Re-Discovering West-Country Trials Hills With A Singer Roadster



An Economical Overhead Camshaft Open Four-Seater in the Pre-War Sports-Car Tradition Visits Some M.C.C. “Observed Sections”

In my article in the July issue of Motor Sport on the meagre number of small open sports cars now available on the British market, I quoted the Singer Roadster as the sole remaining example of this type of car in the 1,100-c.c. category. Several readers have since pointed out that, in fact, as with the 850-c.c. class, there is no 1,100-c,c. British sports car on the market today, because the Singer 4A and 4AB Roadsters have been replaced by the 4AD Roadster with an engine capacity of 1,496 c.c.

To rectify this error it seemed fitting to test the latest example, and accordingly Singer Motors Ltd. placed at my disposal OOC 362, which some of you may remember as a demonstrator at the last Earls Court Motor Exhibition.

So it came about that one Friday afternoon there arrived outside the Motor Sports offices a little car which, like Henry’s wagon in the American children’s story, was red all over, with a 16-in, white sprung steering wheel and a yellow licence disc.

Although the grey canvas hood was up and the side windows erect (they really are windows, of safety glass, the front panes arranged to slide back, these screens pegging securely into sockets in the doors; the driver’s has a signalling flap), this Roadster could be converted into a fully open car, the hood disappearing neatly into a compartment behind the back seat, to be concealed by a red leather cover flush with the body sides, while the screen would fold flat ahead of two wind-deflecting cowls forming the scuttle top. This being the case I decided that the best way of regarding this Singer was to mentally discard twenty years of my life, don my most sporting corduroy cap, ring up a blonde, and get down to some quickish motoring in the best sporting tradition.

The blonde failed to materialise but by the Monday morning I had covered 677 miles in the Singer and laid bare its most intimate features.

Being an essentially sporting car, its designers have not flinched at dispensing with certain of the qualities demanded of most postwar cars. Thus the chassis is quite flexible and this, in conjunction with supple coil-spring independent front suspension, results in very considerable radiator and scuttle shake over the rougher road surfaces. Some of this movement is felt at the steering wheel, but otherwise return motion is not evident, the castor action is slight and the steering action is quick (1 1/2 turns, lock to lock) and accurate, but not particularly light. The lock is poor and the soft front springing and normal, quite hard, 1/2-elliptic back springs result in some concentration being necessary when cornering fast, while road shocks are more noticeable than in today’s softly-suspended vehicles. Roll, however, is absent. Attention to tyre pressures noticeably improves the roadholding and cornering characteristics, but tyre squeal is rather easily promoted and the car dips its nose under the Girling hydro-mechanical 2LS brakes. The brake pedal feels that it has beneath it a firm sponge or almost inflated air-balloon but stopping power is adequate, although long descents cause the linings to exude an odour of heated resentment and they emitted a loud squeal.

The body is narrow, so that the driver’s left elbow is very close to the passenger, and the trailing doors are so hinged that they swing inwards, which, as they are quite weighty with the sidescreens in place, is rather inconvenient. They are deeply cut away, have useful rigid pockets and central interior handles. Visibility is good, for the front wings have easily seen sidelamps erected on them.

The facia is of wood, covered with leathercloth, and the wind-cowls have a facing of imitation veneer. There is a sensible, lidless cubby-hole of decidedly generous size before the passenger, and simple instruments and minor controls on the driver’s side. There seems to be some skimping and lack of foresight here, because the speedometer has no trip (so essential to rally competitors), the direction indicators are non-self-cancelling (awkward in a car which demands more from its driver than a utility vehicle), there is a combined ammeter, oil and fuel gauge dial but no thermometer or clock, the headlamps-beam indicator consists of a duplication of the ignition warning lamp set where it shines straight into the driver’s eyes, there is an exterior mirror but no central interior mirror to give a sense of well-being in built-up areas, the hand has to move from wheel to dashboard to blow the horn and the panel lighting produces a “poached-egg” effect. Oil pressure is 37 lb./sq. in. at cruising speed, 10 lb./sq. in. when idling.

