Automotive History: The Rise, Decline and Fall Of The Rootes Group – “I Am The Engine, Reggie Is The Steering And Brakes”

rootes maidstone

The British motor industry was formed of companies with one of two backgrounds – established businesses branching out in to a new product, such as Vauxhall or Wolseley, or more commonly a business started specifically to service and produce if not cars, then cycles or motorbikes, that then grew to become a full scale car manufacturer, such as Morris, Leyland, Rover or Standard. Rootes was different, and successful in achieving what it did for nearly 40 years. Perhaps even more surprisingly, it was the only major manufacturer to be controlled by a dynastic family.

Rootes Hawkshurst

The Rootes story starts many miles from the main centres of the British motor industry, in the village of Hawkhurst in Kent, 50 miles south east of London. William Rootes ran a cycle shop and like so many in that trade at that time, branched out into motor vehicles, initially as a repair and maintenance garage, and by 1914 as a sales agent for many names, some still well known and some almost forgotten. Morris, Wolseley, Ford, Hillman, Sunbeam, Humber and Singer all featured, as did Delauney, Belleville and Briton to name some others..

William’s older son, also William and always known as Billy, was born in 1894, and in 1909 was apprenticed to Singer in Coventry, then the heart of the British motor industry. Four years later, at the age of 19, he was back in Kent, running another branch of the growing Rootes sales and service empire. After war service, he was joined by his younger brother, Reginald, who was born in 1896 and trained as an accountant in the Admiralty.

Willliam and Reginald Rootes

William Rootes senior gave each brother £1200.00 (around £50,000 or $75,000.00 now) and they set out together, creating Rootes Ltd as a vehicle distributor, based in Maidstone in Kent. By 1924, they had secured the Austin franchise for London and the surrounding area, and opened large showrooms in central London. Other distributor chains were also added to the Rootes’s growing empire, in the south east of England and the industrial midlands, as well as overseas.

1927 Rootes advert (1)

But, Rootes was a pure distributor and dealer business, until 1925 when the brothers purchased Thrupp and Maberley, a traditional coachbuilder based in London, with a history dating back to 1760 and a reputation for building top quality, bespoke and limited run bodies for the likes of Rolls-Royce, Daimler and other top brands; customers had included Queen Victoria and King George V.

The thinking behind the purchase may not have been clear to all at the time, but would become so over the next ten years. Rootes marked this step by taking a large showroom and extensive office accommodation in the then new Devonshire House in Piccadilly in central London, just round the corner from the Ritz Hotel and the royal palace of St James. In the showroom, Rootes had cars ranging from Fiat to Rolls-Royce, as well as Thrupp and Maberley’s coachwork.

From 1919 onwards, Billy Rootes made regular trips to the USA, looking at motor manufacturing techniques, and more crucially, the techniques used in differentiating and then marketing various brands from one family, as well as retail practices. A clear American influence was discernible on the Rootes organisation and products for the next 50 years.

But it was the end of the 1920s before Rootes took the first steps to becoming a manufacturer as well as being a distributor and dealer. The brothers made attempts to buy a stake in the Standard Motor Company and also the Clyno concern. Separately during the 1920s, many of the Coventry manufacturers were feeling the effects of ambitious but unsuccessful expansion attempts in what was a dismal decade economically.

Hillman 8

At the Hillman company, William Hillman had retired from day to day control of the company he founded, which proceeded to attempt to move up market with the Hillman Eight (for Eight cylinder, not horsepower in this case) in 1928. The company was not financially strong by this time, but was directly adjacent to the long established Humber company. Humber was by then around 60 years old and had a history in bicycles, motor cycles and assembling Bollee tri-cars before producing its first car in 1899. The distinguished engineer Louis Coatalen joined Humber and led the design of new range of cars, before moving to Hillman in 1908. In 1926 Humber was able to acquire the commercial vehicle builder Commer, based in Luton, north of London and the home town of Vauxhall.

