The Rover Company was a British automobile manufacturing company originally founded as Starley & Sutton Co. of Coventry in 1878. After developing the template for the modern bicycle with its Rover Safety Bicycle of 1885, the company moved into the automotive industry. It started building Rover cars, using their established marque with the iconic Viking Longship, from 1904 onwards. Land Rover vehicles were added from 1947 onwards, with all production based in Solihull after moving to these premises after World War II. Later on, Rover cars were also produced in Cowley.
Despite a state-controlled absorption by Leyland Motors in 1967 and subsequent mergers and nationalisation, the Rover Company retained its identity first as an independent subsidiary division, and then through variously named combines of British Leyland through the 1970s and into the 1980s. The Rover marque became the primary brand of the newly set up Rover Group as it passed first through the hands of British Aerospace and then into the ownership of BMW Group. Technological know-how gained from Honda and financial investment during the BMW ownership led to a revival of the Rover marque during the 1990s in its core midsize segment.
In 2000, BMW sold the Rover and related MG car activities of the Rover Group to the Phoenix Consortium, who established the MG Rover Group at Longbridge and sold Land Rover vehicle activities to the Ford Motor Company. Although the decision was down to strategic, financial, and managerial reasons and less related to problems with the automotive quality per se at that time, the intense media reporting severely eroded the perceived trust and sustainability of the marque. Nevertheless, BMW retained ownership of the Rover marque, allowing MG Rover only to use it under licence. In April 2005, Rover cars ceased to be produced when the MG Rover Group became insolvent.
In July 2005, Nanjing Auto and SAIC acquired the physical assets & tooling and some vehicular intellectual property rights, respectively, with the plan to merge and resume production of MG Rover car designs in China and at Longbridge from 2007 onwards. However, on 18 September 2006, BMW sold the Rover marque to Ford for approximately £6-million, heralding an option of first refusal to buy it as a result of its purchase of Land Rover. Ford thus reunited the original Rover Company marques, primarily for brand-protective reasons, in preparation for divesting its Premier Automotive Group subsidiary.
In March 2008, Ford reached agreement with Tata Motors of India to include the Rover marque as part of the sale of their Jaguar Land Rover operations to them, alongside related Daimler and Lanchester marques.
The first Rover was a tricycle manufactured by Starley & Sutton Co. of Coventry, England, in 1883. The company was founded by John Kemp Starley and William Sutton in 1878. Starley had previously worked with his uncle, James Starley (father of the cycle trade), who began by manufacturing sewing machines and switched to bicycles in 1869.
In the early 1880s, the cycles available were the relatively dangerous penny-farthings and high-wheel tricycles. J.K. Starley made history in 1885 by producing the Rover Safety Bicycle—a rear-wheel-drive, chain-driven cycle with two similar-sized wheels, making it more stable than the previous high-wheel designs. Cycling Magazine said the Rover had "set the pattern to the world"; the phrase was used in their advertising for many years. Starley s Rover is usually described by historians as the first recognisably modern bicycle. The words for "bicycle" in Polish (Rower) and Belarusian (Rovar) are derived from the name of this company.
In 1889, the company became J.K. Starley & Co. Ltd., and in the late 1890s, the Rover Cycle Company Ltd. Three years after Starley's death in 1901, the Rover company began producing automobiles with the two-seater Rover Eight to the designs of Edmund Lewis, who came from Daimler. Lewis left the company to join Deasy in late 1905. He was eventually replaced by Owen Clegg, who joined from Wolseley in 1910 and set about reforming the product range. Short-lived experiments with sleeve valve engines were abandoned, and the 12hp model was introduced in 1912. This car was so successful that all other cars were dropped, and for a while, Rover pursued a "one model" policy. Clegg left to join the French company Darracq in 1912.
During the First World War, they made motorcycles, lorries to Maudslay designs, and, not having a suitable one of their own, cars to a Sunbeam design. Bicycle and motorcycle production continued until the Great Depression forced the end of production in 1925. The business was not very successful during the 1920s and did not pay a dividend from 1923 until the mid 1930s. In 1929, there was a change of management, with Spencer Wilks coming in from Hillman as general manager. He set about reorganising the company and moving it upmarket to cater for people who wanted something "superior" to Fords and Austins. He was joined by his brother Maurice (who had also been at Hillman) as chief engineer in 1930. Spencer Wilks stayed with the company until 1962, and his brother until 1963.
Building on successes such as beating the Blue Train for the first time in 1930 in the Blue Train Races, the Wilks Brothers established Rover as a company with several European royal, aristocratic, and governmental warrants, and upper-middle-class and star clients.
