A native of Norfolk, England, Rob Dickinson first came to international prominence in the 1990s with his band The Catherine Wheel. Before his music career took off, however, Dickinson was an automotive design student at Coventry University and, following graduation, an understudy of Peter Stevens and Julian Thompson at Lotus.
In 2009, after a decade as a touring rock-n-roll frontman, Dickinson returned to his automotive passions and founded Singer Vehicle Design in Los Angeles. Singer quickly gained recognition for its “reimagined Porsches,” which meld the aesthetics of early road-racing 911s with the (relatively) modern air-cooled underpinnings of the early-1990s 964 chassis. The result is transcendent in its attention to detail.
Ever a creature of reinvention and evolution, Dickinson and his team at Singer have recently announced a partnership with Williams Advanced Engineering (yes, the legendary English racing house) that will pair Singer’s design expertise with a 4.0-liter, air-cooled Williams flat-six capable of 500 horsepower.
For drivers whose love of engineering also comprises horology, Singer is now offering its Track 1 chronograph, designed by Swiss watchmaker Jean-Marc Wiederrecht "through its Geneva-based subsidiary Singer Reimagined.
We recently sat down with Dickinson and kicked off the chat by trying to comprehend the roots of his polymathic ways.
You've had notable success in two of the most challenging industries—music and custom cars. Where does that ambition and sense of purpose come from?
I think obsession and attention to detail lie behind my careers in both music and automotive design. As a musician I chased perfection. I felt we had important, groundbreaking music to try to make and the only route to that is to take time in the studio, chase the right sound, work and re-work until you have something that’s the way you want it
At a certain point I felt that I’d said everything I wanted to say musically. Then the focus returned to cars, which had always fascinated me as a kid. The roots of the obsession that led to Singer Vehicle Design lie in an encounter with a Porsche 911 in the mid-1970s on a French autoroute in my father’s red VW Beetle, during a family holiday. The 911 got under my skin and Singer grew from a rekindled and very deep-seated need to consider and optimize every detail of the car in pursuit of an ideal. Again, there are no short-cuts. You have to sweat every detail in pursuit of a brush with perfection.
What did you learn from working at Lotus with men like Peter Stevens and Julian Thompson that you've carried with you into Singer?
Working at Lotus after university gave me a real practical appreciation of the work of an automotive designer. Not everything I had to do was glamorous—in fact, much of it wasn’t—but those are areas where you have to spend time in pursuit of the end goal. Preoccupations with lightweighting and dynamic response are a core part of Singer’s DNA and maybe there’s a bit of Lotus behind that.
Are there non-automotive places where you find design inspiration that might surprise fans and customers of Singer?
On the automotive side of Singer, it’s very much immersion in iconic automotive design. Within the company we’re constantly talking about and sending pictures to each other of cars we see, the details, the engineering solutions, the aesthetic concerns.
Watches and the world of horology are another area of fascination. The classic sport chronograph watches of the 1960s and 1970s are compelling, evocative examples of the overlap between engineering and art. Our new venture into high-watchmaking with Singer Reimagined draws inspiration from both automotive and horological worlds.
How has Singer evolved and improved as an organization since its inception? After almost a decade in business, what do you know now that you wish you'd known then?
Singer began with a simple conviction that approaching the restoration of a Porsche 911 in a very particular way would find a connection with the many people who are fans of this iconic and celebrated sports car. But the idea that more than 150 people would want to approach us to commission their own restorations was a concept we just couldn’t have imagined. With a crystal ball you could of course shortcut some of the growing pains. But we didn’t have one!
To deal with the demand Singer has had to grow from a corner of workshop with a handful of people to where it is now, with two sites in California, teams in the UK and Switzerland and representatives around the world. We’re constantly discovering new and incredible companies and individuals whose design and engineering talent is astonishing. Finding the person who can solve the challenge for you, whether it’s the right finish for a composite panel, a particular type of leather, [or] a watch movement, is a great feeling.
What keeps Singer in the LA area despite the costs of doing business in this region?
LA and California are a fundamental part of the DNA of Singer Vehicle Design and Singer Reimagined. The moment I arrived in California I was taken by the sense of possibility here. If you want to do something, even if it’s something difficult or a concept you’re trying to define, California seems to welcome that. There will be someone who can help. Blending together the spirit of an iconic German sports car with California’s hot rod culture and a willingness to stick two fingers up at convention is a compelling experience.
As a result, Singer here is linked to a web of incredible suppliers and specialists across California who allow us to do what we do. Our more recent experience with Williams in the UK and Singer Reimagined in Geneva has helped us grow that network in those countries too, but at the point in time when I arrived in SoCal with this crazy idea, the sun, the space, and the vibe were part of the vital inspiration.
Hagerty recently profiled Ed Pink Racing Engines and, specifically, their process for building Porsche engines for Singer Vehicle Design. What attracted you to that shop, which many people probably know mostly for its reputation in drag racing?
Ed Pink does in fact have a storied history in building race Porsche engines, which of course is helpful to us. We often gravitate towards and like people who like us. The guys at Ed Pink get what we are trying to do. They’re no strangers to attention to detail, they’re vastly experienced, they don’t bullshit and they build fabulous motors, very carefully. That’s exactly what we need.
What’s an opinion you hold—either about design, cars in general, or about a specific model—that none of your friends agree with?
Each week we discover one! “Robust” discussion around anything from haptic feedback, seat position, component finishing can break out at the drop of a hat. We tend to agree about the big stuff but Singer has always been about paying attention to the details and that’s where the discussion happens.
What new challenges have you excited?
The launch of our own high-watchmaking brand, Singer Reimagined, in Geneva has been very exciting. Typically when clients visit the workshop the conversation starts with cars and then moves on to gassing about the watches people are wearing. We were determined that if we ever did a watch it had to be right—not the Singer name on someone else’s watch, but our watch, done our way. Finding Marco Borracino, my design co-conspirator, and Jean Marc-Weiderrecht at Agenhor was serendipitous and has allowed us to do just that with the watch we call Track 1: reimagine the chronograph.
Of course, we’ve also been working with Williams Advanced Engineering in the UK on a very special engine and lightweighting services requested by our clients. That’s been a huge engineering challenge and it’s going to be tremendously exciting to share further details.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
All photos courtesy of Singer Vehicle Design