Obituary : Roy Axe 1937-2010

Keith Adams

Roy Axe
Roy Axe and the Rover 800 Sterling – a design he oversaw following his arrival at Austin Rover in 1982.

Roy Axe, former Design Director for Rootes Group, Chrysler UK, Chrysler in the USA and Rover has died aged 73. The creator of countless cars, he had been battling with cancer for more than two years and had been living in Florida for the past decade following going into retirement after selling his own design consultancy, DRA, to Arup Associates at the turn of the century.

Born in Scunthorpe in 1937, Axe knew from an early age that he wanted to be a Car Designer and pushed very hard to make that dream true by moving to Coventry to work as an apprentice at Rootes. The first car he designed from scratch – albeit while battling with Rootes’ management to avoid carrying-over parts from the Hillman Hunter saloon – was the Arrow generation Sunbeam Rapier.

His excellent design work, affable character and ability to turn ideas into full-sized designs soon earned him the position of Design Director at Rootes, aged just 29. A career at Chrysler in the UK and USA, in which he oversaw a large number of top-selling cars, was then followed on by a ten-year stint at Rover, culminating in the Rover 800, as well as a number of cars that failed to make it into production due to shortages in funding.

In 1992, he set-up Design Research Associates (DRA) as a subsidiary of Rover before going independent a couple of years later. During his time running DRA, Axe was instrumental in the modernisation of Rolls-Royce and Bentley, designing the Silver Seraph/Arnage, as well as the ground-breaking Bentley Java concept, which predicted the company’s later smaller-scale GT model.

Despite his amazing CV, Roy Axe will be best remembered by colleagues and friends as a friendly character, who succeeded in a business where nice guys don’t always finish first. Roy is survived by his wife, Pat, son Chris and daughter, Jane.

Keith Adams


  1. This is very sad news, particularly as so many of us are looking forward to reading his autobiography when it officially goes on sale from next week.

    Sadly, as with Spen King and David Bache in 1994, we have lost another significant individual who played an important role in delivering inspiring and memorable Rover cars.

    Mr. Axe will be remembered as the man who had the unenviable task of reorganising BL’s collection of tiny, diorganised styling studios into a single entity based on one site. The result of his efforts saw the unleashing of some inspiring designs during the 1980s and beyond – think of the Rover CCV, AR6, 800 Series, R8 and the MG EX-E – and let’s not forget his attempts with AR16 and AR17 which featured recently on AROnline.

    My condolences go to Mr. Axe’s family at this very sad time.

  2. RIP a genius, who was ahead of his time. His Chrysler design philospohy of having a family look, which he continued whilst at Rover, was ahead of its time in the car industry.

    It is shame he was never ever given the free hand he deserved and allowed to let his ideas flourish. I think that, if he had, the Rover story would have been a different one.

  3. Very sad to hear the news today. Roy was a creative force, an inspirational leader and a downright nice guy. He gave me my first opportunity in the business and for that I will always be grateful to him. My condolences to all his family.

  4. Very sad news. A great car designer. A Rover range consisting of AR6, R8, AR16/17 and the 800 would have been entirely cohesive, very stylish, and could have been highly successful. However, because two of them never reached production, we’ll never know but, at least, we can treasure Roy’s designs on this site.

  5. Sorry to hear the news – just as Keith’s book is coming out. Roy was a lovely guy and a true gentleman – and quite courageous to have agreed to take on the job at BL Cars in the first place.

    Ironically, Harold Musgrove told Roy when tempting him to join the company that all Austin Rover needed was better styling, but the engineering was okay – in the event, Roy told me that the styling was arguably the least of Harold’s problems. However, he stayed the course and, as Keith has shown, many of his best ideas never made it to production.

  6. Very sad news indeed. I was watching Roy Axe’s piece in the Top Gear Montego launch special and was struck by how loyal he was to what was a lame duck in styling terms and what must have been a very frustrating car to have his name associated with.

    However, he spoke with such warmth and enthusiasm about car design – you could see that he was itching to get on with the re-invention of the ARG brand. The fact that he tried his level best to produce desirable cars for two failing British car companies, I think showed great determination and tenacity.

    The Simca/Chrysler/Talbot Alpine must rank as his greatest achievement (IMHO) – being a true precursor to the type of family hatchback which all mainstream car makers aspired to in the 1980s.

    With the Rover 800, he set the template for ’80s Rovers, paving the way for the highly successful R8 range, which we all thought had saved Rover’s bacon. Even the Bentley Arnage was seen at the time as a ‘last chance saloon’ after years of badge-engineered Rolls Royces.

