Concepts and Prototypes : Road-Rover (1952-1959)

The Road-Rover is a largely forgotten slice of Land Rover history, but one that’s worth recounting, given the way in which its maker has developed in recent years.

James Taylor gives a detailed run-down of the way the story looks at present. More new information does come to light from time to time, so there may be more to add to the story one day.


Road-Rover: Civilising the Landie

I should to begin by pointing out that the Road-Rover was definitely not a direct ancestor of the Range Rover. The suggestion that it was has been muddied by the fact that an early mock-up of the Range Rover carried Road-Rover badging.

This came about because the Styling Studio hadn’t yet been given a name for the new model but needed one to show what sort of badges they thought would work. They therefore resurrected one that they thought might be appropriate.

Also worth adding is that there were rumours a couple of years ago that Land Rover was developing a car-like relative of the then-current Range Rover that would be called the Road-Rover. That may have been true, but all the indications are that the project has since been cancelled. However, never say never…

Where it all begins

The earliest traces of the Road-Rover appear in Rover records during 1951, when a full-size mock-up was built (probably mostly from wood) at Solihull. That date is quite significant, because by then the Tickford Station Wagon version of the Land Rover was on the way out. Having a coachbuilt body had made it too expensive for overseas customers, and in the UK it attracted Purchase Tax as well, which made it ridiculously expensive.

However, Maurice Wilks was convinced that there was a market for a rugged station wagon-type vehicle. He seems to have decided to tackle it on two fronts. On the one hand, he encouraged his Engineers to devise a station wagon that would use standard production Land Rover parts as far as possible (and that materialised in early 1954 on the 86-inch chassis).

On the other, he thought that some customers would not want full off-road-capability but would prefer a more car-like estate. That was the Road-Rover, and he designed a very simple flat-panelled body for it, which he planned to put on a shortened Rover P4 saloon car chassis.

The first prototype, numbered RR1, was up and running in early April 1952 and was registered as MAC 162. We know that its chassis was from a 1952 model Rover 75 saloon, number 2436-0500. Those who saw it at Solihull christened it the Greenhouse for some fairly obvious reasons.

Four more prototypes to basically the same design were built in 1952. These were RR2 (not registered as UWD 563 until 1955), RR3 (MWD 711), RR4 (MWD 716, above) and RR5 (NAC 214). A fifth (RR6, NAC 930) was put on the road in March 1953 and seems to have been considered the definitive design. Certainly, a month later SB Wilks proposed to his fellow Directors that the Road-Rover should go into production, and the Rover Board approved a first tranche of expenditure on tooling.

The enthusiasm did not last. Three months later, the tooling finance was withdrawn, almost certainly because Rover was in danger of over-stretching itself while trying to get three new P4 saloon models and two new Land Rover models into production for the autumn. Road-Rover production was now proposed for ‘about June next year’ – that is, June 1954.

Faltering progress

The project was nevertheless kept alive with no fewer than six more prototypes, beginning in June 1953 and ending in July 1955. These were RR7 (NUE 665), RR8 (NWD 522), RR9 (OAC 816), RR10 (PNX 407), RR11 (PUE 41) and RR12 (SNX 36). RR11 was photographed wearing Land Rover wheels and tyres, and this has led some people to think that it had four-wheel drive.

It did not: some pictures show quite clearly the independent front suspension of the P4 car range, although documents from July 1954 show that four-wheel-drive layouts were certainly under consideration. Of these early-1950s prototypes, RR12 is the only known survivor, and belongs to the BMIHT Collection at Gaydon.

June 1954 had come and gone with no sign of Road-Rover production. The matter of finance for the project was raised again at a Rover Board meeting in March 1955, and in June that year SB Wilks suggested thinking about producing the Road-Rover again. At the time, Rover were negotiating with the Pressed Metal Corporation in Australia about CKD assembly there, and Wilks hoped that, if this came off, it would free up spare capacity at Solihull that the Road-Rover could use.

