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 1901 - 1970

John Penn & Sons

George Singer was born in Sussex, in the UK, and spent his first years as a mechanic with the marine engineering firm of John Penn & Sons of Lewisham before he was drawn into the sewing machine industry by Newton, Wilson & Company. He soon moved from London - and Newton, Wilson - to join James Starley at the Coventry Sewing Machine Company.

Starley, works manager of the Coventry firm had come a long way from his days as a gardener on Jon Perm's estate. When Starley and his backer, Josiah Turner, had set up on their own, they had recruited several of the more able mechanics of Newton, Wilson & Company to place the venture on a sound engineering basis; it was a move which eventually had great influence on the just nascent Coventry motor industry.

The Coventry Sewing Machine Company

Apart from Singer, the mechanics included William Hillman and William Henry 'Tubby' Herbert, two of the original partners in the Hillman Company as well as Bayliss (of Bayliss- Thomas). In November 1868 at the age of 21, George Singer had risen to become a foreman of the Coventry Sewing Machine Company - and it was around that time that Josiah Turner's young nephew, Rowley Turner, returned from Paris with the latest 'novelty' from France, a Michaux velocipede, ancestor of the bicycle, with the suggestion that his uncle's firm should begin making similar machines for sale in France

He had already been sounding out the market, and could promise firm orders for 400 of these 'bone shakers' . As the sewing machine industry was then in something of a recession, the company jumped at the idea, and altered its name to the Coventry Machinists' Company to signify its change of direction. Production of velocipedes started in 1869, but expected French sales evaporated when the Franco-Prussian War broke out (Rowley Turner escaped from Paris on his velocipede), and the company was forced to turn to the home market, but, happily, they did this with considerable success.

The First Penny Farthing

Starley and Hillman broke away from the Coventry Machinists' Company in 1870 to produce the Ariel, the first Ordinary (or 'penny-farthing') cycle, designed jointly by the two men; Singer, too, resigned in 1875 to start his own company, in which he was aided by his brother-in-law, J. E. Stringer. Singer, apparently inspired by an amateur cyclist called George Dominy, from Weymouth, in Dorset, had the idea of producing a 'safety' bicycle which would eliminate the tendency of the old Ordinary to tip over forwards should the big front wheel hit a stone or rut, though his design, patented on 24 October 1878, did retain the big driving wheel and small trailing wheel of the original type.

Singer's basic concept was remarkably simple, and can still be seen on modem cycles: he was the first to propose raking the front forks so that a line drawn through the steering centres would strike the ground at the point of contact of the front wheel, which not only made the machine more stable, but also gave self-centring castor action to the steering. In order that the rider could sit low on the machine, keeping the centre of gravity low while retaining the big driving wheel, Singer invented a treadle drive which replaced the rotating action of the pedals: this proved invaluable when in 1890 George Singer built a cycle for his brother Robert, who had one leg shorter than the other, and thus could not ride a pedal cycle: one of the new machines, which were christened 'Xtra Ordinaries', was built with one treadle higher than the other to compensate for Robert's infirmity.

1905 Singer Tricar
1905 Singer Tricar - this model replaced the earlier unstable three-wheeler with a single driven front wheel, two rear wheels and an outrigged seat.

1914 Singer 10hp
1914 Singer 10hp. This model was introduced in 1912 with a 1096cc engine and is considered by many automotive historians as the car that made Singer such a success.

1916 Singer 10
1916 Singer 10, with electric lights and modified windscreen.

1926 Singer Junior
1926 Singer Junior, which was fitted with a 848cc overhead camshaft engine producing 16.5 bhp @ 3250 rpm.

Singer 10 Sports
Singer 10 Sports, which won the 200 miles at Brooklands in 1921, with W. Bicknell driving. The Singer 10 set a lap record of 74.42 miles per hour.

1926 Singer 10/26, whiich would become the Singer Senior
1926 Singer 10/26, whiich would become the Singer Senior. It was powered by a 1308cc engine.

1931 Singer Waterfall 8hp Junior Special
1931 Singer Waterfall 8hp Junior Special. It was called the 'Waterfall' because of the shape of the radiator.

Two Singer 9s after a crash in the 1935 TT
Two Singer 9s after a crash in the 1935 TT. It wasn't driver error, but failed steering on both cars.

1932 Singer Sports Coupe
1932 Singer Sports Coupe, powered by a 972cc overhead cam engine. It was an immediate success in competitive events, eventually giving rise to the Le Mans.

