This Ex-NASA Engineer Wants To Change The Classic Alfa Romeo Game
It’s rare to meet people that check as many boxes as Dorian Valenzuela does. NASA rocket engineer? Check. Former employee of Elon Musk? Check. Electrical engineer for Singer Vehicle Design? Check. It comes as no surprise then that when he tells me that he wants to corner the market on Alfa Romeo restomods, I believe he’s entirely capable of it out of his humble garage in Montebello California.
I was lucky enough to grab time with him the other day in between what appeared to be an endless stream of projects he’s accumulated from friends and colleagues, but what really grabbed my attention was a fully primed Alfa frame that looked ready to get what many might call the full “Singer” treatment.
Read on to hear about how this mechanic is going to do just that.
Ted Gushue: What was the first car you ever drove?
Dorian Valenzuela: Ever drove? It was a Super Beetle. One of my uncles had a mid-’70s Super Beetle. My dad helped him paint it. I helped and then as a bit of a prize my uncle cruised by with it one day and we went for a drive. It was my first time ever driving a car. It was stick shift, and I remember that I didn’t stall it once. I had been carefully studying how to drive stick shift from the time I was a young. Right off the bat I nailed it, so I was pretty proud. Soon after, I became his regular designated driver [laughs]
TG: What color was the car?
DV: It was beige, actually a lot like the color of my Sedan.
TG: What else do you remember about it?
DV: Back then the Beetles were the cliché poor kids car. All the rockers and head banger kids had Beetles, so when you drive one, you become part of those cliques.
TG: What was the neighborhood like where you grew up in?
DV: I grew up in Pico Rivera which is a suburb of East L.A. It was pretty quiet, with only an occasional shooting [laughs] When you grow up in East LA, and in particular the city of Pico Rivera, you’re kinda known as a rich kid of the East side. It’s a little bit more of a suburb of the city, less apartments, more houses with lawns.
TG: Your family had been a car family since you were born?
DV: Yeah, my dad grew up in Mexico in Zacatecas. He was born in the early ’40s, so he was there 15-16 years before coming to the States. There was not a lot of car culture over there. It’s very much a ranch town, very rural. On a couple of occasions, he was able to spectate the Carrera Panamericana passing through near his town. That was when my dad was first exposed to sports cars—stuff you simply never saw when growing up in rural Mexico—Ferraris, Mercedes, Alfa Romeos, and all kinds of other exotic cars passing by. That’s what sparked the interest in cars with him.
When he got a little older, his family moved to northern Mexico, Tijuana, which is a border town that we all know of. He picked up a job as a dishwasher on the U.S. side so he would commute every day. Eventually he came over, went straight to Vietnam, and became a citizen, in that order. When he came back, went to college and got a job in Aerospace. First official car he bought brand new was a ’70 Porsche 914-6, which he still has. Very quickly, as soon as he could, he got into a European cars because that’s what he absolutely always wanted.
TG: That’s a great car, a 914-6.
DV: Yeah it’s in my garage now sitting at home, it doesn’t run currently, but it’s a beautiful Tangerine car with perfect patina-a time-capsule of sorts. Hasn’t been on the road since I was born.
TG: What was the car that he was driving when you were a kid?
DV: My dad’s like you or me, any excuse to get a new car, he’d take it. My dad loved driving his Alfetta Sprint Veloce most, there were never really any brand new cars in my family, always just interesting used ones and they were always German or Italian. Mom took me to school daily in an early ’80s Mercedes 300 TD Wagon, Euro market, small bumper, stick shift…lowered on BBS Mahle wheels.
TG: My Mom had four of them over the course of my childhood. Great cars.
DV: Mostly, my dad was enamored by Italian cars. Alfa Romeos, Fiats, he absolutely loved them. He was an active member of the Southern California Alfa Romeo club in the ’80s. That’s what I grew up around, my dad always working on cars, explaining how things work. He’s an engineer by trade, so he always took the technical side of it, explaining how things work and fit. He was very involved in improving cars. He would help develop and engineer various aftermarket products for Alfas. He’d bring me along whenever there was a club meeting or show so I got to be around a lot of really cool cars growing up. I always knew when there was an Alfa meeting coming up and it was very exciting for me.
TG: What was the car that you first started driving when you got your license?
