When I wrote about the Zurich Auto Show last week (see here if you missed it), I mentioned that a whole floor had been dedicated to the classics, mostly restored to their former glory by experts in the field either belonging to the marks, such as Mercedes-Benz Classics, or being individual outfits. I also mentioned that this floor was one of the most visited on the show, and typically so by men in their 50’s and 60’s which I guess are the typical clients for this kind of automobiles – and lucky they are!
A beautifully restored Mercedes or Ferrari from the 60’s is difficult to beat in looks, but not very hard in driving experience, at least if you’re after the relative perfection of a modern car. What I mean is that although driving a classic is a special feeling, it means driving something with inexact steering, pretty useless suspension and breaks that require a bit of planning to stop the car before it’s too late. That’s no wonder considering the cars are several decades old. In other words the driving experience hasn’t really stood the test of time, but the looks definitely have. And it’s in that junction that the concept of restomods saw the light of day.
Restomods (the word combining “restoration” with “modern”) have been around on a somewhat larger scale for the last 4-5 years or so, but whereas they used to be confined to a barn on a yard somewhere and only be known to the real enthusiasts, their popularity has grown tremendously lately. Obviously this has also led to a multitude of manufacturers, typically focusing on different sportscars – but not only. The basic concept of a restomod is that of taking a classical design and modernizing everything below it, but quite often the design itself is also changed a bit on the way, notably with larger wheel arches and – especially – larger wheels. Most body panels may still look old but are usually new and quite often made out of carbon. Restomod builders are small outfits, in many cases building cars with unique parts as basis, which obviously means they aren’t cheap. What they provide is however a car that can be a true one of a kind, as even the largest restomod outfits only produce a few dozen cars per year.
Of all the possible candidates I’ve picked three builders as examples of the various iterations of the restomod world. The first is the most legendary of them all, specializing in the most legendary sports car of all. The second is a bunch of UK-based, Italian racing enthusiasts, and the third specializes in creating a modern driving experience for the world’s first luxury SUV. Three different cars, three different approaches, but also three different visions of what a restomod can be.
California-based Singer Vehicle Design, founded by ex-rock star Rob Dickinson, focuses on optimizing 911’s (964) according to the firm’s motto “everything is important” and the principles of “Restored – Re-imagined – Reborn”. To Singer this means starting with a 911/964 that can be transformed however the owner wants it, within the limits of the classic 911 design. Singer offers a multitude of options for the chassis, engine, suspension and body, including manufacturing specific parts in very small runs. In collaboration both with Williams and Cosworth the result is absolutely outstanding as a work of art, and journalists that have had the honour of driving the unique cars usually talk about it as allowing the 911 to reach new levels of perfection. It’s important to note that it’s not about raw power as Singers are usually around 300-350 hp. As we all know however, a great drive is about so much more than straight-line speed, and no one does it better than Singer. Also, no one does it more expensive, as prices start somewhere around USD 500′ + a 964 delivered by the client, and obviously have no upper limit – Singers have been sold for more than USD 1.5m.
Alfaholics, based in Bristol may be far from California, but is without doubt the world’s leading specialist on the Alfa 105 series. Founded by Richard Banks and today run by his two sons Mark and Andrew, the racing inspired family with a true love for the Italian brand renovate 105’s to very high standards, sell standard as well as custom-made racing parts for the 105 and some other models – and then they build the GTA-R, which can be described as the modern iteration of the 105. Just like with Singer the specification of each car is largely up to the client, but the basis is usually the classic 2-litre twin spark engine, developed to produce 240 hp. The rest of the car is completely reworked and notably through extensive use of carbon, the end result is a car that weighs 800 kg and thus can be said to have all the power anyone can ask for. It also produces all of the sound anyone could ask for, and it’s a wonderful one. Costing from around GBP 250′ and upwards, the GTA-R is a very driver-focused car, clearly better in every way than the original 105, but also very much a racing car.
Finally, something completely different. We’re now up in Warwickshire in central UK where as a child Damon Oorloff (yes, written with two oo’s) didn’t have a playground and therefore spent his time in the Land Rover factory yard. He thus grew up with what was built at the time, meaning the Defender and the first generation Range Rover, and fell in love especially with the latter. He went on to found Kingsley and has today built a business of restoring the Range Rover Classic and bringing it into the modern world in terms of technology and driving experience. This is no small achievement since the Classic is a construction from the 1950’s, so it basically means rebuilding the whole car. The extent of the work, updates and modifications is individual, however always staying within the original design and thus being the purest form of restomod, according to the original concept. The result is of course magnificent: the ultra-coolness of the original RR, combined with modern comfort and an updated driving experience. Kingsley’s start around GBP 50′ and GBP 100′ pretty much gives you the full experience.
So there we are – three different interpretations of the broad restomod concept, and three that have different objectives in mind. Singer is all about 911 perfection, but also about creating unlimited cars for unlimited budgets. Alfaholics has a clear racing focus in their builds that they share with many other restomod builders (but where most are not a the same level), and that take in this case a 60’s car to the modern racing standard. Finally Kingsley gives you a pure, classic design with modern features and an up to date driving experience.
Looking at these but also at the concept of restomods in general, I admit I’m split. Taking Singer as example, the first thing to note is that a fraction of the total budget buys you a pretty perfect 964, and at least I would be more than slightly reluctant to start re-working the original build. And if you still decide that’s the way you want to go, then you have other types of specialist such as Ruf that we looked at a while ago (see here), the provide another interpretation of the 911 concept which is also highly attractive and almost as exclusive. In the other ring corner, Kingsley transforms the RR Classic and from many angles make it a modern car – but not from all. The general body design with its overhangs, wind resistance and thereby wind noise, old-fashioned exploitation of the interior space and obviously things such as modern security thinking – all that can be improved on the margin, but essentially remains the same, as in the original, which is to say very far from a modern car.
You thus need to put up with a bit if you want to make a Kingsley you daily driver. Not to mention a GT-R from Alfaholics, that in many aspects is a true race car. Of course you can drive a Singer as a daily driver if your budget is right, but for most it will probably be a Sunday car – but what a car! If a Singer is the best Sunday driver, the Alfa is clearly the best race car, whilst still not on the level of modern race cars. And the Kingsley classic RR is far better than the original car, but not as good as a modern Range Rover, making you wonder on what day of the week you should use it. My conclusion is therefore that whilst restomods are beautiful and technologically fantastic creations and I fully understand if you fall for them, I would probably rather stick to the original 964 as a daily driver and an original RR Classic for the Sunday family drive, with all its original imperfection and charm. And if I had a race track somewhere near, I sure wouldn’t mind having a GTA-R in the garage!