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.
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 CarandClassic.co.uk 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 SteelPanels.co.uk 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.