DV: My dad’s good friend gave me a late ’50s Karmann Ghia, gorgeous early car, which of course I did not want at the time. It was just not a car I wanted, too simple. I wanted an Alfa. I flipped that Ghia through an ad in the Recycler and I ended up buying a ’79 Alfa sports sedan. It was automatic, so first thing I did was convert it to stick shift. I drove that during my junior and senior year in high school and then a couple years after that into college. That was my first real car, and even as a youngster I knew how perfectly balanced that car was.
TG: Keep going, what came after that?
DV: A few little projects came and went, but I got into BMWs next, specifically the E28s. I got handed down mom’s 535is that I spent every minute and penny that I could on. From that, I got into an E34 M5 which I purchased blown up. I pulled the motor, and did a really meticulous rebuild on it, I really loved that car.
TG: This was around the time you were studying engineering in college?
DV: Yeah. I went to engineering school, picked up an internship at NASA and ended up staying there for 10 years.
TG: What was it like being a car guy at NASA?
DV: It was great. You’re around all this wonderful tooling and hardware and around all this technique and knowledge about mechanics and physics and science and engineering. Every chance I could, I’d apply it towards my cars. If I rebuilt a shifter or something, sure I could go and buy parts off the shelf or a rebuild kit, but what I really got a kick out of was buying the raw materials, going to the machine shop after hours and making my own bushings or taking a little bit of weight out of a piece of hardware. That was kinda my thing, doing “plus one” type rebuilds on various components of the car.
TG: Were you one of the only car guys in your group at NASA? Or were there a few other guys like you?
DV: Early on, none of my co-workers cared about cars beyond using them for transportation but it’s funny how slowly you get to know the other gearheads around the lab. Turns out there are a lot of club racers, autocrossers, and very talented automotive fabricators within JPL/NASA.
TG: What specifically were you working on at NASA?
DV: I spent the majority of my time on a project called the “Space Interferometer Mission”.
DV: It was a very fancy telescope that looked for habitable planets around “nearby” stars.
DV: Yes, it collects light waves with ridiculous precision and then extracts information from them. Truly amazing projects and people over NASA. Anyways, around 2006 the project was defunded, I jumped around within a few projects after that, but got laid off after eight or nine years. They graciously gave me a severance package to say, “So long”. Most people would have put it in the bank right away, but instead I bought a ’76 Porsche 911S and decided to drive it up and down the coast for two weeks. That’s when I first got back into Porsches.
TG: The ’76 911, let’s talk about that car.
DV: Found it on Craigslist back when they were not a lot of money. It was a silver ’76 S, all stock, magnesium case which leaked like crazy. It was my first rear engine car and I really enjoyed it. Immediately had plans to do a back date/long hood conversion on it but the more and more I researched the car, the more and more I realized that I was in the wrong 911 if I want to trick it out. I ended up selling it to off to Germany and I picked up a 964 after that.
TG: The 964, did that lead you onto your next project?
DV: I really, really loved the 964. It really grabbed me. I love the platform. I love the fact that it had coil suspension and it was best handling of the 911s. It had the classic looks but the more modern suspension. I just liked that they carried on the same basic aesthetic but improved everything underneath. Plus it was my high school dream car.
TG: By being in the 964 community, did that give you access to guys like Rob Dickinson, that would ultimately lead to you working at Singer Vehicle Design?
DV: Ultimately, yes, but that was a little later. I worked at SpaceX for a term between NASA and Singer.
TG: What were you doing for SpaceX? Let’s back up a second there. People only ever read about SpaceX, they never really hear about what SpaceX is like.
DV: SpaceX is a really crazy place!. It’s a very dynamic and young place and it changes a lot daily. I was a test specialist and worked for a testing group so we did dynamic testing on huge rocket sections, and components sometimes applying 100s of thousands of pounds of force against these things, trying to get them to fail, scary as hell!
TG: Did you get to spend any time with Elon Musk? Did you get to meet him?
DV: I met him very briefly during the interview. He did a quick walkthrough with me. He’s busy guy, but I think he makes a point to meet everyone hired on. During the interview process, you interview with four or five people, and the last part of the interview is taking a quick walkthrough of the place with Elon. Just a brief conversation. He would point at something, ask you what you know about it. I remember he pointed to this big device hanging on a crane. He says, “What do you think that is?” I stared at it, gave him some feedback. He’s like, “Yeah, yada yada yada…” shakes your hand, see you later.
