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.
During the First World War, they made motorcycles, trucks to Maudslay designs, and, not having a suitable one of their own, cars to a Sunbeam design. The business was not very successful during the 1920s and did not pay a dividend from 1923 until the mid 1930s. In 1929, there was a change of management, with Spencer Wilks coming in from Hillman as general manager. He set about reorganising the company and moving it upmarket to cater for people who wanted something “superior” to Fords and Austins. He was joined by his brother Maurice (who had also been at Hillman) as chief engineer in 1930. Spencer Wilks stayed with the company until 1962, and his brother until 1963.
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 government warrants, and upper-middle-class and star clients.
1936 Rover 10
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 the government to support Frank Whittle in developing the gas turbine engine. Whittle’s company, Power Jets, had no production facilities; however, the intention was for Rover to take the design and develop it for mass production. Whittle himself was not pleased by this and did not like the design changes made without his approval, but the first test engines to the W2B design were built in an unused cotton mill in Barnoldswick, Lancashire, in October 1941. Rolls-Royce took an interest in the new technology, and an agreement was reached in 1942 in which they would take over the engines and Barnoldswick works—and in exchange, Rover would get the contract for making Meteor tank engines, which actually continued until 1964.
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, and Solihull became the new centre for vehicles, with production resuming in 1947; it would become the home of the Land Rover.
Rover gas turbine experimental car.
n 1950, designer F.R. Bell and chief engineer Maurice Wilks unveiled the first car powered with a gas turbine engine, based upon the designs of Frank Whittles Power Jets company. The two-seater JET1 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 top speeds of 88 mph (140 km/h), at a turbine speed of 50,000 rpm. The car ran on petrol, paraffin, or, oil, but fuel consumption problems proved insurmountable for a production car. It is currently on display at the London Science Museum. 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).
1962 Rover 80 P4
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 3.5 litre aluminium V8 (the design and tooling of which was purchased from Buick) and pioneering research into gas turbine-fueled vehicles.
Rover 2000 P6
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. 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.
1985 Rover Vitesse (SD1) (post-facelift)
This Alvis-Rover prototype for a midengined sports car was shown to the press in 1967, but investment cash was severely limited in the wake of the BLMC merger, and the model never entered production.