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Assembly at Humber in 1923

 

But by 1927, both Hillman and Humber were beginning to struggle to compete, in a market led by William Morris. Morris was by now producing over 60,000 cars a year, but neither Hillman nor Humber got to 5,000 a year. In 1927, Rootes secured their first investment in Hillman and followed this with an interest in Humber in 1928, and by the end of 1928 the companies had been brought together under the Rootes umbrella, and the factories amalgamated. There is also some confusion about how transparently the acquisition by Rootes and merger of the two companies (or merger and then acquisition even; it is that unclear) was completed. Confusingly, the main manufacturing company in the Rootes empire was known as Humber Ltd for many years.

1930 hillman_fourteen_and_straight_eight

London Motor Show, 1930

 

At the London Motor Show in late 1929, although the brands shared a stand under Rootes Group name, the cars were the inherited Hillman 14 (hp, in this case), the unsuccessful Hillman Eight, and a range of Humbers from the 9-28 to the 20-65.

By 1930, it was much clearer. The Rootes’ investment in the combined Humber and Hillman facility was becoming apparent, and the product line was beginning to fall into place also. Prices on the old cars were cut in the spring, and Rootes were recruiting key personnel to design and build a range of new cars. Billy Rootes had a clear and simple plan – there was to be a range of three of cars. These were to be the Hillman Minx, the Humber 12hp and the larger Hillman Wizard, using straightforward side valve engines, steel bodies from the Pressed Steel company or the option of Thrupp and Maberley coachwork. Alfred Wilde, formerly chief designer at Morris Engines, was poached to lead the engineering and Rootes talked of building 100 cars a day.

1932-Hillman-Wizard

Of course, this was a British motor industry plan, so it didn’t quite go this way. Sadly, Wilde died in 1931, and the first car launched was the largest, the Hillman Wizard, which was officially first shown in April 1931. If you want a date for the actual beginning of the definitive Rootes Group, this is may be as good as any. The Wizard was a relatively large car, nominally aimed at the major export markets, which at that time, as far as the British industry was concerned, were the British Empire market, in Australia, New Zealand and across Africa. This led to a car that was too large for the UK, too expensive to tax, and too slow. Sales were ultimately disappointing – perhaps 6,000 were sold in three years before it was quietly dropped. Similar cars from Austin and Morris were also unsuccessful and it seemed that more than a British name, leather upholstery and a sliding roof were needed to effectively compete with Chevrolet or a US Ford.

1932 hillman minx

But in 1932, Rootes had their first hit, with a model name that would last for nearly 40 years and form not just the backbone of the Rootes Group’s model range but feature in many British family histories over that period. The first Hillman Minx, shown in 1932, was a perfectly typical compact car of the time – a separate chassis, leaf springs, side valve engine, and a price of £159, splitting the Morris Ten at £165 and the Austin Ten at £155, in one of the fastest growing and most competitive parts of the market. It quickly built a favourable reputation as a fully all-round class competitive car. This is the car that made the Rootes Group a success.

1935 Humber 12 Vogue Coupe

1935 Humber 12 Vogue Coupe

 

The third car of the original trio was the Humber Twelve, which debuted in 1932, and which though a perfectly sound product, did not have the impact the Minx did. The old Hillman Eight, renamed as the Vortic, struggled on but the old Humber 9-28 and 20-65 models were dropped. But Rootes never abandoned the market for style or luxury versions, and in 1933 the Hillman Aero-Minx was born.

1934 hillman aerominx

The Aero-Minx could be seen as one of the first examples in the UK of the steady saloon to sports coupe adaptation; an early Ford Escort to Ford Capri, or Falcon to Mustang even, transformation if you like. It was a short wheelbase version of the Minx, with an underslung rear axle and attractive Thrupp and Maberley coachwork. It wouldn’t be the last time Rootes did this to a modest saloon, by any means.