TG: Very cool.
DV: It’s pretty cool, yeah.
TG: Ultimately you ended up leaving.
DV: Yeah, I was working a lot and the schedule just wasn’t working with life. I had a girlfriend at the time and I was just there too much. Right around that time I was seeing Rob more and more. We ended up talking about me working there. He made me an offer and I ended up kind of jumping out of SpaceX.
TG: You left directly to go work for Singer?
DV: Directly, yeah. Directly to Singer.
TG: Very cool. What was your role at Singer?
DV: Singer was a very small company back then, so we shared roles and wore a lot of different hats but my primary role was to manage the electronics on the cars. I had a lot of Mil spec wiring training at previous jobs, and Singer cars run Mil spec wiring harnesses in their cars so it was a good fit for me. I would manage the complex electrical systems, and build harnesses for the cars. They had one project going at the time, which was a first for Singer—Rob wanted to build a stock 964 and give it only the aesthetic treatment of the Singer to help bring the price down. It sounds fairly simple, but was actually quite involved, at least when it has to be perfect.
As the company grew and more orders came in, we eventually had to sub out the harness assembly work because it was simply too time consuming. Taking that massive task off of my table allowed me to focus on other projects and product development there.
TG: When did you end up leaving Singer?
DV: I left Singer in June.
TG: Did you leave with ambitions to start up your own, not necessarily a competing product, or kind of walk me through how you arrived at DV Mechanics?
DV: Well for a while, Singer and I shared a building just a few doors down from their main building. Singer would store their donor cars there and I would store and work on my Alfa projects there by night. Even when at Singer, I’d always come home after work, grab a quick dinner, and go straight to the garage to work on whatever I had going on at the time. DV Mechanics is the evolution of that. It didn’t take long after getting my own proper workshop for me to realize that I really enjoyed having my own shop, and it started to feel right to me. I started picking up customer projects and the shop started to take up more and more of my time. At the same time, Singer was growing and started to lose the small shop feel to it that I loved, things just lined up and it was time.
TG: Describe a bit about what it is you’re doing now exactly.
DV: Well I am building two cars right now one is a Porsche and one is an Alfa Romeo both are going to be “DV Specials” restored and customized from the ground up. During my downtime on these two projects, I am offering my shop services to Alfa and Porsche owners. I am fully equipped to to do just about anything here. I weld, I run a mill and lathe, I have clean room where I assemble engines, and a electronics fabrication shop too. I also try to buy/fix/sell cars…I always have something going on.
TG: I imagine people would approach you pretty frequently knowing you have experience at Singer and knowing that you’re an Alfa guy. Do you think there’s a market out there for an “Alfa Singer”, so to speak?
DV: I think so. Absolutely. There’s always been more money out there for Porsches than there has been for Alfas. That said, I think Alfa is starting to get a lot more attention and I think there definitely is room for something like that.
TG: Why is the conversation shifting around Alfa?
DV: It’s hard to look at an Alfa and not admit how gorgeous they are by design and that’s surely the number one reason. And I don’t think any other marque has such a rich racing history and you can see this DNA in their street cars, all the ingredients are there for a race car from the factory. It does feel like they are getting exponentially more popular lately, and social media is surely one of the reasons.
Someone who’s never even heard of Alfa Romeo can know a lot about Alfa Romeo within a minute or two just by following a hashtag on Instagram. We’re in an age where information is really easy to get to. Also, guys like me who like to stylize and “race out” Alfas make them more attractive to people who never really looked twice at them.
TG: What would be the car that you would turn into a “Singer-Alfa”? I know Rob doesn’t necessarily love the term Singer-Alfa, but you know what I mean.
DV: Nor do I [laughs] but I think obviously the Giulia series of cars totally beg for it, and the GTV is the obvious first choice since it is a sleek coupe, however I’d love to play further with the sedan platform as well. Probably do both GTV and Giulia TI sedan, oh, and a Giulia Super Wagon which is actually also in the works here. A “retro-modded” Alfa has been an idea in my head that I’ve been thinking about for a while now, there are quite a few out there but I want to take a proper stab at it. The Alfa chassis that you see outside, that’s going to be the first official DV Alfa. I don’t know EXACTLY what it’s going to look like, but it’s something I’m going to concentrate a lot on this year. For me it is an organic process with a lot of trial and error, kinda like watching your girlfriend pick out an outfit, I can’t wait [laughs]
TG: What are the launch codes that you need to create something like this? You’ve seen how a brand like Singer is built. What do you need to do and how would you do it differently?
