Many brands have complex and surprising histories, which may or may not be reflected in their later or current images and reputations. Companies like Wolseley that evolved from sheep shearing, Vauxhall from a foundry business, BMW from aero engines or Citroen from making gears. Perhaps the most common origin in Europe at least was from the cycle industry – Peugeot, Morris, Humber and Rover all emerged from cycle businesses. But only one can claim to have built the first successful safety bicycle.
In the latter part of the 19th century, Coventry, in the English Midlands, south east of Birmingham, and closer to the centre of England than any other city, was the centre of the then burgeoning cycle industry, which had itself come out of the watchmaking industry. James Starley and his nephew, John Kemp Starley, started manufacturing bicycles in 1877 and by 1883 were naming them as Rover.
In 1885, the first Rover Safety Bicycle was built – defined as having two equal sized wheels, chain drive to the rear, thereby keeping the rider’s feet away from the spokes and being more stable than the treadle bicycles and penny farthing designs, as well as easier to mount and dismount. Starley died in 1901 and the company subsequently started to diversify into motorcycles and then cars. But not before several central European languages had defined words for bicycle that are derived from the word “rover”.
After Starley’s death in 1901, Rover was bought by the monopolistic entrepreneur Henry Lawson, and moved under his direction into motorcycles, and from 1904 cars. For the next 25 years or more, Rover built a business out of car production, sometimes licence building others’ designs, but never achieving the ambitions of great volume or large margins. No dividend was paid after 1923, and in 1929 a major restructuring was enacted, and Spencer Wilks, undoubtedly the most significant figure in the Rover Company’s history, was hired.
Wilks came from Hillman, where he had been Joint General Manager, serving alongside John Black. Both Wilks and Black were sons in law of the late William Hillman and were not required by the incoming Rootes brothers and their new regime. Black moved to become Managing Director at Standard, and Wilks to Rover as Works Manager and then as General Manager, or CEO in current business school terms.
Wilks moved promptly and consistently to bring Rover to, if not a niche, then a defined spot in the market. This was the conservative luxury area, nothing flash or racy, but a car for the successful professional man, competing with Humber, Wolseley, Triumph, Riley, perhaps the smaller models from Lanchester and Armstrong-Siddeley, rather than Morris, Austin or Hillman. SS Cars and Jaguar were emerging as a competitor, but with a very different image – brasher, more sporting, even of (say it quietly) new money. By 1939, Rover were making a consistent but strong return on 2-3% of the UK production volume, around a product that was typically a four light saloon with four and six cylinder options, wood and leather interior in a upper premium market position and marketed on its appeal to a conservative but not sporting clientele.
After the war, during which Rover built aircraft components and aero engines, the company’s big initial issue was how to fill factory capacity whilst managing with a minimal allocation of steel. After being bombed out of Coventry, Rover moved to Solihull, the next stop on the train to Birmingham, where the company had established a factory before the war for aero engines and was now focusing its manufacturing. The answer to filling the capacity was the aluminium Land Rover but Rover retained the ambitions for a successful car range as well, and turned, as we shall see, to an unexpected source for style inspiration.
Initially post war production was of the P2 range, marketed as the 10, 12, 14, 16 and 20 depending on the engine size, and first sold from 1936. This was a thoroughly conventional and conservative product, and earned Rover a reputation for solid if unexciting cars. This is the vision of Rover many associate with the brand, and survived the reset in many brands and their reputations that developed after 1945.
After the war, the car evolved into the 1948 P3, sold as the 60 and 75 depending on the engine size (1.6 or 2.1 litre) and with Rover’s first independent suspension. The chassis was substantially altered from the P2 – shorter, wider and the engine was all new. The 1.6 litre 4 cylinder and 2.1 six cylinder were closely related, with overhead inlet vales and side exhaust valves. Whilst only running for 2 years, the car was intended to act as a basis for the first true post war Rover design. Life is never simple though, is it?
The original intention was that the P4 would use much of the newer chassis engineering and engine of the P3. However, performance issues on the piston type dampers and corrosion of the rear spring mountings led Rover to build a new much more substantial chassis frame, with a significantly revised front suspension. But perhaps the most surprising thing about the car was the style.
Rather than continue to evolve the P3 style and retain clear links to post war cars, as Daimler and Jaguar saloons did for example, Rover opted for a completely fresh style, clearly and unambiguously derived from the post war Loewy Studebakers. Indeed, it is widely accepted that Rover bought some Studebakers and put the bodies on P3 chassis, creating what are referred to as Roverbakers. And it was not just the exterior style – the interior had a column change, bench seat and flat instrument panel, albeit built in African walnut, and with full leather trim. Even the suicide rear doors, probably the last example on a British car other than a Rolls-Royce, made the journey from South Bend to Solihull.
