No Teds please, we’re Bri­tish: Singer and Sun­beam es­chew juke­box glitz

The Sun­beam MKIII and Singer Hunter her­alded a new age of pros­per­ity, says An­drew Roberts, while re­tain­ing the deco­rum of their predecessors

Classic Sports Car - - This Month - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY TONY BAKER

Of all the vi­sions of past mo­tor­ing, one of the most be­guil­ing is that of the ‘gen­tle­man’s tour­ing car’. This era was in its twi­light by the mid1950s, but there were still ve­hi­cles that be­longed in the world of salut­ing AA and RAC pa­trol­men and John Bet­je­man’s Shell Guides – such as the Sun­beam MKIII and the Singer Hunter. Both were per­fectly suited to the chap who re­garded the Ford Ze­phyr or the E-se­ries Vaux­hall Cresta as lit­tle more than a Palais de Danse on wheels. And both were the last in­car­na­tions of mod­els that made their de­but at the 1948 Mo­tor Show.

The SM1500, Singer’s first post-war de­sign, rep­re­sented a ma­jor step for the mar­que. Power came from a chain-driven over­head-cam en­gine based on the unit found in the out­go­ing Super 12, but the slab-sided coach­work and quasi-detroit grille bore no re­sem­blance to any previous model. ‘Dig­nity, style and per­fect bal­ance,’ claimed the ad­verts, al­though do­mes­tic cus­tomers had to add their names to a long wait­ing list be­cause when full pro­duc­tion com­menced in 1949, the first ex­am­ples were for ‘Ex­port Only’. In ’51, the 1506cc en­gine was re­duced in size to 1497cc and twin carburettors be­came avail­able in 1952, but sales were al­ready de­creas­ing by then.

One chal­lenge that Singer deal­ers faced was that this was an ex­pen­sive model by the stan­dards of 1½-litre sa­loons and, as the decade pro­gressed, its styling be­came more of an is­sue. The coach­work was heav­ily in­flu­enced by the 1946 Kaiser-frazer but, some­what in­evitably, lit­tle dates more rapidly than the Bri­tish mo­tor in­dus­try’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of US mod­ernism.

There was no bud­get for fresh body­work, so the SM1500 was facelifted into the Hunter in late ’54. It sported an up­right grille with a horse­head mas­cot for a fur­ther touch of dis­tinc­tion and to dis­pel any last ves­tiges of Amer­i­cana. The Singer boasted a heater, foglamps, wind­screen wash­ers and – an es­pe­cially nice touch – the boot in­cor­po­rated a fit­ted tooltray. Early mod­els fea­tured a glass­fi­bre bon­net and valance to re­duce weight, but those were re­placed by steel pan­els af­ter prob­lems with qual­ity con­trol.

A year later the Hunter was of­fered as the

stripped-spec ‘S’ – sans clock, heater and aux­il­iary lamps – and high-per­for­mance, twin-cam 75 (few of which were pro­duced). The Coven­try factory was mak­ing just 30 cars per week and, in January 1956, the Rootes Group fi­nalised its ac­qui­si­tion of the fa­mous mar­que. The Gazelle, ba­si­cally a re­badged ‘Au­dax’ Hill­man Minx that was ini­tially pow­ered by the Singer over­head­cam mo­tor, made its de­but eight months later. The last Hunters were sold in 1957, and in ’58 the Gazelle IIA was pow­ered by a Hill­man en­gine.

The Hunter’s lines have been the sub­ject of some de­bate, but I can­not see how it could ob­jec­tively be called aes­thet­i­cally chal­lenged. The best de­scrip­tion for ‘our’ Bri­tish Rac­ing Green car is ‘pleas­ingly for­mal’, with a pro­file rem­i­nis­cent of the Rover P4. When the Singer was new, a se­lect group of mo­torists would have re­garded it as a welcome re­lief from the vul­gar­i­ties of com­mer­cial tele­vi­sion and burger bars. Nor did an air of ret­i­cence pre­vent it from en­joy­ing cin­e­matic star­dom: a Hunter had the du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion of guest-star­ring in Fire Maid­ens of Outer Space. In this 1956 Bri­tish B-movie, the planet Venus bears a star­tling re­sem­blance to Chob­ham Common and it must be said that the Singer out-acts the en­tire hu­man cast.

My take on the Hunter is that it was proudly out of step with the mid­dle-class car mar­ket. It was launched in the year that ra­tioning ceased, yet those thick pil­lars and that shal­low ’screen hark back to the At­tlee era. The Singer ap­pealed to a se­lect num­ber of driv­ers who ap­pre­ci­ated en­gi­neer­ing prin­ci­ples over duo­tone paint and chromium dec­o­ra­tions. The cabin is al­most over­whelm­ingly sen­si­ble, with the am­bi­ence of a bank man­ager’s of­fice, and the box-sec­tion chas­sis gives a flat floor. There was more than enough head­room for oc­cu­pants to wear a Hom­burg, which is en­tirely in keeping with a car that you could imag­ine as trans­port for a town clerk whose role model was Ray­mond Hunt­ley – best known these days as the so­lic­i­tor in Up­stairs Down­stairs.