Cockpit of 1951 Singer SM Roadster
Cockpit of 1951 Singer SM Roadster. The car had a 1500cc overhead camshaft engine producing 48 bhp @ 4500 rpm.

1954 Singer 1500 Tourer
1954 Singer 1500 Tourer, the bodywork was evolved from the SM1500.

Singer Gazelle Sedan
Singer Gazelle Sedan.

Singer Gazelle Convertible
Singer Gazelle Convertible.

1969 Singer Gazelle
1969 Singer Gazelle.

The Rational

In 1879 Singer built a tricycle with a large rear wheel and small front wheels which could be folded inwards to allow the machine to be wheeled through narrow passages: in 1885 an improved design of tricycle with one front wheel appeared, with chain drive to a rear axle with differential unit and a band-brake patented by Singer and his associate, R. H. Lea. Around 1888 the company began building diamond-framed safety cycles with both wheels of 30 in diameter: the type was named 'the 'Rational', as it was felt that the new design would logically prevent 'headers' over the handlebars.' But as a result of the new design, owners soon discovered the 'Rational' achieved its safety at the expense of penformance. Yet the design proved popular with touring cyclists, and featured such 'modern' touches as a detachable handlebar and adjustable ball-gearing steering head and slotted rear forks to facilitate removal of the rear wheel.

The Singer Cycle Company

In 1895 the Singer Cycle Company was the subject of a £600,000 flotation by an energetic company promotor Terah HooIey, but managed to survive the sudden slump in the cycle trade which hit Coventry in 1898 and swept away many of the companies floated or refloated by Hooley and his associates, including H.J. Lawson. By now, George Singer was a local citizen of some consequence, holding many civic positions including Mayor of Coventry three years in succession from 1891 - 1893. Considering its links with the Hooley/Lawson empire, the Singer Company was late in entering the motor industry.

It finally did so in 1901 by acquiring the rights to the Perks & Birch Motor Wheel, a self-contained power pack in which a single-cylinder engine and drive gear was contained in an aluminum-spoked wheel, which could be fitted between the front forks of a tricycle or the rear forks of a bicycle. It was a device whose virtues were about equalled by its inherent failings, as the pioneer motorcyclist B. H. Davies recalled: 'Alone among motors of that day, it had a reliable ignition, consisting of a low tension magneto with make and break inside the cylinder. Moreover, it had a transmission devoid of belts, for the engine drove the back wheel direct by spur gears.

'That the noise of its progress would have put a worn-out threshing machine to the blush was no oddity in those days. I liked this mount much. But it passed from my ken when its owner snapped two or three of the back wheel spokes, and had to carry it three miles to his home.' There was also an unstable-looking three-wheeler, the Tri-Voiturette. Stated Singer: The front part of the machine is practically the same as the Tandem Tricycle, but the rear part is designed to carry a second rider, or rather a passenger, the steering and management being effected from the front saddle. The engine is of 2½ bhp. The machine is made in two forms, the No. 1 with the passenger looking backwards, and the No. 2 with this position reversed.'

As the seat was outrigged well behind the rear axle, the stability of the machine must have been perilous with a full load: but there was worse to come ... At the 1902 Cordingley Show at the Agricultural Hall, Islington, Singer showed 'two specimens of the Singer Motor Carrier, one fitted up as an ordinary Tradesman's Carrier and the other especially adapted for Dairymen, having a large churn and a basket fitted'. Imagine having to carry that home if the spokes snapped. This somewhat unsatisfactory device was soon replaced by a tricar of more substantial type, with two front wheels and a rear driving wheel, plus a more powerful engine and a body with a proper seat for the passenger.

The Lea-Francis

Then, in 1905, Singer acquired the licence to build a car which was then being manufactured by R. H. Lea, who had been a Singer employee for 7 years and his partner Graham Ingleby Francis. the most remarkable feature of the Lea-Francis was its engine, designed by Alex Craig; its 15hp horizontal three-cylinder power unit had an overhead camshaft and connecting rods three feet long to give the advantages of a long-stroke engine without it having excessive side-thrust on the pistons. Smooth-running the, Craig engine may have been, but the design was obviously too unorthodox and, in 1906, the Singer range was entirely revamped to contain two light cars, both with, White & Poppe engines, a 7 hp twin and a 12/14 hp four, and two touring cars with Aster power units , a 12/14 and a 20/22hp. There was also a three-cylinder White & Poppe engined Doctor's Brougham. Shaft drive to a live axle was standardised throughout, the range at around this time, and the cars were equipped with 'hinged body; and other features that must appeal to the practical motorist'.

