Rescued 40-plus years ago, this Singer still hums a happy tune

Photography by John Webber

Howard Howerth went looking for a Jaguar XK120. He found something even rarer languishing in a rickety garage behind an Ann Arbor fraternity house: a derelict 1952 Singer Roadster. 

The year was 1980.

This tiny orphan seemed an unlikely choice for Howard, who had never owned a sports car. His hobby was restoring hulking Packards three times this car’s size. Still, he paid $500 for the Singer and had it hauled home, ignoring the cautionary “as is” scrawled across the sales slip. 

The Singer–this one carrying model designation 4AD–was to become an eight-year project for Howard and his son Bill. Then in his 20s, Bill was a muscle car guy who built and raced fast street and drag cars, including a supercharged Comet Cyclone. 

The Singer’s four cylinders and 48 horsepower did not impress. “He brings this thing home,” Bill recalls, “and I take one look at it and said, ‘Dad, I don’t know what it is or where you found it, but I think you should take it back.’” 

Dad, stung but determined, defended his buy, and the pair engaged in a lively exchange. Finally, Dad prevailed. “We then proceeded to roll up our sleeves and went to work on the thing,” Bill recalls.

They worked in a drafty home garage. Bill, an accomplished engine whiz and machinist, reluctantly became a self-taught Singer expert because, in those pre-internet days, he couldn’t find knowledgeable help. 

Over time, he grew to admire and respect the oddball Brit, although he never lost his love of muscle. (These days he drives a Corvette, a Mustang and a V8 Jaguar.)

Looking back, he values the experience he picked up while restoring the roadster and treasures the time he spent with his dad. In the decades since, Bill has bought and sold dozens of cars, including several Little British Cars, but selling the Singer was never an option. 

I’ve kept this car as a tribute to my dad,” he says. That, and he’s grown to love driving and showing this skinny-tired, flowing-fendered survivor, a ride as far removed from a muscle car as something with four wheels can get. 

After stripping the sad Singer to its last rusty and reluctant bolt, father and son dove into the project. Howard, a meticulous craftsman, started on the chassis and body, a wood-framed aluminum tub with steel fenders, bonnet and running boards. 

Much of the wood had rotted, so after removing the skin, Howard made patterns and built new sections from ash, shaping and finishing to fit. Then he reassembled the body, prepped it and painted it. 

As time passed, he restored the chassis and suspension and crafted a new dash from black walnut. “He paid an upholsterer to teach him how to work with leather,” Bill recalls, “and once he mastered the skills, he cut, shaped and stitched together the seats and interior.” Money was tight, so other than the gauge restoration and chrome work, little was farmed out.

Using a friend’s machine shop, Bill began to rebuild the drivetrain, and he soon hit a snag. “Water had frozen in the block and cracked it,” he recalls. “We couldn’t find another, so I found an old-time repair shop. We ground out the crack, heated the block and then brazed it.” 

More pain followed because he couldn’t find replacement parts, even in England. After several false starts and long nights with his micrometer, he machined Singer connecting rods to fit modified MG pistons. Finally, after decking the block and milling the head, he reassembled the engine and rebuilt the transmission and rear end. 

He and his dad installed the drivetrain in the restored chassis and teamed up for the finishing touches, with Bill doing the wiring. Trial and error taught them that brake parts and other components from MGs were sometimes interchangeable. 

Finally, the Singer came back to life. “My father was happy with the way it ran,” Bill says, “but it never quite ran to my satisfaction. It started and ran smoothly but just didn’t seem to have the power it should. We had a lot of fun with the car and took it to many events, including Detroit’s Woodward Dream Cruise, and we won many trophies. This went on for years, and when Dad died, I inherited the car.”

Despite the initial hype, today the Singer is a rare item. To get this one back running, MG pistons were married to modified stock rods.

Over the years, Singer parts availability hasn’t improved. About 15 years ago, Bill reports, the repaired block started leaking coolant.

Fortunately, he located a collector with three Singer engines. “I bought them all,” Bill says, “and I re-machined the best block, along with the best head. Then I renewed and reassembled everything.” 

When the engine was back in the car, Bill discovered to his dismay that it still seemed down on power. “I was extremely frustrated at that point, and I spent a lot of time researching cam timing,” he explains. So he again pulled the engine, mounted it on a stand and spent two days working with an 18-inch degree wheel. “I finally got the cam timing adjusted so that the valves opened and closed exactly when I thought they should open and close,” he says. “I put the engine back in the car, and it’s run flawlessly ever since.”

He’s driven the Singer to numerous car shows and toured with it, logging thousands of mostly trouble-free miles. He improved its ride and handling by replacing bias-ply tires with radials and performing other suspension tweaks. 

Not long ago, the bearings in its Burman steering box failed, and Bill was unable to find replacements. After lengthy research, he pulled the unit and shipped it off for machine work so he could fit modern bearings. Lately, it’s just been a matter of upkeep with regular exercise. 

