At the coalface
Gordon Cruickshank Assistant/Deputy Editor 1982-present I actually applied for a job on Motoring News, but…
The series of articles published in Motor Sport on classic cars have been exceedingly well-received, but complaints have reached us from certain quarters that they have been confined to vintage cars. So to make amends, we now offer some interesting data, by Peter Q. Greene, on the Singer “Nine Sports” and “Le Mans” models, which sold in large numbers from 1934 onwards and many of which are being rebuilt today. — Ed.
Enjoying my first taste of private motoring since 1942 and making the most of an unusually glorious summer last year (including the run to Gransden and two trips to Prescott — (Gott sei dank) — I’ve been struck by the large number of Singer “Nine Sports” four-seaters and “Le Mans” models to be seen on the roads. (And, on one regrettable occasion, in a ditch.) I reasoned, therefore, that, in spite of the marked contempt in which the older Singers seem to be held by the sporting cognoscenti, there must be a good many people who might be interested to hear about some experiences with one of the “Le Mans” models, together with a little laboriously-acquired “gen” on this and the “Nine Sports” type. I hasten to explain that I’ve never possessed a Singer handbook and have never seen a great deal about these cars in the motoring Press. I’m writing this, then, for those who are experiencing the difficulty I had in getting information about them and I apologise in advance to the many readers who probably know far more about them than I do.
First of all, let’s find out why these cars are in such disfavour. It seems possible that a primary reason for this is that Singers, in an attempt to rival M.G., whose cars were enjoying a steadily-increasing popularity in the early ‘thirties, made the thing too flashy and pseudo-sporting in appearance. Chromium bands around the large rear petrol tank, chromium stoneguards on the sides of the tank, and twin spare wheels with chromium securing-clamps, seem a little unnecessary.
Next, the “Le Mans” job was hailed with glee and joyfully bought by too many clotulent types who tried to make their cars look even more dashing by the addition of numerous badges, Union Jacks on the bonnet and bonnet-straps — you know the type. I have seen several Singers fitted with quick-release fillers and/or curly bits of copper tubing on their radiators, and there are a great many about today (or should I say yesterday, when we had a little petrol to play with ?) sporting radio aerials on the scuttles, presumably for use when at rest, as I can’t imagine anyone being able to listen to a radio against the noise of their exhaust.
All these things may make a car look very beautiful, but it is with a sense of awful anti-climax that one discovers that, after all, the performance isn’t so terrific. And, in justice to Singers, I don’t think they ever had any illusions that it was. Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that the “Le Mans” Singer, with a little tuning and “muckin’ abart,” isn’t half as bad as it’s painted.
Incidentally, you will see advertisements quite often of four-seater and coupé “Le Mans” models for sale. I’m open to correction on this point, but I’d dispute this description and say that cars with these types of bodywork are the “Nine Sports” and “Nine Coupé” models. The true “Le Mans ” model was introduced at the 1933 Motor Show, after a “Nine Sports” four-seater had put up quite a good show in the 1933 Le Mans race, the only alteration from standard being the fitting of a large-capacity petrol tank in place of the rear seats. As far as I know, the car was offered to the public with the description “Le Mans” only when in two-seater form, with a double-cowled scuttle, a 12-gallon tank (avec awful stoneguards !) and two spare wheels aft, in place of the four-seater body. It also possesses a rather better and fully balanced crankshaft with machined webs, a high-lift camshaft, a ribbed alloy sump with a capacity of 1-1/2 gallons, and a “close ratio” gearbox with a far-too-low bottom gear and a pretty big jump between third and top. Second and third, I will admit, are fairly close and excellent acceleration is obtainable on these two gears. Singers clouded the issue by putting brass plaques on the instrument panels of the “Le Mans” models telling us all about what “une voiture Singer” had done in the Le Mans race, with the result that there are a lot of people running about with the idea that it was their particular car that did all this! Unless the old four-seater is still in existence, I’m afraid they’re all wrong. (This is broadly true, the “Le Mans” slab-tank two-seaters differing from the four-seater and coupé in respect of S.U. carburetters and Vertex magneto. But there was also a “Le Mans Special Speed” model, with certain internal differences, Vertex magneto and a higher third gear. In 1936 the chassis was underslung at the rear. — Ed.)