In the late 1930s, in anticipation of the potential hostilities that would become World War II, the British government started a rearmament programme, and as part of this, "shadow factories" were built. These were paid for by the government but staffed and run by private companies. Two were run by Rover: one, at Acocks Green, Birmingham, started operation in 1937, and a second, larger one, at Solihull, started in 1940. Both were employed making aero engines and airframes. The original main works at Helen Street, Coventry, was severely damaged by bombing in 1940 and 1941 and never regained full production.
In early 1940, Rover was approached by the government to support Frank Whittle in developing the gas turbine engine. Whittle's company, Power Jets, had no production facilities; however, the intention was for Rover to take the design and develop it for mass production. Whittle himself was not pleased by this and did not like the design changes made without his approval, but the first test engines to the W2B design were built in an unused cotton mill in Barnoldswick, Lancashire, in October 1941. Rolls-Royce took an interest in the new technology, and an agreement was reached in 1942 in which they would take over the engines and Barnoldswick works—and in exchange, Rover would get the contract for making Meteor tank engines, which actually continued until 1964.
After the Second World War, the company abandoned Helen Street and bought the two shadow factories. Acocks Green carried on for a while, making Meteor engines for tanks, and Solihull became the new centre for vehicles, with production resuming in 1947; it would become the home of the Land Rover.
In 1950, designer F.R. Bell and chief engineer Maurice Wilks unveiled the first car powered with a gas turbine engine, based upon the designs of Frank Whittle's Power Jets company. The two-seater JET1 had the engine positioned behind the seats, air intake grilles on either side of the car, and exhaust outlets on the top of the tail. During tests, the car reached top speeds of 88 mph (140 km/h), at a turbine speed of 50,000 rpm. The car ran on petrol, paraffin, or diesel oil, but fuel consumption problems proved insurmountable for a production car. It is currently on display at the London Science Museum. Rover and the BRM Formula One team joined forces to produce the Rover-BRM, a gas turbine-powered sports prototype that entered the 1963 24 hours of Le Mans, driven by Graham Hill and Richie Ginther. It averaged 107.8 mph (173 km/h) and had a top speed of 142 mph (229 km/h).
Rover also ran several experimental diesel engine projects in relation to the Land Rover. The 2-litre, 52 horsepower (39 kW) diesel unit designed and built by Rover for its 4x4 had entered production in 1956 and was one of Britain s first modern high-speed automotive diesel engines. Experimental projects were undertaken to improve the engine s power delivery, running qualities, and fuel tolerances. British Army requirements led to the development of a multifuel version of the 2.25-litre variant of the engine in 1962, which could run on petrol, diesel, Jet-A, or kerosene. However, the engine s power output when running on low-grade fuel was too low for the Army's uses. Rover developed a highly advanced (for the time) turbodiesel version of its engine in the mid 1960s to power its experimental 129-inch heavy duty Land Rover designs. This 2.5-litre engine used a turbocharger built by Rover's gas turbine division as well as an intercooler. This was one of the first times these features had been incorporated on such a small-capacity diesel unit, but they were not adopted.
The 1950s and 60s were fruitful years for the company. The Land Rover became a runaway success (despite Rover's reputation for making upmarket saloons, the utilitarian Land Rover was actually the company's biggest seller throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s), as well as the P5 and P6 saloons equipped with a 3.5L (215ci) aluminium V8 (the design and tooling of which was purchased from Buick) and pioneering research into gas turbine-fueled vehicles.
In 1967, Rover became part of the Leyland Motor Corporation (LMC), which already owned Triumph. The next year, LMC merged with British Motor Holdings (BMH) to become the British Leyland Motor Corporation. This was the beginning of the end for the independent Rover Company, as the Solihull-based company s heritage drowned beneath the infamous industrial relations and managerial problems that beset the British motor industry throughout the 1970s. At various times, it was part of the Specialist Division (hence the factory designation SD1 for the first—and in the event, only—model produced under this arrangement), Rover-Triumph, and the short-lived Jaguar Rover Triumph.
In 1970, Rover combined its skill in producing comfortable saloons and the rugged Land Rover 4x4 to produce the Range Rover, one of the first cars (albeit possibly inspired by the earlier Jeep Wagoneer and IH Scout) to combine off-road ability and comfortable versatility. Powered by the ex-Buick V8 engine, it had innovative features such as a permanent 4 wheel drive system, all-coil spring suspension, and disc brakes on all wheels. Able to reach speeds of up to 100 mph (160 km/h) yet also capable of extreme off-road use, the original Range Rover design was to remain in production for the next 26 years.
As British Leyland struggled through financial turmoil and an industrial-relations crisis during the 1970s, it was effectively nationalized after a multi-billion-pound government cash injection in 1975. Michael Edwardes was brought in to head the company.
