Britain: Rover All Over
Friday, Oct. 25, 1963
As London’s motor show opened last week, the crowds clustered around a car that the Times of London called “the undisputed star of the show.” It was not so radical looking – except for the name it bore. The Rover 2000 is a daring gamble by one of Britain’s oldest and most conservative automakers.
So Italianate are the new Rover lines that test cars ran for months on the Continent with out anyone’s ever suspecting that they were in fact new Rovers. Past Rover styling had been so stodgy that it appealed mostly to old ladies and to the slower-moving among Britain’s landed gentry. Rover concentrated so much on engineering that styling was almost an afterthought.
“This is an engineer’s company,” says lanky Peter Wilks, 43, Rover’s director of engineering and a former racing driver. “That means nobody pushes engineers around here, but it means we also get the blame.”
Rover was founded in 1878 by two engineers, John Kemp Starley and William Sutton, who invented the modern bicycle with equal-sized wheels and chain-driven rear wheel that soon replaced the old penny-farthing cycles on English highways and byways. In 1904 Rover turned to making well-crafted autos, then in wartime 1940 made Britain’s first jet engine for aircraft. Rover was also the world’s first automaker to produce an experimental jet-powered auto, though it has not proved so usefully down to earth as the firm’s tough and dependable Land-Rover.
In a business increasingly dominated by global giants, engineering success alone sold too few cars. Six years ago the company made the crucial decision to restyle; the responsibility for developing the new model fell to Wilks, who shares Rover’s executive troika with Chairman Lovedin G.T. Farmer, 55, and Managing Director William F. Martin-Hurst.
Not since World War II has a British automaker risked so much on one model. Rover, which last year earned $3,000,000 on estimated sales of $75 million, borrowed $30 million from banks to build a new plant next to its old one in the Midlands town of Solihull. The new plant has tripled Rover’s capacity to 800 cars per week. Yet, because it is equipped with automated machines and computers, Rover has had to add only 400 more employees to its force of 11,500 workers.
Priced at $3,540 in Britain (including a $615 purchase tax), the new Rover sells for less than the cheapest Jaguar, and on the Continent should be highly competitive with the small Mercedes and Citroen. Rover executives worry whether the 2000’s flashy good looks will steal sales from its staid older brothers, which are still in production. But why worry? At the London show, Rover salesmen have already collected enough orders for the new car to keep Rover’s plants running at full speed for an entire year.