Singer Gazelle

Restor­ing a sa­loon as scarce as a 1964 Singer Gazelle is rarely a sim­ple task; but with so much fam­ily his­tory be­hind it, this par­tic­u­lar project was well worth tak­ing on.

Classics Monthly - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TOG­RA­PHY PAUL GUINNESS

A rare sur­vivor from the days of Rootes Group badge en­gi­neer­ing.

Think of the ‘art’ of badge-en­gi­neer­ing and you’ll prob­a­bly con­jure up images of BMC mod­els from the 1960s. The Bri­tish Mo­tor Cor­po­ra­tion em­braced the pro­ce­dure more than most of its ri­vals, which ex­plains why the best-sell­ing ADO16 (which be­gan its ca­reer as the Mor­ris 1100 of 1962) even­tu­ally fea­tured no fewer than six in­di­vid­ual mar­ques within its line-up. But BMC wasn’t the only com­pany to take ad­van­tage of badge-en­gi­neer­ing, as any­one fa­mil­iar with the Rootes Group range of the time will tes­tify.

Many of Rootes’ most pop­u­lar mod­els of the 1950s and ’60s were of­fered with a choice of dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties, each one re­ceiv­ing mi­nor styling tweaks and dis­tinc­tive in­te­rior de­signs in or­der to suit the mar­que in ques­tion. It was a cost-ef­fec­tive way of gain­ing cru­cial economies of scale, whilst also sat­is­fy­ing the brand loy­alty of cus­tomers.

Singer was one of sev­eral Coven­try-based mar­ques to ben­e­fit from badge-en­gi­neer­ing in its later years, hav­ing been ac­quired by Rootes Group in 1956. The first Singer launched un­der this new own­er­ship was the Hill­man Minx-de­rived Gazelle of the same year, a model that was steadily de­vel­oped through­out its ca­reer; the very last of the ‘Au­dax’ ver­sions fi­nally rolled off the line in 1967, re­placed by a new Hunter-based Gazelle. The ver­sion fea­tured here, how­ever, is a Gazelle Series V, which launched in 1963 and

was pow­ered by the same 1592cc en­gine as the pre­vi­ous Series IIIC; the Series V also fea­tured re­vised rear end styling and front disc brakes as stan­dard, while an all­syn­chromesh gear­box was added for the 1965 model year.

The Series V Gazelle wasn’t ex­actly a mass-mar­ket sa­loon, with just 20,022 cars sold dur­ing its two-year ca­reer. That makes this par­tic­u­lar ex­am­ple some­thing of a rar­ity, but it also boasts a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory. Reg­is­tered to a garage in North Wales in De­cem­ber 1964, AJC 87B was bought by its first pri­vate owner 16 months later, with just 5000 miles on its odome­ter. That pur­chaser was the grand­fa­ther of the cur­rent owner, Ni­cholas Webb.

The car was then passed on to Ni­cholas’s fa­ther in 1978, be­fore fi­nally leav­ing the fam­ily eight years later. Ni­cholas still has fond memories of the Gazelle from his younger days.

“Some of my ear­li­est child­hood memories were of see­ing the car in my grand­fa­ther’s garage,” he says. “It was al­ways in as-new con­di­tion, with shiny white paint around its wheel arches – helped by the fact that my grand­par­ents had an­other car for use in wet weather!”

Once the Gazelle had been passed on to Ni­cholas’s par­ents, he was old enough to play more of a role in its up­keep: “By the time I was 12 years old the Gazelle had be­come my fa­ther’s daily driver, at which point it had 27,000 miles on the clock. Over the next three years, Dad dou­bled its mileage to 54,000.

“I re­mem­ber the car very well from that pe­riod, as well as our many jour­neys in it. I helped my fa­ther to main­tain the car, and was al­ways the one who washed and pol­ished it.”

An­other change of plan for

the Gazelle oc­curred in 1981, how­ever, when it was driven to Llan­dudno (where Ni­cholas’s grand­par­ents were liv­ing at the time) for his grand­fa­ther, Syd­ney, to use again.

