History of the Singer Car

by Kevin Atkinson

Kevin is the author of a GREAT book, The Singer Story

Singer were formed during the embryonic days of the cycle industry. George Singer worked for the Coventry Machinists under James Starley, the father of the cycle industry, where he proved to be an innovative and quality engineer. It came as no surprise to see him leave to set up his own business in 1875

The Challenge was the first Singer range of cycles, and these were followed by the world's first production safety cycle, a ground breaking machine which although it was not a commercial success set the pattern for most of the cycles produced ever since. George Singer also patented the curving of the front forks of a cycle, an aid to steering which still exists to this day. The production of cycles turned Singer into the world's largest cycle manufacturer, and at the beginning of the new century Singer turned their sights on the internal combustion engine.

Their first powered offering was the Motor-wheel, a motor cycle (or tricycle) with the engine fitted within the wheel. Even the wheel was (to excuse the pun) revolutionary as it consisted of broad spokes cast in aluminium, twenty years before the idea was re-used by that master of automobile engineering and style, Ettore Bugatti. The Motor-wheel powered machines turned into more conventional motor cycles, which themselves evolved into tricars, an early form of primitive three-wheeled cars.

It was in 1905 however when their first true car, a four-wheeled horizontal cylinder engined machine produced under licence from Lea Francis first appeared. It led to a whole range of cars, powered by proprietary engines, usually by White & Poppe of Coventry, but in 1912 came one of the turning points of motoring history, the introduction of the all new Singer Ten The Ten was the worlds first light car- prior to this cars had either been big and over-engineered or had been lightweight and flimsy "cyclecars" which owed more to motor bike technology and were not really up to the rigours of everyday use. The Singer Ten was the first "real" car built in the cyclecar idiom, and was described by the press as "the Rolls-Royce of cyclecars". Unusually the gearbox was fitted in the rear axle.

An ironic twist was a firm which owed its founding to the Singer Ten. After seeing how good the new cars were, a young apprentice at Singer, Billy Rootes, left to set up in business and with the money he got from selling his part-time chicken farm, bought 50 of the first Tens. The profits from these led to the sales of more cars, and a motoring empire was formed. The Rootes empire would grow to include many of the founding companies of the motor industry, including Sunbeam, Talbot, Hillman and with one of those twists of fate which seem to happen so often, Singer.

The First World War saw Singer move into armaments, profits soared and for the first time since introducing motor cars to the range Singer were in a very healthy financial state.

Throughout the 1920s Singer continued to expand, using the 10hp as the basis for its range. The 10hp however became outdated, as more modern machines appeared, and the model was refined to compete- the gearbox was moved to a more conventional mid-ships position, four wheeled brakes were added and in its final incarnation as a 10hp, the 10/26, the engine and chassis were enlarged.

1926 was a momentous year for Singer with the introduction of the Junior- if the 10hp had grown up by being enlarged, then the Junior was a return to the light car concept, which had been recently re-introduced by the Austin 7. The Junior was compact, comfortable and was powered by a jewel of an engine which would form the mainstay of Singer engines for the next thirty years. This engine was an 8hp unit, but for the first time on a small British mass-produced car, was fitted with a single overhead camshaft. Although the first cars were all 4 seater tourers, a vast array of bodies became available, with a sports 2 seater boat-tailed version becoming known as the Porlock, after an example successfully completed 100 consecutive climbs and descents of the Somerset "terror hill", of that name.

If the Junior was a success in its own right, with many thousand being sold in 5 years, its successor was even more so. The 8hp Junior engine was redesigned by revising the layout, improving the lubrication, and enlarging it to a 9hp. The new Singer Nine was a real winner.

A four-seater sports car, based on the new nine chassis ran at Le Mans in 1933. Finishing thirteenth overall was an excellent result, and the car became the first un-supercharged British car under 1100cc to qualify for the Rudge Whitworth cup. This success led directly to the introduction of its more famous 2 seater equivalent, the Singer Le Mans.

The Le Mans so typified the small British Sports car of the 1930s, from its twin spare wheels mounted behind a large slab fuel tank, knock-off wire wheels, a sprung steering wheel and fold flat windscreen. It clearly meant business, and both it and its four seater sister, the Nine Sports, became a big hit on the trials hills and racetracks.

A similar car but with a 6 cylinder engine from the 14hp saloon (and a four seater tourer with sporting pretensions) was known as the 1.5 litre Le Mans. With a production run of just 71 cars this remains one of the most desirable and exclusive Singers ever built. A survival rate of almost 60% is a testimony to the cars qualities.

The three main cars of the sports car ranges were complimented by a range of saloons, tourers and vans. There were even heavy commercials built, with engines ranging from the 9hp to one of over 3 litres which was in the coach and 45cwt lorry. There were overhead cam engines, side valve and push-rod ones side by side in the range. It was not just in the engine department that the models were unusual, as in 1934 they introduced independent front suspension on the 11hp, and shortly afterwards extended it to the 9hp range (optionally) and a new 16hp. It all added up to a rich and diverse range, but one which was expensive to produce, with few economies of scale to keep the costs down. A prime example being the spectacular Airstream, an advanced aerodynamic body built on the 11hp chassis. Although a few were sold, most notably to Jack Payne who provided one for each member of his dance band, most were never completed and the chassis returned to standard specifications with an ordinary saloon body.