On the road, how­ever, the Hunter be­lies its

sober looks. It feels heavy at low speeds and, al­though the col­umn shift was not ap­pre­ci­ated in pe­riod, it is nicer to op­er­ate than the set-up on a con­tem­po­rary Austin A90 West­min­ster. It does not en­cour­age swift changes – the prospect of strik­ing one’s knuck­les on the dash­board serves as a de­ter­rent against vul­gar haste – be­cause the Singer’s watch­word is ‘or­der’. The ad­verts boasted that it was a car ‘for the con­nois­seur who likes his spir­ited mo­tor­ing in com­fort’ and the first half of that claim seems a tri­fle op­ti­mistic. The Hunter is un­de­ni­ably com­fort­able, but it was not es­pe­cially spir­ited – even by the stan­dards of c60 years ago. Two of its main sell­ing points were re­fine­ment and ride qual­ity, ‘our’ Singer tak­ing the vi­cis­si­tudes of Brook­lands’ road sur­faces in its stride. The en­gine is phe­nom­e­nally flex­i­ble, and it is as equally suited to gen­tle per­am­bu­lat­ing through leafy sub­ur­ban lanes to the near­est Lyons’ Cor­ner House as it is to cruis­ing along a trunk road at an un­stressed 60mph.

As for the Sun­beam, it is more flam­boy­ant than the Singer, yet never gaudy. It was ‘Im­pec­ca­bly cor­rect for City busi­ness or West End shop­ping’ ac­cord­ing to Rootes, with a bril­liant tagline that ef­fort­lessly com­bined snob­bery with so­cial in­se­cu­rity. In fact, the MKIII has the agree­ably raff­ish char­ac­ter of a car that Terry-thomas, Nigel Pa­trick or any other prime Bri­tish cin­e­matic cad would be de­lighted to own. It also had an ex­cel­lent com­pe­ti­tion pedi­gree, from Ge­orge Mur­ray-frame’s 90 Mk1 winning the Coupe des Alpes on the 1948 Alpine Rally to Stir­ling Moss’ Coupe d’or in ’52 and Per Malling driv­ing a MKIII to out­right vic­tory on the 1955 Monte.

Even now, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to look at this hand­some car and not think of black-and­white news­reel footage and tri­umphant-sound­ing an­nounc­ers pro­claim­ing the name of Sun­beam.

The Hunter and the MKIII are both fit­ted with sui­cide rear doors, yet while the Singer seems redo­lent of ‘Ex­port or Die’, the Sun­beam’s dash­ing ap­pear­ance be­longs to the late 1930s. In pro­file, it sug­gests pre-war af­flu­ent subur­bia with mock-tu­dor vil­las and trips to a fash­ion­able road­house on the Kingston by­pass, yet its lines masked Rootes’ con­stant evo­lu­tion of the range.

By 1950, the slow-sell­ing 1.2-litre 80 had been dis­con­tin­ued and the 90 MKII had in­de­pen­dent front sus­pen­sion, a stronger chas­sis and its 1994cc mo­tor was re­placed by a 2.3-litre unit that was based on the Hum­ber Hawk’s en­gine. The MKIIA of 1952 had no rear spats, while two years later the MKIII lost its Tal­bot suf­fix and of­fered greater power thanks to a high­er­com­pres­sion cylin­der head that was orig­i­nally de­vel­oped for the Alpine. By then it had three port­holes in the front wings and, for any owner who wanted to cut a dash at Good­wood, a range of op­tional duo­tone paint fin­ishes. Pro­duc­tion stopped in 1957, by which time Sun­beam’s mar­ket­ing fo­cus was on the Rapier.

As be­fit­ting a car that cost £1100-plus, the MKIII is ex­cep­tion­ally well-ap­pointed, with two welcome items of equip­ment for the larger than av­er­age driver – the multi-ad­justable front seats and the slid­ing roof. While the Singer has space for the driver to sit (but never slouch) on its front bench, the cabin of the Sun­beam feels re­mark­ably com­pact al­though open­ing the top helps to al­le­vi­ate any sense of claus­tro­pho­bia. The fas­cia has a splen­did Art Deco ap­pear­ance and most own­ers would gladly have forked out an ex­tra £7 10s for a tachome­ter that was ap­par­ently de­signed to be read by the driver’s left kneecap.

And the Sun­beam truly mer­its a rev counter, be­cause it per­forms with such verve as to some­times make you doubt that you are be­hind the wheel of a car of more than 60 years old. The trans­mis­sion has nicely judged ra­tios, al­though the ’box dis­ap­proves of any hur­ried move­ment of the col­umn shift, while the MKIII’S han­dling gen­uinely be­lies its age. If the Hunter is cut out for trundling along coun­try lanes, the Sun­beam pos­i­tively darts through tight bends.

