Porsche 911 by Theon Design | PH Review

Porsche 911 by Theon Design | PH Review

Theon design. Your archetypal small-scale car builder, operating out of a unit somewhere deep in Oxfordshire. It’s run by Adam Hawley and his – and I hope he won’t mind me saying this – long-suffering wife, Lucinda Argy. I say that because Hawley’s in charge of the creating, and his creative passion strays almost to OCD levels of attention to detail. It makes his cars quite exceptional, but you get the feeling that Argy, who is the business brain with her hand on the money tiller, has her work cut out keeping things…real.

I asked him whether it’s challenging dealing with the wealthiest, most demanding people in the world, looking for their dream Porsche recreation? He said no. And I gauge the truth of that by the fact he seems more exacting than any of his customers. His 911s are quite breathtaking to behold in the flesh. They may be built in a ‘shed’ but there’s absolutely nothing cobbled together about them. This is engineering and art in equal measure.

Hawley is a designer by trade. Over the years he has worked for OEMs, including BMW, JLR, Lexus, Lotus and even Airbus – on the A380’s luxury interiors – but never Porsche, which is ironic. Because his real passion is 911s. So much so that in 2016 he decided to build his own dream car, based on a Porsche 964. It was meant to be his toy, but the finished product created so much interest he ended up selling it to fund his new business – creating cars for other people. That first car became the basis for the rest of the 18 commissions he’s now sold. And to enable that he has assembled a small team of guys, all of whom have specialities and experience with high-end metal, alongside a network of suppliers and contractors that compliment what Theon does in house.

Originally, each build was meant to be about nine months. In reality, each car is taking around 18 months to come to fruition, and that’s just the material stuff. It doesn’t include the consulting bit: the endless face-to-face meetings, video calls and emails. The customer who’s ordered the car you see here has been very attentive and very particular. He’s based in Chile, which is where the car is heading shortly. Its model name is CHI001 and its owner is a blueberry farmer, hence the colour: Viola metallic, which was originally created for the 911 30th Anniversary edition. As with all the commissions, this one is at least £380,000 plus taxes. And the donor car, which in this instance was the customer’s own 964.

He thought his C4 was pretty mint, but once it was stripped down it turned out to be quite tired – the gear linkage, for example, was held together with a rubber boot. That pleased Hawley. As a die-hard Porsche lover he understands the need to keep the best cars original. The last thing he wants to do is strip down a 5,000-mile jewel. “The ideal car,” he says, “would be something that’s done 187k miles and is falling apart, because then you’re rejuvenating something”.

Okay, where to begin describing the rejuvenation process? Well, I’m going to start with the engine. Not the power or the torque – I’ll get to that – but simply the way it looks. I’ve never opened the engine lid of a 911 and been able to see so much, and yet so little. It looks like it’s still waiting to have half of the bits put back in, but they’re all there, I promise. I just stood there, staring, and admiring it for several minutes.

This is what I mean when I described Hawley as having OCD levels of attention to detail. The minimalism of the engine bay isn’t by customer demand; it’s what he demanded. And a lot of it is his obsession with simplicity and symmetry. He can’t deal with things that are lopsided or cluttered. That’s why the twin ignition packs, for example, are mounted out the way, against the rear firewall. The HT leads go from there into the chassis members out of sight, then reappear through a hole opposite to each plug. Because why wouldn’t they? Then there are those slender, individual throttle bodies, which are all connected by a simple linkage. That’s about all you see sitting on top of the carbon-fibre cooling shroud. It’s all colour-coordinated, too. Mostly black, complimented by nickel or silver tones. Note the black oil filter sock. Why is that necessary? Because Fram orange would clash, obviously.

That sets the tone for everything else. Sticking with the rear, can you see the high-level brake light? Probably not, because it’s hidden so artfully and thoughtfully. It’s there, above the rear screen. Hawley talks about honouring Porsche’s heritage and engineering ethos, and this is one example of that. It’s where the early 911s vented their cabins – through a little grille above the rear window. 964s don’t do that. They vent the cabin through the rear arches. This one still does, but Hawley thought, “Why not bring the vent back as a feature – to add to the classic look – but repurposed for the high-level brake light?” So that’s what he did. And I think it’s a brilliant piece of design that works practically and aesthetically – it’s in the best place to see it when it’s lit, and hidden from view when it isn’t.

