice on the way over here. When you see someone in a new Porsche, they don’t always wave back. That simple wave is something that they’re afraid of losing, that sense of community.
When they see people like you who are cheerleaders or they see people like Magnus or other people that are out there just effusively loving the brand, they have to be excited.
RD: These are the growing pains of a company like Porsche that is obviously the most successful car brand on the planet. How do you manage that growth and maintain the grassroots passion for the cars that remains in years gone by? I think Porsche’s doing a very good job at it, I think they’re wise to their heritage. It’s a brilliant heritage, it’s unrivaled, and unparalleled. We would like to think we’re a very small part of that potentially, obviously unofficially with no support from them.
I’ve been deeply involved in the Porsche community both here and in the UK now for almost 30 years. I feel like I’m as qualified as any to comment on it, and feel that what we’re doing is worthy of that heritage in that regard. Porsche is the most important car company on planet earth as far as I’m concerned, and they’ve singularly made the most important sports car on planet earth, one that will never be beaten. Anything that we can do to celebrate that in a respectful way I think has to be okay.
TG: If Porsche ever approached you, down the road, to buy Singer, is that something you’d ever consider? I don’t know if that’s something they’d ever do, but hypothetically?
RD: I don’t know, I’ve never thought about that. I would love to have a more meaningful relationship with Porsche. I feel that we’ve learned quite a lot about the love of Porsche for our clients and I think we have something to offer, so I don’t know. I don’t know, but to be recognized as not diluting Porsche’s brand would be nice.