IT’S LIKE ONE OF THOSE UNSETTLING DREAMS where everything seems familiar but nothing makes sense: The car is obviously a Porsche 911, instantly recognizable to serious students of the marque as a 964, manufactured from 1989 to 1994. But the details don’t compute. Extra-wide black fenders have been crudely riveted to tatty dark-blue bodywork in order to clear deep-dish Fuchs-style center-lock wheels, which exist only in the fevered imagination of Porsche fanatics. The white ducktail matches the roof’s color, but it belongs on a ’73 Carrera RS 2.7, not a 964. Pink zip ties serve as door pulls, and aluminum sound-deadening tape is slathered all over the unfinished interior. The car looks less like one of Magnus Walker’s Outlaw 911s than Dr. Frankenstein’s personal hot rod.
But things get really weird when the car is unleashed on a test track at a former RAF bomber-training base in South East England. At idle, the induction noise, fan whir, and boxer clatter are exactly what you’d expect from an air-cooled flat-six. But as revs build, the engine note grows sharper and crisper, like a full-tilt Porsche race engine from the late Sixties or a modern 911 RSR at Le Mans. The wail sounds like what you’d get if you crossed Hans Mezger’s sanctified flat-six with—heresy of heresies!—a Colombo Ferrari V12.
Come to find out, the 4.0-liter engine makes 500 hp and spins to 9300 rpm, thanks to a four-valve head.
This is when Carrera cognoscenti bolt awake. Because Porsche never put a four-valve air-cooled engine into production. No, that was the dream of the folks at Singer Vehicle Design, the Southern California outfit that already restores magnificent, “reimagined” 964s tricked out to the price of $500,000-. For their new project, dubbed DLS, for Dynamics and Lightweighting Study, they enlisted Williams Advanced Engineering—the road-car side of the august British Formula 1 team—to design and build the engine that Porsche never built itself.
"We were concerned about the engine," admits Mazen Fawaz, Singer’s managing director for the project, known as "Maz" to colleagues. "If it didn’t work out, what do we do then? I was also worried that, even if the four-valve thing did work, the result would be that we had an old 911 motor with good numbers, rather than something satisfying or interesting. But I’ve been absolutely blown away by the engine. The lengths Williams went to to create lightweight but durable components were just off the charts. I think our valves per car are $30,000. They’re straight out of Formula 1. You think you’re doing 4000 rpm, and you’re actually doing 8700."
The engine is the centerpiece of a leave-no-lily-ungilded makeover of the 964. Back in California, company founder and creative director Rob Dickinson reworked the body to optimize the aerodynamics while masterfully tweaking the iconic styling. And underneath the lovingly shaped carbon-fiber shell, virtually every piece other than the original chassis has been refurbished, rethought, or replaced—suspension, gearbox, driveshaft, exhaust, oil lines, wiring harness, and so on, down to the steering wheel and the shelf in the trunk. The all-in retail price will be $1.8 million, and the project will be limited to 75 cars.
Today, on a blustery afternoon three months before the car’s scheduled debut at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, in West Sussex, England, one of the two DLS mules is being tested at the Bicester Heritage track. About a dozen guys zipped into Williams team jackets are huddled around the car, trying to stay warm in the lee of rusting airplane hangars once reserved for Spitfires and Blenheim bombers. Fawaz and Williams vehicle-dynamics engineer Alan Clark, who helped develop the Exige S and Evora S for Lotus, pound around the makeshift circuit, evaluating everything from pedal feel (good) to the clutch take-up (excellent).
Clark scribbles notes on a sheet marked "6.01 Braking Attribute Sign-Off," which has boxes for low-deceleration linearity, judder noise, straight-line stability, and so on. Engine designer John Magee sternly warns Fawaz to keep revs in check. But Fawaz can’t resist temptation and lays into the throttle coming out of a second-gear corner, sending the rear end skittering across the tarmac.
"Feels good in the high-speed stuff but a little squirrelly in the slower sections," Fawaz says after the run.
"Could be the dampers," Clark says.
Fawaz is also concerned about the shifter, which feels overly spring-loaded. "On the road, it’s okay," he says. "But out here, when you start hustling the car, I felt like I was going to break it off. I'm wondering if that's going to be a problem."
Clark nods noncommittally. "The car is constantly evolving, so things are changing all the time," he says as Fawaz climbs back into the car. "The idea is to put the best bits of every 911 in this car. There's not supposed to be anything intimidating about the handling. The car is predictable, but you can provoke it. We're of the philosophy that you use the [traction and stability-control] systems only when necessary. If you can drive an English B road with one hand, that means the car is working really well."