The following is a brief description of the “Nine Sports” and “Le Mans” cars, which appear to share the same chassis regardless of seating accommodation. The four-cylinder engine has a bore and stroke of 60 mm. by 86 mm. (972-c.c.). The o.h. valves are operated by rockers from the chain-driven o.h. camshaft. Firing order is 1, 3, 4, 2. A gear-type pump feeds main and big-end bearings, camshaft, rocker shaft and chains, through a filter in the sump. Tappet clearances are: Inlet, .004 in., exhaust .006 in. Timing for the “Sports ” engine is: Ignition 1-1/2 ins., B.T.D.C., Inlet opens 1-7/8 ins. B.T.D.C., Exhaust closes 1-13/32 ins. A.T.D.C. For the “Le Mans” engine: Ignition T.D.C., Inlet opens 1-11/16 ins. B.T.D.C., Exhaust closes 1-3/16 ins. A.T.D.C. Note: Distances are measured from the mark on the flywheel. This was discovered by bitter experience after trying to time the engine by the light of nature. The carburetters were first twin downdraught V-type Zeniths and, later, twin I.F.-type Solex on the “Sports” and twin S.U.s on the “Le Mans” cars. Cooling is by fan-assisted thermo-siphon, with a capacity of 16 pints. Plug gaps with the standard coil should be .025 in. Oil pressure should be between 20 and 25 lb./sq. in. at about 20 m.p.h. The clutch is a single dry-plate Borg and Beck. I have no information on the “Le Mans” gear ratios, but the “Sports” has 5.25, 8.35, 12.08 and 21.41 to I. (The ratios of the “Le Mans Speed Special” were: 5.57, 7.5, 12.4 and 24.4 to 1; 38 b.h.p. was developed at 5,000 r.p.m.– Ed.) The capacity of the box is about two pints. Transmission is by open prop-shaft with Hardy Spicer universals to the helical bevel, semi-floating back axle. Suspension is by half-elliptics all round, with Silentbloc bushes, and the front axle is set well forward of the spring centre. Hartford shock-absorbers look after the damping. The footbrake operates Lockheed hydraulic brakes on all four wheels, while there is a cable hand-brake to the rear wheels only. Wire wheels are fitted with Rudge-Whitworth 32 mm. hubs and 4.50 by 18.00 tyres. The car has a wheelbase of 7 ft. 8 ins., and a track of 3 ft. 9 ins., with a theoretical ground clearance of 8 ins. The electrical system is 12-volt Lucas with third-brush dynamo control. Instruments include a Jaeger rev.-counter and speedometer, Lucas ammeter and an oil pressure gauge and a radiator thermometer.
My own car is one of the fairly early “Le Mans” models, being first registered in November, 1934. When I bought her in 1941 (for £55, and people said I’d been done !), she had a continuation log-book and my name was the second in this and so I presume that at least nine people had owned her before me. She had been bored out to 20 thou. oversize and was just nicely run in. I soon had the second spare wheel off, together with its associated seatings, clamps, etc. This was quickly followed by the removal of those tank stoneguards and, after I had put my foot through the offside running-board, I tore both of them off and hurled them away. This left an awkward hiatus at the rear edges of the sweeping front wings and so I made up aluminium splashers to round them off and to preserve the paintwork on the leading edges of the rear wings from the ravages of flying gravel and so forth.
