Motorcycle industry (until 1925)
Bicycle industry (until 1925)
|Fate||Merged into Leyland Motors(1967)
Assets separated as Land Rover (1978)
Rover brand defunct (2005)
|Successor||SAIC MG Motor
TATA Land Rover
|Founder||John Kemp Starley &
Coventry, West Midlands
Solihull, West Midlands
Gaydon, West Midlands
Longbridge, West Midlands
|Spencer & Maurice Wilks
(Management & Engineering,
Motorcycles (until 1925)
Bicycles (until 1925)
Land Rover All terrain vehicles
|Subsidiaries||Alvis Cars (1965–67)|
Rover is a former British car manufacturing company founded as Starley & Sutton Co. of Coventry in 1878. It is the direct ancestor of the present day Land Rover company, which is a subsidiary of Jaguar Land Rover, in turn owned by the Tata Group.
The company traded as Rover, manufacturing cars between 1904 and 1967, when it was sold to Leyland Motor Corporation, becoming the Rover marque. The Rover marque was used on cars produced by British Leyland (BL), who separated the assets of the original Rover Company as Land Rover in 1978 whilst the Rover trademark continued to be used on vehicles produced by its successor companies – the Austin Rover Group(1982–1986), the Rover Group (1986–2000), and then finally MG Rover (2000–2005). Following MG Rover’s collapse in 2005, the Rover marque became dormant, and was subsequently sold to Ford, by now the owners of Land Rover, a move which effectively reunited the Rover trademark with the original company.
After developing the template for the modern bicycle with its Rover Safety Bicycle of 1885, the company moved into the automotive industry. It started building motorcycles and Rover cars, using their established marque with the iconic Viking Longship, from 1904 onwards. Land Rover vehicles were added from 1948 onwards, with all production moving to the Solihull plant after World War II.
The Polish word now most commonly used for bicycle – rower originates from Rover bicycles which had both wheels of the same size (previous models usually had one bigger, one smaller – see Penny-farthing, and were called in Polish bicykl, from English bicycle).
The first Rover was a tricycle manufactured by Starley & Sutton Co. of Coventry, England, in 1883. The company was founded by John Kemp Starley and William Sutton in 1878. Starley had previously worked with his uncle, James Starley (father of the cycle trade), who began by manufacturing sewing machines and switched to bicycles in 1869.
In the early 1880s, the cycles available were the relatively dangerous penny-farthings and high-wheel tricycles. J.K. Starley made history in 1885 by producing the Rover Safety Bicycle—a rear-wheel-drive, chain-driven cycle with two similar-sized wheels, making it more stable than the previous high-wheel designs. Cycling Magazine said the Rover had “set the pattern to the world”; the phrase was used in their advertising for many years. Starley’s Rover is usually described by historians as the first recognisably modern bicycle.
In 1889, the company became J.K. Starley & Co. Ltd., and in the late 1890s, the Rover Cycle Company Ltd.
In 1899 John Starley imported some of the early Peugeot motorcycles from France in for experimental development. His first project was to fit an engine to one of his Rover bicycles. Starley died early in October 1901 aged 46 and the business was taken over by entrepreneur H. J. Lawson.
The company developed and produced the Rover Imperial motorcycle in November 1902. This was a 3.5 hp diamond-framed motorcycle with the engine in the centre and ‘springer’ front forks which was ahead of its time. This first Rover motorcycle had innovative features such as a spray carburettor, bottom-bracket engine and mechanically operated valves. With a strong frame with double front down tubes and a good quality finish, over a thousand Rover motorcycles were sold in 1904. The following year, however, Rover stopped motorcycle production to concentrate on their ‘safety bicycle’ but in 1910 designer John Greenwood was commissioned to develop a new 3.5 hp 500 cc engine with spring-loaded tappets, a Bosch magneto and an innovative inverted tooth drive chain. It had a Brown and Barlow carburettor and Druid spring forks. This new model was launched at the 1910 Olympia show and over 500 were sold.
Rover supplied 499 cc single cylinder motorcycles to the Russian Army during the First World War. The company began to focus on car production at the end of the war, but Rover still produced motorcycles with 248 cc and 348 cc Rover overhead valve engines and with J.A.P. engines, including a 676 cc V-twin. In 1924 Rover introduced a new lightweight 250cc motorcycle with unit construction of engine and gearbox. This had lights front and rear as well as a new design of internal expanding brakes.
