People : Spencer Wilks, Rover supremo

Here is a brief summary of the life of Spencer Wilks, the man who was primarily responsible for making the Rover Company what it was in its heyday from the mid-1930s to the early 1970s.

He had an enormous influence, not only on the company itself but also on both the Rover cars and the Land Rovers that it made in that period. James Taylor tells his amazing story.


SB Wilks: The man who made Rover

Spencer (SB) Wilks
SB Wilks in January 1962, when he handed over the Chairmanship of Rover to his younger brother

Spencer Bernau Wilks was born into a wealthy family on 26 May 1891 in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. His father, Thomas Wilks, was a leather manufacturer, and his mother Elizabeth described herself on a census return as a suffragette.

Spencer Wilks was the third child of the family; his older sister Amy (born in 1887) would become the mother of Charles Spencer (Spen) King in 1925, and his younger brother Maurice (born in 1905) would become Rover’s Chief Engineer. Another brother, Geoffrey, would be father to Peter Wilks, who became Rover’s Technical Director in 1964.

It was customary at that level of society for the sons of the family to enter one of the professions, and by 1911 Spencer Wilks was articled as a what would now be called a Trainee Solicitor. When war broke out, he joined the Army, and went to France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914.

In December that year, he was confirmed in the rank of Second Lieutenant (the lowest rank of commissioned officer), and in 1916 he was made a temporary Captain and subsequently retained that rank. He was often referred to as Captain Wilks during the 1920s and into the 1930s, and in business circles was typically known by his initials of SB rather than as Spencer.

Tentative steps into the motor industry

Meanwhile, in 1916 when he was in his mid-20s, he married Edith Kathleen Hillman (who was usually known as Kathleen). She was one of motor industry pioneer William Hillman’s six daughters, and it should be no surprise that Wilks later joined the Hillman company in Coventry.

He rose to the position of Joint Managing Director, his opposite number being John Black, who had married another of the Hillman daughters and would later lead the Standard Motor Company Limited. Nick Black’s biography of his father, Triumph and Tragedy, reveals that there were still links between the Black and Wilks families as late as 1936, when they went on a skiing holiday together in Switzerland.

When William Hillman died in 1921, he left the running of his business to the two Joint Managing Directors, but the Hillman company entered on a period of decline. Despite the success of the 14hp that was introduced in 1925, outdated plant and production methods made the business ripe for a takeover by the Rootes brothers in 1928. John Black stayed on for a while but went to Standard in September 1929.

Joining Rover

That same month, Spencer Wilks became General Manager at Rover. Managing Director Colonel Frank Searle had joined Rover in May 1928 with a brief to turn the ailing company around, and a key point in his strategy was to find an able younger man to oversee the business. SB Wilks, then aged 38 and with several years of motor industry management experience behind him, was that man.

SB was clearly very successful in this job, and his sound judgement inspired confidence in others. When Rover were in deep financial trouble in late 1931 and early 1932, the company’s major creditors (Pressed Steel and Joseph Lucas) recommended that not only should he continue to act as General Manager but also that he should have a seat on the Board.

In January 1932 he became a Rover Director, and in 1933 after the Board had lost confidence in Colonel Searle and had persuaded him to resign, SB Wilks was appointed as Rover’s Managing Director. He was then 42 years old.

Success breeds success

Wilks ushered in a new and welcome period of stability at Rover. His steady hand is rightly credited with much of the company’s success in the later 1930s and beyond. Ably assisted by his brother Maurice as Chief Engineer, he helped to turn Rover’s finances around by focusing on quality above quantity and building cars that appealed to the professional classes with whom he was naturally comfortable.

He and the other members of the Rover Board also created a hugely supportive family atmosphere at Rover, one where employees were proud to work for the Company and knew it would support them if needed.

From 1956, SB Wilks chose to share the position of Managing Director with his brother, and in 1957 at the age of 66 he became Rover’s Chairman. He handed over that position to his brother in 1962 but remained on the Rover Board, and became the company’s Life President in 1967. SB Wilks died in 1971, in his 80th year.

SB Wilks (centre), with Managing Director William Martin-Hurst (in glasses) and Peter Wilks. Taken at the Motor Show launch of the Rover 2000 in 1963
SB Wilks (centre), with Managing Director William Martin-Hurst (in glasses) and Peter Wilks. Taken at the Motor Show launch of the Rover 2000 in 1963

As a person, SB Wilks was perhaps a typical member of the urbane British professional classes, with interests and pursuits to match. He was a member of the Midland Aero Club and gained his pilot’s licence on 23 February 1933.

Less than a month later, he was one of the drivers who promoted Rover products through a ‘works’ entry in the RAC Rally, and drove a special-bodied Speed Pilot to third place in Class 2 of the road section. Better yet, the car won the overall coachwork cup in its class and also a Silver Tray for coachwork at the awards presentation in Hastings. When it entered production, the special-bodied car became known as the Hastings Coupé.

He also had an enduring love of boats, and after the war owned a former motor torpedo boat called Torquil, which he moored at Anglesey. In the mid-1920s he was living at Keresley, near Coventry, but by 1943 (and possibly earlier), his Midlands residence was Street Ashton House at Monks Kirby near Rugby.

This was leased on his behalf by the Rover Company from the Earl of Denbigh. SB Wilks nevertheless always enjoyed spending his free time at a property he had bought on Islay, where he seems to have followed typical country gentleman’s pursuits, and to which he eventually retired.

SB Wilks had four children, one of whom sadly died in infancy. These were Alison (born in 1921), Thomas (1923), John (1927, died in 1929) and Nicholas (1939). Nick Wilks became a Rover apprentice and, in the early 1960s, was one of the Rover team who went with Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird Land Speed Record car to Utah in 1960. He later worked on evaluation of competitor vehicles, and in that capacity was involved with early work on the original Range Rover.

[Editor’s Note: Thanks to Martin Robins for his input to this brief history.]

James Taylor

1 Comment

  1. Interesting to encounter Frank Searle in the story, as a public transport historian he was more notable to me as the father of AEC and the LGOC B type bus.

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