In 1928, Singer was the third-largest car manufacturer in Britain. By 1970, it no longer existed, despite a history of commercial success and technological innovation. Like SAAB and the other brands that were casualties of recent financial events, they had made mistakes but it was circumstance that delivered the killing blows.
Like many early car manufacturers, Singer was born out of the bicycle industry. George Singer’s Coventry-based business produced a series of cars starting in 1905, and in 1911 struck gold with the Singer Ten (above).
The Ten was the first car that managed to combine light weight with solid build quality. Its talents caught the eye of the young Singer apprentice William Rootes, who bought 50 of them to set up his own business, paying for them by selling his chicken farm. He would go on to become Lord Rootes, a man whose fate would intertwine with Singer’s again many years later. Oddly enough, he also helped found my university and gave his name to the halls I lived in for a year at Warwick.
Anyhow, the Ten cemented Singer’s success, and the First World War brought waves of profits as Singer expanded its manufacturing capabilities and model range.
In 1926, the outdated Ten was replace with the Singer Junior, the first mass-market British car with an overhead camshaft. The new engine propelled Singer to motor racing with the Junior’s successor, the Singer Nine, and its 2-seat derivative, the LeMans (above).
Singer’s racing success in the early ’30s was fairly impressive, but the balance sheets were turning red thanks the depression. The Second World War failed to bring the same soaring profits that WWI had 25 years earlier, and Coventry was been bombed so badly Goebbels coined the word ‘coventrate’ to describe the devastation. Singer’s factory took years to fully repair.
The people at Singer could smile through all this, though, because of something one of their cars had done a few years earlier.
In 1936, the Olympic Games were held in Berlin. The Nazis, being Nazis, were doing all manner of disreputable things, and had an unshakeable conviction that their country was the greatest, uber alles. This extended to motor racing, so an Olympic Rally was held to coincide with the games. The only British entrant to an event everyone expected the Germans to dominate was a 30-year old woman named Betty Haig. She drove to Germany in her Singer 1.1/2 Litre all the way from Birmingham to participate. She was a Singer works driver, and the great-niece of Field Marshall Douglas Haig.
Betty’s Singer never broke down, and 2,000 miles later, she emerged the winner of the only official Olympic motor race ever held. And beat the Nazis! Come on.
And the car still runs. Hollywood should be all over this.
Even so, the depression and the war had taken their toll. Singer’s first postwar cars were based on the Nine, then 13 years old, although the 1500 of 1948 had new, independent front suspension. Not enough was new, however, and the dated styling combined with a high price slowed sales. Not even publicity shots with Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe were enough to make it a hit.
By 1955 Singer’s hourglass was empty. Success had not materialised again, and on December 29th shareholders voted the company be acquired by William Rootes, who arrived a day later in a twist of cosmic coincidence, decades after he first left the factory floor.
I would love to be able to tell you that Lord Rootes and Singer went on to celebrate great and enduring success together, sadly there was no fairytale ending. But before the end, there was the Singer Gazelle.
All Singer really had to look forward to was badge engineering. The Gazelle Series 1 first arrived in 1956 as member of the Audax (‘daring!’) family of cars that included the Hillman Minx and the Sunbeam Rapier. It still had Singer’s workhorse SOHC engine, but shared most of its parts with the other Rootes cars, and eventually gained Hillman’s more modern OHV four.
Singer was positioned above Hillman and below Humber and Sunbeam as a kind of Oldsmobile-esque mid-ladder aspirational target. The Gazelle was available in estate and convertible variants, and it sold well enough, receiving yearly updates, and gradually shedding its more overtly American styling influences like fins and wraparound rear glass. The green Series V pictured here sold about 20,000 units. Howmanyleft.co.uk informs me there are 241 Gazelles left on the roads in Britain, although that includes every year of Gazelle production. Not too shabby!
Singer’s badge: the three spires of Coventry. I dig the still-modern typeface.
The Gazelle name lived on as a badge-engineered version of the Rootes Arrow range of cars, which began production in 1966. These were among the last cars to be entirely designed by Rootes, but by then it was too late. Lord Rootes, who had led policy decisions for the group, had died in 1964. Leaderless, the company lost some £10 million in the 1966/7 financial year, and when Chrysler scooped up Rootes in ’67 the range was gradually rationalised. By 1970, Singer was no more.