Historic Car Brands
After developing a template for the modern bicycle with its Rover Safety Bicycle of 1885, the company moved into the automotive industry. It started building motorcycles, then cars, using the Viking Longship badge from 1904. After World War II, Land Rover vehicles were developed and added to the Rover range. Jaguar Land Rover, a subsidiary of Indian-based Tata, has owned the Rover brand since 2008.
In the early 1880s, cycles were popular, but dangerous, given the height of the pedalling saddle on penny-farthings and high-wheel tricycles.
J K Starley made history in 1885, by producing the Rover Safety bicycle – a rear-wheel-chain-driven cycle with two similar-sized wheels, making it more stable than the previous high-wheel designs. The Rover Cycle Company Ltd was born.
Starley then fitted a Peugeot engine to a Rover bicycle and an Edwell Parker electric motor to a tricycle, but died suddenly early in October 1901 aged 46 and the business was taken over by entrepreneur Harry Lawson.
The company produced the Rover Imperial motorcycle in November 1902 and subsequent Rover motorcycles sold well, totalling more than 10,000 by the time production ceased in 1924.
1904 Rover at Coventry Motor Museum – Ben Sutherland
In 1904, Rover began producing automobiles, starting with the two-seater, single-cylinder Rover Eight, designed by Edmund Lewis, who came from Daimler, where Lawson had worked. The car featured cast-aluminium components, including its backbone chassis.
1905 Rover 6hp – Web Master
The next Rover was a more conventionally-framed, 6hp, lower-cost vehicle, followed by Lewis-designed four-cylinder 10/12 and 16/20 models. The latter’s 3.2-litre had enough grunt to win the 1907 Tourist Trophy race.
Lewis left the company to join Deasy in late 1905.
In 1908, Bernard Wright designed the twin-cylinder Rover 12 and 2.4-litre, four-cylinder 15. Sleeve-valve engines were new in 1910, when Wright came up with 1.1-litre, single-cylinder, 8hp and 1.9-litre, twin-cylinder, 12hp sleeve-valve-powered models. The engine sizes suggest some Daimler involvement.
1911 Knight-Rover sleeve-valve two-cylinder engine
Wright departed after the sleeve-valve experiment didn’t work very well and he was replaced by Owen Clegg, who joined from Wolseley and set about reforming the product range.
The 12hp model was introduced in 1912 and was powered by a 2.3-litre, four-cylinder, side-valve engine. This car was so successful that all other cars were dropped and, for a while, Rover pursued a ‘one model’ policy.
As with previous Rover designers, Clegg’s term was short and he left in 1912, to join the French subsidiary of Darracq and Company, London.
During the World War I, Rover made motorcycles, including 499cc single-cylinder motorcycles to the Russian Army, lorries to Maudslay designs and, not having a suitable one of their own, ambulances to a Sunbeam design.
After the War, production of the 12hp model resumed and it was joined in 1920 by a new 8hp model, powered by a flat-twin, one-litre engine designed by J Y Sangster, who went on the become one Britain’s pre-eminent motorcycle designers.
1924 Rover 8 – Martin Pettit
This virtual cyclecar proved popular, with some 17,000 produced before it was replaced in 1924 by a new 9/20hp model.
In 1923, new Rover designer, Mark Wild, came up with the 14, to replace the successful 12. A 3.4-litre, six-cylinder prototype failed to impress.
The 9/20 was upgraded in 1927 to the 10/25. The bore was increased by only 3mm, but retuning the engine gave it 25-percent more power.
Yet another new designer, Peter August Poppe, put into production at Rover his already completed design for a new two-litre car that became the Rover 14/45.
1925 Rover16/50 engine – Ken Gundry
Poppe’s new single-overhead-camshaft, 2.1-litre engine had hemispherical combustion chambers, with inclined valves and centrally-located spark plugs. The camshaft operated directly on the inlet valves and, through horizontal pushrods, worked the exhaust valves on the other side of the engine. The camshaft was driven by a vertical shaft at the rear of the engine.
(BMW may have examined this Rover engine design, because the successful 328 engine used a very similar valve-operating arrangement.)