Poor sales of their motorcycles caused Rover to end motorcycle production and concentrate solely on the production of motor cars. Between 1903 and 1924 Rover had produced more than 10,000 motorcycles.
Early Rover cars
In 1888, Starley made an electric car, but it never was put into production.
Three years after Starley’s death in 1901, and H. J. Lawson’s subsequent takeover, the Rover company began producing automobiles with the two-seater Rover Eight to the designs of Edmund Lewis, who came from Lawson’s Daimler. Lewis left the company to join Deasy in late 1905. He was eventually replaced by Owen Clegg, who joined from Wolseley in 1910 and set about reforming the product range. Short-lived experiments with sleeve valve engines were abandoned, and the 12hp model was introduced in 1912. This car was so successful that all other cars were dropped, and for a while, Rover pursued a “one model” policy. Clegg left to join the French company Darracq in 1912.
Restructure and re-organization
The business was not very successful during the 1920s and did not pay a dividend from 1923 until the mid-1930s. In December 1928 the chairman of Rover advised shareholders that the accumulation of the substantial losses of the 1923–1928 years together with the costs of that year’s reorganisation must be recognised by a reduction of 60 per cent in the value of capital of the company.
During 1928 Frank Searle was appointed managing director to supervise recovery. Searle was by training a locomotive engineer with motor industry experience at Daimler and, most recently, had been managing director of Imperial Airways. On his recommendation Spencer Wilks was brought in from Hillman as general manager and appointed to the board in 1929. That year, Searle split Midland Light Car Bodies from Rover in an effort to save money and instructed Robert Boyle and Maurice Wilks to design a new small car.
This was the Rover Scarab with a rear-mounted V-twin-cylinder air-cooled engine announced in 1931, a van version was shown at Olympia, but it did not go into production. During this time the Rover 10/25 was introduced, with bodies made by the Pressed Steel Company. This was the same body as used on the Hillman Minx. Prior to this time Rover had been a great supporter of the very light Weymann bodies that went suddenly out of fashion with the demand for shiny coachwork and more curved body shapes. Weymann bodies remained in the factory catalogue until 1933.
Frank Searle and Spencer Wilks set about reorganising the company and moving it upmarket to cater for people who wanted something “superior” to Fords and Austins. In 1930 Spencer Wilks was joined by his brother, Maurice, who had also been at Hillman as chief engineer. Spencer Wilks was to stay with the company until 1962, and his brother until 1963.
The company showed profits in the 1929 and 1930 years but with the economic downturn in 1931 Rover reported a loss of £77,529. 1932 produced a loss of £103,000 but a turn around following yet more reorganization resulted in a profit of £46,000 in 1933. The new assembly operations in Australia and New Zealand were closed.
Frank Searle left the board near the end of the calendar year 1931, his work done.
Building on successes such as beating the Blue Train for the first time in 1930 in the Blue Train Races, the Wilks Brothers established Rover as a company with several European royal, aristocratic, and governmental warrants, and upper-middle-class and star clients.
Second World War and gas turbines
In the late 1930s, in anticipation of the potential hostilities that would become the Second World War, the British government started a rearmament programme, and as part of this, “shadow factories” were built. These were paid for by the government but staffed and run by private companies. Two were run by Rover: one, at Acocks Green, Birmingham, started operation in 1937, and a second, larger one, at Solihull, started in 1940. Both were employed making aero engines and airframes. The original main works at Helen Street, Coventry, was severely damaged by bombing in 1940 and 1941 and never regained full production.
In early 1940, Rover was approached by Frank Whittle to do work for Whittle’s company, Power Jets. This led to a proposal from Power Jets in which Rover would put forward £50,000 of capital in exchange for shares in Power Jets. Rover contacted the Air Ministry (AM) regarding the proposal, which ultimately led to an arrangement between Rover and former Power Jets contractor British Thomson-Houston (BTH) to develop and produce Whittle’s jet engine. The Air Ministry had left Whittle and Power Jets out of these negotiations. Rover chief engineer Maurice Wilks led the team to develop the engine, improving the performance over the original Whittle design. The first test engines to the W.2B design were built in a former cotton mill in Barnoldswick, Lancashire which Rover moved into in June 1941 (along with Waterloo Mill in Clitheroe). Testing commenced towards the end of October 1941.