But when Syd­ney sub­se­quently died in 1983, the Gazelle found it­self on the move once more: “It came back home and was used this time as my mum’s daily driver, with me look­ing af­ter it again. My two broth­ers and I were old enough to drive by then, but in­stead of keep­ing the car long-term we de­cided to sell the Gazelle in 1986.”

Ni­cholas al­ways won­dered what had hap­pened to the Singer, and as­sumed that at some point it had been scrapped: “When I got my first com­puter in 2006, the DVLA site listed the Gazelle as ‘un­li­censed’, so I thought it must have long-since dis­ap­peared,” he re­calls. To his amaze­ment, how­ever, Ni­cholas spot­ted the Gazelle ad­ver­tised on CarandClas­ in 2012 and got in touch with its then owner. The car was of­fered for sale again two years later, and at that point Ni­cholas made the de­ci­sion not to miss this sec­ond op­por­tu­nity; he made the jour­ney to Scot­land and brought the Gazelle back to the West Midlands, where he now lives.

“What re­ally pleased me was that the lit­tle log book in which my grand­fa­ther had kept metic­u­lous records of every jour­ney in the Gazelle was still with the car,” re­calls Ni­cholas. “He used to write down ev­ery­thing to do with the Gazelle. I even found de­tails of a jour­ney he un­der­took from Llan­dudno to Bolton in April 1966 to see his sec­ond new­born grand­child... who, of course, was me!”

By the time Ni­cholas had reac­quired his much-loved Singer

and brought it home in Septem­ber 2014, it was some­thing of a sad sight: “Only an­other 10,000 miles had been added to the odome­ter since we’d sold it, as it had spent many years in stor­age, and yet there were ma­jor rust prob­lems. The only so­lu­tion was a full-scale bodyshell restora­tion, which I car­ried out my­self over the next 11 months. All the work was done by me, with no pro­fes­sional help what­so­ever apart from the re-chroming.”

Ni­cholas spent count­less hours cut­ting out rot­ten sec­tions and weld­ing in new me­tal, with the in­ner and outer sills re­placed, both of the front wings re­fur­bished, the rear wheel arches re­paired, and the doors and boot lid swapped for ex­cel­lent re­place­ments from a donor car. Any weld­ing re­quired un­der­neath was done by Ni­cholas to a very good stan­dard, as he wanted the en­tire un­der­side to be body­coloured when fin­ished.

Look­ing at the pho­tographs of the Singer in its ‘dur­ing’ stages, it’s easy to see the ex­tent of the restora­tion; and here at

CM we have noth­ing but ad­mi­ra­tion for any­one will­ing to un­der­take such a huge amount of work in their own garage, with noth­ing in the way of spe­cial­ist back-up. Lo­cat­ing new pan­els for a Gazelle is never easy, al­though of­fers var­i­ous re­pair sec­tions, outer sills and so on; go look­ing for a brand new front wing, how­ever, and you’ll find the prover­bial haystack-bound nee­dle is eas­ier to lo­cate. And that makes any full-on restora­tion of a Gazelle (as well as its badge-engi­neered cousins) par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing.

Ni­cholas per­se­vered and ended up with a com­mend­able re­sult. New me­tal was shaped and welded into place where nec­es­sary, with badly af­fected ar­eas like the lower rear panel, the bot­tom of each A-pil­lar, those dreaded sills, rear wheel arches and the rear quar­ter pan­els all ben­e­fit­ing from such treat­ment. The front wings were re­moved and new re­pair sec­tions care­fully welded into place, with their even­tual reat­tach­ment bring­ing the inevitable pa­tience-test­ing task of care­ful re­align­ment.

With the bodyshell in­tact at last, a full re­spray was then car­ried out, with Ni­cholas ad­mit­ting that whilst it’s not per­fect, it’s cer­tainly good enough for clas­sic events and gen­eral use. In­deed, for a car that was sprayed in a dou­ble garage with no dust ex­trac­tion or proper heating, the end re­sult is very im­pres­sive – and, just as im­por­tant to Ni­cholas, meant that the en­tire project man­aged to stay within bud­get.