During a late-afternoon run, Fawaz stops on the circuit. "Maz doesn't want to play anymore, Magee jokes. But grins turn to frowns when it becomes apparent that the car has switched into limp-home mode. Magee plugs his laptop into the MoTeC data-logging system. "Something's not happy," he murmurs as he scrolls through a thicket of squiggly lines. "It must be a sensor or something. It’s not mechanical." Which is good. But the team decides to call it a day to be safe.
The mood is surprisingly upbeat as the crew packs their gear. Besides getting home earlier than expected, they’re encouraged by their progress. "We’re just scratching the surface," Fawaz says. "But the indications are really good. The thing is running cool, which was our biggest worry, and the rest of the car is taking shape. What’s really important to us is that it be engaging at any speed, even parking. It’s got to blow your mind, even at idle."
Or, in this case, even while it’s being loaded on a trailer.
IF YOU WERE TO DRAW a Venn diagram of the wealthiest car collectors and the most delirious Porsche lovers, the intersection would be Singer customers. The company recently completed its 100th restoration, now referred to as the "classic" rendition, and it’s taken commissions for 130 more. But as the Singer-modified Porsches become more, dare we say, plebeian, some owners asked Dickinson what he could do if they provided the resources for him to flex his muscles.
Like all enthusiasts, Dickinson and Fawaz enjoy playing what-if games. What if we made the car lighter? What if we made it more powerful? What if we did what’s known in Porsche-speak as a Club Sport? What if we created a modern take on the 911 R, the legendary, limited-edition lightweight that Porsche unveiled in 1966?
“The original 911 R was 850 kilos and 210 hp,” Dickinson said. “Me and Maz said, ‘Ours is going to be 849 kilograms and 500 hp.’ That was the pub conversation. F*** it. It was going to be lighter, and it was going to be more than twice as powerful. Ten seconds later, this car was in my head. Look at what you can do with 50 years of material science, engineering skill, design expertise, computer-aided design, carbon fiber, magnesium, all the usual stuff, and an understanding of our subject—a philosophical understanding, a social demographic understanding and a historical understanding—all wrapped up in lots of money and massive amounts of engineering talent.”
Dickinson is sitting at his desk in the cavernous Singer design studio in Sun Valley, an industrial outpost north of Los Angeles, gazing at a full-size model of the DLS modification. In raw clay, unpainted and unadorned, the low-slung body seems at once elegant and predatory. Dickinson and design deputy Daniel Simon started with the wheels—18-inch forged-magnesium BBSs—and worked up from there. As a result, the stance is ideal. In addition to the aesthetic improvements, Dickinson is proud of the functional upgrades. For example, flush door glass and a reworked roofline better direct airflow back over the reprofiled ducktail to produce serious downforce, which is augmented by the front splitter and rear diffuser. Although the bodywork was derived from the Singer classic restoration, it incorporates wider, more muscular fenders to clear the bigger tires.
The DLS project, for all its audaciousness, is a logical next step for Singer Vehicle Design. Dickinson founded the company a decade ago with the goal, at once reverential and improbably ambitious, of rethinking the Porsche 911, arguably the world’s most successful sports car. The 964 was the perfect foundation, since donor cars were relatively cheap and plentiful and the air-cooled engine and fundamental shape harked back to the earliest 911s. Dickinson fashioned a voluptuous carbon-fiber body and an exquisite interior, and the stock 247-hp engine was massaged to produce as much as 390 hp. The result was a car that distilled the essence of the 911 while embodying Dickinson’s eccentric sensibility and attention to detail.
“We’re doing something that’s very postmodern,” Dickinson says. “We’re taking a piece of Teutonic pragmatism—all about function, with no unnecessary embellishment—and turning it into the most beautiful 911 I’ve ever seen. It’s something Porsche wouldn’t do. But this is us. This is me. This is California. This is 40 years of hindsight. At the same time, we wanted to do something that genuinely honored and celebrated the car. It was always a Porsche. It was never a Singer. It was our vision of a Porsche 911.”
Dickinson and Fawaz are the yin and yang of the company. Dickinson, 53, a transplanted Brit who was once the front man of the rock band Catherine Wheel, comes to work in shorts, black leather Adidas sneakers, and—his signature—a military cap. Fawaz, 43, a tech entrepreneur with a Marine-style haircut, was a Singer fan before he joined the company in a management capacity. The two bonded over a passion for Porsches, but they bring different styles and expertise to their collaboration. “Maz is all about dynamics and driver input,” says Alec Patterson, Williams’s senior program manager for the DLS. “Rob is all about how it looks.”
