Ten years ago today, photographer Jamie Lipman and I drove 60 miles from Ventura in California to Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. It was my first trip to LA and I was driving my own 911: an SC Coupe that I had bought on Craigslist a few months before.
Our destination was the Bel Air Presbyterian Church: a vast structure built in the mid-fifties on a ridge overlooking Burbank Airport, the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood. The view was entirely appropriate, as we were en route to meet a new star.
RGruppe hot rodder and owner of what was then the world’s coolest early 911, Rob Dickinson, had emailed a few weeks previously, asking if Jamie and I would do the first story on his brand new creation, presenting it to Porsche enthusiasts before it was launched to a wider audience. I was well up for that and arranged a magazine cover. I found some space in the schedule for a run to LA and waited for the day to arrive.
We spent a few days shooting various Porsches in and around San Francisco before driving to Ventura for the Porsche show there. The hotel and showground was packed out with RGruppe friends and family, and everyone wanted to talk about our date with Singer. Most people had an opinion and it was not all complimentary. But they all loved Rob.
The Zuffenhaus boys (who had supplied the wheels) and Harvey Weidman (master wheel refinisher) were also in town showing their RSR brakes and steering wheels. They shared great insight on the attention to detail that went in to getting the stance just right.
The designer had put a lot of thought into his creation and I was looking forward to seeing it. I was also excited that we’d been given the first proper feature: many big-name journos have covered it since, but we had been covering the underground in an interesting way and Rob was one of the taste makers. So getting this story was cool.
How to shift a culture
If you want to shift a cultural mindset, the best place to start is where people are open to shifts. I’m Irish, Jamie’s English and we expressed our ideas in an anglocentric way. We did sell our work overseas, but the primary outlets were British titles. Rob is obviously British and was steeped in the culture. The country that had birthed Monty Python and Punk was likely to click with where he was coming from.
Selling my output across the world, I’ve found that there’s a big difference in how ‘British’ car writers are regarded: look at Chris Harris and Henry Catchpole’s subscriber counts and read the feedback on their work to see the evidence of this. A lot of the people around Singer are British or some way Anglophile and the latest cars have had a lot of engineering in Britain. We will revisit this another time, but, to me, there is a clear public perception of a link between British creatives and a taste for new things.
From 2008-2012, our work covered (mainly RGruppe) modified cars in what up to then had been a sea of conservative content. RGruppe was widely regarded as mould breaking and this marked us out as a fit for Rob’s work. We didn’t have the reach of the big boys – it took me very little time to reject that path – but we were exploring and reporting the fringes of Porsche culture in an authentic way, had an idea of market tastes at a certain level and were likely to provide a warm welcome for the mould-breaking 911.
Three Types of People
In a Seth Godin podcasts called “Anthems, Pledges and Change”, the marketing thought leader explores how there has been substantial pushback over the years in response to certain interpretations of the American national anthem. Seth cites the examples of Aretha Franklin and Jose Feliciano: popular stars of their day who were vilified when they took the national anthem off piste. His podcast gets right to the heart of it.
“There are three kinds of people in every community: three kinds of people in every area of interest: at every event. One kind of person doesn’t want things to change. They’ve been sitting in the same seat at Yankee Stadium since it was built. They go to the baseball game because baseball doesn’t change.
“The second kind of person – the masses – they want to do what everybody else is doing. And the third kind of person is the early adopter: the neophyte, the neophiliac. They’re looking for something that’s new. One way we can define a cultural touchstone – a place, an event – is by the percentage of the three that are in the room.
“So, if you go to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it is filled to the top with people who want to know what’s new. But if you listen to America’s Top 40 on the radio, or watch CBS, you’re probably going to see a programme director who is obsessed with the masses. The reason you are listening or watching is to see what everybody else is seeing.
“And then you’ve got events and organisations and moments where most of the people there are laggards: they want it to stay the same. And it turns out that anthems and pledges are a really good place to find this sort of person.”