In contrast to the image of Rover as an always conservative brand, the first P4s had a very untraditional front aspect – no classic or formal grille, few Rover cues, and a central spotlight, commonly referred as the Cyclops lamp. Linked to the suicide doors was a very upright rear shutline, which only highlighted the car’s tall and formal stature and dropping tail shape. The design was, if you hadn’t seen the Studebaker, a distinctive and original one officially credited to Rover with no formal acknowledgement of Loewy.
But his influence can be seen – I’ll let you decide how much influence there was. The interior, despite the column shift and bench seat, perhaps fitted the Rover stereotype more closely, and certainly has a less radical feel, especially when you factor in the upright seating position and height.
The cars were sold from early 1950 as the Rover 75 priced at £1100 (£38000 adjusted), having been launched at the 1949 London Motor Show. Alongside the distinctive styling (with hidden running boards) and traditional interior, there were some technical innovations and distinctive features. The bonnet, doors and boot lid were made of Birmabright aluminium alloy, as used for the Land Rover, there was a freewheel in the transmission and the car was most definitely not a product of a larger business inheriting parts from a Consul, Minx or Oxford. Just like you can spot the differences in ambience, materials and contact points between, say, a BMW or Mercedes-Benz and a Kia or Nissan of the same size, you could spot, sense even, the Rover from the Humber or Wolseley. Not just the stance, stature and size (length 178 in, wheelbase 111in, height 63.in, 3200ib approx) made it stand out.
As happened to Rover again in later years, the car had to be, in some eyes, toned down. The Cyclops lamp and almost grille less front went in 1952, as did the column change; in 1955 the striking tail was restyled by David Bache and in 1956 the front wings were adjusted to match the then forthcoming Rover 3 Litre.
Mechanically, the car started as the Rover 75, with the 2.1 litre 6 cylinder engine. This grew to 2.2 litre in 1954, and lasted to 1959. Also, from 1954, Rover offered the 90 with a 2.6 litre engine, in the restyled body. To many, this is the definitive P4 – later styling, six cylinders, but still no sporting or performance pretensions.
In 1957 came the 105R, based on the 2.6 litre 90 but with a higher compression engine and twin SU carburettors, and using a semi-automatic gearbox, named Rovermatic, which was a two speed automatic with an overdrive unit, giving three gears in total and the 105S with a fully synchromesh four speed manual gearbox and some sporting accessories such as spotlights.
From 1959, the 90 and 105 were consolidated into the Rover 100, using a version of the Rover 3 litre engine, short stroked to 2.6 litre but differing to that fitted to the 90 and 105.
And from 1962 to 1964, the 100 was replaced by the 95 and 110. The 95 was a Rover 100 without overdrive and with revised gearing; the 110 was treated to a revised cylinder head to get as much as 123bhp and could top 100mph. Fuel consumption was significant though. Our feature car is a 1963 Rover 95 on daily driver duty. A late, final model car, with a child seat in a works car park. CC indeed.
As an entry level option, Rover offered the four cylinder 60 from 1954 to 1957 and then the 80 from 1960 to 1962. The 60 had a 2 litre engine derived from the 1.6 litre used in early Land Rovers, and this was enlarged to 2.3 litre for the 80. Both, while more economic than the six cylinder cars, were significantly slower and missed out on the always present smoothness of the six cylinders.
The P4 may never have been fast or sporting, but it had a well deserved reputation for refinement, comfort and luxury, and that feeling that all was well with the world when underway. Rover were content to leave the more sporty market to Jaguar, the fashionable, maybe even flashy, to Vauxhall and Rootes, and the ordinary dressed as special to Wolseley, while bettering Armstrong-Siddeley and Daimler on value for money.
The P4 range was retired in 1964; arguably some parts of the range were, if not superseded in the market, replaced in buyers’ preferences by the 3 Litre from 1958. This was the first Rover to feature David Bache styling throughout, again picking up clues (as Bache always did) from elsewhere, in this case the 1955 Chryslers.
The P4 was the basis for a some of bespoke derivatives that deserve mention. In 1951, a car was sent to Pininfarina for conversion to a cabriolet four seat tourer. The result was promising, visually, as you’d expect but Rover went no further. Funds and factory capacity are normally quoted.
In 1950, two key engineers, Peter Wilks, a nephew of Rover’s then Technical Director Maurice (brother of Spencer) Wilks and colleague George Mackie, supported by Wilks’ cousin Spen King (later father of the Range Rover and Rover SD1), left roles at Rover to form the Marauder Motor Company, and to build a derivative of the P4 as a two seat sports car. The engine was relocated rearwards, the free wheel replaced with an overdrive, the chassis shortened and the suspension stiffened. An all new, but clearly derivative body was fitted. In all, 15 cars were built, sales being hampered by the prevailing tax rules, on-going shortages and supply chain issues, and the state of the competition, and the principals returned to Rover.