    Roy was also an early advocate of the ‘family identity’, which became the rule for manufacturers in the ’80s and ’90s. An important and influential Car Designer then and I look forward to reading his autobiography. I have enjoyed his enthusiastic contributions to this fantastic website.

    I really wanted to be a Car Designer as a youth and started training to be one but, for various reasons, drifted away from it. Reading Roy Axe’s story makes me regret that decision – he made it all sound great fun (even the Montego!) and very rewarding – a car man to his boots.

    RIP Roy Axe – you’ll never be forgotten by people who truly care about car design.

  7. It’s another sad, sad day. R.I.P. Mr. Axe, I appreciated your work. I appreciated your design. Goodbye.

  8. This truly is sad as Mr. Axe brought a refinement, crispness and elegance to car design. Though some would say that his talents were wasted at Rover, I believe that his keen eye helped the company survive longer than it might have otherwise.

    I often imagine what he would have created if he had been Chief Designer for the Triumph TR7. I wager it would have been fantastic.

    My condolences to his family and friends and to car enthusiasts everywhere. We have lost a true legend.

  9. I’m very sad to hear this – especially just before the release of his autobiography. Thank you Roy Axe for all those wonderful and fabulous designs! R.I.P.

  10. Very sad news. I watched the Montego launch special the other day and thought that Roy came across as a very intelligent and extremely likeable chap. I’m very sorry to hear this. He was a brilliant man who will live on in the cars he helped bring to life 🙂 Sleep well, Mr. Axe.

  11. A real loss, a really warm gentleman who was without airs and graces and displayed much talent. He dealt with a very difficult job at Austin Rover during a tough time with few resources to work with.

    I greatly look forward to reading his autobiography in a few weeks time – it’s so sad that he won’t be around to see it published and on the bookshelves. My condolences to his family and friends.

  12. I was checking for the publication date of Roy’s book but was greeted by this dreadful news. Roy was possibly the last British Car Designer of a British mass producer and he tried extremely hard to salvage success from the almost determined race to destroy the industry.

    It’s ironic that his association with three failed brands never tarnished his reputation as he always strived against the odds and never produced a dud. Not a bad record…

  13. Sad news and my condolences go to Roy’s family. I have been surrounded by or owned several of his designs throughout my life and will be thinking of him this Sunday when I and the other members of the Rover 200 and 400 Owners Club will be celebrating the R8’s 21st Birthday at RAF Cosford.

  14. A Car Design colossus who used his talents to aid British industry. His spirit lives on through his wonderful design legacy.

  15. RIP Roy Axe – another sad victim of dreadful cancer but a great Car Designer at his peak. We take for granted the enormous amount of work in designing a vehicle from scratch and Designers often receive minor recognition… How fitting that his autobiography is being released.

  16. Such very sad news, especially so soon after the death of Spen King.

    I always admired Roy Axe’s designs from the Rapier Fastback, a car I have always wanted but never owned, to the XX 800. A creative force that will be sadly missed.

    My deepest sympathies to his family.

  17. Very upset to hear this news. My favourite bit of this whole website is the section describing Roy’s reaction when he first saw the production- ready designs for the Maestro and Montego; if it wasn’t so tragic, it would be hilarious!

  18. Thank you to all for the kind comments regarding my father – my family find it truly warming to hear such things.

    I can say my father was, without any doubt, one of the greatest car enthusiasts I’ve known and I am deeply proud of him both as my father and also for what he represented and achieved in the automotive industry.

  19. I’m sorry but, along with Guigaro, I never rated Axe as a Designer. I didn’t like any of his designs and thought they were ugly and out of proportion…

  20. Hi, yes Roy was a nice guy. Two occasions come to mind. Rover 600 – Richard Woolley and Geoff Upex had just finished their final design and Roy came to Japan to sign it off. He nodded briefly to the car and then said I want a groove around the bumper surface about the diameter of my little finger. Do this and you’ve finished. Secondly, I was Product Planning manager for Rover 200 SK series working for Terry Whitmore at Canley. There was a weekly all party design review at Canley Studio to agree progress and I was there to present a Rover 200 Sprint project. The room was full as most directors and manager brought their fact holding representatives. Roy stopped the meeting and said he wanted all that were not official members to leave the room and if any official member feels unable to make a factual decision then leave the fact holder and member to leave the studio. The room emptied to a manageable size meeting.

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