People : Roy Axe

Filling the shoes of the great David Bache was never going to be an easy task. Roy Axe, however, managed to call upon all his Rootes/Chrysler experience to do just this.

In fact, not only did Roy Axe succeed in this role, he excelled – although his product plan did not quite see fruition.


Correspondence with Keith Adams, Winter 2002/2003.


Roy Axe pictured at Gaydon with two of his creations, the MG DR2/PR5 and the EX-E.

Roy Axe gives his opinions on the design revolution at ARG in the early 1980s… and the Montego.

Naturally enough, the designers who have been responsible for some of the greats within BMC>Rover have been lauded individually for their prowess: David Bache for the SD1, Farina for the ADO16, even Harris Mann for the Allegro/Princess and in more recent times, Richard Woolley for the Rover 75. The efforts of Roy Axe, although not unnoticed, have experienced a lower profile. Roy Axe was not just responsible for the look of the Rover 800 and 200/400, but he also did much behind the scenes work in getting systems put in place. This resulted in the opening of the Canley design studio in 1983, and for the first time in many years, an overall design strategy for the entire company.

Over the past few months, Axe has recalled his days at ARG, and kindly forwarded them on to me. Here, for you perusal, are the results of our correspondence:


I JOINED BL at the beginning of 1982. I had returned from the USA with my family and found that the winter that year in England was even worse than that in Detroit! I had been approached by BL during the previous year about joining the company but had not felt this was a move I wanted to jump at. At Chrysler, where I was Director of Automotive Design, I had been through the worst of the upheavals and working for Lee Iaccoca, the future looked rosier than for some considerable time. During a vacation in UK in 1981, however, I did agree to meet with Harold Musgrove to discuss the matter. I was not expecting to be impressed but I was. Harold was a man on a mission which was to put BL back into the international automotive business and he felt he knew what was needed to do that.

I have had a career setting up styling operations and handing over the results to others and, in fact, I had gone over to Detroit on just such an assignment there to re-establish the interior design studios. This was another challenge of the same kind and it seemed to be my greatest one yet. A great understatement! Harold explained to me in quite a long conversation that he felt that Styling was his primary problem. He felt that the manufacturing operations at the company were capable of anything given a good style, well engineered. CAD/CAM was very much on the horizon and a colleague from my previous life at Chrysler Europe was already in place as the director of Engineering.

After more talks, a deal was stuck and I agreed to revitalise the Styling operations at the company. The occupant of the position at the time was David Bache who I knew but it had been explained that he would be leaving and obviously relationships there were strained and it was a “no-no” to try to talk to David. I knew that the situation was bad and that radical changes would be required quickly but I trusted my opinion of Harold Musgrove as a man of his word when he said I could totally rely on his backing to support what needed to be done including the establishment of a new studio at the Canley location in Coventry.

I knew that things were likely to be basic at the company as regards working facilities but I was not prepared for how basic it was. On arrival I was shown to my office, introduced to my new secretary and to two old colleagues from earlier days at Chrysler Europe. These were Rex Fleming who had been someone I had worked with since my Rootes days and to Gordon Sked who I had hired at Chrysler but who had moved on to Leyland some time earlier. These two were to people who gave me my introduction to the BL styling operation. They were very supportative and were to prove to be reliable and loyal throughout.

Axe visits Longbridge

What a shock! The studio at Canley was a long narrow room in the old Triumph office block. Equipment was rudimentary and the facility was without a showroom. The showroom, in fact, was in the second facility at Longbridge in a place called the Elephant House. This was a circular building with space for designers and modelers on the perimeter and a central area that could be used for display and presentations. It was all in poor shape and quite awful.

I was stunned and really wondered what I had got myself into! I began to wonder what might happen if Harold did not prove to be a man of his word but this fear proved groundless. In fact the planning of the new facilities was put into effect almost immediately with special urgency required as the partnership with Honda was reaching a stage where a joint development programme with Hondas design department was just about to begin and the situation looked very difficult in light of the inadequate facilities at the company. In the event, as much work as could be incorporated at Canley was done there including most of the design work on the Rover/Honda project, while Longbridge was used to service the other already existing projects. The new facility was planned and the cost thought to be excessive. I did remind Harold of his commitment to me and he honored it as with everything else he promised.. There was also strong support from the Finance Director which is always a pleasant surprise!