1935-Melody-Minx

This was followed in 1934 by the Melody Minx – essentially a Minx with a radio (quite an option in 1934, and Billy Rootes the salesman made a complete model out of it) installed along with some other additional features. The Rootes vision of a range of cars with potential for the customer to move upward within the brand, whilst keeping the businesses sound, was on track.

Sir William Rootes, in 1937, aged 43

 

The first leg of the plan was clearly masterminded by Billy Rootes, leaving the business and finance side to Reginald, working with the company’s investors, of whom the major one was the Prudential Assurance Company (the UK company rather than the American business). Billy Rootes was quoted many times as saying “I am the engine of the company, and Reginald is the steering and the brakes”, and you can discern these attributes through the next thirty years.

1936-hillman-humber-cars

The company’s product range was progressively converged through the 1930s, as the various Humber and Hillman models came together around common chassis and bodies, from Pressed Steel at Cowley for high volume models and Thrupp and Maberley for lower volume and bespoke models.

clement talbot 1930

And then in 1934 Rootes got the final key piece of their car brand structure. The Anglo-French STD (Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq) combine built prestige and high value cars in London under the Talbot brand, and cars and trolley buses (trolleys) in Wolverhampton under the Sunbeam brand. Talbot had a prestigious Anglo-French background, engineered by Georges Roesch, and was reportedly profitable, but the Sunbeam business, based on high performance sports cars and the trolley buses was failing quickly. The whole business collapsed in June 1934.

What was not public knowledge was that Rootes were a secured creditor to STD, having advanced funds to support the business in 1933, secured against the British assets of the group. Rootes quickly took over the trolley business and in January 1935 secured the rest of the British assets of the STD group, from under the noses of William Lyons and SS Cars. Indeed, SS Cars had announced that “SS Cars will take over the name, goodwill and patents of Sunbeam Motor Company Ltd and will produce a range of Sunbeam cars in Coventry”. Instead Lyons, who never forgave Rootes, had to choose another name. His choice was sound. It was Jaguar.

Barlby Road 1960s

 

Although Thrupp and Maberley’s factory was by now in Cricklewood, in north London, the company expanded its operations into the Acton, West London facility inherited from Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq.

 

1936 london motor show

Talbot at the 1936 London Motor Show

 

Rootes wasted little time before a range of Hillman based cars were sold under the Talbot name, including adapting the Hillman Aero Minx as a new Talbot 10 and adding Humber components to larger Talbots.

1938 minx magnificent

1935 continued to be an important year for Rootes. All the main market Hillmans and Humbers were refreshed with new styling and independent “Evenkeel” front suspension, although this was described by some as more “keel” than “even”. The Minx, Rootes’ crucial product, became the Minx Magnificent. You can see Billy Rootes’ salesmanship and marketing led practices coming through, again. By 1937, over 100,000 Minxes had been built.

Karrier Cob (2)

Rootes continued on to develop the commercial vehicles side of the business during the 1930s, by buying the Karrier commercial vehicle business in 1934. Karrier was based in Huddersfield, in industrial Northern England and was best known for producing vehicles such as the Karrier Cob (a model name that would re-appear in Rootes history later) tractor unit for use in railway yards and the like, and for chassis for fire engines and dust carts, and trolley buses. The Karrier and Sunbeam trolley bus activities were consolidated at the Sunbeam factory in Wolverhampton, before being sold in 1946, by which time all the Group’s commercial vehicles were concentrated in a more modern facility in Dunstable, also home town to Bedford, GM’s UK truck business.

1938 sunbeam_talbot_poster

In 1937, Rootes acquired a lower tier supplier, British Light Steel Pressings in west London, to bring in-house some body production, conveniently located directly adjacent to the old Talbot facility. A year later, Rootes consolidated its two premium sporting brands into one – Sunbeam-Talbot. Sunbeam had been a dormant brand since the Rootes takeover; the cars were to come from Talbot’s factory in London and had little or no Talbot or Sunbeam in them.