Their return to Rover enabled another stage of the P4’s history which, while not directly connected to the production car, forms the visible automotive part of a tale well worth telling. In early 1940, Rover were approached by the UK Government requesting that the company support a young RAF officer with some engineering development work, under conditions of great secrecy. A small company, named Power Jets Ltd and based at Lutterworth close to Coventry, was doing pure development work and need a partner capable of developing a design to production. That young RAF officer was Frank Whittle, later Air Commodore Sir Frank Whittle and recognised as one of the twentieth century’s great engineers. The product he was working on was to become the jet engine.
Rover’s role was to support Whittle in the development of the W2, Whittle’s second and larger trial jet engine. To achieve this, Rover established and ran a development factory in a disused cotton mill in the town of Barnoldswick, 50 miles north of Manchester on the border of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and some 150 miles or more from Coventry. Why Rover, with no turbine or aero-engine experience was picked for this has been made clear, though lack of vested interest in existing aero-engines may have been a factor.
In the event, the W2 proved to be underpowered, and without informing Whittle, Rover started development of their own design, known as the B26, which first ran in November 1942, and ultimately was developed into the Rolls-Royce Welland, and used to power the Gloster Meteor jet fighter from 1943, and which saw action from July 1944.
During this period, the relationship between Rover and Whittle had deteriorated, whilst Whittle had established a strong link with Rolls-Royce, arguably a much more logical partner. In January 1943, Rover exchanged the Barnoldswick jet engine factory and intellectual property for an engine factory in the Midlands, then building a tank engine based on the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, and a design that Rover built for over twenty years.
However, the interest and expertise in the gas turbine engine had been established within Rover. The key players, including Technical Director Maurice Wilks (above), returned to Coventry, and over the next 20 years, Rover would continue to work with gas turbines if not jets. By early 1950, the first Rover gas turbine powered car, registered as JET1, was ready.
Clearly derived visually from the Rover P4, and based on a P4 chassis as that is all Rover had to base it on, and even complete with a Cyclops lamp at this stage, the car was demonstrated publicly.
Power was supplied by a rear-mounted turbine which drove the rear wheels. In its initial guise, the JET 1’s turbine delivered 100bhp, sufficient to enable it to reach 60mph from rest in around 14 seconds and go on to a top speed of just under 90mph.
Two years later, a more powerful version, with around 230bhp, was taken to the very level, very straight Jabbeke Highway, part of the Ostend-Brussels motorway in Belgium, and Rover were able to claim a recorded 151mph and the fastest (and then only) gas turbine car in the world. And one which visually was clearly derived from the bank manager’s saloon.
Rover continued to experiment with gas turbines during the 1950s and into the mid 1960s, including entries at Le Mans in 1963 and 1965. Ultimately, for road use, the technology was used by Leyland Trucks in a series of demonstrator vehicles and also in the experimental British Rail Advanced Passenger Train.
Rover continued to operate a subsidiary, Rover Gas Turbines Ltd, into the 1960s.
Applications included fire pumps for airport and military purposes, pumps on ships and for aircraft auxiliary power and starting, for which the equipment was used on the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod maritime surveillance aircraft developed from the Comet jetliner and HS748 turbo-prop airliner, and for starting the Bristol Siddeley (later Rolls-Royce) Pegasus engine in the Harrier jump jet.
The P4 remained as Rover’s only saloon offering until the P5 3 Litre was launched in 1958. By then, Rover was a two product company – the Land Rover and the upmarket conservative saloons, epitomised by the image of the P4, known to many as the “Aunty Rover” – a reference to the conservatism and safe place that Rover ownership suggested.
But the independent Rover was a less conservative organisation than suggested by this nickname, or by the P4 in isolation. This was the company that took the plunge with the Land Rover in 1947, developed the innovative, both technically and in terms of market positioning, Rover P6 (the 1964 2000), then put an American V8 in it, came up with the Range Rover, went racing with gas turbines and acted as the incubator for the minds that led to the Rover SD1, a car about as far removed from the P4 or P5 as you can imagine in just two generations.
However, there’s also no doubt which part of Rover’s history BL and its successors were looking to for the Honda based Rovers from the 1980s and 1990s. And for the 1998 BMW funded Rover 75, designer Richard Woolley has been quoted as seeking to evoke his childhood admiration for the P4….….with a four light saloon with four and six cylinder options, wood and leather interior in an upper premium market position and marketed on its appeal to a conservative but not sporting clientele.
And are that reputation and those interpretations of it directly linked to the fate of Rover? Well, not solely, but certainly in the mix, I’d suggest.