A need for greater expertise within the project, along with difficult relations between Rover management and Frank Whittle (not least because Rover under AM approval had secretly designed a different engine layout, known within Rover as the B.26, which they thought was superior), led to Rover handing over their part in the jet engine project and the Barnoldswick factory to Rolls-Royce in exchange for the latter’s Meteor tank engine factory at Ascot Road, Nottingham, the result of a handshake deal between Rover’s Spencer Wilks and Rolls-Royce’s Ernest Hives made in a local inn in Clitheroe. The official hand-over date was 1 April 1943, though there was a considerable overlap, and several key Rover staff such as Adrian Lombard and John Herriot, the latter being at Rover on secondment from the Air Inspection Department (AID) of the AM, moved to Rolls-Royce. In exchange for the jet engine project and its facilities, Rover was given the contract and production equipment to make Meteor tank engines, which continued until 1964. Although Rolls-Royce under Stanley Hooker were soon to be able to start producing the Whittle-designed W.2B/23 engine (known within Rover as the B.23, later named by Rolls-Royce the Welland), they evaluated the 4 Lombard/Herriot re-designed Rover W.2B/B.26 engines under test at the time of the takeover, and selected the Rover design for their own jet engine development (it became the Rolls-Royce Derwent engine).
After the Second World War, the company abandoned Helen Street and bought the two shadow factories. Acocks Green carried on for a while, making Meteor engines for tanks such as the Centurion and Conqueror, and Solihull became the new centre for vehicles, with production resuming in 1947. This was the year Rover produced the Rover 12 Sports Tourer. 200 cars were built for the export market but all had RHD so many cars stayed in the UK. Solihull would become the home of the Land Rover.
Despite the difficulties experienced with the jet engine project, Rover was interested in the development of the gas turbine engine to power vehicles. In 1945, Rover hired engineers Frank Bell and Spen King away from Rolls-Royce to assist Maurice Wilks in the development of automotive gas turbines. By 1949, the team developed a turbine that ran at 55,000 rpm, produced more than 100 horsepower (75 kW), and could run on petrol,paraffin, or diesel oil. Rover’s early turbine engines consumed fuel at a rate much greater than piston engines, equivalent to 6 miles per imperial gallon (5.0 mpg-US; 47 L/100 km). Although fuel consumption was later reduced by using a heat exchanger, it was never as low as that of contemporary piston engines.
In March 1950, Rover showed the JET1 prototype, the first car powered with a gas turbine engine, to the public. JET1, an open two-seat tourer, had the engine positioned behind the seats, air intake grilles on either side of the car, and exhaust outlets on the top of the tail. During tests, the car reached a top speed of 88 mph (142 km/h). After being shown in the United Kingdom and the United States in 1950, JET1 was further developed, and was subjected to speed trials on the Jabbeke highway in Belgium in June 1952, where it exceeded 150 miles per hour (240 km/h). JET1 is currently on display at the London Science Museum.
Four further prototypes were built, the P4-based front-engined T2 and rear-engined T2A saloons, the rear-engined four-wheel-drive T3 coupé, and the front-engined front-wheel drive T4 saloon.
Rover and the BRM Formula One team joined forces to produce the Rover-BRM, a gas turbine-powered sports prototype that entered the 1963 24 hours of Le Mans, driven by Graham Hill and Richie Ginther. It averaged 107.8 mph (173 km/h) and had a top speed of 142 mph (229 km/h).
Rover also ran several experimental diesel engine projects in relation to the Land Rover. The 2-litre, 52 horsepower (39 kW) diesel unit designed and built by Rover for its 4×4 had entered production in 1956 and was one of Britain’s first modern high-speed automotive diesel engines. Experimental projects were undertaken to improve the engine’s power delivery, running qualities, and fuel tolerances. British Army requirements led to the development of a multifuel version of the 2.25-litre variant of the engine in 1962, which could run on petrol, diesel, Jet-A, or kerosene. However, the engine’s power output when running on low-grade fuel was too low for the Army’s uses. Rover developed a highly advanced (for the time) turbodiesel version of its engine in the mid-1960s to power its experimental ‘129-inch’ heavy duty Land Rover designs. This 2.5-litre engine used a turbocharger built by Rover’s gas turbine division as well as an intercooler. This was one of the first times these features had been incorporated on such a small-capacity diesel unit, but they were not adopted.
