Experiences Of A Novice

K. J. Williams, B.Sc., Tells How a Singer Nine Le Mans Provided Instruction in the Art and Adventure of Personal Transportation

It was Easter, 1950. The drizzle had continued all day. I was feeling rather fed up and at a loose end. The local paper had arrived and I was reading the adverts, when my eye caught sight of a 1934 9-h.p. Singer be Mans for sale. (Lesson No. 1, when a car is called a 1934 model it is usually a 1933 car!) The price seemed reasonable for 1950, when you remember prices were at their absolute peak, so I resolved to go and inspect the afore-mentioned Singer the following day.

I was living in South Wales then, and the inspection involved a trip “up the valleys” in an uncomfortable ‘bus past the black slag tips. What “green and pleasant hills” they must have been before coal-mining! After about an hour’s shaking in the ‘bus I arrived at my destination and was soon inspecting an ancient Singer. It was the four-seater sports. The hood was tattered, the aluminium body was cracked and the tyres rather bald. However, the instruments looked good and impressive, the remote-control gear-lever was a joy, and the engine sounded good; so, to cut a long story short, a bargain was struck and I found myself on the way home. (Lesson No. 2, if you know little or nothing about cars and you are contemplating buying, take someone with you who does!)

The first shock was soon to come. On the way home I suddenly realised that my foot was on the floorboards while the engine was only ticking over. I stopped and found that one end of the throttle linkage had come adrift. This was the first of many such occurrences; in fact, once or twice the linkage fell off altogether and I had to walk back along the road and look for it!

The next day, of course, the car refused to start. The Singer was duly pushed down a hill, which persuaded the engine to cough and splutter, and the car managed to stagger to the nearest garage. Here they pretended to do all manner of things, although all they really did was to put a new gasket under the carburetter. This cured the cough, and enabled me to return to London the following day without a hitch. A previous owner, in his wisdom, had replaced the original twin Solex carburetters with a Heath Robinson arrangement that consisted of a tube joining the carburetter platforms, and sitting on top of the tube was a single large Zenith. This arrangement actually worked and, while probably not as conducive to “poke” as twins, certainly was good for “m.p.g.” I averaged over 30 m.p.h. on this run and obtained 35 m.p.g. Later, with some tuning, I was able to average 40 m.p.h. and get up to 38 m.p.g.

The next weekend the Singer took myself and girl friend to Birmingham and back without trouble, and I was convinced that I had a car that was going to give me “years of trouble-free service.” Little did I know what was in store!

Flat tyres began to appear with monotonous regularity. There was nothing for it but to “invest” in a set of retreads. (Lesson No. 3, if the covers look worn out you can bet that the inner tubes need replacing as well!)

I think summer must have been on a Saturday afternoon that year, because with the sun beating down mercilessly I commenced to change my first tyre. The girl friend helped. (I remember, too, that it was shortly after this that she began to lose interest in cars!), It took the whole afternoon to change one cover and tube — true I pinched the tube in the process and had to mend my first puncture — but the mental strain of trying not to swear and the physical strain of pulling on tyre levers left me in a bad state for weeks. Strange to reflect I can now change a cover in a few minutes; it must be practice!

I have a friend who is for some unaccountable reason a motorcycle fanatic, and, of course, I wanted to impress him with the advantages of a car. So one fine evening the Singer, with full complement of girl friend and the motor-cycle fanatic and his wife, set off for a trip to Windsor. Just past Amersham on a good stretch of road I put my foot down to accelerate past a van. The speed mounted to 50 m.p.h., and I could feel that the passengers in the back were beginning to be impressed, when the engine cut dead. We fiddled spasmodically for about an hour, tried all the usual things to no avail, got oily and dirty and finally decided to abandon the car. We walked the odd mile back to Amersham and caught various ‘buses home. I fancied that the motor-cycle fanatic had a rather smug self-righteous look on his face which seemed to say, “I thought this would happen in an old car.”

In two days’ time my landlady had the shock of finding a policeman at the door, asking for me. He wanted to know if the car had been stolen, because we had abandoned it where it had broken down.

The correct diagnosis of slipped ignition timing was finally made by a friend in the “Chain Gang.” The ignition continued to slip about every 100 yards on the way home, which became rather tedious. However, I was learning. Previously I had not the faintest idea on ignition timing. On stripping the engine down I learned many more weird and wonderful things — overhead camshafts, valves and valve springs, timing chains; and an ignition and dynamo sprocket devoid of teeth! It had been friction drive for the last few hundred miles! A new sprocket and some new chains, together with a “decoke,” worked wonders for the engine. There followed about 3,500 miles of trouble-free motoring, with the Singer regularly returning 37-38 m.p.g.

I was to spend Christmas in South Wales. The morning that I was to set off I discovered to my horror that one cylinder had lost all compression and that there wasn’t much left in the others. The next day was Christmas and I was determined to make South Wales in the Singer. Needless to say, after putting oil in each of the cylinders to improve the compression, the engine refused to start. The plugs were cleaned many times, carburetter dismantled, etc., all to no avail. In the end the engine was persuaded to fire on a few cylinders by a tow behind the local milk float. Cases were hastily thrown in the back with the engine left running, and the journey commenced. Apart from filling up with oil several times, and practically wearing my left arm away with the frequency of gear changes, my destination was reached without incident. I diagnosed the trouble as worn valves as oil had not improved the compression and I sometimes obtained flames shooting up the carburetter venturi. The head was duly removed and four badly burnt exhaust valves replaced by new ones. The head was carefully decoked and the valves religiously ground-in. Imagine my horror, after replacing the head, to find no improvement in the compression. There was nothing for it but to “whip” the head off again. In a flash of inspiration I prodded down the side of the pistons with a feeler gauge and discovered it could pass easily down the side of the second piston. The next morning the sump was removed and I spent some hours with dirty black oil running down my sleeves, dripping into my eyes and trickling in my ears, while I thought up various fiendish tortures for the man who invented split-pins. Number two piston had three broken rings out of four, the top ring being in a thousand pieces. Other pistons also had broken rings, so I invested in new rings all round and one new piston. The parts were reassembled and the big-ends bolted to the two-bearing “bent wire” crankshaft: but more of the crank later. After this the Singer again gave about three thousand miles of trouble-free motoring