When George Singer died, in January 1909, the company was reorganized, The new Singer cars had a clumsy design of radiator with a circular brass motif on the honeycomb, we assume this was to symbolise a cycle wheel. This motif was retained until 1911. The principal model was the White, & Poppe engined 16/20, 'If you want a really smart, speedy car, luxuriously comfortable, easy to drive rand economical to keep up,' eulogised the Singer Motor Company, 'a car in which every part is as handy and reliable as master engineers can make it, you want a model 16/20 Singer car. It has low front seats, well-removed from the dash; the footboards are sloped to suit the high wind doors, which are included and the rear seats provide ample accommodation for three passengers. The engine has dual ignition and being hung direct from the main frame, instead of from an underframe, is perfectly accessible in every part.

The Lionel Martin Singer and Success at the Aston Hill Climb

In 1912, after experimenting with a transverse-engined air-cooled cyclecar, Singer introduced an excellent 1096 cc four-cylindered light car, marred only by having its three-speed gearbox built in unit with the back axle. It was one of the first 'big cars in miniature' to appear on the market, and possessed a usefully lively performance, which attracted a motor agent from Henniker Mews, Kensington, named Lionel Martin, a former racing cyclist who had recently gone into partnership with Robert Bamford. Martin was looking for a small, high-efficiency car as a foil to his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. He bought the 1912 show model off the company's stand at Olympia, took it back to Henniker Mews and had it completely stripped down.

Fibre inserts were used to silence the tappets, and the camshaft drive was altered so that the cams could be changed merely by removing the radiator and timing cover; then the car was taken over an extended test route so that the effect of various cam profiles could be compared, and the best camshaft for all-round performance could be chosen. The Martin treatment transformed the Singer from a sedate 40 mph runabout into a lively sporting vehicle with a top speed of well over 70 mph, and as a result the Henniker Mews workshops were kept busy tuning Singers; the competition successes of Martin's original hotted-up Singer Ten, especially at the Aston Clinton hill climb, inspired him, when he built a light car of his own design with a Coventry Simplex engine in an Isotta Fraschini chassis, to call it the 'Aston Martin'.

Billy Rootes and Harry Tate

Another historic link came around the same time when young Billy Rootes, who had served his apprenticeship in the Singer factory became an agent for the company's products, which he sold through his mid-Kent motor and cycle agencies. And the famous comedian Harry Tate, whose 'Motoring' sketch had topped the bill at music halls for many years, chose a Singer Ten as his personal car, and embellished it with the registration 'T8'. The little Singer Ten continued in production after World War 1, little changed save for the adoption of a rounded design of radiator shell (which had originally appeared on the few 1915 models to be built) in place of the square-cut cooler of the prewar models.

Though the engine remained unchanged, except in detail, until the end of 1923, the chassis of the Ten was totally redesigned late in 1921. The transmission was now of more orthodox layout, with the gearbox divorced from the back axle and mounted at the head of the torque tube in the middle of the chassis; quarter-elliptic springs replaced the semi-elliptics of the earlier model, and Michelin disc wheels were standardised. Price was UK£395 in two-seater form, with neat drop-head 'all-weather' coachwork with wind up windows. There was, temporarily, a smaller addition to the company's range: but it was an addition by adoption, as during 1921 Singer had acquired Coventry-Premier, manufacturers of motorbikes and cyclecars, and for a while a four-wheeled Coventry-Premier with a watercooled V-twin engine of 1005cc was offered at £250. In 1922 it acquired a Singer four-cylinder power unit, but production of this sub-marque ceased the following year.

Also new for 1922 was the first six-cylinder Singer to reach production status. It had a 15 hp engine of 1999cc, and was designed to 'provide remarkably comfortable motoring at moderate cost'. With a mono-bloc cylinder casting on an aluminum crankcase, the engine was a neat, if somewhat dated, design - after all, a non-detachable cylinder head with valve caps was a feature of Edwardian rather than vintage light car design, where the detachable head was rapidly becoming commonplace equipment. Apart from semi-elliptic front suspension and cantilever springing at the rear, the chassis of the 15 hp was similar in design to the new 10 hp; it incorporated a neat luggage grid which could be slid away beneath the rear of the body when not in use.