After the Leyland Motor Corporation takeover, the Rover Gas Turbine was used in a number of Leyland trucks, including one shown at the 1968 Commercial Motor Show. Rover gas turbines also powered the first Advanced Passenger Train.
The 1950s and ’60s were fruitful years for the company. The Land Rover became a runaway success (despite Rover’s reputation for making upmarket saloons, the utilitarian Land Rover was actually the company’s biggest seller throughout the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s), as well as the P5 and P6 saloons equipped with a 3.5L (215ci) aluminium V8 (the design and tooling of which was purchased from Buick) and pioneering research into gas turbine-fueled vehicles.
As the ’60s drew to a close Rover was working on a number of innovative projects. Having purchased the Alvis company in 1965 Rover was working on a V8-powered supercar to sell under the Alvis name. The prototype, called the P6BS, was completed and the finalised styling and engineering proposal, the P9, was drawn up. Rover was also working on the P8 project which aimed to replace the existing P5 large saloon with a modern design similar in concept to a scaled-up P6.
When Leyland Motors joined with British Motor Holdings and Rover and Jaguar became corporate partners these projects were cancelled to prevent internal competition with Jaguar products. The P8 in particular was cancelled in a very late stage of preparation- Rover had already ordered the dies and stamping equipment for making the car’s body panels at Pressed Steel when ordered to stop work.
Rover continued to develop its ‘100-inch Station Wagon’, which became the ground-breaking Range Rover, launched in 1970. This also used the ex-Buick V8 engine as well as the P6’s innovative safety-frame body structure design and features such as permanent four-wheel drive and all-round disc brakes. The Range Rover was initially designed as a utility vehicle which could offer the off-road capability of the Land Rover, but in a more refined and car-like package.
Mergers to LMC and BL
In 1967, Rover became part of the Leyland Motor Corporation (LMC), which already owned Triumph. The next year, LMC merged with British Motor Holdings (BMH) to become the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC). This was the beginning of the end for the independent Rover Company, as the Solihull-based company’s heritage drowned beneath the infamous industrial relations and managerial problems that beset the British motor industry throughout the 1970s. At various times, it was part of the Specialist Division (hence the factory designation SD1 for the first—and in the event, only—model produced under this arrangement), Leyland Cars, Rover-Triumph, and the short-lived Jaguar Rover Triumph. The Land Rover products however had flourished during the turbulent BLMC years, with the Range Rover in particular generating sizeable revenues for the company as it moved further upmarket. After the Ryder Report in 1975, Land Rover was split from Rover in 1978 as a separate operating company within British Leyland, and all Rover car production at Solihull ended and was switched to the Austin-Morris plants in Longbridge and Cowley for the rest of the marque’s existence. The Range Rover subsequently went on to become BL’s flagship product, after Jaguar was de-merged and privatised in 1984.
British Leyland entered into a collaborative venture with the Honda Motor Corporation of Japan, which resulted in a whole generation of Rover-badged vehicles which shared engineering with contemporary Honda models, which would sustain the beleaguered company and its successors until the mid-1990s.
Sale to BAe, and divestment
In 1988 the business was sold by the British Government to British Aerospace (BAe), and shortly after shortened its name to just Rover Group. They subsequently sold the business in 1994 to BMW. Honda, which had owned a 20% share in partnership with BAe, exited the business when BAe sold its share to BMW.
BMW, after initially seeking to retain the whole, decided only to retain the Cowley operations for MINI production. Land Rover was sold by BMW to Ford. The Longbridge production facility, along with the Rover and Morris Garages marques, was taken on by former Rover executive John Towers in April 2000 for a derisory sum under the marque MG Rover. The Towers administration of MG was declared insolvent in April 2005 and the business was later refloated under the ownership of Nanjing Automobile, who moved production to China.
