Editor : - Some will pass off the marque as somewhat insignificant when compared with many of the famous cars of its era, but there exists a Singer Le Mans, which is rather special, having received the attention of a special engineer. As a result this car has had an eventful life, in the exact sense, and has accrued value exceeding the ordinary. Because of this history it has been lovingly restored to continue in active competition.
Readers will recall Ralph's Singer Le Mans being mentioned earlier in this text. The car was completely overhauled and much improved by Ralph, when he first became actively interested in motor sport. It is therefore fitting to include below an article, compiled by the present owner Paul Lamb. The article appeared in a 1998 issue of “Beaded Wheels” and it is presented here with Paul's kind consent.
During a discussion a couple of years ago with Ian Goldingham, a colleague of ours in the Singer Car Club, I happened to mention that if he knew of a Singer Le Mans for sale, I could well be interested. He replied, that as it so happens, and being a tiger for punishment, the only thing I could do was to go and have a look at the her.
The Singer was located in a private museum in Tauranga and on first inspection seemed to be pretty much complete. lan also mentioned that he had established that the car had been previously owned by Ralph Watson, however at the time of inspection, this could not be substantiated. After some haggling, the car was duly purchased and brought back to Lower Hutt. The engine seemed to run reasonably well, but further trials identified some problems in the engine and several other areas. At a later date an extensive overhaul of the engine and drive-train was completed.
The question of past ownership at that stage was still to be finalised. I was particularly interested, as lan had identified Ralph as being one of the past owners. I wrote to him to ascertain as to whether he could shed any light on the matter. On receiving my letter he contacted Trevor Sheffield, one of his old racing buddies and also a previous owner of what turned out to be a Singer of special interest. Between them they compiled a list of notes and old photos so that we might make a positive identification. Included was Trevor's log on the car, which confirmed the engine and chassis number and the rest all fell into place.
From what I have been able to gather from three of the past owners, Ralph Watson, Trevor Sheffield and Marsden Robinson, together with lan Goldingham's invaluable assistance, the car's history is as follows : -
1934 Singer Le Mans, chassis 60344, engine 55534.
The car arrived new at the Port of Lyttelton in November 1934 and was purchased by a lady in Masterton. From here on there were a number of owners and during this time the space behind the seat was enlarged, with one of the twin spare wheels being removed to accommodate the alteration.
Ralph purchased the car in 1947 and proceeded to use it in hill climbs and on the race track with great success, which was due in the main to performance modifications he made. He removed all that which added unnecessary weight to the car. The fan was considered redundant and a special impeller water pump installed to improve cooling. This item was later found amongst the trailer load of spares that came with the car.
Ralph drilled the front brake drums to lighten them and provide for added ventilation. He strengthened the body by rebuilding the scuttle with aluminium sheeting, which was a great improvement. The engine was worked over with the usual porting and matching of the inlet and exhaust tracts. During this exercise Ralph discovered a weakness in the engine block, i.e. external cracking below the head studs. In order to overcome the problem, he fitted extended head studs, down through the water jacket, and terminated at the sump end with cap nuts to prevent any water leak via the threads. Later when the engine was rebuilt for Trevor Sheffield, these bolts were found to be corroded, so were replaced in stainless steel.
He also was intrigued with the crankshaft, which had welded and bolted counterweights. Singer Le Mans engines had a counter weighted component known as a speed crank and as Ralph put it, “this type of engineering was not what you'd expect in a production car.” The Singer speed crank, fitted to the 1933 Le Mans, was a factory fabricated unit, whereas in 1934 they moved to a single piece forged crank.
Ralph's discovery identifies that our Singer had a fabricated crank installed, possibly due to an over supply of 1933 parts, or 1934 forged cranks being late getting to the assembly line. The original crank was found to be cracked when Ralph overhauled the engine for Trevor Sheffield, when he purchased the car during the early 1950 period.
Ralph commented that the engine was regularly taken to 6,000 r.p.m. in the course of speed events, with no obvious signs of over stress. He also advised that the usual cruising speed was 60 m.p.h. and which related to about 4,000 r.p.m. He quoted the following from a 1936 issue of Motor magazine:
Top Gear, 5.57 = 5,200 r.p.m. at 73 m.p.h. 39 h.p., 5,340 r.p.m. at 75 m.p.h., 5,700 r.p.m. at 80 m.p.h.
Ralph believes that our Singer possibly developed an additional 4 - 5 h.p. due to the ported head, and Trevor is sure it would exceed 80 m.p.h. when he had it. Further modifications saw the replacement of the steering arms, after one broke, with Ralph Watson manufactured parts and these are still working well on the car today. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that it has been reported that the demise of the Singer sports cars, at the Ards T.T. in September 1936, and the eventual end of the Competition Department of Singer Motors, Coventry, was due to the failure of the steering arms on these models.
Ralph also had one of the noisiest exhaust systems around. It consisted of a straight pipe ending with a five inch diameter megaphone containing a baffle and tail pipe, which was easily removed for the race track. Apparently you could hear Ralph, long before you could see him! This apparatus was not entirely performance related it appears, as it would tend to intimidate other competitors to his advantage. It was reported that at one meeting, A. J. Roycroft told Ralph, in no uncertain terms to “shut that b....... infernal noisy contraption up.” The megaphone exhaust remained when Trevor owned the car and was still the subject of comment.
Ralph toured extensively in the Singer covering both the North and South Islands including trips to New Plymouth and Northland. He recalls a fairly brisk run from Rotorua to Auckland, a distance of some 150 miles, in three and a quarter hours which, considering the road surfaces of the day, was no mean feat!
