The adventure of the ill-fated Singers

Ill-fated Singer No. 37 driven by S. C. H. Davis crashes into Norman Black’s team car during the 1935 Ulster TT. Both were eliminated by steering ball-joint failure, but on different laps, and previously A. H. Langley’s Singer, in the same team, had crashed for the same reason—the fourth Singer was then withdrawn. Davis was wearing a crash-hat but it was wrenched off all in this remarkable accident.

In the nineteen-thirties the Singer Nine took its place, with the MG Midget and other small sports models, as a successful competition car. Looking back; it is rather remarkable which cars did, in fact, constitute competition jobs in those days. Even the great races, such as Le Mans, included things like a Chummy Austin 7, four-seater Singer Nines and a Ford Ten tourer of the “blancmange-mould” pattern.

The 972 c.c. Singer, having inherited an overhead-camshaft engine from the Singer Junior of 1927 (which, it may be recalled, combatted the overwhelming success of the side-valve Austin 7 in this baby-car field by this more efficient valve gear, rather as the Triumph Super Seven did by reason of a centre support for its crankshaft and hydraulic four-wheel-brakes) formed a reasonable basis for a small sports model and soon appeared in Le Mans four-seater, slab-tank two-seater and coupé versions.

In 1935 Singer enthusiasts were intrigued to learn that a new Super Sports edition of the Le Mans Nine was not only to compete in the celebrated 24-hour race at Le Mans, in which four of this Coventry make had run the previous year, but that these would be available to such customers as could afford them. The new model was announced in July, when its specification was seen to be decidedly exciting. Weight had been drastically saved and an attractive pointed-tail two-seater body was fitted. The engine was the same 60 x 86 mm. Singer Nine unit with a single overhead camshaft driven by roller chain and the slightly-inclined valves operated through tappet fingers. It had twin SU carburetters, a Scintilla vertical magneto, and although the two-bearing crankshaft was retained, it could be taken up to 5,500 r.p.m., which was quite something 37 years ago, although in the TT a limit of 4,800 r.p.m. was imposed. Fuel was contained in a very light 15-gallon tank in the tail, provided with two quick-action fillers and emptied by two SU electric pumps with dual supply pipes, arranged so that either pump could feed any of the four (two main, two reserve) pipes.

That these Le Mans Singer Nines were intended for racing rather than trials was emphasised by the gear ratios; which were 10.25, 7.15, 5.36 and 4.77 to 1. Weight was saved in the back axle, the bonnet and hinged-tail gave good access to the tank, spare wheel and the mechanism generally, and hydraulic brakes were used. Wire wheels with knock-off hub caps were not so unusual in 1935, nor was a fold-flat windscreen with two supplementary aero-screens, but the whole demeanour of this new Singer was that of a car intended for serious racing. Power output was 41 b.h.p. at peak revs. and the speeds in the gears were 90, 80, 62 and 45 m.p.h., respectively, compared to 76, 56, 35 and 18 m.p.h. available from the Le Mans Special Speed Model which sold in 1935 for £225, and had, on the face of it, the same engine. The wheelbase was 7 ft. 7 in., the tyre size 4.50 x 18 in.

The chassis price was £425, the complete car in catalogue form £525, whereas the ordinary Le Mans Singer sold for £215, the PB MG Midget for £222. Clearly this competition Singer was something quite out of the ordinary run of small sports carts, although the three which the factory entered for Le Mans, out of a total of eight Singers that ran, were not particularly outstanding, starter-motor failure eliminating two of them and the third car being hampered by a leaking fuel tank, although for some time it contested the Index of Performance part of the race with a Riley and an Aston Martin, eventually to finish third, driven by F. S. Barnes and A. H. Langley, winning its class, if only 16th in overall classification. Singers, incidentally, came home 16th, 17th, 19th, 20th, 22nd and 23rd at Le Mans in 1935, ahead of the MGs.

Singers now looked to the TT for a better performance, entering four cars, to be driven by Norman Black, S. C. H Davis, J. D. Barnes and A. H. Langley, with F. S. Barnes as reserve driver. They were in the 1,100-c.c, class with three Fiat Balillas, three Adlers and a Riley. Alas, in the race all of them disappeared before the finish . . . .

