Turning off the main road, I wonder if there are any farms left in this part of the world that are actually purely concerned with farming. Are there any cow sheds or grain stores with their originally designated contents? Any stables sheltering horsepower of the hoofed variety?
The phrase ‘barn find’ usually conjures up an image of an old Ferrari, Bugatti or Aston that has spent decades doing service as a chicken coop or a trellis for some brambles. But these days, barns are just as likely to reveal something shiny and new, whether it is a complete car or some finely crafted component thereof. So much knowledge and expertise is being put to work in unassuming buildings across the country. No big signs, no fancy receptions, just magnificent feats of manufacturing hidden away behind roller-shutter doors. I suspect The Gray Barn will be a great example. But first I’ve got to find it.
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The narrow driveway means through fields for over a mile and I begin to wonder if I’ve made a wrong turn, but eventually some buildings heave into view. A farmhouse. Some offices. Some agricultural equipment. Ah, The Gray Barn, tucked away in a corner. The unassuming home of some of the most beautiful restomod 911s you’re likely to see. The home of Theon Design.
Adam Hawley is the very affable man behind the company. You could call him the founder or managing director, but that makes him sound aloof and detached and proprietorial, and he’s none of those. He’s wonderfully enthusiastic, quick to praise the work of others and keen to emphasise that the cars produced here are a team effort.
However, for all that, this is a company born out of Adam’s personal project car. He graduated from Coventry University with a degree in Transport Design and then went on to spend over 15 years designing concept cars and production cars for the likes of BMW and Jaguar Land Rover. But in that time he also did design work on powerboats and on Airbus A380s, the largest passenger jets in the world. He has a real interest in architecture too. He has always loved 911s, though, and when the opportunity came he decided to put his design skills into creating his own dream version of a 911.
When it was finished he was astonished by the reaction. Everywhere he went he would be stopped and asked about it, to the point where he thought ‘there’s probably a business in making more of these’. And no one was more enamored of the car than his own young son, Theo. Barely old enough to stand he would spend hours in the driver’s seat playing with the steering wheel. So, when the company needed a name, Theo became Theon.
Today, the cars that emerge from the workshop in Oxfordshire are all the descendants of that original car. They are based on 964s and after the donor car has been taken back to bare metal and put on a jig, the work can begin. The new bodywork for the rear panels is hand beaten over machined wooden formers that have been precisely created from Adam’s 3D computer models to ensure a perfect fit. That’s if you’re having a steel-bodied car, of course, because carbonfibre is also an option. In fact the bumpers and spoiler on this car are carbon.
There are obvious changes, such as the long hood, but the devil, as always, is in the detail. Adam has always hated the square reflectors stuck on the back of early 911s, so he has integrated a sleeker design into the new valance that frames the quad exhausts (which evoke a Turbo) and made them into foglights as well, just for good measure. On the engine cover, the metal ‘Theon’ badge has been designed to mimic an early 911 badge, with the bars joining the letters.
If the car has a sunroof and it’s being removed then the whole roof is removed and replaced with an early roof with the vents at the top of the rear screen. A high-level brake light is then subtly hidden in there. Adam describes the mirrors as a concept car design made practical for the road. Machined from aluminum they’re inspired by those on Porsche’s own 2018 Speedster concept and are electrically adjustable.
Inside, Adam has taken ideas from other Porsches, so while it looks different, it retains a family feel. The armrests, for example, take inspiration from a 356. The door releases are from a late ’60s/early ’70s 911 but flipped around and moved up. Out of sight, behind the door cards, everything is yellow chromate so that it’s back to the ’70s style. Any welding is done the classic Porsche way.
The list goes on. Whether ultimately visible or not, there is a sense that the whole car has been treated as though it will be viewed with X-ray glasses. And the really extraordinary thing is that this feels like a product that has been honed and developed over years and many iterations. But this is only the third car that Theon Design has produced. The first went to Germany and this is the second one destined for Hong Kong – HK002.
But it’s not going there just yet. First, thanks to its kind owner, I get to have a go.
Walking up to those swollen arches on a sunny day with the key in your hand is a good feeling. The car looks purposeful, but there remains a friendliness to those soft curves and that face. And despite the obvious increase in width, it remains a small car by modern standards. Just right for our roads.
Pull the little lever tucked inside the handle and feel the release in the mechanism as the door opens. Although on aesthetic grounds I wouldn’t choose the Recaro Sportster CS seats (there are other options), they nonetheless feel like old friends as I sink down into them. The small Nardi steering wheel initially seems a bit of a stretch and the offset pedals take a moment to fall under foot, but the cabin remains delightfully intimate: that upright dash, the spread of five green-on-black dials, the windscreen – all so much closer than in a modern car.