In its Au­gust 1955 is­sue, Mo­tor Sport ob­served ‘han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics of steer­ing-un­der­steer and ab­sence of se­vere rolling’, which per­fectly sum­marises the ap­peal of this ef­fec­tive sports saloon. Af­ter a few miles, you for­get that you are pi­lot­ing a car with strong pre-war over­tones be­cause it feels like a racy 1960s ma­chine. The Sun­beam is not per­haps as suited to pro­vid­ing smart ur­ban trans­port as the Singer but, with the op­tional over­drive, it is the per­fect five-seater grand tourer, one in which ‘com­fort and “rally re­li­a­bil­ity” keep spir­its high, fa­tigue away’.

It is some­times dif­fi­cult to be­lieve that the Singer and the Sun­beam ceased pro­duc­tion the year be­fore Bri­tain’s first mo­tor­way was opened, and only two years ahead of the Mini’s de­but. Yet both were above the mere va­garies of style be­cause they em­body a very old-fash­ioned word, ‘integrity’. The sheer qual­ity and at­ten­tion to de­tail in the Hunter is pal­pa­ble and its lack of com­mer­cial suc­cess was quite pos­si­bly due to it not be­ing in ac­cord with the grow­ing con­sumer trend of ‘live now, pay later’. By the late 1950s, too few mo­torists were pre­pared to look be­yond those by-then very dated looks and, af­ter Singer be­came a part of the Rootes em­pire, the po­ten­tial of the brand was never prop­erly ex­ploited.

Cer­tainly, the Gazelle drop­head is one of the most charm­ing con­vert­ibles of its day and the

‘BOTH WERE ABOVE THE MERE VA­GARIES OF STYLE – THEY ARE THE EM­BOD­I­MENT OF INTEGRITY’

Imp-based Chamois Coupé and Sport were in the great tra­di­tion of the 1939 Nine Road­ster, but the il­lus­tri­ous name was oth­er­wise badgeengi­neered into obliv­ion. Its demise in 1970 was no great shock to most in­dus­try watch­ers and, in a sadly ironic twist of fate, the fi­nal Gazelles and Vogues were just lightly mod­i­fied ver­sions of a Hill­man that had in­her­ited the Hunter name.

Mean­while, the MKIII is mag­nif­i­cent proof that mass-pro­duc­tion and an in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic saloon of real dis­tinc­tion may not be mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive, yet it also marked the swan­song for a genre of ve­hi­cle. Af­ter 1957 the Rootes Group never re­ally en­tered this mar­ket again, for the Sun­beam Rapier was aimed at a dif­fer­ent form of driver – the char­tered ac­coun­tant with a club blazer and Mike Hawthorn flat cap, as op­posed to a lounge lizard with a pen­cil mous­tache. An­other fac­tor was that the firm lacked the re­sources to de­velop a ri­val to the com­pact Jags and, by 1963, with the de­buts of the Rover P6 and Tri­umph 2000, this gap in the line-up seemed more acute. That same year brought the in­tro­duc­tion of the orig­i­nal Hum­ber Scep­tre, a car that was not so far re­moved from the Sun­beam-tal­bot tra­di­tion, but by that time Rootes’ fi­nan­cial is­sues meant that it was never prop­erly de­vel­oped.

For my own part, I would have each of these cars oc­cupy my drive­way be­cause the Singer and the Sun­beam rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent but com­ple­men­tary as­pects of post-war mo­tor­ing. The Singer Hunter would be used for the week­days, ar­riv­ing at the of­fice with a quiet sense of dig­nity, while the Sun­beam is em­phat­i­cally a week­end ve­hi­cle for jaunts to Brighton or to the races. If only those pa­trol­men were still around to salute on your trip back to a sepia-tinted past.

Thanks to Alan Rudge, Singer Own­ers’ Club: www.singerown­er­sclub.co.uk; As­so­ci­a­tion of Singer Car Own­ers: www.asco.org.uk; Peter Rodd, Sun­beam-tal­bot Own­ers’ Club: sun­beam­tal­botown­er­sclub.co.uk; ev­ery­one at Brook­lands: www.brook­landsmu­seum.com

Facelifted Singer SM1500 be­came the Hunter, which later be­came a Hill­man model; stand­ing lion of Supreme Sun­beam be­gan as Clé­ment-tal­bot em­blem

Clock­wise: slab sides are a touch heavy-handed but it’s won­der­fully com­posed on poor sur­faces; un­usual hand­brake lever; sweet over­head-cam en­gine

Clock­wise: sober interior, with bench front seats and an as­sort­ment of Bake­lite knobs on dash; owner Alan Rudge; roomy rear cabin; fit­ted tooltray in boot

Clock­wise: Sun­beam looks like a baby Hum­ber Super Snipe – rear three-quar­ter de­tail dates back to Aero Minx; free-revving 2.3litre ‘four’; un­usual hinge

Clock­wise: su­perb cabin with sep­a­rate seats in sportier MKIII; tool­kit is built into bootlid; more com­pact but comfy rear seat; owner Peter Rodd

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