A History of Singer Motors: The Rise and Fall of a British Classic

In the annals of British car manufacturing, Singer Motors holds a unique place. It stands as a story replete with innovation, expansion, and an ultimate descent into obscurity. From basic bicycles to one of the UK’s largest carmakers, this is the history of Singer Motors, an astonishing riches to rags story.

Automotive History
1 November 2023

The timeline of Singer Motors starts in 1874 when the forerunner of the eponymous company, Singer & Co., was founded by George Singer. The company began its journey with the production of bicycles and eventually ventured into the world of cars, making a lasting impact on the British automotive industry. The story of Singer Motors is emblematic of the epochal shifts and challenges faced by the industry, as well as the relentless tide of technological evolution. By 1970 the company was gone, and with it, a great name in British motoring history.

Sadly today, Singer is all but forgotten. Yet, delving into the annals of British motoring, the Singer Motors history resurfaces, its impact undeniable. Indeed its journey from bicycles to great cars underscores the transformative years of the car industry and serves as a reminder of a pioneering enterprise that once rivalled the greats in automotive excellence.

This is the history of Singer Motors.

George Singer: Philanthropist & Pioneer

Singer badge (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The history of Singer Motors starts with George Singer. Born around 1847, he was apprenticed to a marine engineering firm in South London, and in the late 1860s, he moved to Coventry to work as an engineer. While at Coventry Machinists, he’s believed to have worked under James Starley, a man dubbed the ‘father of the bicycle industry’. In 1874, Singer, perhaps influenced by Starley’s innovations, left to set up on his own.

Singer & Co was formed to make bicycles and was said to have produced the world’s first safety bicycle. George Singer also developed curved front forks which helped with steering, a feature that appears on bicycles to this day.

A philanthropist who’s said to have looked after his workers, he was elected Mayor of Coventry three times, while the Singers FC football team set up in 1883 by his staff changed its name in 1898 to Coventry City Football Club.

But as the nineteenth century became the twentieth century, George Singer switched his attention from bicycles to cars.

The Birth of Singer Motors

Singer 2-seater sports competing in a trial (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

In 1901, Singer & Co started to experiment with motorised vehicles, which was a common trend among bicycle manufacturers of the time, as the automobile industry was in its infancy.

After a successful period producing tricars – a three-wheeler somewhere between a motorcycle and a car – the first of the four-wheeled Singer Motors’ models was launched. The four-cylinder, 2.4-litre Singer 12/14, marked the company’s fully-fledged entry into the burgeoning British car industry.

George Singer died in 1909, but the Singer Motors’ history was just beginning.

After the launch of the 12/14, the company continued to innovate, introducing various models in quick succession. The Ten, which debuted in 1912, became the company’s first big seller, retailing for £185 with electric lights an optional extra. It’s believed around 6,000 of the 1.1-litre, four-cylinder cars were built, and it even attracted the attention of Lionel Martin. He stripped and tuned his Ten and subsequently won a 100-lap, 277-mile race at Brooklands. It was even said that the Ten influenced the first tranche of cars from Aston Martin.

The Golden Age of Singer

Singer Le Mans 2-seater in the 1934 RSAC Scottish Rally (Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

During World War I, production of Singer cars stopped in favour of munitions and vehicles for the war effort, but during the 1920s, Singer got into its groove. Their cars weren’t glamorous like the Rolls-Royces of the age, but they were affordable, reliable and practical. Indeed by 1928, Singer, renamed Singer Motors Limited the year before, was Britain’s third-biggest carmaker behind Austin and Morris.

One of the most successful Singer Motors’ models, the Singer 10 which launched in 1927, was a particular success. During the following decade, Singer further consolidated its market position.

The company became known for producing a range of cars that catered to various market segments, from economical family cars to more luxurious models. The Singer Nine, introduced in 1932, became one of the company’s iconic models, known for its performance and aesthetic appeal.

However, things were soon to change. Like many car manufacturers after World War II, Singer Motors faced a number of challenges in the post-war period, including material shortages and a changing market landscape.

The Post-War Difficulties

1962 Singer Gazelle convertible (Credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Despite introducing new models such as the SM1500 saloon in 1948, the company struggled to compete with other manufacturers. The global automobile industry was seeing rapid growth and innovation, and several companies were emerging as dominant players.

In the UK, companies like Austin, Morris (part of the British Motor Corporation), and Ford were expanding their market share, offering a range of vehicles that appealed to a broad audience. These manufacturers were adept at mass production, enabling them to produce vehicles more efficiently and cost-effectively. This capability allowed them to price their vehicles more competitively, making it difficult for companies like Singer Motors, which had smaller production capacities and higher production costs, to compete.

Internationally, American and European car manufacturers were also making inroads into the global car market, further intensifying competition. Manufacturers like General Motors and Volkswagen were becoming increasingly influential, setting high standards in both vehicle production and marketing, thereby challenging companies like Singer Motors that were unable to keep pace with the evolving industry landscape.

Singer Motors’ models such as the 9 Roadster series and the SM Roadster offered a brief resurgence, however the company couldn’t overcome the mounting financial difficulties and increased competition. The inability to innovate to the level of its competitors led to a further decline in sales and market share.

In 1955, Singer Motors was acquired by the Rootes Group, effectively ending its independent existence and marking the close of an era in British automotive history.

The Rootes Group

Singer Gazelle (Credit: Fairfax Media Archives / Contributor via Getty Images)

William and Reginald Rootes were British entrepreneurs whose business grew to become one of the UK’s leading car conglomerates by the mid-twentieth century, having acquired household names including Hillman, Humber, Sunbeam, Talbot and Singer, in an effort to broaden its market reach and diversify its vehicle offerings.

With scant regard for the history of Singer Motors, the Rootes brothers were proponents of badge engineering. Also known as rebadging, badge engineering is a cost-saving strategy employed by carmakers wherein a single vehicle design and production is sold under multiple brand and model names. This allows companies to expand their product offerings and reach different market segments without the significant investment and effort typically associated with developing entirely new cars from scratch.

The first of the Singer Motors’ models released under Rootes’ ownership was the Gazelle, a slightly more well-appointed version of the Hillman Minx. Then came the largely uninspiring Vogue which registered a little success, but, it seems, not enough to save the company.

Sir William Rootes died in 1964 and in the same year, American behemoth Chrysler started buying the company in stages, assuming full control by 1967. In 1970, almost a century after George Singer built his first bicycle, the last of the Singer motors rolled off the production line. Within months, the brand was dead.

It’s believed the rights to the Singer brand name are owned by Peugeot, but they appear to have no intention of reviving one of the great names in British automotive history.

The original site of the Singer factory in Coventry is now Singer Hall, a hall of residence used by students at Coventry University.

Singer Motors: The Final Chorus

The interior of a 1962 Singer Gazelle 1600 (Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

From its humble beginnings 1874 to its zenith as a respected car manufacturer and its eventual acquisition by the Rootes Group in 1955, the history of Singer Motors is emblematic of the innovation, growth, and challenges inherent in the automotive industry.

Singer’s struggle to adapt to the rapidly changing landscape of car manufacturing in the post-World War II era, and its inability to compete with emerging automotive giants, culminated in its eventual obscurity. Yet, the legacy of Singer Motors persists as a significant chapter in British automotive history, its contributions serving as a testament to the spirit of enterprise and ingenuity that characterised the early years of the motor car.


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