Getting the hurry-up

It was at about this time that the whole Road-Rover project was shaken up. It would be nice to think that David Bache, who was still fairly new as Rover’s one and only Styling Engineer, dropped a gentle hint to his boss that the existing Road-Rover design looked like a shed on wheels. However, Bache has insisted that he was not responsible for what happened next, and anyway at this stage he was far too busy working on the forthcoming Rover P5 (3-litre) and the Series II Land Rovers to get involved in yet another project.

One way or another, between mid-1955 and mid-1956 the Road-Rover body was completely redesigned to create what was known as the Series II version. Nobody knows who did it, but the finger points at Maurice Wilks himself, and he seems to have taken his inspiration from American station wagon styling of the day.

The Series II has sometimes been described as looking like a shrunken Chevrolet – and therein was the problem. American station wagons were much larger than the Road-Rover, and their styling did not scale down very well. Interestingly, we know that Rover had a 1956-model Chevrolet Bel Air on its assessment fleet, which they sold off through Collier’s of Birmingham in August 1956, though I don’t know whether it was the station wagon version or not. Could this have provided inspiration?

This is a styling model for the Series II Road-Rover. The wraparound rear window arrangement certainly seems to have come from a contemporary Chevrolet. Although David Bache insisted he was not involved, Maurice Wilks of course made use of the same model-makers at Rover who worked on Bache’s own designs. The wooden skeleton visible on the right is actually a full-size Series II Road-Rover mock-up under construction

Series II progresses

At this stage, Rover were still sure the project had a future. In January 1956, more money was allocated to the Road-Rover and it looks as if the company intended to introduce it in 1957. The Series II cars were to have the new 2.25-litre petrol engine when that became available, but the first few prototypes had the same 2.0-litre IOE type as the earlier prototypes.

The chassis frame had been redesigned to accommodate a P5-style torsion-bar front suspension, the wheelbase was fixed at 97 inches, and an overdrive was in the specification. Other body types – pick-ups and vans – were also sketched up at this stage, and all were to have aluminium alloy panels on a steel frame. Six more prototypes appear to have been built, although I have found no trace of two of them. The known ones were RR1/S2 (UUE 526), RR2/S2 (WNX 483), RR3/S2 (VWD 128), and RR5/S2 (WAC 620).

There were clearly delays. In September 1957, the Rover Board learned of difficulties in the Road-Rover’s development that would delay production until May 1958 at the earliest. Then in March 1958, ‘it was not now expected that a full production specification would be available until January 1959.’

Ambitious goals not reached

At a guess, the company had once again tried to over-stretch itself, and the disruption associated with the introduction of the Series II Land Rover (April 1958) and the P5 3-litre saloon (September 1958) had put paid to plans for the Road-Rover. In April, the Board heard that late 1959 was now predicted as a start for production.

They meant to get the Road-Rover into production, they really did. Another five prototypes followed in 1958 and early 1959: RR7/S2 (XWD 37), RR8/S2 (XWD 521), RR9/S2 (3411 AC), RR10/S2 (no details found) and RR11/S2 (YAC 926). They allocated a production chassis number sequence to the model, and in November 1958 they actually built three pilot-production cars, which were numbered as 3008-00001 to 3008-00003, although I have found no trace that they were ever registered for the road.

During 1959, they sent drawings of the planned new vehicle to Mettoy so that the toy company could make a scale model of it – and the fascinating story of that episode is in Marcel van Cleemput’s book about Corgi Toys.

The prototypes were used by Rover employees, and here is RR7/S2 on a family holiday. (Picture from Martin Gibson, son of Bob Gibson who ‘owned’ it at the time.)

But with a whimper…

However, it must have been increasingly obvious that the Road-Rover was never going to happen. By early February 1959, full production was not expected to start until the end of July 1960, and on 3 April 1959 Road-Rover was removed from the forward projects schedule altogether.

By December 1959 the Rover Board was talking about disposing of the tools and materials intended for the Road-Rover – which would have included an initial quantity of 200 Road-Rover ‘sets’ (presumably engines, transmissions and axles) that had been manufactured at Tyseley in preparation for full production.

Many of the 23 prototypes were taken into use by Rover employees, and some were later sold on outside the company. RR8/S2 went to a local JP in Warwick (I think) and still survives; Dunsfold had started a long-term rebuild for a client when I last saw it. RR9/S2 was used by SB Wilks at his home on Islay, and also survives; it is in the museum collection at Gaydon, though unrestored.

