Describing sound in all its mellifluous detail with a keyboard is, by its very nature, a fool’s errand. Oh, car journalists will try. We’ll crack open our well-worn box of buzzwords – zing, burble, gargle, wail… occasionally a buttery thunder – and cobble something together as best we can, but really it’s a poor approximation of the actual waves pinging off your ear drums.
Perhaps the best way to characterise the pummelling my cochlea is currently receiving is through the medium of emotions. Over the course of the past six seconds we’ve peeled off a slip road onto the A34 near Wantage and the noise has induced fear, mild pain and full-body euphoria… in that order. “And that’s three-quarter throttle at 5,000 revs,” shouts the man next to me, laughing like a bit of a maniac, because he knows there’s more to come.
The man next to me is Marino Franchitti, racing driver and one quarter of a team responsible for developing the car I find myself harnessed so tightly into, I’m basically a fleshy strut brace. The car is the Porsche 911 Reimagined by Singer – Dynamics and Lightweighting Study (DLS, if you value your time). It’s the answer to the simplest of questions: “What if we pursued the ultimate, no-compromise air-cooled 911? And what if we touched it with a Formula One team?” That was four years ago… things have rather snowballed from there.
Singer’s major partner in all this has been Williams Advanced Engineering, responsible for the suspension, aero and engine, but the list of collaborators is equally household – Brembo, Momo, Recaro, BBS, Michelin, Bosch. All needed to be fully on-board with Singer boss Rob Dickinson’s vision – to restore the most advanced, lightweight, air-cooled 911 that the world has ever seen. Clearly, Singer’s forensic attention to detail hasn’t been lost on the world’s wealthiest Beetle enthusiasts. It now has buyers for all 75 cars – at $1.8m (RM7.5 million) a pop – and stands on the brink of a monumental achievement.
Restorations start in Oxfordshire in the spring next year, with first deliveries by the end of 2019, but still there’s work to be done before all that. Just two early engineering mules exist with a distinct Mad Max vibe, one lurking in the bowels of the Williams Advanced Engineering centre. Then there’s two more-polished EP cars, although neither is the finished article by any stretch. Marino reckons EP2, painted in Heart Attack red (the car we’ve been granted access to the passenger seat for a blat around Williams’ home turf and Abingdon airfield) is about 75 per cent of the way there. “All the bits of the puzzle exist, now it’s just about putting them together.”
Singer’s forensic attention to detail hasn’t been lost on the world’s wealthiest Beetle enthusiasts. It now has buyers for all 75 cars – at $1.8m a pop.
High on that list has to be low-speed engine calibration. At this stage (much like the half-finished interior), it’s simply not worth the time and effort to finesse that final 10 per cent – as a result it’s lumpier than a 15-year-old’s face. I almost feel sorry for Marino as I watch him slip the clutch, trying to placate a rampant engine that has no interest in behaving below 2,000rpm. Then I remember he’s the one who gets to drive this thing, I’m locked into the Recaro on the wrong side, feet braced against the bulkhead. There shall be no sympathy here.
To the centre of Wantage, where I ask him to perform laps of the central roundabout at 20kph. Schadenfreude isn’t my only motivation, this is our first opportunity to see it in the wild… experiencing a car in a perfectly lit studio is one thing, seeing it parked outside Subway next to a dog-eared Mondeo is quite another. We couldn’t be further from Singer’s California home, but who cares? This car brings the sunshine with it. What a thing to look at. There simply isn’t a bad angle… low, high, front, back – the lens loves it. Its stance and proportions are perfect, yes, but there’s an indefinable element here, a wave of Rob Dickinson’s magic wand. If everyone knew how to do it… they’d be doing it.
Clutch control duly examined, we strike south and start to wind it through the gears – we’ve got an airfield to mess around on later, there’s no need to thrash it yet. What’s quickly apparent is that there’s witchcraft in these Exe-Tc dampers. Bespoke items, like pretty much everything associated with this car, they’re fully adjustable via the exposed top mounts in the front and back, and just reek of quality. The lack of any sound deadening (that will be added later) and a general mechanical clamour means your ears tell you it should be uncomfortable, but the harshness never materialises.
“It would have been easy to just make a racing car, but that would be so wrong. Stopwatches did not come into this – it’s about transmitting sensations,” Marino reminds me as we float along in mystifying comfort. Case study: as we pull off the A34 at 70mph (113kph), I spot a nasty-looking dip up ahead. My feet instinctively brace for collision, but Marino looks completely unfazed. We impact, the chin spoiler kisses the surface and we’re flat and level again immediately – no herniated discs, no nose bob, no problem. If it weren’t for the engine, this would be the car’s defining characteristic.
Fast forward to Abingdon Airfield, and it’s time for the full hit. Marino points the nose down the runway and guns it, changing up at 8,500rpm (though it’s happy to crack nine grand), and backing off only when we run out of tarmac. It’s a frantic hit of g-force, as linear and relentless as anything I’ve been in – this is 500bhp pushing 1,000kg, remember… Veyron power-to-weight. But it’s the wall of sound that shocks you. Surrounded by carbon – even the roll cage is flushly hemmed in by it – you’re at the epicentre of an echo chamber with the angriest noise imaginable trying to burrow into your brain. How angry? Take 10,000 football hooligans, a few million hornets, a couple of dozen UFC fighters and pair of honey badgers, blend them up, and you’re getting close. You’ll note the ear protectors. Completed cars will have the sound calmed to more acceptable road-car levels.
The engine is the benchmark the rest of the car is being asked to keep up with – a 4.0-litre, nat-asp, air-cooled masterpiece built specifically for this, with input from Hans Mezger, Porsche’s most celebrated engine designer. “The engine it reminds me of is the McLaren F1. It’s the free-revving character, the way it hits the limiter and you can’t believe you’re there already,” says Marino. “John Magee, who did the engine development, was so nervous the first time I drove it. But I got out of the car and hugged him.”
But anyone with a few quid can do straight-line heroics these days. Fortunately, when we ask Marino to arse about a bit, more layers of genius are revealed. By his own admission, Marino isn’t a “slider” but even he – a devout racing driver conditioned to consider drifting the antichrist – can cut loose in this. “God I love this car,” he bellows as he tips it in, lights up the rear and keeps it nicely crossed up for the camera. “It’s the precision of the throttle that lets me do it.” I see what he means. Normally you get one, perhaps two prods to put it where you want, but with an HDMI connection between accelerator and rear tyres, your slide angle is in direct correlation with the flex of your right foot. And Marino still thinks the throttle mapping needs work to cover the entire travel of the pedal, for even more precise control.
Marino describes the secondary steering method – that wheel in front of his face – as having just a little bit of old-school wiggle off centre so it doesn’t feel hyperactive, but then supercar levels of bite and streaming feedback when you load it up more. A microcosm, then, of the car’s wider ethos – to deliver modern supercar levels of grip and performance, without losing the idiosyncrasies that make an air-cooled 911 an air-cooled 911.
We’ll have to wait until we drive it ourselves to confirm whether that essential old-school DNA has survived, but as this once-in-a-lifetime project draws to its conclusion, we’re more convinced than ever that it’s not just a sizeable achievement, it’s a worthwhile one, too. James May once called Singer’s restorations “a love letter to the 911”. In that case, the DLS is a diamond ring on bended knee. To the uninitiated, $1.8m will seem like an awful lot of money for a tricked-out old Porsche. Well, consider this your initiation.
- Jack Rix