The racing saw successes at Le Mans in 1934, with class wins, but an unsuccessful attempt at racing the 1.5 litres at Ards in the T.T. led to development of a lightweight racing version of the 9hp Le Mans, specifically for the track.

The new cars debuted at Le Mans 1935, where starter motor failure robbed the team of outright victory in the Rudge Whitworth cup. Not to be deterred they went to Brooklands for the relay race and came in first overall. Confidence was high therefore as they went to Ards for the 1935 T.T.

The RAC scrutineers however decreed that the revised steering layout which was fitted to the cars was illegal as the production cars were not as yet released with that steering. At the last minute therefore the cars were converted back to the earlier steering which was not designed for the rigid racing chassis- it proved to be a spectacular disaster for the team, with three of the four cars crashing out at the same spot with steering failure. It marked the beginning of the end for Singer Sports cars, and the company closed the competitions department as a result. The cars were later all rebuilt with their proper steering, and never had any more problems.

The depression of the 1930s meant that the financial situation had been getting worse and the Ards crash was the final straw- the company closed factories, and in 1936 was restructured as Singer Motors Ltd. A short lived attempt at a four cylinder 1.5 litre sports car was one of the few high spots of the later 1930s with the range consisting of just three basic saloon cars (plus derivatives) the Bantam, 10hp and 12hp. The thing which changed it though was the introduction of the Roadster in March 1939.

The car was not a sports car, but was instead a 4 seat tourer with sporting aspirations. It may have been based upon the Bantam mechanically, but it was much prettier and sales were good until production was interrupted with the declaration of war.

As in the first war, the Second World War saw Singer move into military contracts, but not to the same lucrative financial advantage. When production resumed after the hostilities ceased, three of the same models were retained, the Super Ten, Super Twelve and Roadster.

The first true post-war Singer was the 1948 SM1500, a saloon based heavily on American styling. It was totally in keeping with the products of other manufacturers at the time, such as the Standard Vanguard and Jowett, but never quite had the charm of some of the others. It was only when this car gained a facelift along with a traditional radiator grill that it looks, with the benefit of hindsight, more stylish. In its new form it was called the Hunter. It sold well however to people that admired quality and solidness such as driving schools and police forces. It featured independent front suspension, which was also incorporated in the later Roadsters, which were still selling well particularly in the USA where Marilyn Monroe was drafted in to help advertise them. A number of changes to the Roadster saw it also gain the SM1500's engine plus there was even a brief attempt with a fibreglass body which never got past the prototype stage, even though they were exhibited at all the major motor shows. A radical engine design was the 75bhp twin cam engine based on the Hunter block, which was also exhibited but never produced, but less well publicised was a steam engine fitted into a Hunter bodyshell which also was never released.

By the end of 1955 Singer had run out of both time and money- their overdraft was at the limit and they were about to go out of business. Two series of bids were received and on December 29th 1955 shareholders voted to be taken over by the Rootes Group, headed by the ex-Singer apprentice and dealer, Billy Rootes.

Sir William Rootes, as he was now more properly known, set about modernising the firm, and his first actions were to sell off the old models to introduce a new range. The first of the new cars was the 1956 Gazelle. Although it still used the Hunter engine, the rest of the car was a Hillman Minx with a different front end styling, which set the tone for the next fifteen years. The Rootes Singers were to be up-market versions of the contemporary Hillmans.

The Gazelle was exactly what Singer needed however as it was much more up to date than Hunter which it had replaced. The old Singer ohc engine though was replaced in the series IIa by the Hillman push-rod unit, leaving the Gazelle as little more than a badge-engineered Hillman. As sales of the Gazelle increased so did the need for a larger car to supplement the range, so in 1961 the Vogue was introduced. The Vogue was more of a luxury car then the smaller Gazelle and was aimed at those who wanted something a bit above the ordinary. It was well equipped, solid and comfortable, to try and retain the same buyers who were attracted to the Hunter in previous years for the same reasons.

The Vogue was the top of the Singer range but a new small car was also needed to compete with the successful Mini, Herald and Anglia. The 1964 Chamois was an upmarket version of the Hillman Imp, built for political reasons, at Linwood in Scotland. Sporting versions followed as did a coupe, but Rootes never used them in competitive motor sport, instead preferring the Sunbeam versions. It was these three models which continued, through many revisions and facelifts throughout the 1960s. The power of the Rootes organisation helping them to sell in much larger numbers than any of the earlier Singers. By 1970 however even Rootes were struggling- they had been taken over by the American Chrysler organisation, Sir William had died, and in April 1970, as part of a rationalisation process, the last Singer rolled off the assembly line, almost 100 years after George Singer built the very first cycle.

Many thanks to Kevin Atkinson (Historian - Singer Owners Club and Author of "The Singer Story") for this information.