Dickinson is an artist who refuses to cede creative autonomy—often to the consternation of the development team. “Rob designs something beautiful,” Fawaz says. “We hire very expensive guys to create a drawing of it, and it goes to extremely expensive engineers to figure out how it should be made. Then we sign it off—and Rob changes it. I want to stab my eyes out. I want to stab his eyes out. He wants to stab his eyes out. The process is so painful. But when Rob shows me what he’s doing, I know he’s right.”
NEARLY A DOZEN PEOPLE ARE CRAMMED into the living room of Fawaz’s Spanish-style house in Santa Monica. Fawaz is the point man for the technical side of the program. Each morning, he wakes up to find about 50 emails from Williams and other European suppliers, and every day he participates in video conferences via Webex to keep tabs on various issues. So when the core of the Williams team visits California for a rare stem-to-stern project review, they convene not in the Singer office, but at Fawaz’s home.
A big screen and whiteboard have been set up for PowerPoint presentations. Several team members have worked on production-car programs for Ford and Jaguar, while others come from the Caterham and Toyota F1 teams. All of them look the part. Fawaz alone is dressed in California casual, sans socks, in a stylish cardigan over cargo shorts. He’s just about the only participant without an engineering degree, and he has no experience building production cars. Which is to say, the guy running the show is the one who knows the least about how the show is supposed to be run. And while this sounds like a case of lunatics being in charge of the asylum, it’s actually the secret to Singer’s unlikely success.
Most car programs coalesce around huge, multidisciplinary teams of designers, engineers, bean counters, regulatory experts, and marketing mavens who work together to identify potential buyers and figure out how to build cars that can be sold at a price point and in large enough numbers to make money. Customers are part of the equation only as end users, not as participants. But at Singer, the customers—Dickinson and Fawaz—are the bosses, and profits are a byproduct of the process, rather than the primary motivating factor.
“The reason we want to run the business as a commercial success is not to make a lot of money,” Fawaz says. “It’s so we can keep doing the projects we want to do. It's very self-indulgent, and it's childish in a way. We're making a toy—a very expensive toy. We're just lucky that other people love the same things that we do."
An unintended consequence of the Singer way is that the Dynamics and Lightweighting Study has avoided the pitfalls endemic to many production-car projects. Automotive history is littered with sensational concept cars that were dumbed down and cheapened out during the development process, resulting in production cars that bear virtually no trace of their inspiration. The DLS, by way of contrast, has become more expensive and exotic during the design, engineering, and manufacturing phases. So it now sports not just a four-valve engine, but also an all-new gearbox from Hewland. Not just lighter suspension components, but also reimagined multilink geometry. Not just a specially calibrated motorsports anti-lock brake system from Bosch, but also Bosch-engineered traction control and electronic stability control.
As the meeting at Fawaz's house progresses, the discussions get progressively deeper into the weeds—dyno figures, procurement issues, German certification, winter testing. Although Dickinson isn't here, he's a shadow presence hovering over every presentation. Chief engineer Jonathan Dean, ex-Caterham F1, just shakes his head during a prolonged back-and-forth about the volume knob for the audio system. “If you guys want one, you need to tell us now,” Patterson says, “because we’re designing the harness right now.”
“And Rob wants it to look gorgeous,” somebody murmurs.
Everybody laughs. But it’s not really a joke.
THE FIRST MEETING between Singer and Williams Advanced Engineering was held in an antiseptic conference room at WAE’s state-of-the-art complex in Grove, in English horse country, just south of Oxford. The Singer contingent was augmented by two new members of the team—pro racer Marino Franchitti and Chris Harris, the celebrity journalist, former R&T contributor, and current Top Gear presenter—who were to serve as development drivers. The discussion began predictably with technical questions posed by Williams engineers.
It went off the rails when Dickinson unexpectedly declared, “The engine’s got to rev to 11.” After an awkward pause, somebody suggested that the engine wasn’t likely to survive with a redline of 11,000 rpm. Whereupon Dickinson wondered if customers could be given a special key that would allow them to spin the motor to 11 grand for an hour.
“He kept saying, ‘It’s got to rev to 11. It’s got to rev to 11,’ ” Harris recalls. “You could see the Williams guys thinking, There’s something wrong here. This is a spoof. It was wonderful. At that point, I knew the project would be brilliant, because it was so absurd. It was like Monty Python Decides to Make a Car.”