Sunbeam-Talbot ad

All Sunbeam-Talbots were to be Hillman and Humber based, with three cars available – the Ten based on the Minx, and the 3-Litre and the 4–Litre based on the Humber Snipe, all with bespoke bodywork, which often shared large elements of Hillman and Humber. Billy Rootes had been learning from America, again. A 2-Litre was added in 1939, but largely overtaken by events outside the control of even Billy Rootes. Specialist coachwork was always available for the larger cars from Thrupp and Maberley.

1941-Hillman-Minx-Royal-Navy

In September 1939, Rootes launched their first monocoque car, the Hillman Minx Phase 1. Visually, it was close to the earlier car, and lasted throughout the war and until 1948, and was sold to the public until 1942, and then again from 1946. Rootes were behind Vauxhall and Morris with monocoque cars, and the larger cars were still built on a chassis until the 1950s.

rootes

There was another, more significant, event in this period that affected Rootes’ history. Europe was re-arming and preparing for war from the mid 1930s, and the British government had a programme known as the Shadow Factories scheme. The idea was to create an infrastructure capable of supporting a quick ramp up of aircraft and aero-engine production, linked to government contracts for the products. The motor industry was a lead participant and Rootes perhaps the most enthusiastic.

Shadow factory

Under the scheme, Rootes built a shadow plant at Stoke Adermoor in Coventry, close to the existing Humber Road facility, and aero engines were being produced there from 1938. A second stage of the scheme followed and Rootes again participated, and the shadow factory at Ryton-on-Dunsmore, just south of Coventry, was operational by 1940. By 1939, Rootes was producing 50,000 cars a year and with Ryton had the potential expand this to over 100,000. Sales were now around 15% of the UK market.

Coventry-Transport-Museum-War-Effort-exhibition-1941-Rootes-Shadow-factory-WW2

The Rootes Group, and Billy Rootes, had what the British call “a good war”. The company, always quick with good publicity, made sure that its achievements in building 30% of Britain’s bombers, 10,000 Merlin engines, 21,000 aircraft repairs and 60% of the armoured cars were well known. 20,000 CKD kits from the US were assembled, as well as an endless stream of munitions.

Churchill Monty Humber

Cars were not forgotten – the Minx and the Humber Snipe were favourites of the armed forces (Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s Super Snipe is preserved and on public display) and built in large numbers exclusively for the services. The labour force went up to over 30,000, from fewer than 1,000 when Rootes first got involved.

ChurchillCathedral

Billy Rootes was also asked to lead the industrial reconstruction of Coventry after the German blitzkrieg attack of 14 November 1940. Whilst the death toll was much lower than some of the raids later in the war, the historic city centre was badly damaged, the medieval cathedral left as a shell, and the industrial capability was severely affected. Daimler, Hillman and Alfred Herbert, Britain’s leading machine tool manufacturer, factories were all hit. Billy Rootes became Sir William for his efforts.

basil-spence-stam_631

As an aside, the new cathedral in Coventry, built alongside the shell of the old, is a powerful and elegant statement of the City’s suffering and its commitment to partnership for the sake of peace and reconciliation. And, in my opinion, as good a piece of twentieth century architecture as there is, anywhere. Only truly great buildings get on to first class stamps, and I can think of no greater twentieth century building.

1946 hillman minx ad

Rootes had a capacity now for around 50,000 cars a year, from Coventry and London, as well as the trucks from Dunstable. Billy worked quickly to secure the Ryton shadow factory for the group, taking capacity to 100,000. The post-war economic conditions of the UK dictated that exports had to be a priority (the entire industry and country was exhorted to “Export or die!”) and with European markets being in no better condition than the UK and the traditional export markets to the old British Empire no larger than before, exporting to the US was a natural ambition. Rootes believed he had a secret weapon to help – design consultant Raymond Loewy. Loewy had actually been retained by Rootes in 1937, but was obviously limited in what he could contribute until the first new post war cars were available. In the meantime, from 1945, Rootes progressively converted production capacity back to civilian use.

