Rootes Group

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Rootes Group
Former type Limited
Industry Automotive industry
Fate Acquired by Chrysler Corporation
Successor(s) Chrysler Europe, later Peugeot
Founded 1913
Founder(s) William Rootes
Defunct Marque defunct 1971
Headquarters Coventry, United Kingdom
Number of locations Linwood, Ryton
Area served UK & Europe
Products Cars and commercial vehicles
Subsidiaries Commer, Hillman, Humber, Karrier, Singer, Sunbeam, Talbot

The Rootes Group was a British automobile manufacturer, which was based in the Midlands and south of England. Rootes was the parent company of many well-known British marques, including Hillman, Humber, Singer, Sunbeam, Talbot, Commer and Karrier. At its height Rootes had 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. The company no longer exists, having been taken over in stages by Chrysler, and subsequently sold to Peugeot and, in part, Renault.

History and corporate development[edit]

Early history[edit]

Rootes acquisitions included the Humber Car Company. They produced the Humber Armoured Car used during the Second World War.

Originally founded in Hawkhurst, Kent in 1913 by William Rootes as a car sales company, the firm had 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.[1] Rootes grew and took over other companies, and became one of the earliest advocates of the policy of "badge engineering". Among take-overs were Thrupp & Maberly (1926); Hillman, Humber and Commer in 1929; Karrier in 1934; Clement, Talbot and Sunbeam in 1935,[1] and British Light Steel Pressings (1937). Hillman was the mainstay "bread and butter" range, Singer aimed at more upmarket small car buyers, Sunbeam continued its sports appeal, Humber made larger luxury passenger vehicles, and the compact Sceptre in 1963. Commer and Karrier were the commercial vehicle brands. Commer manufactured a full range of vans, trucks, tractors and bus chassis, and some badge-engineered small vehicles from the Hillman range. Karrier represented mainly municipal and special-purpose trucks, vans and buses, though later included badge-engineered models from the Commer range.

Business strategy[edit]

Rootes was best known for manufacturing solid, dependable, well-engineered middle-market vehicles. Well-known 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.

World War II[edit]

A Bristol Blenheim bomber

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 had a rare lapse of business judgement shortly after WWII. When he visited the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg to evaluate it for war reparations, he opined that it – and the Beetle – had no value.

Post-war development[edit]

The Hillman Minx was designed by Raymond Loewy.

Following the war, Rootes also sponsored satellite manufacturing operations around the world, notably in Australasia (Rootes Australia) and the Middle East. The best known example of the latter was the Iranian-built Paykan, based on the Hillman Hunter. In 1950 it acquired Tilling-Stevens, a truck and bus manufacturer based in Maidstone, Kent.

Rootes successfully sold a range of cars 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 Motors of Japan as the Isuzu Hillman Minx.

Engineering innovation[edit]

Rootes introduced a novel supercharged diesel engine in 1954, based on a Sulzer Brothers concept. This was the Commer 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.

Competition history[edit]

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

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.

Sunbeam Tiger[edit]

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 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, and the rear-mounted distributor would have required an unaffordable chassis design, given the limited sales.

Hillman Imp and the move to Linwood[edit]

The rear-engine Hillman Imp never caught on with the buying public. The model shown is the Singer Chamois coupe.

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. 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.[citation needed] Rootes had no money left to develop its other models, which soon left the company in an uncompetitive position.

Management succession[edit]

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.[2]

Chrysler (1967–78)[edit]

It has been suggested that the demise of Rootes began with losses due to industrial relations problems at the BLSP plant in London, with knock-on problems down the supply chain.[3] By the mid-1960s, Rootes was progressively taken over by the Chrysler Corporation of the United States, following huge losses amid the commercial failure of the troubled Imp. The company's financial year ran to 31 July, and in the year ended 31 July 1967 Rootes was able to report a pre-tax profit of just £3.8 million.[4] It was the first reported profit since 1964 and compared with a pretax loss of £10.7 million in the year ending in 1966.[4] Lack of funds for new model investment was a striking feature of the company's final decade.

Chrysler was also only too keen to take control of the struggling firm as it wished to have its own wholly independent European subsidiaries like arch rivals Ford and GM. Chrysler took over Simca of France and Barreiros of Spain at the same time, merging it with Rootes (now renamed "Chrysler UK") to create Chrysler Europe. The Rootes name had largely vanished by 1971, and soon its other brand names were progressively phased out as the 1970s progressed. Only Hillman was left by 1977, when it, too, was shelved in favour of the Chrysler name. The Commer name was also phased out in the 1970s, the group's van and truck models mostly assuming the Dodge nameplate by 1976.

