Today we’re talking with Rob Dickinson, founder and creative director of Singer Vehicle Design and co-founder for watch brand Singer Reimagined. When we were preparing to film a video interview with Rob, some two years ago, I knew about the Singer Reimagined Track 1, that super cool chronograph featuring Jean-Marc Wiederecht’s innovative chronograph calibre. But that was it, so I “Googled” him… and found out that Rob used to be the lead singer and guitar player of a band that I listened to a lot. I still vividly remember a concert of his band, Catherine Wheel, back in 1990 or 1991, when they played together with the Smashing Pumpkins and support act, The Verve. So, shortly before filming that video interview about Singer Reimagined, we talked music and days gone by.
Later we also talked cars, of course! I’m a watch guy, but I’m also a car guy. Like watches, I prefer cars with mechanical content, a petrol engine and not too many batteries. And that’s exactly what Rob and his team are doing at Singer Vehicle Design, recreating 911’s in a way that they pay homage to one of the coolest cars ever built. I listened to Rob’s music, love the cars they restore and I’m a big fan of how they re-created the perfect 1970’s style sports chronograph. Music, cars and watches, these are all acts of passion. And that’s what we talked about with Rob Dickinson.
MONOCHROME – What was the road from Rock Music to Reimagining Porsche 911s?
ROB DICKINSON – A long one! I was always a “car guy” but for ten years music was at the forefront and I was utterly fanatical about our band, Catherine Wheel, and the music we were making. A decade later, we’d landed a major recording contract, produced critically acclaimed albums and toured the world. When the band agreed to split, my obsession with cars began again.
After I moved to the US I bought a 1969 911E owned by Hans Lapine, son of famed Porsche design chief Anatole Lapine. I turned that car into my personal vision for a 911 that could be a daily driver, hot rod and café racer. I drove the car everywhere for several years, immersing myself in California car culture and the reactions that little Porsche in Bahama Yellow got were the spark that ultimately led to Singer Vehicle Design.
What we have done for a decade now is offer our clients the opportunity to pursue a personal vision for their ultimate air-cooled 911.
How did your passion for cars begin?
My father is a car man, so I do believe I’ve inherited a trait from him. When I was a kid I used to make lists of cars I thought were great. The BMW 3-series and the Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV for example.
I went to motor shows with my dad and he would even go into dealerships for me and ask for the glossy brochures I coveted, with an apologetic “My son’s a bit of a lunatic…”. Cars like the 911 SC and Ferrari 308 GTB were studied through those beautiful glossy print brochures.
I couldn’t wait to learn to drive and passed my test as soon as possible – though I had to settle for my father’s 1972 Opel Ascona estate initially, rather than the cars I lusted over! With a driving licence came the freedom to drive and explore the amazing world of cars. I’ve never lost that fascination and earlier this year I was at the Geneva Motor Show, wandering the stands and coming home with brochures, just like I did as a boy.
Was it always Porsche (from the beginning)?
Like many petrolheads, I love many different cars. I can remember as an 11 or 12-year old seeing an E21 series BMW 323i parked on my street. I would stop my bike and just sit there with my foot on the curb looking at this car.
The Porsche obsession I can trace back to a family holiday a few years earlier. I was sitting in the back seat of our family’s India Red VW Beetle with my brother as my dad drove us through the south of France. Somewhere between Béziers and Narbonne, he shouted back “Look over your shoulder at the car coming up behind us.” I turned around and saw two bright headlights, that happy ‘face’, the beautiful curve of the unmistakable roofline and then the contrast of the pugnacious, squatting rear with that fat exhaust pipe close to the tarmac as it howled past. “That’s a Porsche 911” my dad said. That moment has never left me.
What makes the Porsche 911 so special?
That’s difficult to explain without a book! The 911 combines so many things. It has existed at the cutting edge of sports car design for more than 50 years. During that time it has conquered the world of motorsport, winning the most famous races in history like the Targa Florio and Le Mans.
Those impeccable competition credentials are in the DNA of machines that still set the benchmark for road cars today. You can put a skinny 1963 911, a ’74 RSR, a brutal 935 and the latest 992 in a line next to each other and you can immediately see the DNA they share.
