My First Car: DIY engine fix turn out to be sweet success

Tony O'Loughlin, complete with crash helmet, and his first car, a 1933 Singer Le Mans.

Tony O'Loughlin, complete with crash helmet, and his first car, a 1933 Singer Le Mans. - Credit: supplied

Tony O'Loughlin tells of keeping his 1933 Singer Le Man on the road... repairing the worn big ends with the help of the local blacksmith.

My first car was a 1933 Singer Le Mans with an 9hp overhead camshaft engine and the two most beautiful twin Stromberg carburettors with shiny copper fuel pipes which I assiduously polished.

I purchased it from our local RAC man – who rode a motorbike and sidecar, wearing knee-length leather lace-up boots and saluted everybody who displayed an RAC badge – for £7 10 shillings (£7.50). I was earning only £2 15 shillings and sixpence (£2.77) a week at the time but petrol was only two shilling and 11 pence (14p) a gallon and MOTs, the ten-year test, was still a gleam in the Ministry of Transport's eye. I gave Mum 30 bob (£1.50) for my keep and I thought I could afford it – the car was only 25 years old so should not need anything in the way of maintenance!

What could go wrong? Well, not much really for the first year or so but then I heard knocking from the engine and decided the big ends had gone. What was I to do? I had no garage and no spare money. Everything had to be done on the road outside my parents' house, and as economically as possible.

I got underneath, drained the oil and took off the sump and, with much difficulty, undid the big ends and withdrew the pistons. Once I had them on the pavement, I could see that they were badly worn. I went to see our local blacksmith and persuaded him to run white metal on both sides of the big ends – no such things as bearing shells – and to make me a scraper from an old file.

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Having acquired some engineers blue grease, I set about smearing this over the crankshaft and then pushed the con rods on to the crankshaft and rotated them to find the high spots. I then set about scraping these to get the perfect fit. This entailed hopping backwards and forwards between the underside of the car and our front gate hinge end, which I was using as a vice to hold the con-rods steady while I scraped away.

Curiously enough this worked and when the car was restarted it really sounded that much better with the engine running sweetly. Even so, with the windscreen folded flat along the bonnet you still felt as though you were making an attempt on the land speed record when driving at 50mph.

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I recall two driving experiences with this car and, after almost 60 years, they are still vivid in my memory.

I was returning from Luton to Elstree along the newly-opened M1, it was night and the whole countryside was bathed by the light of what Dad called a 'bomber's moon'. I could see no traffic in my rear-view mirror, and no lights coming towards me on the northbound side, so I turned my lights off and drove for several miles before I had to turn them back on again.

The other occasion was returning from a visit to my aunt in Surrey, I was driving through Hyde Park when I was waved down by a policeman. He told me that I had no offside light on the car, I got out and slapped the headlight and it came back on. The constable said 'fair enough' – police were different in those days. He also asked why I had a bicycle clip on my right trouser leg so I explained I had a hole in the floor near the accelerator pedal and when the roads were wet the water went up my leg!

Would I go back to it after years of synchro-mesh or automatic gearboxes, power-assisted steering, heated seats, almost silent running and not having to keep an anxious eye on the oil pressure gauge? Well, yes, I would as I now have a car which replicates this type of driving experience and the joy this spring of driving with this long bonnet in front and the delights of double de-clutching to ease the gearchange readily came back to me.

You never forget your first car so share your memories of adventures and disasters of your first set of wheels. It doesn't matter how old it is, just email your motoring memories with a picture of the car to or post it to Andy Russell, motoring editor, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE.

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