Meanwhile, Billy Rootes had been asked to look a factory and its distinctive product in Europe, to assess the merit of the car and the practicalities of continuing to produce it. He recommended that the VW plant in Wolfsburg be flattened and the car be abandoned, “as too ugly, too noisy and unattractive to the private buyer”. To be fair, Ford said much the same thing.

1944 Commer truck ad

Rootes’s pre-war cars, including the monocoque Minx, were re-launched with minor changes and from 1946 all final assembly was concentrated in Ryton. The facilities in Coventry itself focussed on components and machining and the old Talbot facility in London became the group’s export sales and engineering centre. Material shortages, equipment and labour issues kept volume low and it was not until 1949-50 that the pre-war volumes were exceeded.

Karriwe gully emptier

In 1949, the Rootes Group was floated on the London stock exchange, with another public offering a year later. The family kept the voting shares though, and the diesel engine builder Tilling-Stevens was purchased, to provide an in-house diesel truck engine.

1948-ghost-minx

As with other British manufacturers, the London Motor Show in 1948 marked the true emergence of the post war cars.

hawk don andreina

A new Minx, known as the Phase 3, and a new Humber Hawk (seen here by Don Andreina), both with Loewy styling, and new Sunbeam-Talbot 80 and 90, based on pre-war cars, were all launched at the same time.

1949-Sunbeam-Talbot-Saloon

Rootes were still focussing on exports and by the early 1950s were exporting 70% of production, reaching 70,000 cars in the mid-1950s. Many were sent in CKD form to the British Commonwealth, in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but North American exports were always fully assembled.

Chicago1961Alpine

 

The early 1950s were the start of what could be considered the Rootes Group’s heyday.

 

 

There was a new Minx in 1955, known as the Series 1 and also known as the Audax range, with a new OHV engine which itself would endure for over 20 years.

 

Sunbeam0065

 

The Sunbeam-Talbot range grew, there was a new Humber range in 1957 with a new six cylinder engine in 1958, and the Audax based Sunbeam Alpine sports car in 1959.

 

Humber 80.1

The Audax was cut down for the Hillam Husky compact estate car and Commer Cob van version in 1955, following a version based on the previous Minx. A full Minx estate car was also offered, along with convertible models as well.  As so often, different markets got different names on the same product, such as this Humber 80 seen in New Zealand by kiwibryce, which in the UK was a Hillman Minx. Sunbeam had the Rapier, a two door coupe and convertible derived from the Minx

DSC09147

The 1957 Humber saloons were the four cylinder Hawk Series 1 and the similar but longer six cylinder Super Snipe Series 1, and were the first monocque big Humbers, and were lined up against the big Fords, Vauxhalls and BMC cars, rather than Rovers or Jaguars. Styling was again heavily influenced by contemporary American design, with the 1955 Chevrolet identified by many as the biggest influence. An estate was offered as well, for the first time

Hay Mills Coventry Rd Singer Factory

In 1955, Rootes made their last acquisition, when Singer was purchased after its ambitious post war plans had failed. Although Billy Rootes was a former Singer apprentice, and recognised some of the staff and even some of the shop floor production equipment as well, Rootes took a very unsentimental approach to the takeover.

DSC01648

The Singer factory, which was actually a six storey block in Birmingham, became the Group’s component storage and distribution hub freeing capacity in Coventry for manufacture, the existing Singer cars and development projects were abandoned and the badge slotted into the Rootes hierarchy between the datum brand, Hillman, and the luxury Humber, with a series of badge engineered Minx derivatives under the Gazelle and later the Vogue names.

Sunbeam Rapier Monte Carlo

The Audax range saw the Sunbeam brand move closer to the Hillman Minx, as the 1954 Rapier actually preceded the Minx, and was a car that built a strong motor sport reputation through the late 1950s in the early 1960s, with many class wins and podium performances in international and British rallying. Rootes, being Rootes, made the most of this for publicity purposes.

isuzu-minx-07

Rootes and Isuzu of Japan came to a licensing agreement in 1953, for Isuzu to build a Minx based car in Japan. Over 11 years, 60,000 cars were built, initially a version of the 1948 Minx and later a version of the Audax saloon and estate.