Using Weymann Fabric Bodies

Singer were well ahead of the fashion in offering a six of such modest capacity - in 1924 it could even be specified with Weymann fabric coachwork, again anticipating a coming vogue-and it seems as though sales during the vintage period were modest. In 1923 the power unit of the Ten was neatly modernised with a conversion to overhead valves, operated by exposed pushrods, and the old bi-block cylinders were changed to a monobloc casting. For 1924, the pushrods were enclosed, and a Weymann saloon (sedan) was available on the Ten chassis, too. At the 1924 Olympia Show, a new light Singer, the 10/26, replaced the old Ten: with an engine enlarged to 1308cc, it was a far more modern-looking vehicle than its predecessor, and sold well, aided by competitive pricing which ranged from UK£195 for the 'Popular' four-seater to UK£295 for the Saloon Limousine De Luxe.

The Singer Junior

Singer sales soared steadily during the mid-1920s until the company became the third- biggest British car manufacturer following Morris and the Austin organization. For 1927, the quarter-elliptic front springing of the 10/26 was replaced by semi-elliptics, the better to withstand the stresses imposed by the front-wheel brakes which had been adopted the previous year. Another high point of 1926 had been the acquisition of the moribund Calcott company, a maker of quality light cars since 1912: their factory in Far Gosford Street, Coventry, became the spares and service division of Singer. A major step forward came at the 1926 Motor Show, with the introduction of the 848cc Singer Junior, whose diminutive overhead camshaft engine was to be the progenitor of Singer power units for the next three decades.

The Singer Senior

At first the Junior, costing only UK£148 in four-seater tourer guise, had rear-wheel brakes only but four-wheel brakes came the following year. The 10/26 became the 'Senior', while there was a new overhead-valve Six, basically an enlarged Senior, with a 1776cc engine and Clayton Dewandre vacuum servo-assisted four-wheel brakes. And the company's advertising went a little overboard ... 'A passport to Fairyland ... A Singer Car can be the key to untold enjoyment, the constant source of discovery of something new. Whatever the mood or fancy, the Singer will respond. Discover England afresh with a Singer, let her take you to pastures new, away from the madding crowd and the hurly-burly of everyday life. Somewhere there is a road to rolling slopes and the music of running water - to a sleepy old-world village full of charm - to the coast and the sea where you can take your fill of pure ozone. The Singer will take you safely and bring you back. There is a Singer Car waiting for you from £148 10s.'

Continuing their policy of 'a car for every Purse and Purpose', Singer carried out a comprehensive redesign of the Senior for 1928, increasing the engine capacity to 1571cc and fitting three crankshaft main bearings instead of two (which also enabled, thanks to the increased length of the cylinder block, the valves to be arranged in line instead of staggered). The chassis had a wider track and improved braking and steering, features also to be found on the Junior and Six. An odd sidelight on Singer history is that the redesign of the Senior apparently left several hundred 1927-type chassis surplus to requirements: fitted with a new radiator shell cast from aluminum and van bodywork, these were sold off under the guise of the 'Singer Delivery' at UK£180 each.

The Singer 'Porlock'

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the restyling of the bodywork for the 1928 season was the introduction of what was then known as 'Sun' saloon coachwork, and which was later marketed under the name 'As-U-Dryve'. At first glance this seemed to be a slightly ponderous-looking form of fabric saloon, but closer inspection revealed that the top and rear of the body were made of hood material. A handle operated endless chains running all round the perimeters of the body sides winding the hood back into a recess behind the rear seats on fine days. At the end of 1928 one of the attractive little sporting two-seater Singer Juniors set up a curious record by climbing the 1:4 Porlock Hill 100 times in 15 hours; and after that the model was known as the 'Porlock'.

It was joined a year later by a Sportsman's Coupe on the same chassis, a somewhat un-proportional 2+ 2 which was one of the first of this type to be offered on such a small chassis. The Senior was dropped in the autumn of 1929, to be replaced by a new Six of 1792 cc with side valves and a four bearing crankshaft: the seven-bearing ohv model was continued as the 'Super-Six', now with a capacity of 1921cc, and a four-speed transmission, plus centralised chassis lubrication operated by a pedal in the driving compartment. For 1931 the Junior acquired a four-speed transmission, and there was a new Ten, with a 1261cc four-cylinder engine, similar in design to the side-valve six.

