John Simister: Re-stoking the love for a Singer

02nd January 2017
john_simister_singer_goodwood_12062017_04.jpg John Simister

Getting to see the first races at the Revival Meeting is always a problem for me. The car park is why. Specifically that part of it closest to the track and which is full of cars too old to attract vehicle excise duty.


The annual accumulation of tax-free classics is such a brilliant distraction that I could easily stay there all day, were there not a lot of other reasons to be at Goodwood. The diversity of machinery, the friendliness of the owners, the juxtaposed joy of seeing a lightly battered Ford Anglia 100E parked next to a shiny Aston Martin DB4: it's utterly enthralling. And, naturally, I always try to have one of my own ancient automobiles among the aged throng.

Every Monday from this point onward, I'll be writing about classic cars not as racing machinery – that's the province of co-columnists Andrew Frankel and Doug Nye – but as road cars, to be driven as much as possible and enjoyed as the antidote they are to increasingly soulless, undemanding modern machinery. Having said that, I'm beginning with a car of my own which currently can't be driven at all because it's in pieces.

It wasn't meant to be that way. Back in the 1980s, I owned, successively, two examples of a 1936 Singer Le Mans, a 972cc, twin-carb, overhead-camshaft sports car to rival MG Midgets of the day and very successful in motor sport. Pre-war cars nowadays seem to appeal to a diminishing demographic but they're great fun. You can't help but be intimately involved with the mechanics of making them move, double-declutching through synchro-less gearboxes, letting the steering wheel slither in your hands as the flexible structure follows the road surface, coaxing the best from an engine often meagre in output despite hearty vocals.

So in September 2012 I bought another one. It's a 1934 model, shorter, lighter and even more intimate in the cabin than the '36, racier to look at but not so good in the steering and handling. Good enough, though, if all is working as it should.


To the seller's amazement, I said I would drive it home from the Welsh borders to Hertfordshire. It had an MOT, after all. This, for me, is an essential part of the bonding process, and it adds an enjoyable element of jeopardy. The Singer bore the fruits of two recent owners' restoration efforts, but as I burbled along the A49 and A44 it became clear there was much more to do. The steering had a good eight inches of play at the rim, and climbing the hill out of Broadway, tappets hammering, took an age. The re-made, too-thick seat pushed my lean, lithe abdomen hard against the steering wheel, too.

Back home, problem after problem revealed itself as I set about the dismantling and overhaul I had intended to avoid. I briefly had it back in a running state after a cylinder-head rebuild, but then the gasket blew after 15 miles and I haven't driven the Singer since.

That was in 2013, and I resolved not to drive it again until I had been right through it and made it right. This has included a partial rebuild of a twisted, incomplete wooden body frame, and there have been times when I wish I'd never bought the blasted thing. Refurbished parts sit untouched in boxes, and I'm in danger of forgetting which nuts and bolts go where. There has been progress – re-made seats, new wheels, reconditioned instruments – but it had pretty much ground to a halt. Until last week.


Last week, Car SOS on More4 featured a Singer Le Mans almost exactly like mine, even down to the year and the colour. We're led to believe the team 'restored' it in a fortnight, and there was considerable subterfuge and fiction as tends to be the way with TV restorations. But it got me fired up, especially as the sweetly-running red Singer briefly shown in the programme happened to be one of the cars I used to own.

If Car SOS can do it, then so can I. The next Goodwood Revival is on 8-10 September. I have nine months. Garage, here I come.

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