Other aspects of, and observations from, the cockpit are such that they should appeal to sporting owners. A large “grab-handle” is fitted on the dash for the passenger’s use, lights, starter and choke controls are straightforward, the gear-change is effected by a short, absolutely rigid remote-control central lever working in a ball-gate at the end of an extension tunnel, the front seats are of adjustable bucket type (unfortunately possessed of hard cushions and badly-shaped squabs), and the bonnet top panels hinge centrally as on vintage motor cars. A carriage-key, stowed in a clip under the scuttle, opens bonnet and luggage boot — there are rather a lot of “hard projections” in the cockpit, including the Lucas wiper motor pendant from the screen, in contrast to the “crash-pads” found in American automobiles. Visibility is good with the hood erect, due to a generous back window and side windows in the zip-fastener rear panels. There is a useful full-length tonneau cover.

The gear-change is pleasant to operate, although the lever proved stiff to move and occasionally caught-up going across the gate; reverse position is protected by a heavy spring, but once or twice this was inadvertently over-ridden. The lever is perhaps a trifle too far forward. The clutch is heavy and slightly tricky to engage smoothly and after use the foot has to be rested partially under the pedal, due to the space taken up by the gearbox cover. The hand-brake lever is of umbrella-type, hidden under the scuttle but accessible to the right hand — a central lever would be more convenient for rapid restarts on hills.

These impressions were formed as we drove the Singer home over familiar roads. The hood gives ample head clearance, at all events in the front seats, and very adequate weather protection, but renders the interior of the car rather stuffy, with a trace of fumes.

Through London traffic the vivid red Roadster seemed to have a similar effect on small Ford delivery vans and saloons as a red rag does on wide-awake bulls, for they immediately set up in opposition, one such vehicle doing so with such persistence that at the next set of traffic lights it smote our back bumper. On derestricted roads we found it possible to shake them off, going to 50 m.p.h. in third gear and cruising in the neighhourhood of 60 m.p.h. A floating needle on the Jaeger speedometer made it difficult to take accurate performance figures.

On our safe arrival we conducted a further post-mortem on the Singer. The engine is a 1 1/2-litre power unit as used in the SM1500 Singer saloon, with the typically-Singer single-overhead-camshaft valve gear and two shielded Solex horizontal carburetters with A.C. air cleaners. Its valve cover and block were painted a less vivid red than the rest of the car. The Lucas battery is mounted very accessibly on the under-bonnet shelf, on which are displayed for instant use the tools, jack, grease-gun and similar items. The dip-stick is easily withdrawn but the small oil filler in the valve cover is set too close to the bonnet hinge-line for replenishment from a can. Champion plugs are used and fuel is fed from a seven-gallon rear tank by an S.U. electric pump.

The rear passengers have foot wells, and access is easy with the hood down, the front seat squabs folding forward. The luggage boot is somewhat restricted by the presence therein of the spare wheel, but the lid falls to constitute a luggage platform. The rear lamps protrude rather too obviously from the back mudguards and the Bluemels rear number-plate is mounted not quite vertically on an external bracket. The radiator motif, red-painted inside, plated without, struck me as mediocre.

On the road the Singer Roadster is willing rather than lively; the hum of the indirect gears is drowned by engine noise when accelerating. The lack of vivid acceleration is in keeping with the good, solid “vintage” qualities, emphasised by the flexible chassis and flapping of hood and sidesereens. We had no opportunity of assessing the top speed, screen flat, but 70 m.p.h. showed in doted form. Acceleration is of the order of 0-50 m.p.h. in 17 sec., a standing 1/4-mile, hood and screen erect, occupying 22.9 sec. The engine emits considerable power roar when accelerating. It is docile at low speeds, although the throttle action is inclined to be jerky, no doubt due to the cable operation, and this well-proven power unit showed no desire to pink or run-on, and started promptly from cold with a minimum of choke, warming rapidly to its task. At idling speed it kicks viciously on its flexible mountings, so that the gear lever judders under one’s hand, and after getting really warm climbing trials hills it was hesitant about recommencing. The engine reaches 2,500 ft. per min. piston speed at 66.3 m:p.h.

This Roadster has, as has been explained, replaced the original 4A and the 1951 4AB. It has the coil-spring independent front suspension of the latter, with double wishbones, the lower ones of channel section, and an anti-roll bar, and the 48-b.h.p. 1 1/2-litre SM1500 engine with a single downdraught Soles; now, with two horizontal Solex carburetters, it develops 58 b.h.p. at 4,600 rpm.