1960 Rootes advert

By the late 1950s, Rootes knew that its production of 100,000 cars and relatively narrow range meant that it had to expand or risk being absorbed in any coming (and generally accepted as inevitable) consolidation of British industry. Initially, acquisition was the chosen option, with talks on a merger with Standard-Triumph, then building Standard saloons, Triumph TR roadsters and contract assembling Massey Ferguson tractors with Standard-Triumph engines. Some accounts suggest a merger came quite close; others that it was never going to happen in a way that the personalities involved (the Rootes brothers, Standard’s Alick Dick and Lord Tedder and, of course, Harry Ferguson himself) could happily work together.

Linwood

One thing such a merger would have given Rootes is access to a smaller car, initially the Standard 8, to expand the existing and narrow range below the Minx. Rootes, under pressure from its dealers, had to consider this alone, and Project Apex began, which eventually led to the Hillman Imp. The Imp eventually came to market in 1963, from a brand new factory in Linwood near Glasgow in Scotland, over 300 miles from Coventry. This was not Rootes’s choice; land had been acquired at Ryton to expand but development permission was consistently refused as the UK Government sought to build industrial capacity in areas that were suffering economically, including Scotland, in part as shipbuilding wound down.

Sunbeam Stilletto

Rootes publicly announced the Apex project in 1960, including the new factory in Linwood directly linked to a factory which the body builder Pressed Steel  were building on an adjacent site. The plan was for 150,000 cars a year, doubling the size of the company, and for 5500 new employees in Scotland. More capital was raised as well as some government grant aid. Development work on the car started in Coventry, using an engine derived from a fire pump engine, originally developed by the Coventry Climax company, with an all aluminium alloy over head cam configuration and linked with a full-synchromesh aluminium transaxle. Technically, this was both an advanced and dated car at the same time.

RootesHeadOfficeTorontocolour

Rootes’ Canadian HQ in Toronto

 

Rootes were struck by a series of adverse events at home from 1961, in a sequence of events that can now be seen as almost a perfect storm.

First, a three month all out strike at the Group’s London pressing company, British Light Steel Pressing (BLSP) over either job security or increasing the reach of union power, depending who you ask. Although Rootes were still taking many pressings and completed bodies from Pressed Steel at Cowley, the lack of supply from BLSP effectively lost the company 3 months production that year. Sales were down across the industry in 1960 and 1961, and Rootes took a double whammy, with production dropping by a third compared with 1960.  Profits collapsed by 85% between 1960 and 1961, and the company went into the red in 1962. The Group was only profitable in one other year before the Chrysler takeover.

Duke of Edinburgh drives a Hillman imp with Lord Rootes as passenger after opening the ill-fated Linwood factory. 1963 pic:SMG Newspapers Ltd

 

But the Imp was running late, going over budget and the market space for visibly tightening, as the BMC Mini and new 1959 Ford Anglia were showing the competition,  linked to Rootes’ lack of presence and experience in that part of the market, the unusually configured Imp would be up against. .

 

Imp cutaway

 

The Imp was unique in Britain by being rear engined, with a four cylinder, water cooled engine mounted longitudinally behind the rear wheels, and is often described as a mini-Corvair, which, given Billy’s American influences,  is a credible suggestion. However, the Imp was launched three years after the Mini, at the same time as the larger BMC ADO16, and the technology then looked dated and out of step.