Last year I had quite a lot of work done on the car. In fact my bank manager was seriously perturbed by it all. New valves, valve springs, piston-rings and camshaft bearings were fitted, the front camshaft bearing having seized due to my laziness in not clearing a blocked oil-feed soon enough. The crankshaft was reground and new bearings fitted, both mains and big-ends. Some 30 thou. was skimmed off the cylinder head and, after a standard copper-asbestos-copper gasket had failed, a new one was laboriously cut from a sheet of 18-gauge copper. This served further to raise the compression ratio, but it has worked well, although bringing on pinking rather more easily than before. All this, of course, on “Pool.”
Incidentally, the bores were found to be in perfect condition thanks, I think, to the use of colloidal graphite as upper cylinder lubricant. This has always been used as an additive to the engine, gearbox and back axle lubricants as well.
I had a Runbaken “Oilcoil” fitted, enabling the plug gaps to be opened up to 35 thou. A Fram oil filter was fitted, as I had become rather filter-conscious through dealing with Services M.T. Though not usually addicted to gadgets, I had fitted, as an experiment, a pair of those little Vokes Distribution Rectifiers and petrol consumption has really improved without any apparent loss of performance or ease in starting. It is now in the region of 35 m.p.g. even when driving in London and no attempt has been made to tune the carburetters for economy.
I removed the instrument panel and reorganised it a little. I scrapped the speedometer and rev.-counter, which had “had it,” and used the speedometer cable to drive a 6 in. Jaeger rev.counter (a relic of George Lane’s 18/80 ” Tiger ” M.G.) as the original drive was broken. An Air Ministry ammeter was fitted, together with a 0-15 voltmeter of the same type. An affectation this last, perhaps, but I couldn’t bear to part them from each other. A new battery was obtained and the car was rewired throughout with separate switches for all lights and so on, in a line at the right of the panel. Oil pressure gauge and thermometer were retained in their original positions.
As for the bodywork, the wings were welded in several places where they had split, the apron over the front dumb-irons was scrapped, and she was given a coat of British racing green, in place of the original pansy cream-and-green colour scheme. This made her look more of a lady and less of a slut than previously.
I then indulged in a “minor blitz”, partly against excess weight and partly against accessories that weren’t earning their keep. Both horns were found to be suffering from internal disorders and were discarded, as was the combined chargingand-lighting switch massed around the horn button in the centre of the steering-wheel, the charging switch having already been incorporated in the row of dash switches afore-mentioned. I tried out various combinations of head and pass lamps and she eventually emerged from her ordeal with a small but efficient bulb horn of penetrating and irascible note, one of the original headlamps mounted centrally low down and permanently dipped, and a flat aluminium plate covering the boss of the steering-wheel. I rarely use a horn anyway and I find the single headlamp quite sufficient for all ordinary purposes when correctly focused. (Focusing seems to be a lost art nowadays or haven’t you been blinded lately ?)
Recalling that I erected the windscreen exactly three times in six months, I abandoned this and also the hood, with its complicated framework. Putting it up used to be like Father putting up a deck-chair in the good old music hall routine, and I wasn’t sorry to say goodbye to it. The steering-wheel, which is one of those diabolical spring things with a rubber rim that covers your hands with black every time it rains, had been bound with whipcord but proved to be too thick in the rim for comfort. Accordingly, the whipcord was removed and plastic handlebar tape (as used on racing bicycles) was substituted with every satisfaction to date. By the time I’d finished with the car, I estimated that I’d removed nearly 2 cwt. of surplus ironmongery, etc., and she wasn’t easy to recognise as a Singer “Le Mans.”
Now for a few notes on performance. Roadholding is good as long as the shock-absorbers are kept really tight. Unfortunately, this has the effect of shaking the none-too-rigid bodywork about very badly. The chassis frame is far too light and needs an extra couple of stout tubular cross-members or, better still, a cruciform bracing. If the car is left standing on uneven ground it is impossible to make the doors fit and the bodywork twists visibly when merely swinging the engine by hand. I have toyed with the idea of bolting up the doors to form a rigid structure with the body, but unfortunately I can’t get into my seat with my door shut and it seems hardly worth bolting up one door and not the other.
