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Singer Company History

In the late 1880's George Singer, cycle manufacturer of Coventry, sold one of his machines to the Queen of Portugal and from then until the demise of the marque his name has been associated with quality both in his motor cycles and later still, his cars.

The first Singer car - a two seater three-wheeler with pneumatic tyres a spare wheel and full all-weather equipment made its appearance in 1905. In 1908 after a successful outing in the round Britain One Thousand Miles trial, George Singer placed on the market four models ranging from a 7.9hp twin cylinder type to a 24.8hp four-cylinder, the latter using White and Poppe engines. While not particularly exciting, the range did firmly establish the company in the hierarchy of Britain's young motor industry.

Photo of 1913 Singer 10hp
1913 Singer 10hp

It was around 1912-13 that Singers hit the headlines in a really big way with the introduction of the ‘Ten’, a two seater with a channel-steel chassis, four cylinder engine and a gearbox incorporated in the back axle. Offering great reliability (and 40 miles to the gallon), with a practical size of engine and body, the ‘Ten’ broke right away from the air-cooled, chain driven cyclecar so popular at the time and was, in effect, Britain's first big car in miniature. It sold at £185 (electric lights £9 15s extra). It made a sensational debut at Brooklands where, stripped down and tuned by Lionel Martin (later of Aston Martin fame) and B. Haywood, it won a 100 lap (277 mile) stock car race limited to four-cylinder models at 57.49 mph and up to the time of the last pre-war race in 1914 had captured all the one to nine hours' Brooklands records for the under 1100cc class.

The Singer factory was diverted to war work and the ‘Ten’ saw active service in France, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Italy and Salonika. By 1919 Singers were back in production with ten main products, the ‘Ten’ with considerable modifications to the styling, being by far the best seller. Prices rose steadily owing to the post-war inflation, and reached their peak in 1921 when Singers introduced a clever sales idea in the form of a free comprehensive insurance policy with each ‘Ten’ sold.

During the following years the highlights included the production in 1923 of a £250 four-seater family car, with a 10hp overhead valve engine; fabric saloons that were ahead of their time in 1924; and then in 1927 the famous ‘Junior’, which was powered by a new 848cc chain driven overhead camshaft engine. It was this remarkably advanced and potent engine that fathered the very successful sports cars of the 1930's and from it stemmed the series that really did not end until 1958. Singers were the first British manufacturer to fit independent front wheel suspension and a clutchless gearchange achieved by the use of a fluid coupling and, with something like forty types of cars, ranked as the United Kingdom's third largest manufacturer.

Photo of 1931 Junior Saloon
1931 Junior Saloon

By 1934 the firm was producing four and six cylinder engines from 8hp to 18hp with side valves, overhead valves, overhead camshafts - the lot! It was also in 1934 that Singers produced the Airstream, a streamlined pillarless four door saloon with built-in headlamps. Jack Payne the dance band leader, liked it clearly for other reasons - he bought fourteen, all in the same colour, for the members of his band.

Photo of 1934 Singer Airstream
1934 Singer Airstream

In those days - in fact right up to 1937 - all Singer cars carried a twelve month guarantee against the need of a re-bore within 25000 miles. The practice then was to have the symmetrical cylinder blocks ‘weathered’ in the open air for twelve months before allowing them to be taken to the machine shops.

The success of this method was proved at least by one satisfied customer who came from Fort William in Scotland. In 1934 he bought a Singer 11hp saloon which, up to the early part of the war, had covered 74,000 miles. Petrol restrictions compelled him to store away the car, but he took out the engine, fitted it with a copper gasket, and attached it to a small fishing boat. The engine ran throughout the war on paraffin but then reverted to its original role, and clocked up a further 46,000 road miles and it could still be going strong!

All the excitement, the triumphant joy and the despair attached to motor racing, came the way of Sales Manager Jack Kaddy and his colleagues when, in the early 30's Singer officially re-entered the competition world. In 1933 the Singer Nine became the first unsupercharged car under 1100cc to qualify for the Rudge-Whitworth Biennial Cup in the Le Mans 24-hour Race, and this ushered in a most successful range in the Nine and 1½ Litre sports car categories to such an extent that during the 1934-35 season over a thousand privately owned Singers took part in competition, winning seven hundred premier awards.

