The Rootes Group

Humber

NB: THIS ARTICLE IS UNDER DEVELOPMENT

The Rootes Group was a famous British car maker which was based in the Midlands and the south of England.  Rootes formed the parent company of a number of well-known British marques, including Hillman, Humber, Singer, Sunbeam, Talbot, Commer and Karrier.

Originally founded in Hawkhurst, Kent in 1913 by William Rootes as a car sales company, the firm moved to Maidstone by the First World War and, during the war, was involved in the repair of aero engines.  By 1924 Rootes was the largest truck and car distributor in the United Kingdom.  Rootes grew and took over other companies, and became one of the earliest advocates of the policy of “badge engineering”.

William Rootes
William Rootes

Back in its heyday Rootes had manufacturing plants in the Midlands at Coventry and Birmingham, in the south at Acton, Luton, Dunstable, Maidstone and Canterbury, and in the West of Scotland at Linwood.  In later life the was taken over in stages by Chrysler, and subsequently sold to Peugeot Talbot and eventually what remained went on to Renault.

I remember the various factories scattered around Coventry and especially the massive plant at Ryton-on-Dunsmore – a village and civil  parish in the Rugby district of Warwickshire, south-east of Coventry.

Rootes_Ryton Plant
Rootes Ryton Plant

Rootes was best known for manufacturing solid, dependable, well-engineered middle-market vehicles.  Notable Rootes models include the Hillman Minx, Hillman Hunter, Humber Super Snipe and the Sunbeam Alpine.  William Rootes built the Rootes Group using specific brands for each market niche.

Rootes Group Logo
Rootes Group Logo

With the onset of the Second World War Rootes, like most other British car manufacturers, became involved with the production of armaments.  In 1940, under the Government’s shadow factory scheme, Rootes built its massive assembly plant in Ryton-on-Dunsmore, near Coventry, initially manufacturing aircraft, one of the first types being the Bristol Blenheim.  Production included another RAF heavy bomber, the Handley Page Halifax.  These were built at a shadow factory at Speke Airport near Liverpool.  Rootes also manufactured military vehicles, based on the Humber and Commer.

Rootes successfully sold a range of cars which were priced at a slight premium to their major home market competitors, justified on the basis that they offered a level of superiority in design and finish.

Studebaker stylist Raymond Loewy was a design consultant to Rootes; evidence of his influence is most readily seen in the 1956 Audax range of cars, which included the contemporary Hillman Minx, a model also produced under licence by Isuzu of Japan.

Hillman Minx Series V
Hillman Minx Series V

In 1954, Rootes introduced a novel supercharged diesel engine, based on a Sulzer Brothers concept. This was the TS3 2-stroke 3-cylinder engine, with 2 opposed inward facing pistons per cylinder, which drove the crankshaft through rockers. The 3.25 litre engine developed 90 hp (67 kW), equivalent to contemporary 4-stroke diesel engines of more than twice the capacity.

The engine was used in Commer trucks as well as an industrial engine. Production ceased in 1968 after the Chrysler takeover.

A Sunbeam-Talbot 90 won the Monte Carlo Rally in 1955

Sunbeam-Talbot_90_MkIIA_Drophead_Coupe_of_1953
Sunbeam-Talbot 90 MkIIA Drophead Coupe of 1953

During the 1950s, Rootes’s promotion included a strategy of participation in major UK and European car rallies. Stirling Moss was their top driver, and the Sunbeam-Talbot 90’s win in the 1955 Monte Carlo Rally was the most significant victory.

In 1968, Rootes entered a factory team in the London-Sydney Marathon, driving a Hillman Hunter. Andrew Cowan gained what was regarded as a surprise victory against stiff competition from factory teams with bigger budgets.

Hillman Hunter 1967
Hillman Hunter 1967

During the 1960s, Sunbeam’s Alpine convertible was moderately successful in the US market. Rootes considered that the Alpine’s sales would be improved with a more powerful model. As a result, in 1964 they introduced the Tiger — a V8 derivative of the Alpine, powered by a 4.2 litre Ford V8 engine. Carroll Shelby was involved in the development of the Tiger prototype.

A 4.7 litre model followed in 1967, but few were built as it was considered inappropriate for a Chrysler vehicle to be powered by Ford. Consideration was given to installing a Chrysler V8 in the Tiger, but their engines were larger and heavier than the Ford engines.

Sunbeam_Alpine_Series 4
Sunbeam Alpine Series 4
Sunbeam Alpine late 60s/early 70s
Sunbeam Alpine late 60s/early 70s

In 1963, Rootes introduced the Hillman Imp, a compact rear engined saloon with an innovative all-aluminium OHC engine, based on a Coventry Climax engine design (originally used for a fire pump). It was intended to be a response from Rootes to rival BMC’s popular Mini, and a massive new factory in Linwood in Renfrewshire was built for its assembly.

Hillman Imp
Hillman Imp

The move to Linwood was forced upon the company by the British government, which had introduced the principle of “industrial development certificates” (IDCs). By their use, it was intended to concentrate new factory building in depressed areas of Britain. Thus, Rootes were not allowed to expand their existing Ryton plant (itself provided by the Government for war production), but instead were obliged to build in an area of Scotland where there was a shortage of work.  The Linwood plant was a disaster for many reasons — chiefly the West of Scotland workforce who had no experience in motor vehicle assembly, and the build quality and reliability of the cars inevitably suffered.  Another problem was that the component suppliers were still based in the Midlands, and the company incurred further costs in transporting half-finished engine castings from Linwood to be machined at Ryton and returned to Linwood once they had been assembled — at the same time as completed Imps returned south again, resulting in a 600-mile (970 km) round trip!

The Imp itself was underdeveloped, and the aforementioned build quality and unreliability problems, coupled with buyer apathy towards the quirky design was reflected in poor sales. After a reasonably successful start in 1963-65, the Imp’s fortunes in the marketplace went into terminal decline.  Lost production caused by constant strike action by the Linwood workforce only added to the problems, and the mess was further exacerbated by crippling warranty claims. Rootes had no money left to develop its other models, which soon left the company in an uncompetitive position.

Following the death in 1964 of Lord Rootes, his son, William Geoffrey Rootes, became the second Lord Rootes, and also became the new chairman of Rootes Motors. On 1 May 1967 Lord Rootes appointed Gilbert Hunt, a Wolverhampton-born business executive, who at the time was managing director of Massey-Ferguson in the UK, to be the new managing director of the Rootes Group: Hunt’s appointment was made with the support of the Chrysler Corporation which was building its holding and control over the business during this period.

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