The 14/45 was very comfortable, but heavy and considered underpowered. Within twelve months Rover had added a 2.4-litre, 16/50 to the range, but these OHC Rovers were expensive to build and not popular with customers. Only around 2,000 were built.
Poppe’s simplified solution was a 45hp, overhead-valve, two-litre straight-six that became the foundation of all Rover engines until 1948.
1928 Rover 10 Tourer – Clive Barker
The business was not very successful during the 1920s and did not pay a dividend from 1923 until the mid-1930s. During 1928 Frank Searle was appointed managing director to supervise recovery. On his recommendation Spencer Wilks was brought in from Hillman as general manager and was appointed to the board in 1929.
1929 Rover Light Six – Milburne One
Poppe’s last engine design powered the 1929 Light Six that was fitted with a lightweight, fabric-body, licensed from Weymann. Although it had the same output as the 14/45 it weighed a lot less and had much better performance.
The Rover Light Six won attention when it was the first successful participant in the Blue Train Races – a series of record-breaking attempts between automobiles and trains in the late 1920s and early 1930s. It saw a number of motorists and their own or sponsored automobiles race against the Le Train Bleu, a train that ran between Calais and the French Riviera.
Many had already failed this challenge, but former motorcycle tester and pioneer publicist Dudley Noble knew that the average speed of the Blue Train, with its stops taken into account, was no more than about 40 mph (64 km/h). To beat the train, Noble drove more or less non-stop from St Raphael to Calais.
The Rover Light Six averaged 38mph (61km/h) on its 750-mile (1210-km) journey and gave the Rover a 20-minute lead over the train. The Blue Train had been beaten for the first time and the Rover team was lauded by the Daily Express.
In 1930 the Light Six was replaced by the Light twenty, with a larger, 2.6-litre version of the OHV engine that put out 60hp.
At the same time, the 10/25 had the option of an all-steel body, 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.
1936 Rover Speed 14 1.6 – Vauxford
Also, 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. (It may look like Rover pioneered a design that another German company, VW, capitalised on, but both companies really copied the Czech maker, Tatra.)
Frank Searle and Spencer Wilks set about reorganising the company and moving it upmarket. In 1930 Spencer Wilks was joined by his brother, Maurice, who had also been at Hillman as chief engineer. Spencer Wilks stayed with the company until 1962 and his brother, until 1963. Frank Searle left the board at the end of 1931.
The Wilks Brothers established Rover as a company with several European royal, aristocratic and governmental warrants, and upper-middle-class and star clients.
1938 Rover 14 P2 Six-Light Saloon – Steve Glover
Rover had shown profits in 1929 and 1930, but with the economic downturn in 1931 and 1932, Rover reported losses and newly set up assembly operations in Australia and New Zealand were closed after less than two-years operation.
Rover returned to profit in 1933, but the Australasian operations weren’t resumed, presumably because it had been realised that UK-market Rovers needed expensive reworking to compete with North American sourced vehicles Down Under.
Production of a considerably revised replacement for Rover’s 16hp Meteor was resumed under the name Rover 16 in mid-1936 and, with a gap for World War II, the 16 remained in Rover’s catalogue until early 1948.
1939 Rover P2 12hp Martin V
In the late 1930s, as the War clouds gathered over Europe, Rover set up an aero-engine and airframe manufacturing factory, with British Government finance, at Solihull, in 1940. Both were employed making aero engines and airframes.
Also in 1940, Rover was approached by Frank Whittle to develop and produce Whittle’s jet engine, which it did for a time. However, Rover had its own jet-turbine design and handed over its part in the jet-engine project to Rolls-Royce, in exchange for the latter’s Meteor tank engine factory.
(The Meteor engine was superseded for new tanks in 1962, and as Rover wanted more manufacturing capacity for the Land Rover, they transferred the manufacture of Meteor spare parts for the British and other governments back to Rolls-Royce.)
1948 Land Rover Series I – British Motor Museum Gaydon
Solihull became the new centre for Rover vehicles, when production resumed in 1947, with the Rover 12 Sports Tourer. However, the Land Rover and its Range Rover derivatives became a runaway success and were the company’s biggest sellers from the 1950s. (We’ll cover the LandRover story in a separate story, due in September 2021.)
