I was there : My 12 years at Solihull

I was fortunate enough to join the Rover Engineering Department in June 1970 on the crest of a wave of company optimism. Recruited with a number of Engineers to support the introduction of new models, I witnessed possibly the most ambitious time in the company’s history.

The Rover P8 was well on its way to production when I joined the company, and it was this car that gave me my first sight of Rover’s new model programme for the 1970s (and, hopefully, beyond). At the time, we believed that the P8 would replace the Rover P5B and take its place at the head of the Rover range. The P8 was a large luxurious model with some styling features that were to eventually find their way into the Rover SD1.

A new sports car was also development at the time – still in its early stages. It was known as the Rover P9, a racy looking beast and the project was led by Rex Marvin and Spen King.

Replacing the Rover P6

The main focus of our attention was the replacement for the famous Rover P6/P6B, which at the time was known as the Rover P10. A new four-cylinder engine was under construction led by Norman Bryden and Dave Wall, and we were charged with the design process. It was conceived to take a modified V8 later to go into the SD1, as well as the new four-pot.

The style of new P10 project was a four-door saloon, and several schemes were mocked-up in clays. As with the P6 and Range Rover, the new car was styled by David Bache, who had led Rover’s Styling Department for many years.

We all knew that his designs led the world for their futuristic styling, although some of us felt that he was in love with the French company Citroën.

Rover P8
Rover P8

Rover P8: Great white hope…

With the new factory being completed for the new P8, we all felt a sense of optimism. It looked good, and it was thoroughly engineered. Advance build versions were all over the place and it really seemed as though the new car’s launch was a foregone conclusion. Certainly, the focus of the Engineers was now firmly set on the P10 and P9, and for us, it seemed that the prospects for the future of this company were looking fantastic.

At this point in time, management meetings regarding company profitability and performance were always concluding that we should be making thumping profits in the future, with a profit of around £25 million in 1970 alone, despite the launch of the Range Rover and the development of three new cars.

Part of this company’s operation was its 4×4 division – something not always appreciated by outside commentators. It might have been seen as a separate operation within Rover, miles away and known as ‘the black hole’, but the vehicles it churned out left the line like shit off a shovel and made the company lots of money. The Land Rovers they produced wee a million miles away from the luxury Rover saloons, being of a strictly utilitarian nature.

1971 Range Rover

Changes afoot

However, this situation was to change radically, bringing the off-roaders closer to the cars. At the South works, a new line had been installed, and rolling off it was the new two-door Range Rover, introduced in June 1970.

Donald Stokes and John Barber were supposedly not very happy with it (although they loved the design concept) and told us that they saw no real market for such a vehicle, and felt that 25 a week was the maximum production volume for it.

At that point in time they were right, as SUVs were an unknown quantity – but they did not appreciate that the Range Rover created a new niche and brought new customers to the company. Bache and King had, it seemed, a great deal of foresight.

Big profits – big successes

But in 1970, a small line built 25 per week, and a large waiting list rapidly built up. Part of the car’s initial success must have been the reasonable price: £1998. At the time, the P6 cost £1200 and a Mini, around £600.

Rover Cars at Solihull was dominated by its huge North Works churning out the P6/P6B range at around 50,000 per annum. This car made an absolute fortune for the Company. Onwards and upwards we went on this bright new journey – everything seemed to be going well, and Rover was tantalisingly close to greatness.

Sadly, this ideal situation remained frustratingly out of reach, and it all seemed to come crashing down around us. The curse of all curses hit us, you see – like the plague of the middle age, we were about to be dead in the water…

Rover becomes Specialist Division…

The Specialist Car Division started life in the September 1970, and by March 1971, Jaguar had dis-embroiled itself from the mess, leaving a Solihull-Canley alliance, which we knew as Rover-Triumph. Clearly our bosses felt that cats and dogs got on well together.

Bringing these two giants together with a vast and overlapping model programme (with the financial base of the company now collapsing inwards) led us into the classic situation of spending cut after cut.

All model programmes, were placed under minute review, and those that were not absolutely essential were scrapped at a stroke. Millions and millions of pounds, which had been invested in the P8 were written off, even though it was virtually ready for launch. This model was fully tooled up and suppliers were manufacturing parts. Most of us were sickened by its death, but as they say, that’s life.

Solihull at a standstill - not an uncommon sight during the late Seventies.
Solihull at a standstill – not an uncommon sight during the late Seventies

Rover SD1 emerges from confusion

Out of this carbuncle came the SD1. David Bache led a revised model programme (from what was the P10), with engineering now – thank God – overseen by Spen King. Triumph lost its replacement for the 2000/2500 range.

This was one of Triumph’s biggest successes and the loss of this car in favour of a Rover-badged joint project was a major blow. However, soften that, Rover’s four-cylinder engine programme was scrapped, and a new Triumph six-cylinder was developed.

Onwards we went, and this famous vehicle was started. David Bache had incorporated some of his P8 into this vehicle, but clearly the styling of the five-door rear end was a problem. Extremely late in the project, it was felt by our bosses the back end resembled Chrysler’s Cricket/Avenger and something should be done about it. A late re-work of the back end was finally agreed.

To the SD1’s launch

To improve instrument visibility, a quartic steering wheel was added to the programme. We all worried about this, but Spen stuck by it, and was proven correct.

The SD1’s launch was successful and awards came in from all over the place. 1976 was a success. Thousands of these vehicles poured out of the new SD1 factory, and they looked magnificent.

Tours of the world’s most advanced Paint Shop had people gasping for breath, but it seemed that our victory was going to be a short-lived one – our old enemy re-organisation was about to strike again.

