There is an instant, instinctive covetability about a Singer-restored Porsche 911. It overwhelms anyone with even a passing interest in classic Porsches, or cars in general, and is sadly unrelated to the inability of most of us to afford one.
Founded in Southern California a decade ago by British product designer, former rock vocalist/guitarist and terminal Porsche obsessive Rob Dickinson, Singer starts with a tatty but sound 911 from the early Nineties. These air-cooled, 964-type cars are vintage enough to have the approval of Porschephiles, but modern enough to provide a suitable foundation for what Dickinson does next. The chassis is stripped bare and seam-welded for strength. The engine is rebuilt by California-based Ed Pink Racing Engines. Bespoke suspension is fitted, the cabin is completely re-trimmed and the chassis is clothed in carbon-fibre panels of Dickinson’s design which distil the essence of earlier, sexier 911s.
Each car takes around 4,000 hours to complete, with an attention to detail and level of finish which rivals the watch industry. The metal highlights in the interior are nickel-plated for a warmer, more lustrous finish. The gear knob in one model has a balsa-wood insert, a subtle reference to the ultra-light shifter in the Porsche 917 racer of the late Sixties. The engine bay can even be lined with leather, if so desired. What Singer does to these cars goes way beyond restoration or customisation: it’s an intensification of their Porsche-ness. Dickinson understands what makes early 911s so compelling, and subtly and respectfully dials that up. Resistance is futile.
The Porsche 911 is arguably the greatest sports car ever made and values have spiked in recent years, but they retain an authenticity and approachability Ferraris lack. Versions of the 911 have long been the workhorses of the sports car world and can be modified without the cognoscenti accusing owners of sacrilege. It helps that the cars are as intoxicating to drive as to look at. And each is unique. Since the end of WWII, SoCal has hosted a vibrant, skilled custom car scene. That ethos permeates Singer, and encourages clients to get creative with their own commissions.
Despite an average price of $650,000 [£500,000], a long queue snakes from Dickinson’s garage door in Sun Valley. Around 125 have been built with another 125 on order. Put your money down now and you might get one in two years, but there seems to be no upper limit to buyers’ willingness to wait for a Singer car, or how much they’ll spend on one. It recently revealed the DLS (Dynamic and Lightweighting Study): developed with and built by the Williams F1 team, it is an exploration of just how fast and extreme a nominally vintage 911 can be made. Only 75 will be built, and even at $1.8m [£1.4m] almost all have now been reserved.
Singer has an appeal which almost every other carmaker would kill for. Given that most high-end manufacturers have a tie-up with a watch brand, it’s not surprising Dickinson fielded approaches from big names wanting some of his mojo. “The usual terrible presentations to do a shitty car-related watch,” as he describes them.
Meanwhile, in Switzerland, Marco Borraccino, Panerai’s former head of design, head of watch design at the Geneva School of Art & Design and an air-cooled Porsche owner, was spending unhealthy amounts of time looking at Dickinson’s creations online.
“I blame the cars for all this,” Borraccino says. “I decided I had to tell Rob how much I was in love with his work. So I figured out his email and dropped him two lines saying, ‘Man, I am in love with what you do’. We started exchanging messages and realised we have a lot in common: of course, the love for the cars, but also for vintage watches, music, everything.
“He told me he’d had watch brands asking him to do co-branding, but he didn’t want to compromise the spirit and the philosophy of the brand. He said that if Singer ever made a watch, it would have to be something as spectacular as the car. I started thinking, ‘What the heck would the Singer watch be?’ And I designed something that was completely crazy, without having a movement to make it real. But I knew that it eventually would be possible to do it. I showed it to Rob, just for fun. I never thought we’d end up making it. But he said, ‘Man, I love it. We have to do it’.”
I ask Dickinson if the fact that Borraccino clearly “got” his car business persuaded him he was the partner for a Singer watch. “I present the question as if I was looking for someone to do a watch with, which is actually the very last thing I was looking for. He came to me primarily as a car nut. He’s got an awesome car collection and he knows his shit. He was kind of enchanted by what we were doing and said we had an incredible opportunity to do a very different kind of watch, which builds on the ideas that underpin Singer.”
Did Singer need to make a watch? With a tiny team and a long queue of clients, wasn’t there a danger a watch would be a distraction?
“In California, I’m surrounded by people taking chances,” Dickinson says. “So we thought, ‘Fuck it, let’s just do it’. The same way we thought about the DLS, really.”