The 911 can lay claim to being the only car you need – it doesn’t mind doing mundane daily driving, it will cross continents, it has 4 seats, it looks like nothing else and then you can still take it to a track and smile like a lunatic. It’s a remarkable car.
How would you define the work performed at Singer Vehicle Design?
We often use the words, restored, reimagined, reborn to describe our work. We take a client’s tired 911 and breathe new life into it ready for a thrilling second act. So strength, vitality and purpose are restored to every component. Drawing on its DNA the delicacy of the ‘60s original, the race-bred chic of the ‘70s, the solidity and performance of the ’80s and ‘90s cars and our unique perspectives are reimagined in a singular jewel-like form. The result is the air-cooled 911 reborn, with every dial ‘turned up to eleven.’
Why have you set up your business in California?
When I moved to California in the early 2000s I was immediately struck by the amazing sense of optimism. There was this sun-filled world, with open space and a deep-seated car culture, where it was ok to pursue a personal vision, ok to hot rod your car and experiment. I think that spark of inspiration to begin is absolutely linked to California.
Of course, Singer is ten years old now and things have grown somewhat. We also have major operations in the UK, where our latest Dynamics and Lightweighting Study endeavour is based. This is our pursuit of the most advanced air-cooled 911 in the world on behalf of our clients. A relentless pursuit of excellence through a lightweight philosophy, with additional power and highly evolved driving dynamics.
And then we have our high watch-making operations in Geneva, where Singer Reimagined is based. So Singer is present on both sides of the Atlantic now and we run 24 hours a day across the time-zones!
If there was only one… Which of your modified Porsche 911 is your favorite?
Well, I’ll always have a special connection with my ’69 car, as a car that grew from my personal vision and that represents the genesis of Singer in many ways. The company grew from the experience of restoring that car and driving it around Los Angeles.
What’s the next challenge for Singer Vehicle Design?
Right now we’re very much focused on making sure our operations run smoothly because the order books are strong. Fortunately, we have talented teams committed to that around the world. In California, we’ll be making sure our clients receive the amazing cars they’ve specified as quickly as we can without compromising quality.
In the UK, after 4+ years working with the likes of Williams Advanced Engineering, Michelin, Bosch, Brembo, Recaro, Momo and many others on the Dynamics and Lightweighting Study, we have 75 of these incredible machines to restore at our facility in Oxfordshire.
And in Switzerland, there’s a team of fantastically talented watchmakers assembling the Track 1 chronographs. We’re a pretty close-knit team so there are always plenty of ideas for the future being discussed over drinks, round table and on WhatsApp but right now we’re focused on delivery.
Moving to watches, what was your first horological memory?
As a child in the mid-‘70s, I can remember watching F1 and seeing the Ferrari 312T series cars driven by the likes of Lauda, and Regazzoni. Those cars had that iconic Heuer logo on the front, right in front of the driver. Like that moment on the road in France with the Porsche 911, seeing that combination of logo and these amazing, angry machines is one of those visceral moments that stay with you forever. I didn’t know much about what Heuer meant at the time but learned about it and my love of watches grew from there.
What sparked the creation of Singer Reimagined?
I’d long wanted to do a watch that would bring the same values we pursue for our automotive work to the world of horology. But it had to be authentic, something we could really make our own and celebrate. I didn’t want to just put our name on someone else’s watch.
Marco Borraccino got in touch with me a few years back. He’s a watch design genius, previously head of design at Panerai, and he’s a car nut, just like us. We hit it off and the plans for this revolutionary watch started to take shape.
Then we met Jean-Marc Weiderrecht, another genius, who had been working on an incredible new movement, the Agengraph. That was the missing piece in the puzzle. The stars aligned and we had this opportunity to properly celebrate the sports chronograph, with revolutionary design, a unique movement and all the obsessive attention to detail that makes us Singer. We had to pursue it. Seeing the hard work recognized with the award of the GPHG Chronograph prize in 2018 was a hugely proud moment for the team.