 

1967 Humber Sceptre

There was a new, larger Super Minx also available, alnogside the Audax Minx, and was originally planned to replace it, and which came in Singer Vogue and up market Humber Sceptre versions as well.

sunbeam-venezia

Meanwhile, In Italy, Carrozzeria Touring Superleggera starting assembling Sunbeam Alpine sports cars and Hillman Super Minx saloons in Milan in 1962, and in 1963 offered a bespoke Sunbeam Venezia coupé, based on the Humber Sceptre. Sadly this car failed, despite the attractive styling and concept. In hindsight, why would Italy buy this instead of an Alfa Romeo or Lancia? The whole Italian venture petered out in 1964.

std_1963_Hillman_Minx_1600_DeLuxe_Saloon_Series_V_-LF-2

Rootes took the decision in 1961 to keep the Audax in production alongside the new car, and even upgraded it to match the new car’s larger engine. In reality, sales did grow, but were now split across two mainstream models. The big Humbers had a major makeover in 1964 as well.

The Imp made it to market in 1963, only to be beset by quality and reliability issues, some attributable to the design, some to the innovative (for Rootes at least) nature of the product, alongside labour issues in Scotland. Volume never reached 150,000; the best was about 50,000 a year and Linwood was a loss making facility until the late 1960s, when more products went on stream there.

Not, initially at least, deterred by the Imp’s early problems, Rootes commissioned a concept for the replacement for the Minx and Superminx with a rear engine. Known as the Swallow project, it was, probably wisely, abandoned just as road trials were about to start, to be replaced by the Arrow (Hillman Hunter, Sunbeam Arrow and Rapier, and Humber Sceptre) programme.

Commer and Hunter

This was decidedly uncomplicated update of Minx/Superminx formula, using the same OHV engine and transmission, with tidy, contemporary styling and aimed at the Ford Cortina and Vauxhall Victor rather than the Austin 1800. This was launched in 1966 and, in production volume at least, this was ultimately Rootes’ most successful car.

1964 Youngs Garage Lincoln

1964 Youngs Garage in Lincoln

 

Internationally, perhaps the best known element of the Arrow story is the Peykan, a version of the Hunter built in Iran. In October 1964, the Iranian Ministry of Trade invited BMC, Rootes and Vauxhall to pitch ideas for an Iranian national car , and only Rootes showed up. Rootes got the contract and CKD production of the Peykan (Persian for Arrow) began in 1967. Manufacture became all-Iranian by the mid 1970s, except for engines supplied from Coventry. Engine tooling was sold to Iran in the early 1980s and complete manufacture continued until 2005. Later cars were fitted with Peugeot 504 rear axles and engines, and in total over 2million cars wee built.

1960 Karrier fire engine

 

By 1964, these on-going issues and events combined with something else that ultimately transformed Rootes. Chrysler, under Lynn Townsend, were on the hunt for European business to help build up Chrysler as a true multi-national GM and Ford rival, who were both well established in the UK, and were two of Rootes’ main competitors. Chrysler initially purchased 30% of the voting shares and 50% of the non-voting stock, to become the largest but not controlling shareholder, and gained boardroom representation. The whole deal, although not entirely unforeseen, was concluded quickly and quietly in June 1964, but with hindsight the alternatives were either a merger into BMC or Leyland or a losing battle against them and Ford. Chrysler by 1964 had a controlling stake in SIMCA of France, as well as an established truck assembly operation in London using the Dodge brand.

The Dodge operation was quickly wrapped up into Rootes’ truck business and the Dodge name progressively replaced the Commer and Karrier brands. Billy Rootes chose this moment to retire and pass the Chairmanship to his brother, and sadly died just a few months later in December 1964.

main_assembly_conveyor

In 1965, BMC purchased the Pressed Steel body building company outright, including both the Cowley and Linwood facilities. Rootes’ key supplier was now in the hands of its largest competitor, and Rootes were in a position of being forced to invest, through a BMC led break up and sale of the Pressed Steel Fisher, in the Linwood facility,  re-named Rootes Pressings (Scotland) Ltd, as its body builder.