Anthems and pledges play a big part in American society, and in mainstream Porsche culture. The fear that what one is doing will be regarded by so-called peers as freakish or culturally unacceptable is what paralyses so many potential cultural shifts. Things that are initially mould breaking are often later paralysed by rampant conservatism as the masses move in.
Control of the Narrative
When Aretha Franklin was scorned for her rendition of the American national anthem, it was laggard-linked masses dictating the narrative. Those people did not want change. A fearful percentage wanted the status quo to prevail, their noise via letters and phone calls was interpreted as a majority and fear of destruction within media platforms dictated the coverage.
The same thing playa out on a grand scale in mass media coverage of social upheavals. Fearful masses swing towards the way it has always been and the mass media coverage follows accordingly. Defence against all discourse that might force social change begins with control of the narrative: look at 1930s Germany, what is happening in Turkey or the tone of mainstream British media in recent years. Look at how racism or oppression in parts of a country can be perpetuated by parents and grandparents: control of the narrative is key.
The interesting thing I see in Singer ten years ago – and I think a large part of how it turned the Porsche world on its head – was not its philosophy or styling, but the founder’s awareness of narrative. This was before he ever had media professionals involved. Nowadays, Singer feels carefully manicured, but this was just Rob on his own.
An early career in creativity – writing and recording music – and an understanding of how his work had been reported and reviewed gave Rob a valuable media consciousness. He placed his first product where he felt the change would be received impartially and given a chance. Starting at the fringes, it worked towards the centre. Building support amongst neophytes first, it infiltrated modified consciousness and became the masses’ gold standard.
At the core of the “we do it like this – we have always done it like this” Porsche sensibility, the arrival of Singer was controversial. Ten years later, it’s still a bit thorny. A lengthy disclaimer at the foot of the Singer home page testifies to some of the grief it went through at launch. But, as with anything that fights to exist for a decade, the brand has become a default.
For some, it is the default aesthetic for a hot rod Porsche: not amongst diehard enthusiasts, but without doubt for swathes of the masses. The cultural energy unleashed by Singer proved more than enough to power a movement and turned a culture on its head, shifting the way people looked at air-cooled 911s.
Singer: the catalyst
In 2009, the idea that Porsche would wrap its arms around a backstreet hot rodder like Magnus was highly unlikely. Thoughts that an £8k 911 SC would one day be worth five or six times that would have been ludicrous. When the 4-litre RS was launched in 2009, a tripling in price after launch was something that no one could imagine. Certainly I couldn’t see it and I was up to my neck in this stuff.
An awful lot changed in a short space of time. The bank crash put asset investment back on the map and classic Porsches were interesting. They were increasingly marketed as hand-built, time-warp artefacts. Now part of Volkswagen, Porsche was selling mostly SUVs, but the marketing value of the origin story and passion amongst grassroots enthusiasts began to materialise. If you had an interesting origin story, the media wanted to hear it and masses began to lean into it. Porsche began to lever grassroots passions to remind SUV buyers of sports car traditions and associated characters reinforcing that story became more important.
If one looks back at how this trend developed, it is impossible to discount Singer as a significant part of the catalyst. As the cultural shift began to take hold, partly centred on what Singer was doing, people who came to the brand with some media experience took over its origin story, designers amped up the style, the builders eventually sorted the dynamics. All these combined to deliver a compelling narrative. The confluence of its ingredients told a unique story and so it remains.
If you want to own a Singer (or, as legals prefer to call it, a Porsche 911 reimagined by Singer), you can’t build one in your shed: either you buy one or have something else. Only Aretha could sing the anthem like that and only Singer can build you a Singer. Today, that sounds obvious, but it took ten years to get here. Where will we be in another ten years?
Here’s a great interview with Rob from a few years ago, discussing his early design inspirations. Read my original Singer feature from Mulholland Drive and subsequent drive along California Pacific Cost Highway 1 in Malibu here.
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