Much of the Gazelle’s chrome was pro­fes­sion­ally re-plated whilst Ni­cholas was hard at work re­assem­bling the car, car­ry­ing out a thor­ough recom­mis­sion­ing in the process – with a list of jobs that in­cluded re­plac­ing the en­tire brak­ing sys­tem, fit­ting a stain­less steel ex­haust and much more. The en­gine was in good work­ing or­der (and even now has cov­ered just 81,000 miles from new), but Ni­cholas ob­vi­ously car­ried out the usual ser­vic­ing and fet­tling to pre­vent any teething trou­bles once the car was back on the road.

The en­gine sounds sweet and pulls well, mak­ing it an en­joy­able about-town drive as well as hav­ing enough power left in re­serve for higher-speed jaunts...

See­ing a Gazelle on the road in 2017 is a rare ex­pe­ri­ence, thanks to the car’s rel­a­tively low pro­duc­tion fig­ures and in­evitably poor sur­vival rate fifty years on from the last of the ‘Au­dax’ mod­els rolling off the line. And so we were look­ing for­ward to reac­quaint­ing our­selves with one of Rootes Group’s most up­mar­ket mid-size of­fer­ings.

I’ve al­ways found there to be a hint of qual­ity with any mem­ber of the Minx-based fam­ily. Maybe it’s the re­as­sur­ing ‘clunk’ as the doors close, com­pared with the tinny ‘clang’ of some ri­vals; or per­haps it’s just the solid feel of these fam­ily-size of­fer­ings. Ei­ther way, there’s no deny­ing that the Gazelle comes across as a well-built ma­chine by masspro­duced stan­dards of the ’60s. Mean­while, the in­te­rior of this Gazelle is a gen­uinely charm­ing place to be, with its bright red vinyl up­hol­stery and door cards be­ing some­thing of a con­trast to the more tra­di­tional wood-ve­neer dash­board and door cap­pings; throw into the mix a red deep-pile car­pet and you have a ter­rific com­bi­na­tion of ’60s-style bright­ness com­bined with Singer luxury.

Out on the road, the Gazelle’s 1592cc four-cylin­der pow­er­plant (which pushed out a wor­thy 53bhp when new) still pro­vides ea­ger per­for­mance by stan­dards of the time, aided by a sur­pris­ingly slick four-speed man­ual gearchange. The en­gine sounds sweet and pulls well, mak­ing it an en­joy­able about­town drive as well as hav­ing enough power left in re­serve for higher-speed jaunts; the Gazelle’s of­fi­cial top speed of 79mph (with 0-60 in 22 sec­onds) were well up to class stan­dards in 1964. Mean­while, disc brakes up front help to pro­vide im­pres­sive stop­ping power, while the Gazelle’s han­dling feels re­as­sur­ingly safe and pre­dictable.

Our brief spell at the wheel proved two things. First, it re­minded us how ac­com­plished and adapt­able a de­sign the ‘Au­dax’ series of Hill­man Minx was, with this Rootes-styled (with help from Ray­mond Loewy) range of 1956-67 lead­ing to badge-engi­neered vari­a­tions like the Singer Gazelle and sportier two-door Sun­beam Rapier. Just as im­por­tant, how­ever, is the proof that a hands-on en­thu­si­ast with noth­ing but a home-based garage and a rea­son­able ar­ray of tools can re­ju­ve­nate a down-at-heel ’60s sa­loon into a solid and highly pre­sentable ex­am­ple of its type. So why, af­ter all this work, is proud owner Ni­cholas now think­ing of sell­ing his much-loved Gazelle?

“I have a pas­sion for clas­sic Rovers, and have owned nu­mer­ous P4s over the years,” he ex­plains. “I’m now yearn­ing for a de­cent P5B, which means that the Gazelle may have to go. Still, at least I’ve got the sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing I’ve put it back on the road and hope­fully given it an­other few decades of life. And, of course, I can make sure it only goes to the kind of en­thu­si­ast who will cher­ish it as much as I have...”

With just over 80,000 miles un­der its belt, the Singer's en­gine runs like a sewing ma­chine.

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