It was a period of high drama and heartbreak too as when a team of three Nines driven by Sammy Davis, Norman Black and Alf Langley all crashed in turn at the same corner, Bradshaw's Brae, in the 1935 Tourist Trophy Race held on the Ards Circuit. One piece of faulty steel, a chance in a million, had created a steering ball joint failure. Never before, recalled the widely experienced Sammy Davis, had an entire team of racing cars been destroyed at the same point in one race miraculously without harming one of the drivers. Davis also recollected that after the disaster, just to prove that it was a freak fault, he blazed his rebuilt car up the hill at Shelsley Walsh.

Photo of 1935 Disaster at Ards
1935 Disaster at Ards

Then onto another war and this time from the five Singer factories came a miscellany of vital armaments - air frames for Wellington bombers, guntrailers, shell cases, pumps, Spitfire engine mountings, landing gear for aircraft and fuselages for the Halifax and wing panels.

The 9hp Singer Roadster was launched in March 1939 as an attractive up to date 2-door 4-seater open top car with a boot that housed the spare wheel. The chassis was underslung at the rear and was powered by a modern 1074cc overhead-camshaft engine that had been recently developed for Singer's Bantam saloon car, and the car sold briefly until the Second World War interrupted production. In 1946 Singers were keen to get Roadster production re-started and a slightly improved car called the A model emerged. The car had grown about 6 inches in length to give rear-seat passengers some more legroom, and there were other detailed modifications. In September 1949 a 4-speed gearbox was added to produce an export-only 4A model.

Photo of 1939 Singer 9 Roadster
1939 Singer 9 Roadster

All Roadsters to date had had the reliable 1074cc 9hp engine, which with a larger cylinder bore also powered the Super Ten saloon's 10hp engine thereby giving Singers some commonality of production. Meanwhile however, Singers had been developing a 1500 cc engine for their new SM1500 Saloon car, which was launched in October 1948 to supersede their pre-war designed Super Ten and Super Twelve Saloons. Singers therefore had available a more powerful engine to fit into the Roadster and get the benefit from mass-producing it. Obviously the Roadster's engine bay needed to be enlarged to accept the physically bigger engine, and as part of the restyling the car received sleeker wings and a shorter radiator grille and was fitted with independent front suspension and larger, now hydraulic, front brakes even if the rear brakes were still operated mechanically.

This revised design of Roadster actually appeared in three versions. For a while the 4AB was put on the home market with the existing 9hp engine; the 4AC was to be a 1200 cc reduced bore version of the new 1500 cc engine, but only a dozen or so were made but the modern 1500 cc engine saw full production with the model 4AD (export only until 1953), and having twin carburettors available in 1952 (initially for export) in the 4ADT. Very significantly, the redesign of the Roadster gave it the option of left hand drive for the all important export markets, and the car sold remarkably well in America thanks to the post-war devaluation of the British pound and a lot of celebrity patronage there - Marilyn Monroe, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Sammy Davis Jr and other top film stars like Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn were all seen with Roadsters.

Rarer than the 4AC cars was just a handful of the completely new look SMX Roadsters that had newly developed plastic bodywork, and had smooth lines that were later reflected in the new Hunter saloon of 1954 the Hunter itself being an update of the SM1500 Saloon.

Economic difficulties that developed in the post war period were overcome when the Singer shareholders accepted an offer to enter the Rootes organisation and on December 30th 1955 the late Lord Rootes returned to the factory for the first time since working there as a penny-an-hour apprentice. His message to Singers took the form of a promise - a promise "to inject new life into the arteries of this old and distinguished firm."

The immediate result was the Singer Gazelle, the forerunner of quality, medium-sized cars that achieved a significant sales increase since the Rootes Group rescued the marque from oblivion. The Gazelle was continually developed through a series of models. The Vogue launched in 1961 should have been the Gazelle Mk IV but because it was larger, heavier and more expensive it was decided to make it an addition to the range and given a new name. For a time the promise of 1955 looked as though it would be fulfilled but in the event the badge engineering to produce the Vogue and Chamois proved a useful sales ploy but prevented Singer from developing its own identity under Rootes. In the late 1960's Rootes/Chrysler saw the need to rationalise, the continued existence of Singer came under scrutiny and in 1970 the once famous marque was abandoned completely.

Photo of (Left) 1957 Singer Gazelle, (Centre) 1962 Singer Vogue, (Right) 1968 Singer Chamois
(Left) 1957 Singer Gazelle, (Centre) 1962 Singer Vogue, (Right) 1968 Singer Chamois

* With thanks to Kevin Atkinson and ‘The Singer Story’.

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