Out of a bang comes a whimper…

By 1975 the British Leyland group was virtually bankrupt – the financial institutions did not support the group’s new five-year plan. The fallout was that Triumph was eventually closed, and all models were scrapped, with the exception of the Triumph TR7. And that car found its way to Solihull for a couple of years.

Strangely, for a short time things seemed to calm down, and we got on with the job of designing the huge facelift on the SD1. Some say this version was its finest hour. Rear end vision was improved, and a new facia seemed to transform it enough for some of us to consider it a whole new car.

By this time, we were now firmly under Harold Musgrove‘s rule.

Rover SD1 Vitesse
Rover SD1 Vitesse

Musgrove’s famous temper – a snapshot

I must mention this bit: with the new tailgate glazing, Styling wanted to protect the bottom edge, so a complex rear wiper system was engineered with a vertically parking wiper arm. It cost an absolute fortune. When Musgrove saw it, he went mad and literally tore off a front wiper blade and stuck it to the bottom edge of the tailgate glass.

‘That’s where it will go,’ he boomed, and all that work was lost at a stroke – or should I say, a wipe, for the sake of two-inches of glass…

Onwards and upwards again, and the SD1 facelift was completed. Re-organisation fever had reached its pinnacle during this period.

A time of reckoning

Initially, Michael Edwardes had split the company back into its product groups (after the Ryder Report had it all lumped in under the Leyland banner).

However, after a short period of the rumour mill working overtime (the best one was the closure of Jaguar Browns Lane, with production transferred to Solihull) our day of reckoning came: quite out of the blue, all car production at Solihull was to cease, and the facelift SD1 was to be built at Cowley.

Solihull was to become purely a 4×4 site – we now had the same medicine as our colleagues at Triumph. Thousands lost their jobs and the huge empty SD1 factory was mothballed, and ended up standing idle for years…

It was a sad end to a roller-coaster adventure…

"Thousands of these vehicles poured out of the new SD1 factory, and they looked magnificent"
“Thousands of these vehicles poured out of the new SD1 factory, and they looked magnificent”
Mike Jenks
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  1. So, the P8 was virtually ready with all its tooling for production in place? And they terminated it at a huge loss?
    Wow -that’s pretty bad…

  2. I am sorry, but this makes for very depressing reading. I genuinely mourn what happened to the Rover marque, its forward-thinking attitude, the loss of brilliant Designers such as David Bache and how money was criminally wasted on propping up ailing has-beens such as Austin and Morris.

    How the likes of Harold Musgrove showed little respect to Designers and Engineers and the BL attitude ultimately brought this great name and its products down. Very sad…

    • Bache went on to head up BL styling, however he fell out of favour due to the fully munted styling dung show which was the styling of the LM10 and 11. Roy Axe picking up the job to least make the acceptable.

  3. Thanks – very interesting to hear this ‘from the horse’s mouth’.

    Is it true that the P8 was so complex technically that it would have been too expensive to make at a profit?

    I did like the story about the rear wiper – how chaotic!

  4. It’s amazing how recongnisable the general machinations are within recent history to all those years ago! Human nature is human nature I suppose! To be fair to the company at large there was a bigger story at play and the vast majority of employees would not be privy or most likely even be interested in the bigger picture – so long as there is an enemy to blame then most are happy. There are those who seem to want things to fail, those who are ambivalent and those who want to make a success of things. Main problem is that the vast majority sit in the middle position but somehow believe they are making a huge difference…

    There were lots of potentially good cars sent to paying customers with faults which led to at best a dealer visit (which is variable at best) or at worst a breakdown. Of course, there were a multitude of potential causes but they nearly all come down to someone thinking “that will be ok” or “that will do” when in reality it wouldn’t. Shop floor to Directors and everyone in between have a part to play and sometimes things don’t go to plan.

    All that being said, it’s a good write up and excellent to hear an honest snapshot of what the workforce perceived to be going on during changing times!

  5. IIRC, one of the reasons for P8 cancellation was poor crash test performance, if so why was this only found after committing to production tooling?

  6. Talking about the P8, does anybody know what happened to the only remaining prototype (TXC160J) which was in a rather sorry state kept at Gaydon. I remember a story in aronline in 2012 when the car was caught out in the open.

  7. a complex rear wiper system was engineered with a vertically parking wiper arm. It cost an absolute fortune

    I know this wasn’t the intended takeaway, but reading this little tidbit of seemingly innocuous information really gets my mind going as to how poorly BL really operated on seemingly endless levels. Five years on from near bankruptcy, blowing resources on not something of particularly tangible value, but a complicated by design rear wiper system that 95% of consumers will never think anything of beyond “the car has one”. Where that wiper parked was not a make-or-break point of contention come sale time. Who approved of this seemingly normal but exorbitant trial? Was there even anyone assigned such a task, or do we just discover that things get expensive as we go? Recent near brush with death and nobody seems remotely concerned that good money after bad is something to be avoided moving forward? For a window wiper. You could not make this stuff up, yet here we are…

  8. It seemed to be that BL would spend a lot of money developing something fairly simple, or else having to use an existing component even though the tooling was worn out & very basic compared to other offerings.

    Costing seemed to be an alien concept to them!

  9. Once again, another great recollection of a time of working within the various BL divisions. You do wonder what would have happened if the P8 had gone ahead and Rover retained its independence like Jaguar which its decisions made by Rover men and not aliens to the marque.
    Got to agree with Musgrove’s pragmatic decision over the SD1 rear wiper however.

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