Legally the Rover marque is the property of Land Rover under the terms of Ford’s purchase of the name in 2006. The company is now known as Jaguar Land Rover Limited, Land Rover having been sold by Ford to Tata Motors in 2008. As part of the deal with Tata the Rover marque had to remain as property of Land Rover.
Launched under the independent Rover Company pre-merger (1904–67)
1911 Rover 12hp 4-seater torpedo sleeve-valve 1910-1912
1910–12 Rover 12 sleeve-valve
1912–13 Rover 18
1914 Rover 12 Glegg tourer SV9486 (DVLA) first registered 24 January 1921
1922–23 Rover 6/21
1924–27 Rover 9/20
1925–27 Rover 14/45
1926–29 Rover 16/50
Launched under the Rover trademark as a British Leyland Motor Corporation (later BL plc) subsidiary (1967–88)
- 1970–78 Range Rover—In 1978, BL established Land Rover Limited as a separate subsidiary; it took over Range Rover production.
Launched by the Rover Group/MG Rover as a British Aerospace/BMW subsidiary (1988–2005)
1989–95 Rover 200/400-Series (R8)1993–98 Rover 600-Series1994-01 Range Rover Mk.2 (P38A)
1995-05 Rover 200/25 (R3)
1995-05 Rover 400/45 (HH-R)
Rover – How it all began.
By Kevin Phillips
The history of the Rover Company goes back to 1881 when the Coventry Sewing Machine Company was founded. From sewing machines, they graduated to manufacturing bicycles in 1869. The first Rover machine was a tricycle which appeared in 1884 and a year later the new safety bicycle appeared and the company then became known as JK Starley & Co Ltd.
John Starley’s safety bicycle was the prototype of the modern pedal cycle and was developed to overcome the balancing problems of the common penny-farthing cycle. Tricycles had been easier to control than the high and ungainly “ordinaries as the penny farthings had come to be known, but were not as maneuverable and were much more expensive.
John Starley’s safety bicycle featured a rear wheel that was driven by a chain and gearing which would reduce the effort required by the rider and would enable the front wheel diameter to be dramatically reduced.
Once his safety bicycle had proved a success, Starley began experimenting with an electrically driven battery-powered tricycle. The batteries were placed in a wicker basket above and behind the rear axle with the electric motor fitted underneath. Unfortunately, it was not a success as the performance and range was pitiful and once the batteries had gone flat, the dead weight of the machine would have taxed even the strongest of riders.
Starley’s safety bicycles caught on rapidly and the business went from strength to strength with rapidly rising sales which made John Starley a wealthy man.
In June 1896, Starley formed the Rover Cycle Co Ltd which operated from the New Meteor Works. In its first year of operation, the new company built 11000 cycles and returned a profit of 21,945 pounds. At about this time, an entrepreneur by the name of Harry Lawson had arrived in Coventry and taken over a disused cotton mill in order to manufacture his license-built Daintier motor car. Lawson was a man who was going places and, expanding by acquisition, tried to induce Starley to join forces with him. Starley would have no part of it, but it did get him thinking about engines and their possibilities.
Starley imported several Peugeot motorcycles from France in 1899 for observation and experimental work. This was a natural progression as by the end of the nineteenth century the motor car phenomenon was taking the world by storm and Britain already had motor cars being built by Daim]er, Wolseley, Lanchester and Riley.
Rover’s first project was to motorise a Rover pedal cycle, something that Triumph was already working on.
John Starley died tragically early in October 1901 aged 46, while still the undisputed leader of Coventry’s bicycle industry, his business now producing 15,000 machines a year.
Harry Smith took over as Managing Director and made the decision to go motorised in 1902. The first public appearance of the 2% HP Rover motorcycle was made on 24th November 1902.
By now Britain’s fledgling motorcar industry was starting to show signs of stability and Daimler was turning out good cars and making good money. On 16th December 1903 the Rover directors decided to start development of a light car. It would be designed by Edmund Lewis who had been acquired from Daimler who were the acknowledged motorcar experts. Rover’s decision had been made just in time as by now Daimler and Riley in Coventry had been joined by Annstrong-Siddeley, Humber, Lea-Francis, Singer and Standard.