Originally published in AutoWeek in August 8, 1983.
It must’ve been rather bleak at Singer Motors as 1956 approached. The Birmingham firm predated the automobile as a manufacturer of bicycles, and it entered the motor business in 1901. By 1928, Singer ranked third among all British private car manufacturers. But sales had slackened through the early ’50s, and nothing the company could do seem to have any effect.
Singer had enjoyed the post-World War II sellers market with both prewar square-cut saloons and a 1074cc roadster. The entire saloon line was replaced in 1948 with a single model styled in the shrunken-American idiom.
The roadster had lived before the war as the Singer Nine, and it was true to the stylistic requirements of the ’30s. A vertical bar grille stood erect between traditional fenders and freestanding headlamps, and behind the fold-down windscreen and twin-humped cowl was a suitably “beaver-tailed” rear end. Singer had been an able competitor to MG at home, especially in reliability trials, so surely the Birmingham firm to give Abington a run for the money of Americans who had just discovered the sports car.
The Singer and the MG were similar in their “British traditional” styling; acceleration and top speed were very close, and in talented hands the Singer’s handling was sufficient to make it at least a match for an MG. But whereas the MG sported a pushrod engine, the Singer had an overhead cam mill. The benefits of the chain-driven OHC with rocker-actuated valves on opposite sides of the combustion chambers were somewhat negated, however, by the perverse doubling back of the exhaust port to an exit on the intake side of the engine. A crossflow design would have seemed a natural. The Singer, in its final form, also had 250cc on its Abington rival, and although this didn’t show in acceleration, a solid bottom end of torque added flexibility around town and on the racetrack.
Much was made of the Singer’s dual-purpose abilities. It was frequently pointed out that the engine would pull from 10 MPH in fourth gear, and even more important was the Singer’s seating for four, thanks to the padded shelf masquerading as a back seat. Even with the top up, it was boasted, a six-footer could be accommodated – though they failed to mention that he’d be short on legroom and the his head would cause a bulge in the canvas well above window level.
The Singer Roadster was also touted as track ready. Note the aluminum body, they said, better than you-know-who’s steel skin. Singer Motors also had destroked the 1.5-liter saloon engine from 1506cc to 1497cc for eligibility in the under-1500cc class, one and a half liters being the great divide in both stock and modified class racing of the day.
The 1.5-liter engine was introduced in 1952 and, along with the special dual carb model in 1953, was the ultimate form for the Singer Roadster. Designated the 4AD by the factory, it never seemed very clear what the commercial moniker was supposed to be. It would be referred to variously as the Singer Roadster, the Singer SM Roadster, the Singer 1500, the Singer Sports Roadster, and the Singer 1500C. The confusion wasn’t just with the public or the press. The last two names listed were from ads placed by the American importer.
The 4AD designation evolved from the first roadsters produced after the war, known as the A series. Substituting a Singer-built four-speed for the three-speed of the A constituted a 4A. The 4AB came with coil spring front independent suspension in place of the solid front axle. The 4AC was a never-produced prototype, and finally the 4AD name came about when the 1074cc engine yielded to the bigger saloon motor.
One of the twin carb models survived to be restored by Rich Carnegie of Elkton, Maryland, who then became a Singer enthusiast. It takes a sense of humor to champion the cars today, however, especially in the face of people who, in either jest or full seriousness, try to associate the car with the sewing machine manufacturer. Of course, there is no relationship. But Carnegie is not alone. For camaraderie and consolation, there’s the North American Singer Owners Club.
Carnegie’s Singer is excellently restored, period correct down to the 5.00×19 bias-ply whitewalls. And everything works, including the trafficators. It’s a left-hand-drive export model, so one squeezes through the small door on the left side and under the large wire-sprung steering wheel. Ignition on and hit the starter. The engine settles into an easy idle, but as you hit the throttle, profoundly undersquare (73×98.4mm) sounds burbled back through the Solex downdraft carburetors.
Don’t look for a tachometer, however, to help you count burbles per minute. There isn’t one, only a speedometer and a combination ammeter, oil pressure and fuel gauge.
The shift lever is short and located so far forward that to put it in first you must lean forward, but it snicks into gear with a distinctly British accent. The Singer lives up to advance billing as a torquer, relatively speaking, and accumulates speed at a 20-second quarter-mile rate. Given enough room top speed is around 80. It feels quick, but that’s largely a function of the short wheelbase and low-cut doors.
With the top up, the canvas comes so low it’s more like you’re wearing a hat, one of those oversized sombreros the tourists bring home on Aeromexico, and at full droop at that. But, of course, the Singer is meant to be driven with the top – and preferably the windscreen – in the down position.
Corners bring out another facet of the Singer’s personality, its neutral handling: it doesn’t really care which end slides out first, and both ends do their darndest to take the honors. Really, tires have come a long way in 30 years. To the Singer’s credit, the little roadster corners flat and responds well to efforts at the helm to correct the contretemps of the tires.
Braking is another matter. Singer used Girling’s “Hydromechanical” system, which is another way of saying hydraulic front brakes, and mechanical brakes at the rear. Not that it usually gives any cause to pause, but it still makes you wonder. Oddly enough, Singer had once gone over to full hydraulic braking on all but its biggest cars by 1935, but from that point retreated to where that Nine was being fitted with mechanical brakes by the outbreak of the war. The Hydromechanical system was Singer’s apparent compromise. At least no tradition-bound Englishmen needed to trust his life solely to a thin column of liquid.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the Singer, however, was its appearance. Although it had all the hallmarks of the square-rigged British sportster, it wasn’t assembled quite right. To make room for the two extra passengers, the driver was moved forward, thus making the hood too short and giving the front fenders wholly the wrong curve. The top, if strange look out of, was even stranger to look at. It was tall, highest toward the rear, and gave the overall appearance of carrying so much sail that she would capsize with the next strong blow.
In truth, comparing his performance against its rivals, appearance may have done the poor Singer in, for the hoped-for market niche for a four-place sports car really didn’t exist. That, combined with Singer’s lack of financial ability to make the changes necessitated by such newcomers as the TR-2 and the MGA, doomed the company.
Production peaked in 1951 with 6,358 cars; 3,300 roadsters were made in 1950, the banner year for the open car. By 1954, roadster output slipped to 381, and a streamlined fiberglass roadster prototype was met with sincere yawn. In 1955, only 189 roadsters were built. Rootes bought out Singer Motors in early 1956. Though the Singer OHC engine was used until 1958, and the name survived until 1970, the song of the Singer, one of the oldest in the automotive industry, had ended.