After arranging for the girl friend [The same one? — Ed.) to be in the Singer during some heavy rain, she was induced to help in making a new hood. This was a great success and it was a nice change not to get wet in the rain. As a reward she was allowed to “have a go” at driving. Now the Singer with its “crash” gearbox was, perhaps, not the easiest of cars on which to learn. Perhaps I was not the best of teachers and maybe the girl friend didn’t have any aptitude anyway, but the punishment the engine, gearbox and transmission took was nobody’s business. I have a feeling that the Singer wasn’t designed to pull away in top from about 2 m.p.h.! However, the lessons were brought to a premature close for, a few weeks after they commenced, with myself at the wheel, the engine burst. On removing the sump it was found that the “bent wire” had snapped, just at the end of number one journal. Fatigue, worn mains, or misuse? I don’t know.

After removing the engine from the chassis the search began for a crank. All the motoring journals were carefully studied, Singer Motors were unable to help, a small fortune was spent in ‘phone calls to all likely places, and all I was able to find was a Jewish gentleman who desired to sell me one ready-ground for 20 gns.! Finally, I found a counterbalanced crank which had the same dimensions as the “bent wire” one except for the balance weights. I was convinced it would fit and be a superior job to the previous one. After it had been ground and the main bearings line-bored the engineering firm doing the job discovered that it wouldn’t fit! Luckily I was able to sell it and eventually found a genuine “bent wire ” one, which, by the way, will fit in place of a balanced one. A squad of five helpers with the aid of bars and ropes lifted the engine back in, and we were soon ready for the road again, after two months’ enforced retirement. Six months of motoring without serious trouble ensued. A new Lucas battery made for easy starting, even after the Singer had spent its usual night out in rain, hail and snow. A reconditioned S.U. petrol pump was fitted and new rear-axle oil seals installed.

By this time the body was literally falling off the chassis. It had cracks everywhere, so I decided to scrap it. A friend and I, equipped with large hammers, one night got rid of lots of depressions, and a scrap dealer was pleased to come and remove some gratis aluminium. A fixed-head Singer coupé had been discovered and, with the assurance from Singer Motors that it would fit my chassis (a straight one, by the way, not the bent one introduced about 1934), this was purchased for a modest sum. My chassis was suitably covered with felt stuck on with Bostic, and the saloon body fitted on. It was a good fit! The whole car was painted in a dual colour scheme of Nile green and bright green, with Valspar lacquer. Using only two 4s. 9d. tins a very satisfactory finish was obtained in a short time.

The licence had arrived, and I was ready to drive away in the Singer saloon. But when the engine was started the “little man with the hammer” could be heard. A loss of compression was also noticed in one cylinder. A stuck valve was diagnosed. The head was removed and one valve was found to be sticking. This was unstuck and the head given a decoke and valve-grind. After reassembling, the “little man” was still there. The next thought was for bearings. The oil pressure was normal, and all the bearings, including little-ends, proved to be in good shape. Eventually the “little man” was located as a loose flywheel. I had not bolted it up tight enough six months previously! While the gearbox was off the opportunity was taken to renew the roller bearings and brass bushes in it. This has greatly reduced the tendency for third gear to slip out on the over-run. After getting rid of the “little man,” or at least his hammer (for, as you will read later, he soon got to work with a hack saw), it was impossible to make the engine run at a constant speed. This was traced to the balance tubes working loose from where the two carburetters used to be.

Apart from the two doors having a tendency to fly open at once, which entailed steering with the chin while grabbing the two doors quickly, things went well for a month. Then one fine day, from the point of view of the weather, an aunt and a cousin were taken for a trip to Herne Bay. On the way home a sickening “clunck” was heard from under the bonnet, which was opened to reveal a hole in the side of the cylinder block large enough to take your head, from which water and oil ran in vast quantities. The Singer was parked at a nearby garage. Fortunately, a kind motorist gave my passengers and myself a lift home. A week later I was towed home by a friend in a similar Singer. The broken con.-rod was found to be shaped like a question mark — the ‘little man” and his hacksaw! I trust that he has now quitted my Singer for good, as I soon found a new block and some secondhand con.-rods, and the Singer, touch aluminium, has been going like a bomb ever since.

New roller bearings in the rear-axle hubs have cured recurring oil-seal trouble. The steering is now the only item which requires serious attention. I own a 1933 Singer Le Mans which is in as good condition as age and previous neglect by former owners will allow. What a fine little car it must have been in 1933! It must have been the best in the cheap-sports-car class, with its hydraulic brakes, o.h.c. engine, clutchless freewheel gear-change, and low c.g. How I would like a hard-top version of the present Singer Roadster. With a little more room in the rear seats and increased luggage space it would be an ideal car for the man with “sporting” tendencies, but who must have the convenience of a four-seater saloon. What about it, Singer Motors?