The lofty technical aspirations baked into the DLS inspired several Tier 1 suppliers—Bosch, Brembo, BBS, and Michelin, to name a few—to develop bespoke components for the ultra-low-volume car. But creating a four-valve head clearly promised to be the most formidable element of the program. “Porsche chose not to pursue it, because a huge German conglomerate decided to do the sensible thing,” Dickinson says. “What was left on the table was a chance to take Hans Mezger’s principles to their natural conclusion with a somewhat open checkbook, which no one had been stupid enough to do.”
Williams entrusted the design to Magee, who’d amassed experience with high-revving air-cooled engines while working on grand-prix motorcycles for pro racer and team owner Kenny Roberts. But Dickinson hedged his bets by enlisting the aid of two Porsche legends—Mezger, the longtime engine wizard at Zuffenhausen, and Norbert Singer, the chief architect of four decades of Porsche motorsport domination. (Despite his name, Singer, the man, has no affiliation with Dickinson’s company.) Mezger and Singer passed along the fruits of their experience when Magee began designing the engine.
Bore-and-stroking 3.6-liter 964 engines to 4.0 liters was nothing new. Magee followed standard practice, with Nikasil-coated cylinders, forged pistons, and titanium rods. From the start, he knew cooling the engine was going to be his most daunting challenge. Computational-fluid-dynamics analysis allowed Williams to spec a larger, more efficient magnesium cooling fan that saves 5 hp. But air-cooled engines use oil for cooling as well as lubrication, so twin head-mounted oil-lubrication pumps were added to supplement the original unit in the block.
To take advantage of better breathing from the four-valve aluminum head, Magee put a lot of effort into improving the valvetrain. F1-style titanium valves and finger followers allow the engine to spin safely to stratospheric levels. Magee says one “exuberant” driver over-revved the engine to 10,200 rpm during an early test without causing damage. The only catastrophic failures were suffered on the dyno, when the stock timing chain failed. It’s since been replaced with an upgraded unit.
“We designed a lot of headroom into the valvetrain, and power hasn’t peaked yet,” Magee says. “I’ve tried really hard to steer that fine line between the all-out pursuit of performance and power to the detriment of the midrange and drivability. The power is there where you need it, but the engine is reasonably docile until you want it. Now, I’ve had guys go out on the track and say, ‘There’s a little bit of a hole around 2000 rpm,’ and I’ll say, ‘Hold on. You’ve got another 7000 to play with. Why are you down there? Keep stirring the pot!’”
The other area where Singer chose to make a major change was the suspension. Thanks to their rear-engine architecture, 911s have always exhibited what are euphemistically described as “quirky” handling characteristics—nonlinear steering, low front-end grip, and a tendency toward vicious oversteer. “When you turn in, it feels like the back moves, but then it takes a set and feels quite planted,” says Dean, a longtime Porsche owner who was the first WAE employee to volunteer for the project. “So there’s that initial feeling of jumping across and then sitting stably. There are technologies now that are better than original Porsche suspension. But Rob and Maz pushed us early on never to lose the feel of a 911.”
Dean could have gone with double wishbones and pushrods all around (as fellow Porsche tuner Ruf has done with the latest CTR Yellow Bird) but worried that’d be inconsistent with the character Singer was after. So he retained the hollow cast-aluminum trailing arms at the rear but reshaped them to alter the geometry, widen the track, and make them lighter and more adjustable. At the front, after long kinematic analysis, the lower control arms were replaced by upper wishbones and a multilink setup. The result is transformational.
“This has to be one of the great driving experiences in the world,” Harris says. “The 250 GTO, the McLaren F1—that’s the level of experience the team is aiming to produce. So it’s not about raw numbers and speed and Nürburgring lap times. It’s about how it looks and feels as an object. It’s about how it feels behind the wheel and how it makes you feel as a driver. We’re approaching the end of the analog driving experiences in our lives. We want this to be a final hurrah to say, ‘Crikey, those things were good, weren’t they?’ ”
IT’S AN IMPLACABLE TRUTH of car development that work will continue until times expires. So two days before the cars have to be trailered to Goodwood, two separate crews are wrenching furiously on two recently completed—more or less—engineering prototypes. Dickinson is still making sizable changes to EP1, a stunning but static white show car that will be displayed over the weekend. Fawaz, meanwhile, is waiting to get his first drive in EP2, which he and Franchitti will chauffeur up the hill during the Festival of Speed.
Monday morning, when the test is scheduled to begin on the bumpy runways at a local airfield, the orange-red EP2 is still on a lift, with oil being drained from the engine and sensors being recalibrated. The bottom half of the body is covered, track-day-style, with blue painter’s tape that makes the car look like either an homage to the John Elway–era Denver Broncos or the world’s worst Gulf livery knockoff. The interior is virtually bare, and instead of a conventional instrument panel, a small MoTeC dash has been mounted to the right of the exposed shift linkage.
