Practical Classics (UK)
A leap into the distant past
John rekindles his earliest car-owning memories
Fifty years ago – yes, 50 – I owned a 1959 Singer Gazelle Series III, bought from a bombsite car dealer in Battersea for £35. It was my first usable car, and I took my driving test in it – both times. I fitted a glassfibre front wing to it with too few pop rivets, saw it breach 90mph on its ludicrously optimistic speedometer, learnt vital maintenance and repair skills and finally sold it to a colleague of my father for £50.
And now I'm a Gazelle owner again. As happy and long-standing members of the Singer Owners' Club, Mrs S and I fancied an example of the marque better suited to modern roads and weekends away than our 1936-model Nine Sports. This desire and my fond memories of half a century ago focused thoughts on a Gazelle convertible, which led us to the vision in Powder Blue that you see here. It's a 1960 IIIB model, first registered by the Rootes Group itself (the plates are the actual originals) and first used by the wife of a Humber director. There's even speculation that it was on the Singer stand at the 1960 Earls Court motor show. I'd love it if that were true.
I bought it from a nice man in Droitwich, who'd owned it twice. He'd owned another example, a IIIA with twin carbs, before this one; that car now lives less than a mile from me and I know it well. Mine has had a nice repaint during its life, and inevitably a few rust repairs, but its sills and front wings are very possibly original. So is the interior, apart from the carpets.
I drove it home to Herts without a glitch, during which highly nostalgia-inducing journey it was clear that this is not remotely a fast car. Nor did I expect it to be, but it's also lacking in the enthusiasm for hills that my original Gazelle had. Plans are afoot to fix this. On the plus side, the engine is very smooth, the gearchange is very precise and the overdrive works nicely. There's not much scuttle shake, thanks
largely to a hefty X-shaped brace underneath, and driving with the hood stowed away is a fresh-air joy. The ride seemed too firm, though, so I checked the tyre pressures. All were 10psi over, so I set them to the correct 24psi which caused the characteristic bottom bulge of the radial tyres to reappear. That's when I noticed that the outer edges of the Atlas fake whitewall inserts had been carving a neat and worryingly deep groove in the tyres' sidewalls, a process hastened when the pressures are lower and the bulges bigger.
Clearly, these inserts could be potentially lethal in combination with radials and a regularly used car. So, I booked the Gazelle into Classic Performance Engineering,
Vintage Tyres' agent at Bicester Heritage, for replacement footwear in the form of a set of 155 R15 Vredestein Sprint Classics. These have restored peace of mind, and have given the Gazelle a (relative) precision, accuracy and grip level that is light years ahead of my original one's on its ageing crossplies. And who needs whitewalls anyway, when the wheels' chrome trim rings are bling enough? It looks much better without them.
Now the Gazelle, still just two weeks into our ownership, was almost ready for Singer National Weekend at Newstead Abbey, near Nottingham. Just the oils to change, a piece of throttle linkage to replace, tappets to adjust and ignition timing to tweak… and the tank-topump petrol pipe to renew after the original crumbled and then leaked. Glad I spotted that.
The run northwards, complete with dog, was a leisurely delight. So was the run back, especially after my new acquisition had won first prize in the Gazelle section as voted by the other Gazelle owners. That was really an accolade for its previous owners rather than me, but it was a very pleasing début.
Just one problem. Mrs S loves the Gazelle, but said she wouldn't go in it again until it has seatbelts that actually work. Which is why
I'm writing this in the waiting room of Quickfit SBS in Loudwater, Bucks, the long-established experts in devising seatbelt installations for classic cars. I can hear the vacuum cleaner as it sucks away the post-installation debris, so
I'd better go and admire the result. How they did it, I'll explain next time.
Acquiring this Gazelle has, in a way, brought my car-owning life to date almost to full circle. But there's another twist in that circle's arc: when I was 14, the parents of a good friend gave me a 1959 Hillman Minx that, though just a decade old, was too rotten to continue with a life on the road. For the next three years I happily drove it up and down our short driveway and took baby steps in car-fettling. I bought that first Gazelle because it shared so many parts with the Minx, but there turns out to be a connection with my latest acquisition too. The top half of the Minx's duotone colour scheme was the same Powder Blue as adorns my new convertible.
Clearly, it was meant to be.