1947 Rover 10 P2 – Alf van Beem
The Rover Sixty and Rover Seventy-Five, or Rover P3, series were 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre executive cars released in February 1948 and produced until the summer of 1949.
The Rover P4 series was designed by Gordon Bashford and produced from 1949 until 1964. Model releases began with the six-cylinder, 2.1-litre Rover 75, followed in 1953 by the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder Rover 60 and the 2.6-litre, six-cylinder Rover 90. These engines were F-head, inlet-over-exhaust-valve types.
1952 Rover 75 aka ‘Cyclops’ – Charles 01
The P4 cars were cultured but staid and became known as the ‘Auntie’ Rovers.
The P4 series was supplemented in September 1958 by a new, conservatively shaped, Rover 3.0-litre P5 that overlapped the P4 for six years.
The P5 was a large luxury saloon, powered by a three-litre version of Rover’s six-cylinder engine, carried forward from the P4 series. It was the first Rover car with unitary bodywork, styled by David Bache. This model had a traditional, well-appointed interior.
1960 Rover three-litre P5 – Charles 01
In 1962 came the rakish four-door coupe version, with a lowered roof line and both sedan and coupe scored an upgraded engine, with 129hp. Power went up to 134hp in 1965.
Rover launched its P6, small, high-performance, T2000 saloon in 1965, powered by a new, overhead-camshaft, four-cylinder, two-litre engine that initially put out 104hp, but soon was improved the 124hp by the addition of twin SU carburettors.
Rover T2000 Series I P6 – Rudolf Stricker
The 3.5-litre V8 P5 models of 1967 used an all-aluminium V8 ‘BOP’ engine design purchased from General Motors. The 3.0- and 3.5-litre models became favourites for transport of dignitaries, including British Prime Ministers from Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher. HM The Queen also used several Rover P5 cars for her private motoring.
The smaller P6 picked up the 3.5-litre engine, in 1968, because its aluminium construction meant it weighed no more than the iron four.
While these upgraded Rover products were being released in 1967/68 and Land Rover sales were skyrocketing around the world, Rover became part of the Leyland Motor Corporation (LMC), which already owned Triumph and soon, LMC merged with British Motor Holdings (BMH) to become the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC). It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was the beginning of the end for the independent Rover Company.
Rover 3500 – Alf van Beem
Having purchased the Alvis company in 1965, Rover had been working on a V8-powered supercar to sell under the Alvis name, as well as an upgraded P6, known as the P8, for which tooling had already been purchased. However, the BLMC brand collection meant that Rover and Jaguar were corporate partners, so these Rover projects were cancelled, to prevent internal competition with Jaguar products.
BLMC was a big single target for militant British unions and Solihull-based Rover’s heritage was contaminated by the infamous industrial relations and managerial problems that beset the British motor industry throughout the 1970s.
Because of its no-conflict rationale, Rover continued to develop its ‘100-inch Station Wagon’, which became the ground-breaking Range Rover, launched in 1970.
The last true-Rover-designed car was the stylish and revolutionary SD1 that was launched in 1976, powered by the ubiquitous 3.5-litre V8. It was built by the Specialist Division (later the Jaguar-Rover-Triumph division) of British Leyland (BL) and they should have been ashamed of themselves. Build quality was appalling.
Rover SD1 – Paul Brown
The SD1 was marketed under various names and in 1977 it won the European Car of the Year title, but subsequent press reports from Europe were damning and export vehicles were no better. (Allan Whiting can remember driving a press car from Sydney to Katoomba and, when he arrived at Mt Victoria, watched as the instrument binnacle fell off the top of the dashboard, dangling on its umbilical wiring. Duct tape held it in place for the return trip!)
Also, the SD1 continued Rover’s fascination with complicated suspension that was unreliable and horrendously expensive to repair.
The Sd1 was produced from 1976 until 1986, when it was replaced by the Rover 800 that owed more to Honda than to Rover.