It’s mid-afternoon by the time the car is ready. The crew trundles out to nearby Abingdon and parks on a taxiway. Clark does an installation run. When Fawaz gets his shot in the car, he stalls the engine, prompting a lot of good-natured hooting. After a few spirited runs up and down the runway, he pits and asks Clark, “What happened to the clutch? You have to slip the sh** out of it. Which is fine in a race car, but not on the road.”
I’m up next. With open pipes, the car is ridiculously loud, but I forgo ear protection to savor the auditory overload. I blip the throttle. There seems to be no resistance; the engine revs as freely as a race car’s. I select first gear and shudder off. The low-pitched growl, a bit bassy at low rpm, gives way to a sharper, cleaner wail. There’s no sense that the engine is reaching the peak of the power curve, but I’m reluctant to take my eyes off the road to search for the tiny digital tachometer. So I wait for Clark, sitting in the right seat, to prompt me to shift. Then I mat the throttle, and the car leaps forward. Into fourth gear and flat again. The engine seems to be loving it as much as I am. If the fuel cut-out weren’t installed, I’d be tempted to spin it until a piston sailed out the side of the block.
As I turn around for my last blast down the runway, I boot the throttle and gently kick out the tail. If Clark weren’t by my side, and if there weren’t a bunch of guys on the taxiway ready to pulverize me if I damage the car, I would happily turn donuts. Instead, I effortlessly catch the rear end with the quick, hydraulic steering and keep the throttle pinned until Clark signals that I’m done for the day. My ears are ringing when I climb out.
Back at the shop, the team finds a four-valve engine mounted on a stand near an assembly bay. This is the engine that will be displayed at Goodwood, complete cosmetically but missing most of its internals—a flat-six engine as a work of art, rather than a masterpiece of industrial design. Dickinson is standing 10 feet away, gazing at it with almost trance-like intensity. A minute passes. Then another. He walks thoughtfully around the engine, studying it from different angles, moving in for closer looks. This, I imagine, is how Michelangelo gazed at his David, trying to decide if the marble was perfect or still needed a few finishing touches.
“The fan looks the business, doesn’t it?” Dickinson murmurs. With its polished aluminum nose cone, magnesium blades, and carbon-fiber shroud, the fan looks like a steampunk artifact by way of the Porsche 919 Hybrid program. Impressive as it is, the assembly seems subdued compared with the over-the-top touches in the interior of the show car. The instrument gauges are jewel-like, and the gold trim on the tachometer was applied by a supplier to Bugatti. The custom-embroidered seats—which Dickinson will have retrimmed before the car is shipped to Goodwood—are so ornate, they hardly seem suitable for actual use. Even the inside of the front trunk is finished to a museum-quality standard of excellence.
Philosophically, there’s a disconnect between the opulence of the interior and the spirit of the bare-bones 911 R that inspired the DLS project. The weight saved by touches such as a hollow drive-shaft, magnesium-and-titanium shift linkage, and roll-up windows is counterbalanced by the sybaritic cockpit. But the Singer mantra, etched into the show car’s aluminum door sill, is that “everything is important.” Ever since he started the company, Dickinson has rejected the notion that Singer had to offer a binary choice between beauty and performance. The DLS takes the original Singer concept—turning a vintage 911 into a thoroughly modern classic—to a level never imagined before and, frankly, not likely to be matched again.
The next morning, Franchitti arrives at the shop for his shakedown run at Abingdon in EP2, which is being fitted with interior trim in preparation for Goodwood. He’s just returned from Germany, where he tested two generations of Audi Formula E cars, and he’ll be driving the DLS-modified car up the hill over the weekend. He tells Fawaz, “I got up at 3 o’clock this morning. I’m so excited to drive this car.”
“Looks like you’re going to have to wait a while,” Fawaz says.
“I’ve been waiting three years. I can wait a while longer.”
Customers will have to wait longer still. The first car won’t be delivered until early next year. Sadly, other than the 75 owners, hardly anybody will get a chance to sample the DLS modification. But the car-guy soul should be nourished by the knowledge that Singer, against all rational analysis, is behind a machine that speaks so profoundly to Porsche enthusiasts. Although it’s impossible to call a modified 964 the ultimate 911, the DLS distills the essential spirit of Porsche even as it sets new benchmarks for performance and luxury. As Dickinson says, with an impish grin, “The world is a better place, I think, for our last three years’ work.”