During 1949, Ralph completed an extensive tour of the South Island in the Singer, with the intention of competing in the first Lady Wigram Race. But as he was running on retreaded tyres, which too late he found were not allowed by the regulations, he could not enter. Ralph competed in numerous events with our Singer during 1948 - 49, usually gaining first place. Events included Hill Climbs at Ridge Road, Riverhead, Whitford and East Tamaki, as well as racing at the Seagrove airstrip. There were also sporting trials and weekend runs.
In November 1949 Ralph sold the Singer to Arthur Howard, of Parnell Road, Auckland and continued his racing career with a radically modified BSA.
During May 1953 Trevor Sheffield spied a Singer Le Mans in the yard of used car dealers, E & S Motors, Dominion Road, Auckland. It was in a sorry state having been exposed to the elements, but obvious were the drilled brake drums which immediately provoked serious interest. Trevor recalls that the Salesman put 6,000 r,p,m, on the clock to prove that the car could go, during a test drive. Even though she was burning oil and was not a pretty sight, he was impressed by the performance. He believes that the crankshaft must have been in a cracked condition at this time!
Further inspection revealed that it was indeed Ralph's old car and he therefore raised enough money to complete a deal, as he was well aware of her history and modifications. Later, during preparation of the car for a return to competition, the original crankshaft was discovered to be cracked.
Trevor had become friendly with Ralph as he had helped with the engine of a special he had built, based on a Fiat 509, and he was therefore well aware of exactly what he had purchased. Naturally Ralph was called on to assist with reconditioning the engine. A one and only, second hand speed crank was very luckily located at wreckers, Auto Parts Ltd, and fitted. This was found to be as good as, if not better than the original, and regularly withstood in excess of 6,000 r.p.m.
Trevor proceeded to use the Singer in hill climbs and on the racing circuits of the day. He remembers that she slid around very nicely on a good metal road and recalls a passenger having white knuckles while hanging onto the grab rail. But, as he explained, due to financial restraints, she was family transport and the means of getting to work, as well as the racing machine. At this time he was up against Ralph in the BSA and found that he was forever chasing him in 1,100 c.c. class events.
He also recalls a time when he entered the fifty-two-mile Ardmore Handicap race at the 1955 Auckland Grand Prix meeting, only to be told by the scrutineers that two tyres were unsatisfactory. Some quick discussions with a tyre shop gained two new tyres on account, with payment to be arranged later. Now all he had to do was to secure a place in the race in order to settle the account. For this meeting, cycle type, front guards were fitted to good effect.
As the race progressed, he could see that he would be in the money if only he could keep a specially tuned MG TD at bay. This was achieved by slip streaming behind the MG at well over 80 m.p.h. and 5,700 r.p.m. down the back straight then passing him as he braked for the hairpin at the end. This allowed the Singer to remain in front at the finish line on each lap. However there were a few more laps to go and the MG driver was improving, leaving his braking to much later at the hairpin on each lap, but he could not out do the old war horse! Trevor managed to beat the MG into a place and won the princely sum of ten pounds for his efforts, which covered the cost of the two, now not so new, tyres.
During a sports car handicap race at Ohakea Trevor had a good dice with Bruce McLaren in his well developed Ulster Austin. Trevor is fairly sure, this was 1954, and our Singer Le Mans came out the winner. Bruce McLaren mentions this dice with a Singer Nine, in his book, “From the Cockpit”.
Trevor has fond memories of our Singer Le Mans as being a very reliable machine, even though she was run on a shoe string budget. She never failed to finish the many competitive events entered, or gave trouble when used as the family car, transporting a young child and luggage on holiday.
Trevor, was a highly competitive driver and was successful with our Singer at many events including, the Wairamarama Hill Climb, Muriwai Beach Championship race, Bryce Tye Memorial race, Ohakea Sports Car Handicap and 50 Mile Trophy Race and the Auckland Grand Prix 52 Mile Ardmore Handicap. At one of the Northern Sports Car Clubs sprint meetings, held on the Port Waikato Road in December 1953, the car achieved a very creditable 21.5 secs for the Standing Quarter Mile and 13.9 secs for the Flying Quarter, with a restricted run up.
In 1956 Marsden Robinson purchased our Singer with the purpose of entering into both trials and racing events. Trevor well remembers the purchase, as Marsden's father, who was Mayor of Auckland, attended to negotiations. He advised that he had once owned a Singer Le Mans and was pleased Marsden would follow in his footsteps.
Marsden participated in a variety of events, including the Ridge Road Hill Climb and races on the short circuit at Ardmore. Sometimes he ran in events with Trevor in his newly acquired AC sports car fitted with a Ford V8 engine. Also in his capacity class was Dawson Donaldson, which meant that once again, the Singer faced up to the ex Bruce McLaren Ulster Austin.
Further events were a race at the Auckland Grand Prix meeting, where overheating and incorrect plugs caused an early retirement, the Bryce Tye Memorial and even an event at Western Springs Speedway on the midget car track. Marsden recalls that it was during a hill climb, that Dawson Donaldson came adrift in his ex Bruce McLaren Austin and was seriously injured. He sadly died from his injuries a couple of days later.
Marsden also tells of manufacturing the very nice headlight lens protectors now fitted to the car, from part of a fire screen. This was the nearest thing that he could find to replicate the wrinkly wire mesh which comprised these accessories. They are still on our Singer to this day and are working well.
Ralph racing the Singer Le Mans at the Seagrove Airstrip, Nov. 1947.
Ralph with his 1934 Singer Le Mans, 1949.
Trevor Sheffield driving the Le Mans Singer at Ohakea Trophy Races 1954. The extended rear body and single spare wheel can be seen.
Cycle-type guards were fitted for the 52 mile Ardmore Handicap Race, N.Z.I.G.P. 1955.
In this form the Watson modified car weighed less than 14 cwt. The drilled front brake drums are clearly visible.
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