Turn the key and the engine catches easily. A gentle blip of the throttle reveals a weighty action, while the clutch pedal is very light. The six-speed gearbox is from a 993 and the action of the relatively stubby lever is precise and smooth. No baulking, no notchiness, just a relatively light, easy action.
There is a real smoothness to the engine too and a lovely torquiness at lower revs, which makes it wonderfully useable. Cruising along for the first few miles it doesn’t feel like the flat-six is constantly goading you. You can tell it will rev willingly when asked, but it can happily do relaxed and unhurried. Because the exhaust system is switchable, you can leave it in a slightly more docile setting to fit this more subdued mood too. It’s still vocal enough that people in gardens in sleepy villages will look up, but they won’t scowl and mentally draft a letter to the parish council.
As with most things Theon, there are options with the engine. Displacements from 3.6 to 4 litres are offered, as is supercharging. This car has a 3.8-litre, naturally aspirated engine with 371bhp and 298lb ft of torque, which is ample for a car weighing just 1248kg with a full tank of fuel.
The beautiful flat-six is the work of Nick Fulljames, and with its independent throttle bodies, flowed and ported heads, bigger valves, Mahle barrels and pistons, Carrillo rods and a lightened, balanced bottom end, it is every bit the heart of the car that you want it to be. There is the air of a civilized race engine about it, which I think is fabulous. The performance certainly gets your attention, but it is the character of the engine that really raises a smile. A crackling, rasping edge to the familiar, deep soundtrack lends the Theon a slightly raw edge, but with none of the lumpy recalcitrance of a true competition car. And although it can be civilized, if you switch the exhaust to its more raucous mode and then go chasing the glorious top end you get a brilliantly unfettered sound, complete with genuine reports on the overrun as you back off.
So enjoyable is the engine, it almost doesn’t matter what the car does in the corners. In fact it’s quite a modern-feeling 911 when you thread it through a set of bends. Don’t get me wrong, you still know the engine is in the back and you still get that lovely sense of weighted traction on the way out of corners, but there is much more turn-in grip from the front than I was expecting.
It makes more sense when you hear that Theon claims a near 50:50 weight distribution (presumably with that full tank of fuel in the nose) thanks to the old, heavy power steering and air conditioning units that sat on top of the engine being replaced with new, lighter, more efficient electric items that now nestle low down in the nose. The ride height is also lower than on a 964 RS and the suspension is KW Variant 3 all round, set up by Center Gravity.
The sheer amount of grip available both inspires confidence and also makes you want to tread with a little caution as you push harder, wary of how progressively that grip will be relinquished at the limit and how quickly you might need to add corrective lock. Having said that, through a fast, open right-hander that leads immediately into a tighter, slightly rising left-hander, the Theon deals with the weight transition in the middle with aplomb. Go through again, attack the left-hand portion this time, get on the throttle early and you can really trust the rear, feeling it subtly smearing the Michelins across the tarmac, helping to steer you through the last third of the corner.
Such is the grip that you’d need a track to really investigate the limits, but it’s easy to get into a flow on the road. As long as it’s relatively smooth, that is, because the ride height feels a little too low on some of the UK’s more cruelly cambered and broken tarmac. Potholes and bigger bumps sometimes elicit thumps and jolts that, although expected, are just a little too harsh. Interestingly, Theon has just teamed up with Tractive to fit an adaptive suspension kit to the next build, and I think this could be an excellent solution, giving the suspension that same breadth of ability as the engine.
There are of course a couple of Nellies in the room. Firstly, the price. It seems like a universal rule that restomods are expensive, and with prices starting at £300,000, this is no exception. However, you can certainly see where the work has gone in. It is also about half the price of the second elephant in the room: a Porsche 911 reimagined by Singer.
Both are based on 964s and both, at a glance, have a very similar look. Interestingly though, Hawley believes that Theon’s ethos is actually more closely aligned with Ruf’s. I would say that there is more original Porsche retained in this car than one from California in which everything, right down to the indicator stalks, has been given a twist. I think there is plenty of room in the market for both.
There are in fact only plans to produce 25 of this particular style of car, so it will remain exclusive (and there may yet be some original 964s left in the world). And, being the enthusiastic designer he is, you can tell Adam is already thinking about the next Porsche project for Theon Design. No doubt some sketches exist. Whatever it is, it will be exciting to see what emerges from The Gray Barn in the future.
Theon Design 911 specs
|Engine||Flat-six, 3.8 liters|
|Top speed||160mph+ (est)|
This story was first featured in evo issue 288. To purchase any back issues, or subscribe visit our online shop here