Bill reports that the North American Singer Owners Club has been a big asset. “It’s a friendly, robust and helpful group,” he says. “It’s a good source of information, including repair tips, photos, potential part sources, helpful contacts, and it hosts a lively forum.” In the U.S., the event that generally brings the largest Singer turnout is the British Invasion in Stowe, Vermont.

No, the Singer sewing machine company did not build this car. After years of fielding this question, Bill installed a 1952 Singer plate under the front bumper. Still, people ask what it is and who made it, along with, “Is it a kit car or maybe an MG?” 

That curiosity is understandable since Singer Roadsters haven’t been sold in the U.S. for more than 50 years. But when folks hear the car’s story, most seem interested, Bill reports. 

The brave ones ask what it’s worth. “I tell them it’s not worth much,” Bill admits. Hagerty says that one in good condition should bring in about $12,000, with the best of the best going for closer to $30,000.

Singer, based in Coventry, England, started building cars around 1905 but remained unknown in America until the early ’50s, when sporty MGs and Triumphs invaded these shores.

Singers showed up too, but despite their elegant looks and stout overhead-cam engine, they couldn’t muster the market presence and service support to compete for sales. Bill’s 4AD, also known as an SM 1500 Roadster, was one of about 3400 examples Singer built from 1951 to 1955, and most of them made it to America. 

Singer’s 4 Series model designation started with the 4A in 1949 and continued with the 4AB, 4AC and 4AD. The company made few changes during the series, and only a Singer expert can spot the differences. In 1955, Singer was acquired by the Rootes Group and roadster production ceased. 

The Motor magazine tested a Singer in 1951 and coaxed it to 73 mph, recording a zero-to-60 time of 23.6 seconds. Still, since it weighed about 500 pounds less, the 4AD was nearly as fast as an MG TD. In early club racing, the Singer became the weapon of choice in the under-1500cc class, winning many races. 

Today, a Roadster is a rare sight. At a well-attended British event, you’ll find dozens of T-series MGs and early Triumphs before you spot a Singer. Singer owners revel in their rarity and are quite eager to brag about it.

The driving experience immediately brings you back to the ’50s, complete with the skinny steering wheel, non-synchro first and trafficators.

Bill claims the Singer keeps up with traffic “as long as it’s moving about 50 mph. I’ve had it up to 70 and it gets kind of scary.”

So he motors sedately around his hometown of Port Charlotte, Florida, windscreen folded, goggles in place, cap screwed on, basking in appreciative glances, thumbs-up and questions at every stop. He gives the roadster an occasional brisk workout by whipping it through tight roundabouts, displaying an alarming amount of body roll–which Bill says is perfectly normal. And so it was in 1952.

“You don’t want to make a panic stop with this car,” Bill warns as I slide behind the wheel. Then he explains the quirks of the hydraulic-mechanical unboosted drum brakes (the fronts are hydraulic, rears mechanical), and recommended vigilance, quick reflexes and a stout right leg. 

He’s right. 

But after a few stops, I adjust to the leg workout, the heavy steering and the extraordinarily long throws of a 24-inch shift lever that, in first (non-synchro) and third, disappears under the dash and may bark knuckles. It’s such a stretch that Bill grips the lever 3 inches below the knob, which works fine. Period reviewers noticed this quirk and suggested that the car’s engine was so torquey that drivers could easily start off in second gear. That works fine, too.  

This Singer delivers a leisurely, entertaining ride. The gauges in the sparse instrument cluster all remain in the normal zone. Everything works, including the trafficators, which amaze onlookers. 

The narrow cockpit offers plenty of legroom and a surprisingly comfortable driving position, even for a 6-footer. The roadster putters happily along, engaging the senses with a wind-in-the-face breeze across the folded windshield, the whine of vintage gears and an eager, raspy exhaust note. It seems quite proud of its status as a 70-year-old relic. So is it sporting to view this experience though today’s lens? 

When this car was new, most test drivers were quite taken. Sports Cars magazine raved about it: “The firm suspension combines minimum roll on corners with a maximum of traction, and the light-weight, short wheelbase and precise steering make the Singer downright fun to drive. It’ll stop on a dime, give you change, and provide safe everyday transport as well as weekend fun and frolic.” 

That stop-on-a-dime comparison may be a stretch, but who am I to show up seven decades later and challenge these test results? Compared to most ’50s rides, especially in America, the Singer was light, agile, exciting and fun to drive. 

So forget what I said about body roll, heavy steering and brakes. This endearing roadster radiates charm. It draws admirers with each outing, and its driving quirks only add to the experience. Fun and frolic indeed. May it long continue.

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wspohn UltraDork
3/2/24 10:00 a.m.

Reminds me of an MG Y type


David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/4/24 12:12 p.m.

In reply to wspohn :

Similar, yeah. 

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