Mysterious Beauty, the Singer 9 Le Mans
A select few of 1930’s British designed cars justified being included under the heading of ‘Airline Cars’, a phrase used nowadays to describe a time of experimentation with streamlining combined with the Art-Deco appearance that controlled fashion at the time. An authority on these really special vehicles is Barrie Down who wrote Art-Deco and British Car Design-the Airline Cars of the 1930s, a book that features the best of these machines including the actual Singer featured here. This Singer 9 Le Mans story includes a saviour after 50 years lost, time spent in Scandinavia, Ireland and the far north of Scotland; the story continues today as this ‘9’ is not what it is supposed to be, it is totally unique.
Singer Motors were very prosperous at the dawn of the ‘thirties’ being the third largest producer in the country trailing ‘big guns’ Austin and Morris and in 1932 things further improved with the introduction of the ‘Nine’. The 972cc engine and four speed gearbox was the launch pad for the companies assault on the Le Mans 24 hours in 1933 with a ‘9’ Sport. Taking an impressive 13th place this little car became the spring board for a Le Mans version of the Singer 9 with hydraulic brakes, more power with overhead camshaft and twin carbs. With 7th and 8th overall in 1934 the popularity of the model increased even more with a class win at the French circuit in 1935. This became the car to own and race in the years before the war and Singer produced 317 coupe versions and 191 saloons of the Le Mans; although to look at they were virtually identical, there was in fact two inches difference in the rear window height and this has only come to light recently.
Originally registered on 31st July 1935, selling dealer Greyhound Service Station London supplied the Le Mans to S Alsford who lived in the Wood Green area. Records are scarce during this time but we do know the car changed registered owners and address in 1941, going north to the Orkney Islands and here the mystery deepens, nothing is known about the car for the next 50 years. Theories abound, could the owner have been posted to the new RAF base Castletown? This was opened to protect war-time shipping sailing from the nearby Scapa Flow, or maybe the car was used to get to the very same naval base? Would the third owner hold any clues to the history? One thing we do know for sure is Dr W Hastings saved the car from extinction.
I managed to find a number for William (Bill) Hastings at his home on the Isle of Man, although his accent suggests he may well be very familiar with many parts of Scotland. Whilst on holiday in 1991 like all classic car admirers Bill noticed a 2.4 Jaguar parked outside a small Orkney Island garage and took the chance to speak to the owner. Realising Bill was a ‘car man’ an invite was extended to view some other cars hidden out the back. A dusty ‘drab grey’ coloured Singer 9 Le Mans (hence the forces theory) sat looking all of its 56 years, it was its fair to say in a terrible state. A deal was struck and the car was transported down to Lancaster, transferred into the back of a removal lorry and on to the Isle of Man where a massive restoration project was undertaken. On arrival the car was emptied of its contents. The garage owner in Scotland had packed the car with spare parts, one of which was the original engine, albeit with a cracked block; under the hood was a Bantam power plant similar size to the Le Mans unit but less powerful with only a single Solex carb. The Singer was stripped to its chassis; new body frames were made up and fitted and the original block was repaired, rebuilt and fitted. A testament to the quality of this restoration is that it still looks great today; bathed in the original cream and green finish, resulting in a car that was a credit to Dr William Hastings. Finished and registered with an Isle of Man number plate in 1998 I wondered why after all the effort it would be sold on as soon as 2001. A house move to a smaller property with the car parked on a narrow road was quite simply a constant worry, a very good offer from a Danish enthusiast followed which saw the car go overseas for the next seven years.
2008 and the car returned to the Wirral but only for one year before another Doctor in Ireland gave the Singer a home in County Kilkenny. In February 2012 via Hampshire dealer Robin Lawton the Singer now resides in Worthing, carefully watched over by current custodian Richard George. The story now takes an interesting twist and involves a Christmas present received by Richard, his sharp eye and attention to detail. The present was in fact the Barrie Down’s Airline Cars book I referred to at the beginning, the book features the Singer Le Mans that now sits in Richard’s garage. It also features another 9 Le Mans Coupe a different colour but the same car, or that is what the world thought. There was a difference, very slight but noticeable; Richard noticed the rear side windows on his car looked deeper and after some research and measurements taken it was confirmed the cars were not the same. Out of 317 Coupes built by Singer only 4 were thought to exist, that now became 3 as Richard’s machine is in fact a saloon model, the last remaining example out of 191 built. The chance to photograph and tell the story of something totally unique has been a privilege for me; I hope my images do this stunning Singer 9 Le Mans Saloon justice. My thanks to the George family for their time and input; the car can be admired at shows and events around the south and it’s easy to find as there’s nothing else like it.