If you know what you’re looking for that level of detail is everywhere. Take the rear parcel shelf and bulkhead. On the 964 there’s an indent for the rear wiper on the left-hand side. That spoiled the symmetry of the engine bay, so had to go, which involved creating new metalwork. And when we looked over one of the painted shells that’s waiting to be fitted out, Hawley pointed out the various holes, which originally would’ve been left open or covered by rubber grommets, that have been plated up. Because that’s what you do when you strive for perfection. The original factory welds have been tidied, too, improving not just the aesthetics but also their strength. And that’s an important point: this isn’t solely about style, it’s about substance, as well.

Take the air conditioning and the power steering, for example. One of the reasons why the engine bay looks so clean is because you won’t find the air conditioning compressor or power steering pump cluttering it up. That’s partly for aesthetics, true, but by changing to electro-mechanical systems and locating those units at the front, under the boot, it’s reduced the weight and improved the weight distribution. The overall weight, by the way, is 1,164kg. Moving those items required more metal fabrication and that included shaping the panels for good airflow to the RS-spec oil cooler, which is also located in the nose.

Returning to the subject of weight, the body is made of a mixture of lightweight materials that shave around 100kg. The roof is carbon fibre and Nomex, which is used in planes for its strength. It’s used for the same reason here – improving the roll-over protection. The doors are steel, for now, to retain their side impact protection. In future, Hawley’s looking at using carbon fibre and Nomex there, too. The wings and bumpers are made of carbon fibre and Kevlar, which has the ‘give’ to withstand the odd knock. The boot lid, engine lid and rear spoiler are straight carbon fibre. All the panels are made by an outside specialist supplier, which is an example of Hawley utilising his proximity to motorsport valley to good effect.

The list of changes never seems to end. The brakes fitted to CHI001 are Surface Transforms carbon-ceramics (if a customer opts for iron discs, Hawley specifies 964 Carrera RS parts). There’s an RS strut brace, and the suspension uses Tractive active dampers, which supplies BMW AG, and everything is polybushed. Everything, that is, apart from the rose-jointed spring plates where the rear trailing arms bolt to the chassis. Those help support the famously flexible rear end of the pre-993 cars and tame lift-off adventures. Even the gear linkage is rose jointed, to give it more precision. And as you can see clearly from the exterior shots, the tracks are wider, culminating in bespoke, 17-inch Fuchs-style alloys, shod with Michelin Cup 4 tyres.

And finally, the engine. CH001 uses an air-cooled flat-six enlarged to 4.0-litres. Turbocharging and supercharging are available, but this one is naturally aspirated. It’s still churning out a whopping 400hp and 350lb ft, with a lightweight, single-mass flywheel and those individual throttle bodies to help it rev. The bespoke exhaust system has two noise modes, and the engine is mated to a 993 six-speed G50 gearbox with a Wavetrac limited-slip diff.

Right, the moment of truth: what’s it like on the road? Partly terrifying. Driving a car that’s taken 18 months to build, at a cost well north of £400,000, focuses the mind, I can tell you. And Hawley sitting next to me doesn’t help, but not because he’s being prissy. Quite the opposite. He’s egging me to press on, while something in the back of my mind – an inbuilt prerequisite to take care of someone else’s pride and joy – meant I didn’t charge around Oxfordshire’s lanes as enthusiastically as I might were this my own car. But still, what an experience. What a machine. And one that is set up exactly how I’d want it.

Hawley explained that he’ll tailor a car to the customer’s needs. That could be comfortable and oozing lazy torque – hence the turbo and supercharged options – but CH001’s owner is used to his GT3s. He wanted his car raw. Well it’s certainly that. Not harsh, though, because the 4.0-litre retains the inherent smoothness of Porsche’s regular air-cooled flat-sixes, but the noise it makes jangles your eardrums somewhat. Wow. Just wow. At idle it’s what I call dirty: bassy and uneven, due to the peaky cams, and as it hunts away those four tailpipes become the conduit of bliss.

Unlike many bespoke exhaust systems, it isn’t annoyingly resonant on the inside. Not in the least. It enunciates its crisp, air-cooled beat tunefully. And at this point, Hawley hadn’t even flipped the sports exhaust to extreme. When he did, well…I’ve genuinely never driven a road car this loud. We could barely speak to each other over the all-encompassing, amplified howl, which was handy because I had no desire to waste mental capacity on conversation; all I wanted to do was listen. Take it all in. True, I didn’t have much choice in the matter as it filled my lugholes so completely, but I wanted to savour the experience, nonetheless. It’s not only thrilling with the throttle pinned and the revs racing. When you lift off, the induction vacuum creates a different kind of searing rasp: like a highly tuned ‘70s Le Mans racer. This isn’t something only the privileged on the inside can appreciate, either. Not judging by the reaction of the van driver who pulled up beside us at a red light. He’d been following for half a mile or so, and his thumbs-up out the window was semaphore, I believe, for “That’s epic”. If there was any lingering doubt about its meaning, the sunshine smile on his face removed it. 

