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Bad luck doomed Singer auto company

October 27, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

Bad publicity combined with plain old bad luck has proven harmful, if not fatal for many companies.

In no case did this become more apparent than with the Singer car company's humiliating experience resulting from one catastrophic event.

In 1935, fresh from two years of underdog-type racing success including the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans (France) endurance race, the Birmingham, England-based Singer appeared destined for greater things. In those days, as now, auto racing was a popular spectator sport. But unlike today, participating cars were based on those available right from the showroom floor. For manufacturers, racing was an excellent way to showcase both the speed and durability of their products. It could also lead to tragedy, embarrassment and ruin if an equipment failure led to a crash in full view of the public and press.

That year, Singer had prepared four of its one-liter roadsters for a race through the streets of Ards, a coastal town in Northern Ireland. As the contest progressed, all four of the Replicas, as they were called, were either leading or near the top of their class when disaster struck. One of the Singers crashed into an embankment while negotiating a sharp turn, followed by a second at virtually the same spot a few laps later. Then, incredibly, a third team car lost control, smashing into one of the already wrecked racers. There, in full view, three of the Singer "works" cars lay crumpled virtually on top of each other. The driver of the last remaining Replica managed to limp back to the pits without incident. Fortunately, none of the team's drivers were badly injured. A post mortem examination revealed that the steering linkage on all three Singers had failed, resulting in a complete loss of control.

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As word of the accident quickly spread, sales of the "unreliable" Singers dropped sharply and the company ended its factory-sponsored racing activities. Although Singer managed to avoid bankruptcy, business would never be the same for what had once been Britain's third largest automobile manufacturer (behind Austin and Morris).

As with a number of car companies throughout the world, the firm founded by George Singer began by building bicycles as far back as 1875. By the turn of the last century, the addition of an internal combustion engine resulted in the creation of rudimentary two- and three-wheeled motorcycles.

In 1905, Singer produced his first automobile, which led to an entire range of early motorized products. The car that firmly established the company in those early years was the 1912 Singer Ten, named for the amount of horsepower produced by its engine. What made this model so unusual was that its gearbox was positioned inside the rear axle.

Sales of the Singer Ten flourished, aided by significant bulk orders from William Rootes, a young entrepreneur who would years later wind up adding Singer to the group of brands, including Hillman, Talbot and Sunbeam that were assembled by his company.

The onset of World War I resulted in Singer switching to arms manufacturing, which proved to be an extremely profitable endeavor. Flush with cash following the end of hostilities in 1918, Singer embarked on a program of rapid expansion to satisfy the demands of an increasing number of British drivers. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the manufacturer's rapidly increasing production included an assortment of passenger and sports cars, as well as commercial vehicles.

By the time of the Ards debacle, economic conditions resulting from the Great Depression had already begun to take its toll on Singer. Within a year of that fateful race, the company was forced to reorganize, shutting down a number of plants and product lines in the process. After reforming as Singer Motors Ltd., the firm's range of vehicles was limited to a few large sedan models plus the Bantam, a compact two-door entry-level car with a number of sophisticated features. The front suspension was fully independent and its 31-horsepower one-liter SOHC powerplant operated through a four-speed synchromesh gearbox. The Bantam's attractive styling and bargain-basement price were key to its success with the British Working Class.

Following World War II, Singer revived its sports cars, which the company began selling in limited numbers to North American enthusiasts. A fledgling Hollywood starlet by the name of Marilyn Monroe was employed as a spokesmodel in Singer's ad campaign for its Bertone-bodied 1951 SM Roadster.

Still struggling to find its way in the automotive world, the hapless Singer Motors was saved from bankruptcy in 1955 by the Rootes Group, which continued to use the name for its upscale versions of Hillman and Sunbeam coupes and sedans.

As Rootes itself began to flounder, it was taken over by Chrysler in the late 1960s. With too many brands and too few sales, Chrysler management made the decision to eliminate the Singer nameplate, with the last car rolling off the assembly line in April of 1970.

Had circumstances been different, and the results from that long-ago race been more favorable, the once proud and successful automaker might not have succumbed to such a sad ending.

Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' automotive history writer. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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