Having put myself on intimate terms with this Singer, which is one of the few remaining open sporting four-seaters, I proceeded to use it.

On the Saturday I was due to accompany a friend in his 1910 Panhard et Levassor W. & G. taxicab on the Bristol M.C. & L.C.C. Veteran Car Trial, this being “poetic justice” for having introduced him to this lofty and delightful carriage in a cow-shed at Hemel Hempstead, whither I had been led by a letter which Motor Sport had received from a reader with a nose for smelling out veterans. To keep my appointment with this 25-m.p.h. (cruising speed) vehicle I was up at first-light and away in the snug comfort of the little Singer. Unfortunately a slipping clutch cone and a loose rear wheel rim which repeatedly punctured the tubes caused us to abandon the long run to Bristol and resulted in an afternoon devoted to returning the disgruntled Panhard (which is complete with a splendid ship’s-type indicator between passengers and driver telling the latter when to turn left, turn right, slow or stop, and a “period” Halda taximeter) to its base, and watching the boats negotiating Shepperton lock on the River Thames.

As an antidote to a somewhat disappointing day we decided to motor to the West Country on the Sunday and try the Singer on some of those trials hills of the nineteen-thirties made famous by the M.C.C., terrain which seemed in character with the 4AD Roadster.

Leaving just before midday, good time was made along A 30, the average speed being in the region of 40 m.p.h. in spite of wholesale delays occasioned by T.A. convoys.

The first halt was called to consume Somerset cider and look at a crashed Alvis which we had spotted at a wayside garage. It proved to be a nondescript hybrid but the pause was rendered worthwhile by corning upon a mysterious engine standing with a piece of sackcloth over it outside a cottage next door. It was a six-cylinder side-valve with three exhaust outlets and a single downdraught carburetter, its crankcase possessing a ribbed oil filter adjacent to the oil filler and the tappet cover bearing the initials “M.S.” As Editor of Motor Sport I felt it essential to solve the mystery of its identity and, prompted by the offer of a large cider as a reward, the solution soon came to me — as I expect it will to most of my readers. From there to Yeovil we ran in close company with the keen crew of a fast-moving A40, but parted company in that town to glance over a 1912 Scout tourer in a showroom window. Hardly had we re-entered the Singer — running now with its hood furled, as befitted the expedition in hand — than we spotted a very fine 1912 Morris Oxford light car in another showroom.

Most of my long-distance journeys this year having taken me north, or north-east into Wales, I was glad to he driving out of Somerset towards Devon, and have to confess that A 30 was not unduly congested on this warm July Sunday, although what traffic there was moved with astonishing sloth.

The first of the M.C.C. hills we attempted was Meerhay, near Beaminster, to reach which we drove through a road-tunnel dating back over one hundred years. On hard tyres we suffered defeat through wheel-spin and back-axle tramp just beyond the dreaded rocky outcrop on the 1 in 4 1/2 section of the 3/4-mile hill. We reduced the pressures somewhat and restarted, from beside a rusty oil-drum which presumably marked a one-time trials’ “observed section begins,” but came to rest as before.

Our next objective was Harcombe. Refuelling a mile from the village, where the local postman in his Morris van directed us, we came upon a Buckler Ninety in course of completion at a spotless little’ filling station on the main-road hill. Its owner told us the body was producing the usual headaches, but that he had done 75 m.p.h. on the chassis, using a Ford Ten power unit endowed with two carburetters and stronger-than-Dagenham valve springs. En route we had glimpsed Lyme Regis, coming up a hill down which my passenger had been “run away with” by a Carden cyclecar in a post-war Exeter Trial and, our posteriors feeling the hardness of -the Singer’s seats, we had walked down to the beach at Beer, where the Brighton-Beer used to finish, although in recent years it has neither started from Brighton nor concluded in this charming Devonshire seaside village. Rather Surprisingly, the beach and tea-gardens were not crowded, while, in deference to prevailing summer temperatures, although several holiday-makers were on the sea, in sailing craft, no one appeared to have ventured into it.

Hereabouts the only other 4AD Roadster we met was encountered, its driver hastily thrusting an arm out of the signalling flap to give us a Singer owner’s wave. .