The Rover SD1 of 1976 was an excellent car, but was beset with so many build quality and reliability issues that it never delivered on its great promise. Following the closure of the Triumph factory at Canley, production of the Triumph TR7 and Triumph TR8 was moved to Solihull; but soon after, a savage programme of cutbacks in the late 1970s led to the end of car production at the Solihull factory, which was turned over for Land Rover production only. The TR7/8 model was discontinued while SD1 production moved to Cowley. All future Rover cars would be made in the former Austin and Morris plants in Longbridge and Cowley, respectively.
In 1979, British Leyland (or as it was now officially known, BL Ltd.) began a long relationship with the Honda Motor Company of Japan. The result was a cross-holding structure, where Honda took a 20% stake in the company while the company took a 20% stake in Honda's UK subsidiary. The deal was thought to be mutually beneficial: Honda used its British operations as a launchpad into Europe, and the company could pool resources with Honda in developing new cars.
Austin Rover Group was formed in 1982 as the mass-market car manufacturing subsidiary of BL, with the separate Rover Company becoming effectively defunct. In the 1980s, the slimmed-down BL used the Rover brand on a range of cars codeveloped with Honda. The first Honda-sourced Rover model, released in 1984, was the Rover 200, which, like the Triumph Acclaim that it replaced, was based on the Honda Ballade. Similarly, in Australia, the Honda Quint (known in Europe as the Quintet) and Integra were badged as the Rover Quintet and 416i.
By 1986, Austin Rover had moved to a one-marque strategy, using only the Rover brand. Its parent, BL, was renamed as the Rover Group, with the car division becoming Rover Cars. In 1986, the Rover SD1 was replaced by the Rover 800, developed with the Honda Legend. The Austin range were now technically Rovers, though the word "Rover" never actually appeared on the badging. Instead, there was a badge similar to the Rover Viking shape, without wording. These were replaced by the Rover 400 and Rover 600, based on Honda's Concerto and Accord, respectively.
Rover exported Rover 800s, badged as Sterlings, to the United States from 1987 to 1992.
In 1988, the Rover brand went back into private hands when the Rover Group was acquired by British Aerospace.
A specially assembled group of businessmen, known as the Phoenix Consortium and headed by ex-Rover chief executive John Towers, established the MG Rover Group from the former Rover Group car operations (acquired from BMW for a nominal £10 in May 2000) and continued to use the Rover brand under licence from BMW.
The year before its breakup, the Rover Group had sustained losses of an estimated £800-million. The four businessmen who took control of the newly formed MG Rover Group are reported to have received around £430-million in a dowry from BMW that included unsold stock.
The first new Rover-branded car to be launched after the formation of MG Rover was the estate version of the Rover 75, which went on sale later in 2000. In 2003, MG Rover launched the CityRover—an entry-level model that was produced in a venture with Indian carmaker Tata but failed miserably to sell, as it was overpriced for the level of equipment if offered. Had MG Rover re-engineered and Roverised the Indica to a higher degree and priced it more sensibly, it may have been much more successful. Several concept cars intended as eventual replacements for the Rover 25 and 45 were shown in the early 2000s, but never went into production.
MG Rover production ceased on 15 April 2005, when it was declared insolvent. On 22 July 2005, the physical assets of the collapsed firm were sold to the Nanjing Automobile Group for £53m. They indicated that their preliminary plans involved relocating the Powertrain engine plant to China while splitting car production into Rover lines in China and resumed MG lines in the West Midlands (though not necessarily at Longbridge), where a UK R&D and technical facility would also be developed.
On 30 May 2007, Nanjing Automobile Group claimed to have restarted production of MG TF sports cars in the Longbridge plant, with sales expected to begin in the autumn.
Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC), who held the intellectual property of Rover 75 car design (bought for £67m before MG Rover collapsed) and was also bidding for MG Rover, announced their own version of the Rover 75 in late 2006. In July 2006, SAIC announced their intent to buy the Rover brand name from BMW, who still owned the rights to the Rover marque. However, BMW refused their request, due to an agreement that Ford had reached with them to be given first option on the brand when it acquired Land Rover. Unable to use the Rover name, SAIC created their own brand with a similar name and badge, known as Roewe. Roewe was eventually launched in early 2007.
Ford had first option to purchase the Rover brand name if MG Rover ceased trading, a right that had been negotiated when the Land Rover brand was bought from BMW. This right was exercised on 18 September 2006. No Rover-branded cars were produced whilst Ford owned the brand, and in a further twist, Tata Motors now owns the brand that was used for the ill-fated CityRover model, a rebadged Tata Indica marketed by MG Rover under license in the UK Market from 2003 to 2005.