The Singer range was beginning to take on an unnecessary complication, which grew to ridiculous proportions with the announcement of the 1932 range, which featured redesigned chassis, ribbon radiators and sliding sunshine roofs. There was now a Junior Special of 972cc in addition to the 848cc model; the Ten continued alongside these, while there was now a new sidevalve 12/6, of 1476cc as well as the sidevalve 18/6, with an increased engine capacity of 2041cc and the ohv Silent-Six, now of 2180cc. Most expensive model in the range was the vee-radiatored Kaye Don saloon, styled by C. F. Beauvais, on the Silent-Six chassis, priced at £480; the Junior Special saloon was a miniature reproduction of this model, with the same flared wings.

Leo J. Shorter and the Singer Nine

In 1932, a new chief engineer was appointed. He was Leo J. Shorter, who had formerly worked with Duryea, Humber, Sunbeam, Arrol-Johnston, Calcott and Coventry-Climax: in conjunction with two other designers, one of whom was A. G. Booth, formerly with Clyno and AJS, he drew up plans for a new sporting Singer Nine, which was launched at the Motor Show that year. Hydraulic brakes were standardised on all models, except the Kaye Don, which was totally restyled, and which retained the Dewandre servo-assistance. There was also a new 14 hp six, similar in design to the new Nine power unit, with a chain-driven overhead camshaft; the old Junior and Ten had vanished, though the Ten was replaced by a new sidevalve 12.

The new Sports Nine proved an immediate success in reliability trials, and a special car built for Le Mans gave the model its generic name (though the true Singer Le Mans with fully-machined, counter-balanced crankshaft was a rather rare beast). At the 1933 Motor Show, it was announced that the Singer 'Perm-Mesh' clutchless gearchange was to be adopted throughout the range, which now included a new 1½-liter six-cylinder sporting model. For 1935, the Nine, Eleven and 16 hp models featured independent front suspension, while Fluidrive transmissions were fitted to the two larger cars.

The Singer Nine Bantam

The 1384cc Eleven was new, as was the 2-liter 16hp: both followed the general design of the Nine. The Eleven was available with full-width Airstream coachwork, it being launched well before the Chrysler Airflow made any impact on the European markets. The excellent reputation which the sporting Singers had built up was dashed to pieces in the 1935 Ulster TT, in which all three team cars were eliminated in a spectacular series of crashes due to steering failure, the cars going out on separate laps, but crashing in the same spot. A new Singer Nine, the Bantam, was introduced at the 1935 Motor Show. The fact that Singer had lost the ability to lead the light car market was shown by the fact that body styling on this car was a blatant copy of the Ford Model Y (which Morris had already copied closely with their Eight). Priced at UK£127, it cost far more than either of its rivals, and falling sales soon had Singer in financial trouble again.

Sales continued their downward drift during the 1930s, and some points of specification actually retrogressed during the period, the Nine went back to mechanical brakes for 1939. Just before the war, Leo Shorter was working on the development of a new two-pedal transmission, though this failed to make production. For a while, the pre-war models continued in production, though Singer's ugly sporting tourer was hardly a rival to the MG TC. Shorter was by now technical director, and for 1948 he produced a new, modern Singer, the SM1500, with streamlined, full-width coachwork and coil-spring independent front suspension.

The Singer SM1500

But Singer had fallen too far, and the SM1500 failed to put them back in the big league. Interestingly enough, Shorter was already looking at alternative power sources, and during the early 1950s tested a steam-driven version of the SM1500 (though Singer vehemently denied all knowledge of it). The de-luxe Hunter of 1955 failed to save the day (and its optional extra twin ohc power unit probably never reached the public), and early in 1956 the company's former agents, Rootes, absorbed Singer.

The Singer Gazelle of late 1956 was thus little more than an up-market version of another Rootes model, the Hillman Minx, although the old single ohc engine was retained-but only until 1958. After that, Singer became a badge-engineered marque only, falling somewhere between Hillman and Humber in the Rootes Group. In the late 1960s the range consisted of the Imp-based Chamois, the Gazelle and the Vogue, but the latter two models had already been phased out when the marque was finally wound up in April 1970, just 95 years since George Singer had set up on his own.

Also see: Singer Car Reviews
1914 Singer 10hp
1914 Singer 10hp.
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