Like many European manufacturers, this week’s article starts in the 19th century with a company making bicycles – Singer were a successful maker of bicycles, motorcycles and then later cars.
George Singer started making bicycles in 1875 in Coventry in the UK. Coventry was the heart of bicycle making at the time. With the advent of the internal combustion engine, Singer developed a motorwheel – an engine, fuel tank and wheel combination that was of 222cc capacity. They were fitted to the bicycles before the company moved into making real motorbikes.
In 1905, Singer signed an agreement with Lea-Francis to use one of their designs for a new car and this gave them the time to design their own car fitted with an engine developed by Aster, a French company who manufactured in the UK for several different companies.
The 12/14 used a 2.4 litre motor and was successful enough for the Lea-Francis model to be dropped in favour of a new version with a White and Poppe engine. White and Poppe were based in Coventry and so the logistics were much improved and this resulted in the Aster engines being dropped soon after.
Singer seemed to be using these agreements to buy time before they produced their own components. The White and Poppe engine was used until they could get their own 1100cc engine working in the Model Ten. This car was a breakthrough for the market that was still buying chain driven cyclecars. The Ten had a gearbox built into the back axle and used a steel box chassis. It’s reputation was helped by a racing version campaigned successfully at Brooklands by Lionel Martin – the founder of Aston Martin – and the fact that it could do 40 miles per gallon.
The Ten was unusual in that the factory continued to build them during World War 1 and they were all shipped to the British Army. Most manufacturers changed to make armaments or other equipment.
After the war, all cars used Singer manufactured bodies and engines with the Ten being updated with a new engine design using an overhead cam configuration. By the end of the 1920s, the Ten had a 1300cc engine and was joined by the chain driven Junior with an 850cc overhead cam motor. They were also #3 in the UK market behind Austin and Morris with a range of sporty saloons and two seater convertibles. In fact they had nearly 40 variants of models on the market!
The Junior was upgraded in the mid 1930s to the Bantam that was exported as kits to Australia and built locally. The Bantam came in a variety of configurations with 1 litre engines and were direct competitors to the Austin and Morris powerhouses. Singer were also being campaigned successfully in sports car racing during the 1930s, competing in many races including Le Mans.
Like many manufacturing companies, Singer produced equipment for the war effort during the 1940s including parts for bombers and the Spitfire fighter. After World War 2, Singer got back into production with the pre-war models before releasing the SM1500 saloon in 1948 – a technically advanced car but expensive for a market that was coming out of a wartime economy. This didn’t help sales and because of this, the company started to flounder financially.
The company was saved by the Rootes Group who acquired it in 1956. Lord Rootes had been an apprentice with Singer and promised to rebuild the company. Rootes’ claim to fame was the badge engineering that they did on their different models. For the next 20 years, Singer cars were basically rebadged Hillmans and joined Humber, Sunbeam and the rest of the Group as a way to sell into a specific market segment. This certainly helped increase sales for the marque but didn’t do anything for originality in design.
As an example, the Singer Gazelle was a Hillman Minx with the first version fitted with a Singer engine before it was discontinued. The Vogue was a larger Minx and became a rebadged Hillman Hunter and the Singer Chamois was a luxury version of the Hillman Imp – the car that killed the company.
With the Rootes Group being acquired by Chrysler in 1967, the Singer brand was one of the first to go, being dropped in 1970. Sadly, Rootes and Chrysler stripped an innovative brand of its qualities before dumping it unceremoniously in favour of the American brand.