Were you to buy a dilapidated heritage building, few would take issue with the idea of it being made safe for habitation, so long as the reconstruction work respected the spirit and integrity of the original structure. Much the same goes for an old aircraft: no sane pilot would contemplate taking to the skies in a plane that wasn’t airworthy (and nor, in all likelihood, would the authorities permit it).
With old cars, however, the notion persists that restorations are permissible only if the vehicle in question is returned only to its original state – no more, no less. Thus, to be truly authentic, a restored 1950s Land Rover must rely on a puny 54bhp engine, drum brakes that could hardly stop a bicycle, headlights like candles and steering as vague as a shopping trolley. Which may be fine if that car is standing in a museum, but not quite so brilliant if it’s going to be driven on the road.
For those, however, who treasure the looks and individuality of classics but are less enthused about their dynamic qualities, there’s, fortunately, an alternative. It’s what’s known as a “restomod”, a restoration with modifications that preserves the appearance, persona and character of the original car but employs contemporary technologies to achieve levels of power, driveability, safety and comfort that would have been unimaginable back in the day. Granted, such work will often incur the purists’ ire, but equally, it can result in automobiles that verge upon the sublime.
Take Singer Vehicle Design of Sun Valley, California, for example. Established in 2009 by expat Brit Rob Dickinson, the company has earned global renown for its exquisitely “reimagined” Porsche 911s.
Singer’s speciality is second-generation 964 models, originally produced between 1989 and 1994, on which at least 4,000 hours of reconstruction and customisation are lavished before each utterly recreated Porsche rolls out of its workshop. The end results are so magnificent that they’ve been deemed superior to the original 911 – a machine, don’t forget, that’s often called the greatest sports car ever.
But it’s not just antique Porsches that are getting the total-makeover treatment. These days, everything from old E-Types to Alfas, Land Rovers to Land Cruisers, Mercs to VWs and even humble Morris Minors are considered suitable canvases for the restomod artist’s painstaking efforts – and customers are shelling out serious money (and we mean serious) to buy them.
So, feast your eyes on these old-school classics – each lovingly and tastefully returned to a condition by far in excess of its former glory yet, by using the latest technologies, also transformed into a thoroughly modern driving machine – and lust.
Alfisti, as the devotees of Alfa Romeos are called, are known for their extreme fanaticism, and few models command their devotion more than the pretty Tipo 105/115 coupes of the 1960s and ’70s. Problem is, old Alfas are also famously rust prone, so it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find these Giugiaro-designed two-doors in anything like a decent condition – which is where Britain’s Alfaholics operation comes in. Alfaholics doesn’t merely bring 105s back to life, but it offers what it calls the model’s “ultimate evolution”, which entails more than 3,000 hours of skilled labour and, among other things, the installation of a highly tuned 2.3-litre Alfa Twin Spark engine whose 240bhp gives this 830kg machine a staggering power-to-weight ratio of 290bhp per tonne. The price of this retro pocket rocket? Well, let’s just say you won’t get much change from £250,000.
The grandfather – along with the Second World War Jeep – of the contemporary 4×4 and SUV, the Land Rover first saw the light of day in 1948 and remained in production, remarkably, until two years ago, by which time it was known as the Land Rover Defender. An entirely new Defender is promised for next year, but until that’s available – or if you’re desperate for the real McCoy – there are two options: a complete and faithful restoration from Land Rover Heritage or a restored and customised version from restomod specialist Arkonik. This small British company uses chassis of around 25 years old as the platforms for countless bespoke reinterpretations of the Defender, using short 90 or long 110 wheelbases and offering a vast range of exterior enhancements, as well as interiors way more luxurious than the original. Configure the Defender of your dreams online, fork out your (considerable) deposit and, after around 18 months of waiting, this beauty can be yours.
UK-based Eagle, which has been restoring Jaguar E-Types for almost 35 years, more recently went into the restomod business and now offers a range of reimaginations on the car that Enzo Ferrari is said to have dubbed the most beautiful in the world. We’d probably go for the fabulous Eagle Low Drag GT (shown here), based on a racing design of the early 1960s. It’s hand-built on the fundamentals of an original E-Type but brimming with improvements – including a re-engineered, fuel-injected, 310bhp, 4.7-litre inline-six engine, a proper five-speed gearbox and substantially re-worked suspension – that, thanks to its weight of just over a tonne, make it easily a match for any contemporary supercar (and which, after more than 6,000 man-hours of work and at about £650,000 a pop, you might say it jolly well ought to be).
Introduced in the mid-1950s and built until 1984, the Toyota FJ Land Cruiser was Japan’s answer to Britain’s Land Rover and just as rugged. Now, almost 35 years after production ceased, there’s a burgeoning demand for this much-loved Third World workhorse and prices are rocketing accordingly. Especially coveted are restorations by the FJ Company of Miami, which scours the globe for original vehicles, dispatches them to its workshop in Bogota, Colombia and, nine months later, returns them to the road, thoroughly upgraded to contemporary standards of comfort and driveability. Choose one of the company’s US$200,000 Signature models, and it can even be equipped with everything from a modern Toyota V6 engine, a five-speed gearbox and a decent braking system, to an interior lavished with full leather upholstery.
Named for a near-legendary Porsche engineer whose efforts were central to 16 of the company’s 19 wins at Le Mans, Singer Vehicle Design of Southern California creates what are arguably the most coveted restomod cars on the planet. All are based upon the second-generation, rear-wheel-drive Porsche 911, known internally as the 964, and all are built with no expense spared and a single objective in mind: to transform a car that’s at least 25 years old into one of the greatest 911s ever. Every Singer Porsche is an entirely bespoke creation, with some owners stretching the envelope by specifying a naturally aspirated, air-cooled, six-cylinder boxer engine, handbuilt by Cosworth Engineering, that’s been enlarged to 4 litres and tweaked to produce 425bhp. Along with a six-speed manual box, Öhlins dampers, Brembo brakes and carbon fibre just about everywhere, this translates into a machine of startling brilliance that can put the frighteners on a current 911 GT3. And we haven’t even mentioned the equally fabulous interior – or, for that matter, a price tag possibly north of US$600,000.