DV: I think I’m taking a bit more of a “it is what it is” approach. An Alfa is beautiful from birth so my job is to merely accentuate her lines and apply some “technology” along the way, totally keeping very true to the original genius design. I can have a lot of fun with the details and mechanics, but it’ll be almost impossible to make it much prettier. On the other hand—and I may get a lot of shit for this—but I think stock early 911s are at best “cute” [laughs] Rob did tons of work to make his cars gorgeous, and he absolutely nailed it. Where Porsches do shine is in the engineering and execution, they are tough as nails, I will build that into my Alfas. I also want to build car that someone will not be afraid to use the shit out of, I would never do that If I owned a Singer.
TG: Too precious?
DV: Too precious. I would not want to jump in a Singer and go to Joshua Tree and blast around for the weekend. I would be freaking out. I want to build a car that lends itself to more use. You can go to Palm Springs and leave it parked in a sandlot and do things like that. The interior’s going to be a little bit more minimal, but equally beautiful I think. The exterior is going to appear as if it was a factory build. It’s not going to scream out at you for attention. She’s just going to be sitting in the corner being pretty and understated, more Audrey Hepburn, less Jayne Mansfield.
TG: What color’s the first one going to be?
TG: What’s the engine going to look like?
DV: You’re going to open the hood, and you’re going to see a big honking motor and just about nothing else. Big beautiful air horns, and all the engine eye candy you want to see but without all the wiring and fuse boxes and ugly stuff.
TG: You’ll use an Alfa engine?
DV: Yes, 4-cylinder Alfa engines. I love 4-cylinder engines, and I’m working on a couple for this project.
TG: I see some cool carbon fiber bits on there.
DV: Yeah. Carbon is a subtle indicator of what’s inside.
TG: What are the big obstacles when you want to set down a path like this?
DV: I wish that I could just close the doors, lock myself in here and just pop out of here with a finished car, but unfortunately, the biggest obstacle and I hate to say it, is money. Keeping the lights on, paying my bills, eating is a big obstacle when trying to develop something like this. I’m work alone so I literally have to do everything from opening the doors in the morning, cleaning, keeping toilet paper in the bathroom, to putting the product out. That’s, by far, the biggest challenge. It’s a lot of work, it’s very involved. And I take on routine jobs to fund my skunkworks projects.
TG: Have you thought of seeking out capital to help scale it?
DV: I’ve had a couple of people approach me, and it’s something that I’m absolutely open to, but I’ve had some partnerships in my days, not automotive field, but in other little ventures, and I know that chemistry’s very important. You have to find somebody who really understands what you’re doing and realizes that it’s basically an art project for the first year and then it can become a money thing. If and when I find the person that can understand that, I will. The few people I have talked to are like, right away asking me how much money there is to be made, and I almost want to tell them, “Hey, it’s not about the money right now. First we have to make something beautiful, and the money might come later.”
TG: That was a big part of what Rob said to us the other day. No one’s getting rich quick over here.
DV: That’s absolutely true. Sometimes I’ll have a car in here for a while and I start to add up my hours and the parts, and it’s like, “Oh my god, this guy owes me $12,000” if I was to charge him the way I think a lot of shops charge. The car drives great, this and this and that, but I almost can’t justify all that. I end up dialing back my labor just to make it work for him because I want him to have the car working well. It’s a big deal.
If people would see how much time actually goes into making something right, it can get really expensive really fast, especially if shops are not shy about charging. Something that’s seemingly really simple can take up your full day sometimes to do properly, and require really expensive tools. Being here by myself, sometimes I have to run to have to fetch supplies because I don’t have the right this or that handy and it’s a hour away…there goes your day, or there goes your morning. That’s something I struggle with.
TG: Yeah, there’s only one of you.
DV: There’s only one of me. I’m looking to change that.
Photography by Ted Gushue