Project XX was already underway when Roy Axe joined the company, and it is possible to see that in this early incarnation, it was already heading towards that high technology car that Musgrove so wanted for the company. Roy Axe's task was to oversee the design of this car, whilst also developing future models to fall in line with the new executive car.

Project XX was already underway when Roy Axe joined the company, and it is possible to see that in this early incarnation, it was already heading towards that high technology car that Musgrove so wanted for the company. Roy Axe's task was to oversee the design of this car, whilst also developing future models to fall in line with the new executive car.

There followed over a year of very high level activity. A new studio complex was designed adjacent to and incorporating the smaller original Canley facility. The new premises were inside the existing Triumph assembly building which reduced costs. The studios were of good proportion and included storage and display facilities. At the same time the relationship between Honda Design and our operation was in full swing with the early work of the Rover 800 project being done in the middle of this mess! In addition to all this, the current products required attention. An excellent relationship between myself and Mr wakura the Honda design chief developed in these early days leading to a friendship lasting right through to today. As a result the atmosphere between the two design groups was positive and worked well throughout the period we worked together.

Axe on the Montego and Maestro

The second thing that I had to cope with was that on the second day at the new job I was exposed to the Maestro. I thought this design to be something of a disaster (another understatement). The proportions were bad and the detail awful and clumsy. The concave sides made the design look weak and the whole thing looked totally dated. It was explained to me that the design was done before the Metro and that this was why the design looked old. This was only part of the problem. The interior was very poor with a facia/instrument panel that, out of the car, had the structural integrity of something from a fishmongers slab! I was told that there was nothing I could do as the design was headed for production later in the year. I did try to improve the form of the front wing which looked as if it was falling off the car but within the constraints of the tooling and surrounding metal it proved impossible and I had to accept that this vehicle was going to hit the market like that.

It is hard to know what to say in circumstances like
this but my first remarks were that the design should
be scrapped and the whole thing done again.
The Montego was at this stage of development when Axe joined the company - he managed to "tweak" the styling, but did not have enough time to modify it in the way he would have wished.

The Montego was at this stage of development when Axe joined the company - he managed to "tweak" the styling, but did not have enough time to modify it in the way he would have wished.

The next day I was shown the Montego. I was stood in front of it and told that this model was over a year away and so I had a great opportunity to improve it if I felt it was needed! It is hard to know what to say in circumstances like this but my first remarks were that the design should be scrapped and the whole thing done again. This was not acceptable as the plan was well in place but there was room to week!

The changes were really minimal as the doors had to stay as had the basic form dictated by the structure. I was able to improve the front and get rid of the Maestro look there, some improvements to the rear and by applying admittedly rather crude mounding to the waistline, I was able to minimise the falling look in this area. The result was far from anything I am proud of but was the best I could do plus the chance to replace the facia panel with a new one which could then be applied to the Maestro at a later date. When all this was under some sort of control, in the midst of the Rover 800 project and work on new ideas for the forward plan, the new studio was ready and therefore we needed the staff to man it. With the reputation of the company the way it was, it was hard to convince anyone from outside to take things seriously at the time we did succeed but that is another story


Axe on Design Freedom:

IN response to your question of the autonomy I was given at ARG and my feelings for priorities at ARG Design: I have already covered my dismay at the state of things on joining ARG. Harold Musgrove, however, gave a great deal of encouragement and support to resolving this matters (and so he should, of course as he had brought me into the company to do just that) and many members of the Board at the time were very supportative including the all important Finance Director.

The problems were daunting. The whole design operation was in a low state of morale. It was fragmented in location, had no single voice and no sense of direction. The facilities were appalling and in short it was a mess.

After soaking up this scenario I felt that there were two major priorities. The first was to create new premises at Canley as soon as possible and to create a new design team to staff it. This, of course, would take time and a great deal of planning and involved moving out of Longbridge as soon as possible. In the event this goal was accomplished in record time. In 1983 we were able to progressively move into the new studios which, while no architectural gem (it was built inside the old Triumph plant) it was a good useable layout and proved very workable for some years.

