If owners of British sports cars revel in their roles as feisty, quirky underdogs -- and trust us, they do -- then the happiest owners of all might be those who drive Singer Roadsters. The car and the brand all but retreated from our shores more than two decades before most of its peers, leaving a small band of loyalists to resist the tyranny of more common (and very similar looking) MGs. Do not, we repeat, do not, ask them if their car is an MG.
In fact, Singer dates back far earlier than MG (it also has nothing to do with the eponymous sewing machines). Founder George Singer started building bicycles bearing his name in Coventry, England, in 1874, transitioning to motorcycles and cars around the turn of the century. By 1908, Singer sports cars were racing at Brooklands. The company persevered through the death of its founder in 1909 and the first of what would be several reorganizations, and it prospered in the years leading up to and following World War I. It peaked as the third-best-selling British automaker in 1929 and scored a series of strong Le Mans finishes in the early 1930s.
This go-fast strategy eventually crashed, both literally and figuratively: a front-suspension defect sent three Singer drivers into the dirt near the same corner of the 1935 Tourist Trophy race in Northern Ireland, and a bloated product line sapped profits. The Nine Roadster, introduced after another restructuring, thus focused more on comfort and simplicity than all-out performance. It was available only in four-seat configuration and shared most of its suspension and powertrain -- a 1074-cc four-cylinder and a three-speed manual -- with the Singer Bantam sedan. The aluminum-bodied, wood-frame Roadster rolled out of a modernized factory in 1939, before the British war effort sucked up all of Singer's production capacity.
When peacetime production resumed in 1946, the Roadster, essentially a one-year-old car, showcased several updates, including a stiffer chassis and a roomier cabin. Like other British brands during this period, Singer shifted its focus to favor exports. The Roadster sold reasonably well, finding nearly 13,000 mostly American and Australian buyers. It received continual updates throughout the period, most notably a four-speed transmission (for 1950), an independent front suspension (1951), an increase in engine displacement to 1497 cubic centimeters (1952, when the name officially became SM Roadster), and dual carburetors (1953). And, despite its grand touring pretensions and a lack of factory support, the car proved to be a tough competitor on the burgeoning American road-racing scene. The Roadster's overhead-cam engine and lightweight aluminum body gave it a decided edge over the much more common steel-bodied MG T-series, which in most iterations relied on a 1250-cc overhead-valve four-cylinder.
The Singer swagger was on full display when sixty-six-year-old Dave Norton, who kindly offered his 1954 Roadster for us to drive, brashly challenged us to find an MG TC or TD so that we could "appreciate how much better Singers are."
"I think it will become pretty clear that Singers are both more fun and more practical today than MGs," he said.
We shall fight on the beaches! Actually, on the country roads around Norton's Michigan home, where we find not only his banana yellow Singer but also a green '53 TD, brought along by his eighty-two-year-old friend Jack Steeb, a retired car dealer. The resemblance between the two cars is hard to deny. Frankly, the MG's styling, with its artfully flared front fenders, speaks to us more, although we love the Singer's lacquer finish.
But Norton is right. After driving both cars, it's clear that the Singer is the more tractable machine. Even though the TD and the Roadster each achieved a top speed of about 80 mph in contemporary tests, only the Singer feels like it can comfortably keep up with today's traffic. Its 58-hp engine and taller gearing allow it to cruise at 50 mph, and it soaks up bumps well for a nearly sixty-year-old sports car with a leaf-spring rear suspension (modern radial tires don't hurt, either). We recommend goggles if you're going to motor with the windshield down, and there's a bit of slack in the manual steering, but that likely reflects the fact that this car is, by Norton's proud admission, hardly a freshly restored example.
Norton, a mild-mannered retired geologist, has owned the Singer since 1972. He spotted it for sale for $800, and although he wasn't a Singer enthusiast at the time, he couldn't resist the solid frame and straight body. He had to borrow $200 from his new wife, Ellen, who apparently tolerated that endeavor just as she currently tolerates the three disassembled Rileys and the 2004 Maserati Spyder in his garage and shed. He restored and repainted the Singer over the next decade and has been enjoying it ever since, putting on about 4000 miles. He removed the grimy vinyl dash cover, revealing nice wood underneath. The extreme rarity of Singer parts has forced him to be resourceful; he molded his own antiroll-bar bushings, for instance.
"You decide early on if you're fooling with old cars that it really can't be that hard to fix something," he says.
The Singer fires up smoothly and quickly settles into a happy mechanical chatter. The transmission, with its nonsynchronized first gear, takes some concentration, as do the brakes, which are hydraulic in front and mechanical in back. As a whole, however, the utilitarian prewar looks belie driving dynamics that are better than those of most of its contemporaries. Indeed, design editor Robert Cumberford recalls driving a Singer back in 1953 and thinking it was "vastly superior to typical American cars, more nimble and responsive."
A hint of what might have followed appeared at the 1953 London motor show, where Singer showed the fiberglass-bodied, modern-looking SMX Roadster. By that time, however, Singer was hemorrhaging too much cash to build more than a handful. In late 1955, the Rootes Group bought the company and quickly ended production of the Roadster, which with its handmade body didn't exactly support the new low-cost business plan. The Singer name lived on for another fifteen years, mostly on rebadged Hillmans, but had almost no presence in the U.S. market. That's probably how Norton and his fellow Singer drivers like it.
"Owning a Singer is a lot like going down the road less traveled. It leads to heaven," says Norton.
1.1L OHC I-4, 36-37 hp; 1.5L OHC I-4, 48-58 hp
3- or 4-speed manual
Rigid axle, leaf springs (1939-1950); control arms, coil springs (1951-1956)
Live axle, leaf springs
About 12,700, of which some 3450 had the 1500-cc engine
Because it has the same selling points it did in the 1950s: it's cheaper, lighter, faster, and easier to drive on public roads than a comparable MG. The fact that it's much rarer will make you look all that much more sophisticated at local British car gatherings, too. Singers are also less rust-prone because of their aluminum bodies. Be sure to check the wood frame for rot, though. Look for a later example, because pre-1952 Roadsters lack an independent front suspension and have a smaller engine. The many subtly different versions of this car go by the names Nine Roadster, 9 h.p. Roadster, 4A, 4AB, 4AD, 4ADT, SM Roadster, and SM1500. Finding replacement parts will require some resourcefulness, but there's a healthy and friendly knowledge base in the form of the North American Singer Owners Club (www.singercars.com).