Rover’s roots go back to sewing machines (when it was known as the Coventry Sewing Machine Company) and bicycles, and its venture into car production looked set to be short-lived.
At the end of the 1920s, Rover was in a mess, facing an uncertain future. But then managing director Colonel Frank Searle hired Spencer Wilks, the former joint managing director of Hillman. Wilks was taken on as general manager in 1929, but it was an appointment that Searle had cause to regret when, three years later, Wilks effectively ousted his boss following a disastrous few years during which time the company nearly folded.
It was Spencer and his brother Maurice - who joined the company in 1933 to head up design and engineering - who turned the company around. The duo propelled the company through the 1930s and into wartime production of jet engines.
Ironically, it was the post-war steel shortages that produced Rover’s most enduring product, the aluminium panelled Land Rover. Maurice Wilks, who owned a farm on Anglesey, needed an all-terrain vehicle and first considered replacing his battered ex-War Department Willys Jeep with another for the simple reason that there was no alternative.
But recognising the worldwide shortage of agricultural vehicles with all-terrain ability, he and his brother set about designing one of their own, with take-offs and winches to improve versatility. Although the decision to use aluminium for body panels gave rise to the Land Rover’s legendary durability, this was more by accident than design: it enabled the company to by-pass steel shortages and build up volume production.
Within three years of its debut at the Amsterdam motor show in 1948, Land Rover was outselling Rover’s new car model, the P4. Success bred success, and even with a change of ownership today’s version, the Defender, is still based on the 1948 original. Land Rover begat the Range Rover, which also carved out a new market, this time in sports utility vehicles.
The P4, born at the same time as Land Rover, saddled Rover with its “Auntie” tag, becoming the unpretentious car of choice for bank managers and solicitors throughout the 1950s. It represented a new look under design chief Gordon Bashford and also featured aluminium panels.
Initially, the car appeared with a centrally mounted spotlamp in its horizontally slatted radiator grille, giving rise to its “Cyclops” nickname. The grille was dropped for the car’s 1952 facelift and replaced with vertical bars that would subsequently grace the 1958 P5 ‘3-litre’ and, after a few decades of rest, all modern Rovers.
JET 1, the world’s first gas turbine car, was based on a curious two-door open-topped variant of the P4 bodyshell, complete with aero screen for the driver. It was a strangely elegant and well-proportioned P4 derivative, with the turbine located amidships behind the cockpit. More importantly, it won Rover its second Dewar Trophy in 1951. The car was officially timed at over 150mph, hardly the performance of the sedate P4, and was the first of several Rover gas turbine prototypes. The four-wheel-drive T3 with GRP coupe bodywork followed in 1956 and the front-wheel-drive T4 in 1962.
T4 provided some accurate pointers to the appearance of the P6, the Rover 2000, launched the following year. While it wasn’t the first monocoque construction Rover, it was a revolutionary model that stirred up traditional Rover buyers with its revolutionary David Bache design and advanced technical specification. This included independent suspension with a De Dion rear axle as well as four-wheel disc brakes with inboard discs at the rear and a brand new overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine. This really was a sports saloon and a quantum leap forward from the P4, which remained in production until 1964.
Both P5 and P6 went on to be powered by the 3.5 litre Buick V8 which the company bought in to provide the extra power it needed for the P5, Rover’s largest car and one favoured by Prime Ministers and the Queen herself. It was also the ideal power plant for the Range Rover. With several increases in capacity, it powered successive generations of Range Rover and Discovery until 2001.
How the rot set in:
Unwieldy takeovers, hapless management and militant workers were all part of the mix that destroyed Rover’s foundations, reports Richard Feast.
It was the end of a long and inglorious road when MG Rover was forced to call in administrators on April 8. The group, known variously over the past half century as British Motor Corporation, British Motor Holdings, British Leyland, BL and Rover, resisted all attempts to make it a commercial success. In the process, what was once the world's fourth largest vehicle maker became incon-sequential - except to those employees, suppliers and dealers for whom it put bread on the table.
The group - call it Rover for the sake of simplicity - was created from an amalgam of independent car, van, truck and bus makers, starting with the 1952 merger between two great rivals from the inter-war years, Austin and Morris.The problem was that no one at Rover knew what to do with all the companies and their products after this and other subsequent takeovers. There was a frantic round of mergers and acquisitions but no consolidation. Why create one engine type when eight existing ones would do the job? The cost implications were barely believable.
At the same time, competition grew much stiffer in the 1950s and 1960s as other European car firms recovered from the ravages of war. There was Communist-inspired anarchy on the shop floor of Rover's giant car factories like Longbridge, Cowley and Solihull. That led to delivery delays and lost sales. The quality and reliability of its multiple models was among the worst in the business.
The Morris Minor, Mini and 1100 rightly became best sellers, but models like the Allegro, Maestro, Marina, Maxi, Oxford and Princess were commercial failures. The company wasted its Austin-Healey, MG and Triumph sports car legacy. The product planners' answer was badge engineering, which introduced consumers to models such as the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet. They were not impressed.
Internal inadequacies and external competition sounded the twin death knells for Rover. The scale of its problems was properly exposed after the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973. Simultaneously, Japanese firms started to win many more new customers in traditional Rover export markets around the world.
The group sucked in billions of pounds of taxpayer money through hand-outs and state aid in order to stay in business. It was to no avail. State control was tried when private ownership failed. When that predictably failed as well, the government used financial inducements to persuade the country's biggest defence contractor to take Rover off its hands. British Aerospace knew nothing about cars, though it recognised the value of Rover's property assets. New product investment was minimal. Besides, Honda was by that time a minority investor in Rover and supplied its basic car technology.
Honda's reward was to be ousted when BAe abruptly sold Rover to BMW in 1994. It proved a lucky escape. In six short years, Rover took the previously impregnable BMW group to the brink of disaster. Only after BMW abandoned Rover six years later did the German firm roar back into the fast lane.
Phoenix Venture Holdings was the only bidder for the Rover business. But BMW needed an honourable exit. It did not want to go down in history as the firm that closed the British car industry. For that reason, BMW provided the Phoenix Four - John Towers, Nick Stephenson, John Edwards and Peter Beale - with a mighty generous financial package to take the remains of Rover off its hands. It would then be their fault, not BMW's, if Rover failed.
And fail it did, as everyone outside the Phoenix orbit predicted. The car maker's sales slide was not new, but it accelerated under Phoenix. Only a period of unprecedented new car demand allowed MG Rover to survive as long as it did. More than 10 million new cars were bought in the UK - where the company sold 70 per cent of its output - over the four years to 2004. That was far more than in any previous similar period, but it was not enough to keep the company alive. MG Rover lost share in a rising market.
Trying to sell cars that are at best okay - as MG Rover's were - is to confine them to oblivion. Competition among makers is so intense that GM and Ford struggle to make profits. If two of the world's behemoths were in trouble, which they were, what hope had a small enterprise like MG Rover?