The car is fast, of course. It has 400hp pushing little more than a tonne. But it wasn’t the straight-line speed that struck me, more the immediacy of the throttle response. It picks up so urgently, like it’s running on something more potent than petrol, and just doesn’t give up. Hawley said the engine’s rev limit is set to 8,500rpm, but recommends running it to 7,500rpm to be sensible. I was happy sticking with that but the car wasn’t, with its will to spin seemingly hardwired.

I’d already made my mind up that Hawley’s cars are properly engineered just from my earlier walk-around, but now, driving his creation, I could tell the same ethos extends to the setting up, too. That’s not always the case with cars like this. Sometimes that’s down to budget, and sometimes to a lack of ability. Theon doesn’t seem deficient in either. The gearbox, with its 964 Carrera RS short-sifter, slices through the gate with precision. The clutch has meatiness and bite, and the brake pedal is as solid as you’d like when those carbon-ceramic pads chow down on the discs with strong determination. And no squeaking, either. There are a few OEMs who can’t pull off that trick – making ceramic discs stay silent.

Has the electrically-powered steering ruined the feel? Not in the least. If anything it buzzes away more merrily than it does in any ordinary air-cooled 911. There’s a bit of pull over cambers, but not enough to have you worrying where it’s heading next, and even though it’s quick – thanks to the customer-spec steering wheel that’s the diameter of a large button – it’s not hyper. It makes CH001 feel alive, not alarming.

And bearing in mind this car is meant to be aggressive, the ride isn’t. I can see people describing it as firm, sure, but for me it’s perfect. The roads we were on were pretty shonky at times, so the softer setting worked best. Yet even when Hawley wanted me to experience the firmest end of the adaptive damping’s bandwidth, CH001 wasn’t overly brusque. It upped the control without the tyres skimming the surface like a stone on water. As I mentioned, I wasn’t going at it hammer and tong but even so, when I upped the ante, in my limited way, the car shrugged it off. If anything, it felt more at ease.

I haven’t talked about the car’s interior yet. Purely because, for me, the mechanical engineering feels like the highlight. Yet it’s beautifully trimmed inside as well, with yet more anal attention to detail. The door releases, for example – they’re OEM 911 parts from the ‘70s, because they look right, but they weren’t in the right place according to Hawley. So he re-engineered their position to make them easier to use. And he’s going to replicate them in aluminium eventually, because plastic isn’t quite good enough. They’ll still look the same but feel classier cast in aluminium.

The classic organ-stop buttons look original but they’re not. They’re metal instead of rubber, and the dials are all new but opt for a classic ‘70s style. And check out the rear seats. They’re no roomier – it’s still a 911 after all – but anyone who does end up in the back will at least find them better padded and sculpted. That’s because they’re based on the 928’s rear seats, which were deemed better than the hard, fold-down originals. So you see, it’s different but always true to Porsche in some way or another.

Which is the soundbite on which to end, I think. CH001 still feels like a Porsche, just not the 964 on which it’s based. Visually it’s set in the 70s, and the sound is from a ‘70s racetrack, too, yet the engineering is very 2022. Has Hawley engineered the soul out of it, then? That’s subjective, of course. There will be those who feel that the foibles are what makes an early 911 a 911. What makes them fun. Which is fine, because these two things coexist: Theons and the originals. I appreciate both, and CH001 definitely has a soul. Indeed, a soul I liked so much I’m thinking about starting a blueberry farm. Actually, maybe not blueberries. I’m going to trade in silverware and strawberries, because I want my 911 by Theon Design in silver with a red interior. I wouldn’t change anything else, though. Literally, that’s it.

Specification | Porsche 964 by Theon Design

Engine: 4,000cc, naturally aspirated, flat-six
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 400@7,100rpm
Torque (lb ft): 350@6,1000rpm
0-62mph: sub-4.0 seconds
Top speed: 185 (est.)
Weight: 1,164kg (wet)
Price: £380,000 (plus taxes/ donor car)

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