Harcombe’s “post-vintage” gradient presented no difficulty, the Singer ascending in the two lower gears, pleasure being derived from swinging it round the four corners on the 500-yard-long climb with its maximum gradient of 1 in 4 1/2. It was last used in an Exeter Trial in 1935 when it failed three competitors. It was usually an easy hill, but in 1937 stopped 26 out of 250.

After a meal we got through Exeter and sought Windout, descending it and, turning back, ascending it before we ascertained from a farmer that we had found the right hill. The reason for our doubt was that the watersplash has been reduced to a trickle and the road resurfaced since we saw it from the passenger’s seat of a Buckler some “Exeters” ago. The corners still occupy the driver’s eyes and arms and the gradient is 1 in 32, at the steepest part of the 1-mile climb.

To complete our M.C.C. memories we went next to Fingle Bridge. This really is a magnificent hill, a mile long-over a loose shale surface, 1 in 4, and continuing in a seemingly endless ascent of narrow, overgrown twisting lanes, so that we grew hysterical with alternate delight and regret at the thought that we might have to reverse down. But the Singer climbed strongly (we omitted the restart near the top) and appeared to suffer no damage or to become unduly hot, although the off-side bonnet panel burst open.

All four hills had been great fun to climb, far more so than the freak slime lanes which of necessity figure in nearly all present-day trials. The thought crossed my mind as we approached Meerhay that perhaps this hill-storming was not the most tactful thing to do in a sports car on a summer Sunday. But we saw few people in the vicinity of the “observed” sections and those to whom we applied for directions (a policeman included) seemed delighted to point out the way. Even the farmer who put us right about Windout (and, incidentally, told us that his family had supplied cider to French prisoners at the time of the Napoleonic war) said he had no particular objection to trials except that in the winter one such event could render the lanes muddy for the remainder of the winter and spring, to the detriment of lambs which had to be driven that way during the lambing season.

Although it was now getting cold and dark we motored on through the lanes and scenery towards South Molton, passing the country residence of “Baladeur,” so that hereabouts we took the bends cautiously, lest his big yellow Hispano-Suiza should be at large that night. In fact, the only vintage car we saw was a Swift Ten tourer driven by an enthusiastic young gentleman who pulled almost into a ditch to let our “red racer” go by. His car had a proper Swift radiator, not the later ribbon affair, and its appearance was enhanced, as they used to say, by wire wheels.

The run home via Taunton, Wincanton, Mere and Salisbury was unhurried and so deep in conversation were we that we went through Basingstoke instead of along the by-pass. Yet the average speed was a deceptive 44 m.p.h. or thereabouts, at a fuel consumption of approximately 28/29 m.p.g. The unconcealed headlamps gave an adequate beam and were capable of improvement by adjustment.

The Singer Roadster covered in all 752 miles in my hands and gave not a trace of trouble; it asked for three pints of Castrol S.A.E.30 but consumed no water. If its design and conception suggested to me at the commencement of the test that I should project my mentality back twenty years or so, at the test’s conclusion I actually felt that much younger. It had been one of the better weekend’s, in a staunch and unusual little car. — W. B.

The Singer 4AD Roadster
Engine: Four cylinders, 73 by 89.4 mm., 1,497 c.c.; o.h.v. actuated by single o.h. camshaft; 7.4 to 1 compression ratio; 58 b.h.p. at 4,600 r.p.m.
Gear ratios: First, 14.55 to 1; second, 9.45 to 1; third, 6.12 to 1; top, 4.875 to 1.
Tyres: 5.00 by 16 Goodyear All-Weather de Luxe on bolt-on steel disc wheels.
Weight: 16 cwt. 2 qtr., without occupants but with approximately one gallon of fuel.
Steering ratio: 1 1/2 turns, lock to lock.
Fuel capacity: Seven gallons; range approximately 203 miles.
Wheelbase: 7 ft. 7 in.
Track: 3 ft. 10 /3 4in.
Dimensions: 12 ft. 7 in. by 4 ft. 10 in. by 4 ft. 10 1/2 in. (high, hood up).
Price: £519 15s. Od. (£737 8s. 9d. with p.t.).
Makers: Singer Motors, Ltd., Birmingham 10.