A tremendous Fiat/Singer battle had developed, ffrench-Davis’ Italian car leading the Singers of Black, Davis and Langley, with A. C. Dobson’s Fiat ahead of Barnes’ Singer, followed by Austin Dobson’s Fiat, blue flags fluttering all round the Ards circuit. Past the grandstands the Fiat was in front, but at other places the three green cars went ahead, only to he repassed. Until, that is, 12 laps. had been covered, when Langley’s Singer vanished. Its steering had failed coining down Bradshaw’s Bray and a crash was inevitable; Langley escaped unhurt. Three laps later, in much the same place, Black’s Singer crashed, from exactly the same cause. Then, seven laps later, the very same thing happened to Sammy Davis—the steering went, causing his Singer to run uncontrollably up the bank at Bradshaw’s Bray and overturn on top of Black’s car, which had been left on the pavement, its nearside front wheel bent under it, rendering it difficult to move. Black, too, was unhurt and so was Davis, Brian de Grineau, the artist, who had been sitting a few feet from Black’s derelict car, leaping up in some haste as Davis’ car came over the top of it; it was de Grineau who helped Davis to his feet . . . .

The Singers had been leading their class, but the three Cases of steering failure at last roused the officials, as well as Stanley Barnes, who was managing the team, and a couple of laps later J. D. Barnes was flagged in. It seems incredible that after two cars had crashed with completely inoperative steering the others had been permitted to continue. But in those days motor racing was an adventurous sport. It was even reported that a horse on the circuit caused J. D. Barnes to stop, on one lap! Writing in The Autocar, Davis passed this extraordinary matter off by remarking about “a small and unintentional mistake in the heat treatment of a bar of steel . . . one bar seems to have received the wrong heat treatment . . . out of that one bar, by a chance in a thousand, the steering ball joints of the cars of my team were made, and at the point of maximum stress . . . the steering gear of all three ceased to function, and that was that . . . ‘ He tried to draw a parallel with what befell the Fiats in the 1922 French GP, although in that case a design gamble to reduce weight to a minimum may have been the cause and in any case there should surely have been some metallurgical advance in 13 years? It seems that the offending ball joints were those on the drop-arms, allowing the drag links to trail on the road. It seems that three of the Singers in the TT were those which had run at Le Mans (and perhaps in the Relay Race as well) and that all of them used the horrid transverse steering drag links which were a legacy from the original Singer Junior. This was regarded as unsatisfactory for serious racing and a conventional layout, with a side drop-arm and fore-and-aft drag link was designed prior to the TT but could not he homologated in time for the race. This steering layout, coupled to the strain of three of the cars having done a complete Le Mans race, could well have contributed to the failures during the TT. Fore-and-aft steering was used on Davis’ rebuilt Shelsley Walsh Singer.

This unfortunate happening seems to some extent to have sullied the reputation of those Singers, but, stripped of road equipment and with radiators cowled, three of them teamed-up to win the 1935 LCC Relay Race at 85.15 m.p.h., driven by J. D. Barnes, A. H. Langley and R. A. Bicknell, and following the TT debacle, S. C. H. Davis drove one, his TT car with another body and different-type steering, similarly stripped but without the frontal cowlings, at Shelsley Walsh. Never again, however, did the factory enter a team, although the cars were run later by the Barnes brothers as the Auto-Sports team; they made unsuccessful onslaughts on Le Mans up to the war and won their class in the 1937 TT at Donington, when J. D. Barnes averaged 57.8 m.p.h. I have never much cared for Singers, although I had fun up Exeter Trial hills while road-testing a 1 1/2-litre Roadster in 1954. However, racing cars of any make and period are not to be denied and, after nearly acquiring the bulbous-bodied Singer Nine single-seater which had been raced before the war by Carr and Hodge (I think David Scott-Moncrieff may remember it), only to have it sold over my head, I was interested when a report came in that four Singers, believed to be team ears, had been hidden away in a country barn where they had languished since before the war, although one was reported to have been renovated and disposed of around 1954, and is probably the one now in a Scottish museum.

It did seem likely, however, that the cars which had vanished so dramatically from the TT might be the same cars said to have vanished into a country hideout four years later and I thought it worthwhile to investigate.

The adventure took me southwards, over fast going towards the sea, through some remarkably narrow lanes which cannot have changed in any degree since the early nineteen-twenties, and beyond a town in which it is, if anything, easier to get lost than in notorious Birmingham itself. It took me to the address of my informant, only to discover that named houses had changed to residences distinguished by numbers and he had moved anyway. It caused me to stand a round of bottled Worthington to strangers in a country pub, where a 1938 Buick and an immaculate AC were spoken of and I was encouraged because the publican remembered hearing something about the Singers a twelve-month ago. It led to an abortive visit to a country club-cum-golf course adjacent to an aerodrome and caused me to become almost irretrievably lost in the aforesaid badly-signposted maze-like town on the way home, the mission unaccomplished.

So far the mystery of what has become of these cars remains unsolved and the misfortune which marked their second racing debut 37 years ago seems to have pursued them into the restoration and speculation age.

If anyone can offer any clues as to the whereabouts of these missing Singers there may yet, “My dear Watson”, be a sequel to the singular adventure of the ill-fated Singers. — W. B.