Rapier and Imp

BMC, through Pressed Steel Fisher, sold Rootes all the tooling for the Rootes products which was transferred to Linwood, where all the Rootes’ products’ pressings were now produced. There were then daily trains taking bodies to Coventry, returning with Imp engines and transmissions for assembly at Linwood. By 1970, production of the Arrow range had transferred to Linwood as well.

Rootes_chrysler_logo

In late 1966, Rootes told the UK government that it had agreed terms for a full takeover by Chrysler. Despite Government pressure, both BMC and Leyland declined to counter offer against Chrysler and control passed to Detroit in early 1967. Sir Reginald Rootes (knighted in 1946) now retired and Billy’s son Brian became Chairman. Chrysler started a process of tidying up the empire, and the Singer brand and Sunbeam Alpine sports car were soon dropped, the big Humbers followed and car range effectively trimmed down to just the Imp and the Arrow range.

avenger cathedral steps

Photo from www.aronline.co.uk, at the steps to Coventry Cathedral

 

Rootes had more one car in development in 1967, which with Chrysler money could now be completed. The Hillman Avenger was launched in 1970, by a company now called Chrysler United Kingdom. In many ways, this was a  totally typical Rootes product – technically unadventurous, but with a strong (but not overwhelming) dose of style;  it was pitched against the Morris Marina, BMC ADO16, Ford Escort and Vauxhall Viva.

You could argue Chrysler’s influence showed in the styling, or you could argue a typical mid market Rootes’ product was always strong on style. Certainly, you would not necessarily have expected a Rootes product to have a brand new engine and a new coil spring rear suspension, but also you wonder if Billy would have called it a Hillman Minx. This car was sold in North America as the Plymouth Cricket and production actually ran until 1990, as the VW 1500 in Argentina, after Chrysler’s withdrawal from South America.

1976 chrysler simca 1308

By 1975, Chrysler United Kingdom was bailed out by the UK Government to the tune of £125m and the Rootes brand names were finally removed from the cars, being replaced by Chrysler. Ryton started the asembly fo the UK styled, French engineered Chrysler Alpine (SIMCA 1307/1308) for the UK market.

talbot sunbeam ti

Meanwhile, development started on perhaps the last Rootes car, the 1977 Chrysler Sunbea. Using the Government bail out funds, this was a cut down Avenger with a three inch cut in the wheelbase and a sharp suit of new clothes with a glass hatchback, styled by Roy Axe. Both the Avenger and Sunbeam died in 1981, when Linwood finally closed.

In 1978, Chrysler sold all the European operations to Peugeot, valuing the British operations at just £1.00 (Lee Iacocca was adamant that Chrysler had made a serious error in buying Rootes at all), and Peugeot rebranded the cars again under the Talbot nameplate, which Peugeot had rights to through Rootes and SIMCA. Three years later, the remaining Rootes cars were discontinued, Linwood closed and Ryton was dedicated to assembling kits for the Talbot Alpine, Solara and Horizon. Peugeot 309, 306 and 206 models followed before Ryton itself closed in 2006. The truck business was sold to Renault in 1980 and UK production ceased in 1983.

Rootes Maidstone Peugeot

Some remnants of the original Rootes retail business are still apparent in the British Peugeot network, with some dealerships trading under the Rootes brand as late as 2008, as well as other names originally operated under the Rootes umbrella.

Some accounts will trace the decline of the Rootes Group to the Hillman Imp, but I suspect it is more complex than that. The Imp, its technical issues, unusual configuration and manufacturing infrastructure were factors in its commercial failure but outside these Rootes were caught in a trap of needing expansion to achieve volume, whilst not being permitted to expand in a location that made most sense to the Company itself. There were the predictable British industry labour issues, and the BMC Pressed Steel Fisher changes all worked against Rootes as well. The company had variety but was ultimately too small. Even if the Imp had been a success and Rootes been able to build it in Coventry, the trail leading to some form of amalgamation with another producer would have happened, and one of the industry’s more character full companies was never going to emerge unscathed from the 1960s and 1970s.

Ryton sign