“So, yes there is a risk. But without risk-taking we wouldn’t exist. Everything we do is the hardest possible thing to do. To try to build this ridiculous, reimagined 911 is a stupid idea, really — from a business perspective — and so is starting a new watch company selling watches at the highest level. These are not get-rich-quick schemes. These are endeavours of passion, lunacy, and belief that what we love as enthusiasts, other people will love too, and that is the hook on which we have hung Singer for 10 years. These are the cars that we want to drive, and the watches that we want to wear, and it’s as simple as that."
Borraccino’s design was far from simple, though. Separately, both he and Dickinson reference Jack Heuer and his Sixties/Seventies chronographs as their inspiration. As Singer’s reworked bodywork echoes the look of early Seventies 911s, so the visual references match.
“You can recognise a little bit of the shape of the Autavia or the Omega Flightmaster in the case,” says Borraccino. “Like the car, you might think it’s vintage at first, but when you examine it you realise it’s something completely different."
Plainly, the watch had to be a chronograph. Borraccino’s innovation was to prioritise that function, giving the chrono' the central, three-hand display and relegating time to two concentric rotating discs at the periphery of the dial, with the time read off against a marker at what would usually be six o’clock. The problem of finding or creating a movement which could make it work was solved over a lunch with Agenhor’s Jean-Marc Wiederrecht in 2014. The Gaia Prize-winning horologist had been developing his revolutionary AgenGraphe movement for six years at that stage. It did exactly what Borraccino had envisaged, and as the two discussed their projects, they realised that between them they had a complete watch. Fabergé used the movement first in its Visionnaire in 2017, and the Singer Track1 followed shortly afterwards, winning the chronograph prize at the GPHG last year.
“The very first customers were, of course, Singer car owners,” says Borraccino. “When we told them we were launching a watch brand, some of them reacted immediately saying, ‘I don't know what it will look like, but I want one’. But we want to appeal to real watch collectors. Some of them will also be Singer clients, but we would have been crazy to try to build a business around them, because there’s only just over 100 of them so far.”
“So this isn’t just a car watch brand. The collaborations between car and watch brands often feel forced,” he says. “We are making a watch brand able to stand alone, to lead alone. It shares a philosophy with Singer, but the watch is its own reason to be. You don’t need to be a fan of the cars to appreciate the watch. There are some tiny details that connect car and watch, but we did them in a very subtle way.”
Around 50 examples of the Track1 have been made so far, with prices starting at CHF39,800 [£30,100] for the Launch Edition and rising to CHF44,500 [£33,660] for the HK Edition and CHF72,000 [£54,500] for the gold-cased Geneva Edition. Borraccino expects around 300 to be made over the next three years, including a version available only to DLS customers with a lighter case material than the standard titanium (possibly carbon) with a serial number and detailing to match the owner’s car.
Then comes the FlyTrack, shown in concept form earlier this year and likely to be available later in the year at around 25,000CHF [£18,900]. The titanium, tonneau-shaped pilot case clearly echoes the Track1, but in contrast to Singer’s artfully complicated first dial, you’d struggle to tell that the FlyTrack is a chronograph at all. Only the single pusher gives it away, operating a flyback-sweep seconds hand which can be used to measure short, repeating intervals, such as laps of a motor circuit. The hours are displayed on an outer ring, and the effect is as calm as the Track1 is complex. “The concept is to offer the simplest, most minimalistic take on a chronograph ever,” Borraccino says. And once again, he had to turn to Agenhor to create a movement which could animate his design. Nothing suitable existed.
Singer Reimagined — the watch brand — is run independently by Borraccino in Geneva as a joint venture with Singer Vehicle Design, the car restorer. But the two clearly share an ethos which runs far deeper than the clunky, artless design references that motoring watches often make to the cars that “inspire” them. As a means of lapping a circuit and measuring your time around it, the air-cooled Porsche 911 and the mechanical chronograph were superseded long ago by supercars and satellite tracking. But the pleasure we get from these mechanical, analogue devices is only heightened by the contrast with digital timing and increasingly digital motoring.
The engineering in both the cars and the watches may be technically obsolete but it doesn't fossilise: people like Dickinson and Borraccino keep refining it, purely for its own sake and for the joy we get from using it. And the success of Singer cars and watches, and Dickinson’s adopted Southern Californian, nothing-ventured attitude, hint strongly that we’ll see more than just watches and covetable restyled Porsche 911s from Singer in the future.
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