Staffing this facility was something I was more concerned with. There were few people of the right caliber on the market and we needed quite a lot more people! It would be very difficult, we knew, to get good people to join the company with it’s track record of the time. I had kept as many people as possible from the original staff while I could evaluate them and it has always been my policy to try to build on talent in place rather than just bring in new. I had a good design admin man in Rex Fleming who was someone I had worked with closely before at Rootes and Chrysler. Also Gordon Sked was a good potential right hand man in my view. I had originally hired Gordon at Chrysler UK. He had left Chrysler after a short while for BL where he was offered a better position that I felt I could offer him at the time but I always felt he had potential and so I was prepared to put a considerable amount of trust in Gordon who also had the advantage of being held in high regard by ARG engineering and Product Planning people and he also knew the company.

There were casualties but few people had to be invited to leave. In the event the solution to staffing the new facility was solved very conveniently by the decision by Peugeot to close its design and engineering facility at Whitley just down the road in Coventry. This, of course was the old Chrysler facility that I had set up there in the early 70’s and I was very well aware of who was there and what their capabilities were. The majority of the design staff did not want to relocate to France and yet had very limited choices as to how to remain in UK. The fit was perfect, we needed each other and we were able to fill our vacancies at ARG with high caliber people.

Of course, Peugeot was not too happy as they had hoped to move these people to France as they had nowhere else to go but as they say, it is an ill wind!

So, over a period of just over a year the first priority was resolved.

The second priority was with regard to product.

ARG was a mix of a number of companies who had different identities and as a result the ‘car park’ of ARG product out on the road was visually fragmented and the impression was of a much smaller presence in the market than say, Ford, who had a very good recognizable image.

The solution to this problem was, of course, much more long term. All new product would take at lest four years to come through and so short term measures had to be put into motion to bring together a common visual theme for the existing product line.

An early version of the AR6 Metro replacement: this model was actually displayed to the press (without comment) at the opening of the Canley Design studios in 1982, and gives a strong impression of how the Metro replacement would have looked, had it been launched in 1986/87. This design has a clear resemblance with the Rover 800, and clearly demonstrates the "family look" that Roy Axe was trying to achieve with the ARG product line. (Picture supplied by Roy Axe)

An early version of the AR6 Metro replacement: this model was actually displayed to the press (without comment) at the opening of the Canley Design studios in 1982, and gives a strong impression of how the Metro replacement would have looked, had it been launched in 1986/87. This design has a clear resemblance with the Rover 800, and clearly demonstrates the "family look" that Roy Axe was trying to achieve with the ARG product line. (Picture supplied by Roy Axe)

There was an excellent product plan developed, starting with the Rover 800 and going on to other new products which covered the replacement of the range with a new set of products from Mini/Metro which would be AR6 through the middle range, AR8 and an upper medium, AR16 with many derivatives on these basic models. There was hope that this would also include MG as a sports car marque once again but the financial justification of this was difficult at the time. I did try to illustrate the MG potential with a derivative of the early small car model you have the photograph of and I think that this and the MGEXE did serve to rekindle the interest in MG as a sports car marque. The real tragedy was that such a car was designed and evaluated which could have come to market 18 months ahead of the Mazda Miata but there was not considered to be a financial case for such a product!

Both Marketing and Product Planning had to be convinced of the need for a recognizable product image. This did not take too long to achieve and we were soon on the road to creating the first mockups to illustrate the plan.

At this time, the relationship with Honda regarding product was unclear. The first cooperative project was already in place with the Triumph branded Ballade. This was quickly followed by doing the same thing using the Honda Civic as a base. This was a thinly disguised Honda though with only the front and rear being changed but it was a step forward and did allow the application of elements of the new ARG identity and this product proved to be quite successful for ARG.

The plan for the Rover 800 was to develop a car that was common in mechanical components and structure with a Honda version, the Legend but which had a completely different visual image both in exterior and interior design theme. This latter was achieved during 1982 and 1983. It was not easy as neither company had any previous experience in working this closely with another and Honda had never produced a large car before.

The new ARG design studios and those of Honda formed a close relationship based on mutual respect and this relationship did not fade over time.

Throughout all this I was given a great deal of autonomy and support from the ARG board. Had all this proceeded to plan I believe that we would have seen a very different company and one that might well be still be in existence today. The company was, however, owned by the government and their priorities were to be more oriented to the disposal of theirs ‘White Elephant’ as they saw it to be. As a result, the planned actions did not all take place and the end result was a mish-mash of new and patched up product that weakened the companies chances of survival.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007. Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

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