Conclusion

One thing that emerges very clearly from all this is that the Road-Rover was not considered as a Land Rover project. It belonged to the car side of the Rover company, and indeed after 1956 it became the responsibility of Dick Oxley, who was Chief Engineer (Cars).

The project is also a very good illustration of the way things worked at British car companies in the 1950s. There was no market research or product planning (although Ford were getting there), and the Chief Engineer acted as his own Product Planner and assessed the market himself.

This allowed a project like the Road-Rover to meander on for several years, constantly losing out to higher priorities but nevertheless consuming company time and resources – all of which eventually had to be written off.

This is RR9/S2 as it survives today, in the museum collection at Gaydon. It was used for a time by SB Wilks at his home on Islay
James Taylor

16 Comments

  1. For its day, that very last photo (light blue model) doesn’t look too bad. It would be interesting to see it restored to a decent level.

  2. I agree, it looks workmanlike and appropriate to its niche.

    At least it hasn’t been nastily fitted with an overburdened pompous chrome grille with a ‘viking’ emblem.

    Thought for the day: when Rover had the three litre six cylinder IOE engine, why didn’t they fit this to the P4 or the ~series~ Land Rovers???

    They seemingly did a 3-litre IOE six pot Land Rover for a very short while in the USA but it got pulled.

    Emissions? Reliability??

    • Quote: “At least it hasn’t been nastily fitted with an overburdened pompous chrome grille with a ‘viking’ emblem.”

      As a potential new ‘niche’ between a Rover saloon car and a Land Rover, who knows, but if the Road Rover had entered into production, it might have had its own unique grille design philosophy and emblem to give it a standalone identity? Just a thought…

      Sadly we’ll probably never know if this would have been the case given it wasn’t a confirmed production model.

  3. I’ve no idea what niche this is trying to fill! It’s not a more comfortable Land Rover with genuine off road capability, and instead is a rather awkward looking tall 3 door estate car.

    • Yes, not a looker was it? Then again, maybe it was prescient. One only has to look at the monstrosities that people fall over themselves to buy today. Was this the grandfather to the SUV?

    • I think it is Rover response to cars like the Morris Oxford Traveller, particularly in its two door pre 1957 “half timbered” versions. No doubt there were a number of customers who desired such a car with the embellishment of it being a Rover.

  4. Would this project have been better off not as a Land Rover variant, but rather a Rover P5 shooting-brake of sorts along the lines of the Chevrolet Nomad?

  5. Rover’s early attempt at an SUV! I didn’t like this one, and I don’t like the modern SUV crop much either! I’m glad they ditched this, and ran with the much more accomplished Range Rover. A P5 based shooting brake might have worked well though – wonder if there have been any conversions?

    • Pressed Steel did make a prototype for Rover in 1961 as per James book. There is also a picture on the internet showing a rather rusty estate which looks different from the Pressed Steel car, so probably coachbuilt. Of course there was herses!

    • Thanks! Not quite as I expected – maybe a 3 door shooting brake design based on the coupe would have made a nice long distance load carrier – but sadly the estate conversion just looks disjointed – not unlike other estate conversions of the time.

  6. Which Wiltshire (or nearby I’m guessing) horse is RR7/S2 photographed in front of? I’ve been meaning to visit a few more of them!

    • Hi, I’m one of the grand-daughters 🙂 We think it was the Westbury horse. Looking on visitwiltshire.co.uk it seems to be the only one standing and facing that direction. Not sure which road they were parked on for the photo though, its a really good angle!

      • Thanks. Just checked a few photos, and it looks like the one. The B3098 Bratton Road seems the only one in the right place, though using Street View, the horse looks smaller than in the photo!

  7. James T makes a telling point about product planning in the motor industry of the day. Leaving it to the whims of individual senior engineers / managers no doubt cost Rover dear, while Ford was patiently teaching itself how to make dull but highly marketable cars and pots of cash. But gifted individuals are hit-and-miss, and this amateurism also give us the Range Rover – not just a great car but the progenitor of a new market segment that subsequently ate all the others.

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