There are some big family birthdays this month. My eldest sister turns fifty tomorrow and youngest daughter is fifteen in a fortnight. Between the two is a big birthday for Norbert Singer, the most celebrated race engineer in Porsche history.
It’s no coincidence that Singer is a name now known for a certain type of 911s. Singer founder, Rob Dickinson, is one of the many Norbert Singer superfans. Recordings of my first interview with Rob where he talks about the genesis of his company feature a geekish delight in the fact that Rob was both a successful singer and a disciple of Singer the designer.
Big ideas in Bohemia
On November 16, 1939, Norbert Singer was born in Eger in the Sudetenland, one year after Hitler had reclaimed the disputed region split from Germany as part of the creation of Czechoslovakia in the Treaty of Versailles.
Having annexed neighbouring Austria in March 1938, Hitler called for a plebiscite across the Sudeten Mountains of northern Czechoslovakia, to allow the millions of German-speaking Sudeten Germans who had been “trapped” by the creation of Czechoslovakia to decide their own fate, threatening invasion if the request was ignored and building a force of some 750,000 soldiers along the Czech border.
To avoid war, England and France acquiesced to the demands as part of the appeasement set out in the Munich Agreement and convinced the Czech government to cede the territory. Hitler sent the Wehrmacht into the Sudetenland the day after the agreement was signed, on October 1st, 1938. Six months later, he invaded the rest of the country.
German expansionism (known as Lebensraum or ‘space to live’) was the climate that welcomed young Singer in November 1939. Eger (now Cheb in the Czech Republic) was again part of Germany and feeling good about life: it was time to think big and plan for the future.
Norbert was all about the future: he grew up fascinated with space travel and dreamed of a career as a rocket engineer. He watched a lot of racing through his university years studying aerospace and automotive engineering in Munich and saw Jim Clark race at the Monaco Grand Prix. A professor convinced him on the idea that “rocket engineering is for Americans: in Germany we are all about cars”.
No letter from Porsche
Singer learned that Porsche was looking for engineers, but his father was not convinced that the small sports car firm would be Norbert’s best option. Other small firms were all going under: what hope could Porsche have of being any different? Singer’s fascination almost came to nothing as, after interviewing with Porsche, he heard no more until a phone call in early March 1970, asking why he hadn’t turned up for his first day at work. Stuttgart had neglected to send the letter confirming his appointment.
He turned up for his second day and was immediately set to work on simplifying the 917’s fuel system, under the leadership of Ferdinand Piëch. After that it was gearbox cooling, then aerodynamics. The 917 won its first Le Mans later that year and Singer began to build a reputation. His work on the 911 RSR took the car to victory, as it did with the RSR Turbo, the 935 and the famous 936. But it was the 956 that really put Norbert on the map.
Following the introduction of the Group C regulations in 1982, Singer proved his tremendous ability as an aerodynamicist, providing Porsche’s new Group C car with exceptional ground effect. The car’s winning sure-footedness came from a special underbody design with air ducts and the legendary “Singer dent”, but Norbert notes that success was not guaranteed.
Norbert Singer: “You can trip up over your own feet”
“I was cautious going into the race,” recalls the chief engineer. “The 956 was a completely new car. You can’t go into every race saying, Hurray, we’re going for the win! You have to see how things go – getting through 24 hours is no easy task. This win was perfect and actually somewhat surprising. We had taken our job very seriously. A few years before that we had made a mistake.
“In 1979, Ernst Fuhrmann was still with Porsche and he said to us engineers, ‘What do you say if we drive Le Mans this year? There’s practically no competition.’ Basically, we just had to show up and walk off with the victory. And what happened? We didn’t reach the finish line with either car – we lost even without competition. You can trip over your own feet as well. Having experienced that, I really enjoyed the win in 1982. The 956 went straight into the museum. It’s the car that hangs from the ceiling.”
The 956 and its successor, the 962C, won five driver titles, three manufacturer titles and two team world championships between 1982 and 1986, also clocking up seven overall victories at Le Mans. From 1970 to 1998, Singer played significant roles in all of Porsche’s race wins at Le Mans with the 917, 935, 936, 965, 962C, WSC Spyder and 911 GT1 98.
Until his retirement in 2004, Norbert Singer was the project manager for most of Porsche’s racing cars. After leaving Porsche, he continued to consult with customer race teams, also serving as an advisor to ACO: the Le Mans race organisers. Singer’s knowledge of Porsche racing history has also proved invaluable to the factory when restoring original race cars, such as 917 chassis number 001 or 965 number 005.
Porsche says that Singer has been lecturing at Esslingen University since 2006 and continues to do so. Whatever he is up to these days, his place at the top table of Porsche history is without question and it is a delight to see him reach the grand age of eighty. Happy birthday Norbert!