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From Rock Star to Automotive Entrepreneur

Catherine Wheel’s Rob Dickinson wants to “bottle and preserve” classic Porsche 911s.

by on Aug.27, 2013

Rob Dickinson with hiss latest Porsche 911 recreation.

There’s an inside joke behind the name of Rob Dickinson’s new venture, Singer Vehicle Design – but that said, the customized classic Porsches he’s producing are nothing to laugh at.

The irony is that the British entrepreneur set out to earn a degree as an automotive designer at Britain’s Coventry University before taking a detour and becoming the lead singer in the English alternative rock band Catherine Wheel. But, almost by accident, his knack for customizing old Porsches for his own pleasure has turned into a serious business.

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The latest example was on display at the 2013 Quail Motosports Gathering earlier this month, decked out in “Singer Racing Blue and Orange,” a color combination meant to celebrate the motorsports era if the 1970s.  There are a number of automotive entrepreneurs who’ve set out to build something new, supercars from Spyker and Pagani quickly coming to mind.  Dickinson, on the other hand, is rebuilding something old.

A modified Singer Porsche interior.

His venture is, in fact, quick specific: it focuses solely on Porsche 911 sports cars built between 1990 and 1994. Known to aficionados as the 964 model, a reference to the German maker’s internal codename, these were the last 911s to use the classic Porsche air-cooled engine and remain cherished for their performance and handling.

“The model produced in ’73 and ’74 was the pinnacle, considered by many to be the best of the classic 911s and a stunning , simply beautiful car,” noted an article in the Ralph Lauren magazine about the Singer venture.

While Dickinson and his team will help a prospective client find a car, if necessary, most clients already have tracked down a well-conditioned 964 Porsche before turning the keys over to Singer.

“We pull the car apart and build it back up from scratch,” Dickinson explained on a blazing hot afternoon in Carmel, California.

Another recent Singer project.

While the final product, like the one on display at the Quail concours, might look like an old 964-model Porsche 911, it will have undergone some massive modifications. These include new, super-light carbon fiber body panels, a heavily updated engine, all-new Brembo brakes, as well as new gauges, among other things.

Specced out and re-build by Cosworth, the original 3.6-liter engine gets new pistons, connecting rods, state-of-the-art fuel injectors and electronic controls, a process that takes about 70 manhours. That bumps the numbers up from the original 252 horsepower to 360, noted Dickinson.  That results in 0 to 60 times of less than four seconds and a top speed of around 160 mph.

Each and every vehicle is, in a sense, a work of art as no two Porsches brought to Singer Vehicle are quite the same and the final product undergoes a lot of customization, perhaps no surprise considering the entire process will cost at least $350,000 “for a rather less-extensive” restoration, while a more extensive job “goes north of $500,000 very easily,” according to Dickinson.

The Singer Vehicle venture brings things full circle for Dickinson, who started his adult life as an industrial design student at Coventry but quickly decided “the boredom would kill me.”  He wound up in rock band Catherine Wheel which earned him some notoriety in the indie rock circle but far less money than one might imagine for a “rock star.”

He started building his own 911s as a personal hobby but after moving to Los Angeles in 2003 found himself repeatedly being asked if he would sell his modifications. “In 2008, we started doing it properly,” and decided to turn it into a business.

So far, Dickinson noted, Singer has finished its 12th restoration with another 10 jobs in waiting at its facility near Burbank, California.

Singer clients have come from around the world, with cars already shipped to France, Sweden, Indonesia and Hong Long, among other places. The car on display at the Quail was soon to head off for Dubai. It was given a special “second skin” interior treatment to evoke a stripped-down race car interior, including carbon fiber seats with integral shoulder supports and adjustable headrests, saving 175 pounds of mass.

Spend a little time with Dickinson and while he clearly hopes to turn a profit with Singer Vehicle Design you realize this is as much about passion as it is a business venture. “The essence of the Porsche 911 is vivid and unique,” he explained. “We’re simply trying to bottle and preserve it for our customer to savor.’’

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2 Responses to “From Rock Star to Automotive Entrepreneur”

  1. Jorge M. says:

    While these are neat customized cars it’s hard to justify $300K-$500K for one. A new Porsche GT3 is less than $200K fully decked out and it will out perform any 964, which BTW I think are great cars as delivered by Porsche back in the 90′s. I understand those buying these cars do so for the styling and air-cooled engine.

    If that’s the case then the 993 is even better than the 964 as Porsche tweaked all of the edges on it for aero advantage and it was the very last and greatest air-cooled Porsche made. I do however understand these issues are subjective to many Porsche enthusiasts.

    The Cosworth modified engine requires high revs to get the HP so the car becomes more of a race oriented car than a typical street car as far as the power band and torque is concerned.

    The stated 160 mph top speed is either a typo or the gearing is so low that the engine runs out of revs. The stock 964 will run over 170 mph actual speed. I know because I ran 172 mph, (180 indicated) on the Autobahn in a 964 back in 1989 and I have pictures of the speedo to prove it.

  2. simplyfantabulous says:

    Has microniche been a word before now?