The Lockheed brakes are good and will take a lot before they start to fade. The cable handbrake is not so good. The system consists of a single cable running forward from one rear brake, through an eye in the bottom of the fly-off lever, and back to the other wheel. The lever is slightly off-centre with the result that all the braking is on one wheel. Also the cable passes through bits of bent tubing on the chassis side-members, causing binding, fraying, and eventual breakage.
Bottom gear, as previously mentioned, is far too low. It may be very handy for trials (for which I imagine it was provided) but it is a positive nuisance for ordinary driving. It wouldn’t be so bad if second were suitable for starting from rest, but it isn’t, the getaway on this gear being slow and jerky in the extreme. The procedure is to get moving by “revving” quickly in first and then change to second as soon as possible. Once you know the box, however, all the usual clutchless and racing changes come quite nicely.
The car has a ground clearance (on paper) of 8 ins., but the battery is slung very low, as is the silencer and, as I hope to use her for trials when happier times return, I’m contemplating putting the battery between the petrol tank and the spare wheel with some suitable cover to keep out the elements. Left where it is, it would make an efficient mud-plough. As to the exhaust, the only way I can see of getting it up out of the way is to fit a complete outside system, which I am rather loath to do, as I think it would look rather ostentatious. And Singer “Le Mans “-ish.
Pre-ignition is rife, even after only a few minutes’ running. This I attribute to unsuitable plugs, the raised compression and, of course, the vile petrol we have to use at present. I have tried the recommended plugs and also K.L.G. F.70s, but without complete success. When Discol is once more available I hope that a lot of the pinking and pre-ignition will disappear and then I might try to raise the compression a little more. (Listen for the bang !) At present, however, I wouldn’t dream of doing so, nor would I ever contemplate supercharging, as I understand someone has done with this model. I am always nervous of two-bearing crankshafts at the best of times. I have often wondered whether copper-plating the cylinder head would do any good but, in the meantime, judicious use of the manual ignition control helps to cut out a lot of pinking, although at the expense of power. This is a control which should be on every car, together with a wide-range hand-throttle. Bouquet to Singers for fitting them.
In spite of pre-ignition, the engine will never warm up properly in very cold weather unless about half the radiator surface is blanked off, which goes to show that this trouble is purely local and not on account of general overheating.
Much to my regret I can offer no actual performance figures for my own car or for the “Le Mans” model in general. I did once read somewhere that the “Sports” did 0-30 in 7 secs., 0-40 in 13 secs., and 0-50 in 25 secs., which doesn’t sound particularly good. I have had 6,000 on the rev.counter, which felt to be a fairly-genuine 75 m.p.h., but this is only guesswork. I have heard of this engine being wound up to 6,250 r.p.m., but have never had the nerve to try it myself, through worrying about that two-bearing crank. Recommended oils for these cars are:
“Sports”: Sump — Price’s Motorine C or Castrol XL.
“Le Mans”: Sump — Castrol XXL.
All models: Gearbox — Motorine Amber B or Castrol XL; Back Axle — Motorine Amber B or Castrol D.
Motorine M or Castrol AA are recommended for the “Sports” engine in winter. Personally I use Castro! XXL in the engine, Castrol XL in the gearbox and Castrol D in the back axle, occasionally changing the engine oil to Castrol R in summer to the great delight of passing motor-cyclists who invariably comment on the stench.
The cars are quite accessible for maintenance and the engine is easy to get at, with the possible exception of No. 1 plug, which is a bit out of the way.
Tyre pressures should be 30 lb/sq. in. all round. I have always run at these pressures and found them very satisfactory. Higher pressures only shake the bodywork about still more. Toe-in is 1/8 in. and the worm-and-nut steering is very pleasant as long as this toe-in is maintained and there is little wear in the king-pins. My car, by the way, is ABP 973 and I should be glad to hear from any previous owners.
Gordon Cruickshank Assistant/Deputy Editor 1982-present I actually applied for a job on Motoring News, but…
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