Singer Le Mans Moments
A Singer Le Mans was the only car ever to win a gold medal in the Nazi run 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Haig niece of Field Marshal Douglas Haig with her navigator Barbara Marshall (who thought it would be an ‘awfully good wheeze’) won the 2000 mile event across Europe and it came as no surprise that the Nazi authorities were not too happy awarding the Singer a gold medal. Being the only UK entrant out of 124, winning without penalties and being driven by a female relation of a British Officer from WW1 was not a favorable scenario. The award ceremony was rearranged in a hurry and took place quietly at the Avus race circuit and not as previously planned in Berlin.
It was at the famous French endurance race the Singer 9 enjoyed its greatest moments. Whilst only in its first year of production in 1933 a virtually standard ‘Nine’ was entered with slight tuning and a larger fuel tank. Once qualified for the Rudge-Whitworth Cup (handicap race for smaller engine cars) the Singer averaged 49.4mph over 24 hours and took 13th and last finishing spot. Enthused by this result, in 1934 Singer entered the Le Mans versions for an all-out assault on the endurance challenge. The ‘Nine’ now had a twin carb fully tuned 1.0 litre engine with a larger sump to aid cooling; two six cylinder 1493cc powered specials were also entered. A six car team took the start and the two 1.5 entries finished 2nd and 3rd in the R-W Cup and 7th and 8th overall, whilst the smaller ‘Nine’ of Black and Baker finished 15th overall and the fastest machine under 1000cc. The Singer Le Mans received high praise amongst automotive and motorsport press. Returning in 1935 with a team including a single 1.5 and six highly tuned 972cc 4 cylinder machines Singer had their best year ever. The cars were obtaining speeds of 90mph and the reliability was superb leading to a 2nd in the R-W Cup for the Barnes/Langley 972cc machine and a 1st in the 1 litre class where they also finished 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th on the famous Sarthe Circuit.
Why a Pre War Singer Le Mans
Richard George gives some honest thoughts on driving his Pre War Singer on today’s roads:
Opening the large suicide door and climbing in to the driving seat you are very quickly reminded that this car is nearly 80 years old, with its large chronometric rev counter and speedometer dominating the dashboard. Pull out the choke fully and press the starter switch and the engine usually starts first turn. Choke pushed half way in immediately and ticking over is already even. However, the cooling system has no water pump and no thermostat so best to allow it to warm up a little before setting off. The four speed Moss gearbox has a very low first gear, the expectation being that the car would be used for rallying and auto-tests; it is therefore easier to move off in second unless on a hill. The gearbox is conventional but with surprisingly short movement between the gears. It normally has synchromesh on third and fourth but realistically it is better to double de clutch on both upward and downward changes. Final drive is low geared giving only 14mph per thousand in top gear but the engines ran at up to 6000 rpm at Le Mans so will cruise comfortably albeit noisily at 4000rpm.The play in even a correctly adjusted steering box takes a bit of getting used to. The 972cc overhead camshaft engine whilst competitive in the 1930s, producing just over 30bhp in a car weighing just over ¾ tonne means acceleration is slow by modern standards. However the car shows its motorsports pedigree with road holding and handling that would outperform many a post-war car, with its four Andre Hartford adjustable shock absorbers. Lockheed hydraulic brakes on all four wheels allow it to pull up both quickly and in a straight line. It sits in traffic happily enough without boiling over or stalling. It takes a while to get used to driving a car like this but it is so very rewarding once mastered.
1935 Singer 9 Le Mans Saloon Specifications
Engine: 4 Cylinder 972cc SOHC 34bhp
Carbs: Twin Solex
Gearbox: 4 speed part synchro
Brakes: Lockheed Hydraulic 10 inch drums
12 volt lighting and starter system
1935 Singer Le Mans cost new £215.00,
1935 Average house price £530.00.
Average UK salary was £192.50.
A pint of Ale 7d or just 3p in today’s money
1935 the year the (people’s car) VW Beetle was launched, the driving test came into being in the UK and Alcoholics Anonymous was formed the same year beer became available in a can.