William Martin-Hurst was a very important figure in the story of the Rover Company. He was the Managing Director and is probably best known for securing the Buick V8 engine for Rover.
Automotive historian James Taylor tells the story of his impact on the firm.
The man who made Rover: William Martin-Hurst
William Frederick Forrest Martin-Hurst was born in 1903 and attended Rugby public school. He then trained as an Engineer at the City & Guilds Engineering College in London. In 1925, he joined the Lightfoot Refrigeration Company, and then in 1931 he moved to the British Thermostat Company, where he became the Joint Managing Director in 1937.
So, in his early thirties, Martin-Hurst had already moved into top management within the manufacturing world. Importantly for his own future, he also became part of the Rover ‘family’ circle when his sister Barbara married Rover’s Maurice Wilks.
Meanwhile, the British Thermostat Company diversified into producing aircraft components, an activity that expanded greatly in the Second World War. In 1946, Martin-Hurst became Managing Director of the aviation division (now renamed Teddington Aircraft Controls Limited) at its new factory in Merthyr Tydfil. This may have marked the start of his close association with Wales and his championing of Welsh interests.
Martin-Hurst joined Rover in January 1960 as Executive Director (Production), which was a temporary post until a more senior one became available, and in October that year he became Deputy Managing Director. His association with Wales was an asset from the very start, and he played an important role in securing the Pengam Moors site for Rover’s new factory.
Rover announced on 2 January 1960 that it was negotiating for a site in south Wales, and released full details on 12 May. George Farmer, Rover’s Joint Managing Director, announced at a lunch in Cardiff that negotiations had been concluded with the city authorities for the purchase of the airport site. He also acknowledged the financial help given by the city of Cardiff of an estimated £1.5 million to cover the cost of extra piling in preparing the site.
For background, the Government had refused Rover planning permission for a new assembly hall at Solihull for the forthcoming P6 models – they wanted to encourage investment in economically disadvantaged areas of the UK and not in the prosperous West Midlands. A deal was done for Rover to build new premises for spares storage at Pengam, near Cardiff, and in return they were permitted to build the P6 assembly hall at Solihull.
Climbing the ladder
Following a reshuffle at Board level, Martin-Hurst was announced as Rover’s sole Managing Director in November 1961 and took office with effect from January 1962. He proved to be an energetic and dynamic individual, who was exactly the right man to pick up Maurice Wilks’ policies of innovation and expansion. The only negative was that the company would continue the tradition it established in the 1950s of trying to do too much, with the result that some great ideas were examined and prototyped but never made production.
As Managing Director, Martin-Hurst was the man who initiated a competitions programme for Rover, initially pitching the big Rover P5 3-litres into endurance rallies and then following up with the new P6 Rover 2000s. It was also his initiative to gain publicity for Rover’s gas turbine work by teaming up with Sir Alfred Owen’s BRM racing team and creating the Rover-BRM gas turbine racing car that performed so well at Le Mans in 1963 and 1965.
Martin-Hurst also did his level best to gain Rover some success in the USA. When he arrived, the US operation was a half-hearted affair run by Gordon Munro (with whom Martin-Hurst did not get on well). By 1962, he had found the man he wanted to replace Munro, and appointed Bruce McWilliams, who had been with the Studebaker-Packard Corporation. Martin-Hurst and McWilliams got on like a house on fire, and when McWilliams said that he could sell more Land Rovers if Rover gave them more performance with an American V8 engine, Martin-Hurst simply told him to find one.
Sourcing a V8 for Rover
The story was not quite linear after that, because it was Martin-Hurst who actually found the Buick V8, and it would not go into Land Rovers for many years because Rover put a priority on using it in their saloon cars. Nevertheless, it was Martin-Hurst’s instinct and his dogged perseverance that secured the rights to the engine for Rover in early 1965. It entered production in the UK two years later and completely transformed the car range.
The V8 was also central to the success of the Range Rover, which Martin-Hurst championed at a very early stage. It was he who sent Graham Bannock to the USA to find out what the market wanted, and the revelation that it wanted a 4×4 closely similar to the one Spen King had conceptualised ensured that the 100-inch Station Wagon (as it was originally called) was carried through to production.
Martin-Hurst was also in the driving seat when Rover merged with Leyland in 1967. At that time, he had approved work on two more new products, one a mid-engined V8 sports car called the P6BS and the other a new saloon called the P8. Leyland was very much in favour of the P8 and encouraged Rover to develop it into a Jaguar competitor (it had originally been intended to replace both the P5 and P6). That scheme all went wrong when Leyland merged with British Motor Holdings in 1968, and the Rover P8 found itself in direct competition for resources with the Jaguar XJ6. (It took BL three years to summon up the courage to cancel it, by which time Martin-Hurst had gone).
Going up against Jaguar
The P6BS also brought Rover into conflict with Jaguar, and was actually cancelled in 1968. But Martin-Hurst wasn’t having any of that. He mounted a determined effort to keep the car alive, showing the prototype to the motoring press, getting it displayed at motor shows, and drumming up support for it from Bruce McWilliams in the USA. In August 1968, he circulated a memo to his fellow Directors which made clear that he intended to revive the car in defiance of BL thinking.
The P6BS became the P9 and was given a sleek new body style, while testing indicated that it would present a serious challenge to the Jaguar E-type – and at a lower price. Jaguar (and Triumph, who worried about the threat to its Stag) fought a rearguard action through multiple product committees, and finally got it killed in March 1970.
This must have saddened Martin-Hurst, who had retired as Managing Director in September 1969 but remained on the Rover payroll as Consultant Engineering Director until October 1970. It is not difficult to work out why he had been retained – but of course as a consultant he could not lend his weight at the product policy committees that were the P9’s undoing.
On his retirement, he moved back to his beloved south Wales, where he took an active part in the Welsh Development Board. He died in 1985 in Brecknock, after an accident in which a motorcycle ran into the car his wife was driving.
If the activities I have described here give you the impression of a dynamic and determined individual, then that is as it should be. He also had a great deal of charm, and a mischievous streak. I’ll finish with a personal memory of the man, from the time when I went to collect him from his home in Wales to take him to the 1982 15 Years of Rover V8 event at Donington, of which I was the co-organiser.
He was the VIP guest, and I had borrowed a press-fleet Rover 3500SE (LOV 723X) for the weekend. While we were on the M5 heading north, he asked me what the maximum speed was claimed to be. I told him it was 124mph. His response was, ‘Let’s see if it will do that, shall we?’. Only heavy traffic prevented us from finding out…