In Iacocca – an Autobiography, former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca was disparaging of the Rootes operation, writing that Chrysler should never have bought it. Chrysler UK continued with a range of increasingly outmoded rear-wheel-drive family cars such as the Hillman Avenger (introduced in 1970) and Hillman Hunter (introduced in 1966), while the Imp – which by now had most of its teething problems ironed out – was largely ignored by the new management.

In the late 1960s, Chrysler endeavoured to market the Rootes cars in the US. These efforts proved unsuccessful. Marketing in the US was impeded by an inability to offer cars for sale during part of 1968, as the Rootes cars could not comply with exhaust emission requirements.

The Hillman Avenger first was produced between 1970 and 1981.

In the early 1970s, with the rise of interest in sub-compact cars, Chrysler offered the Hillman Avenger in North America as the Plymouth Cricket. This attempt was aborted after only two years. At the same time, Chrysler's Dodge Division offered the Dodge Colt as its "subcompact" – sourced from Mitsubishi in Japan. The Colt proved a popular and reliable car, hastening the Cricket's demise.

However, Chrysler of Argentina commenced manufacturing the Hillman Avenger based Dodge 1800, and this car continued in production until 1990. In its last 10 years of production it was badged as a Volkswagen after that firm acquired Chrysler's Argentine business. There was also a Brazilian variant until 1980.

Chrysler UK introduced several new models in the 1970s: a British-assembled Chrysler Alpine (sold in France as the Simca 1307/1308) was introduced in 1976, and the Avenger-based Chrysler Sunbeam 2-door hatchback was introduced in 1977. Also, Chrysler UK made a significant contribution to the design of Chrysler's European range. As well as the Alpine and Sunbeam, there was the saloon derivative of the Alpine, the Talbot Solara, and Chrysler/Simca Horizon. Both of these cars were awarded "European Car of the Year awards, and the Horizon was the basis for the US Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni, which were very successful for Chrysler.

The Chrysler Sunbeam kept the company buoyant in the 1970s.

The Imp was finally discontinued in 1976, and the Hunter followed it three years later (although it continued to be produced in Iran). Indeed, componentry for the Iranian version of the car was a successful UK export during the 1980s.

Only the Avenger-based Chrysler Sunbeam hatchback, launched in 1977 kept the Rootes lineage alive, although the Alpine name was still in use and later Alpine and Solara special edition models were given the old Rootes model names, Minx and Rapier. The rights to the Rapier name remained with the successors of the company, and were eventually resurrected again on a few limited edition Peugeot models. There was also a special Sceptre edition of the 205, 405 and the 605 SRi models. This used a black plastic badge with the chrome effect Sceptre cursive script similar to that on the sideflashes of the '60's saloons. In the case of the Peugeot cars, the Sceptre badging was applied to the bootlid and lower aft part of the front wing.

Chrysler had spent much of the 1970s unsuccessfully trying to integrate its Rootes and Simca ranges into one, coherent whole. The traditionally engineered, rear wheel drive cars of the British division had limited appeal outside the UK, although the Avenger and Hunter – the first locally assembled car to reach a total of 30,000 units sold in its 12-year lifespan – were both relatively successful in New Zealand. Hunter production continued there and in Ireland until 1979, and it was built in Iran by Iran Khodro as the Peykan for many years more.

Unfortunately, with its problems in the US, Chrysler did not have the capital to invest in refreshing their entire product range, and sales of the older designs stagnated in the face of more modern competition. Also, the production facilities were outmoded, industrial relations problems were persistent, and the products had a poor reputation for quality.

In the face of massive losses, and the risk of significant unemployment if the factories closed, the Ryton and Linwood factories were the subject of frequent government bail-outs.

Despite the government assistance, the weight of problems bearing on Chrysler Europe resulted in its collapse in 1977, leading to the company's 1978 takeover by PSA Peugeot-Citroen. PSA soon wielded the axe over the troubled Linwood factory in Scotland, and exhumed the Talbot marque from the pages of Rootes' history to re-badge the former Chrysler models. Whilst Ryton was saved, PSA took little interest in the heavy commercial vehicles and the former Commer/Dodge/Karrier truck and van factory was run in conjunction with the trucks division of Renault. After the withdrawal of the last Dodge-derived trucks (latterly badged as Renaults) it became a production plant for engines for Renault Véhicules Industriels.

Peugeot (1978–2007)[edit]

The Peugeot 309 was the first of the Peugeot line built in the Ryton plant.

The first Rootes model to be discontinued under Peugeot's ownership was the Hunter in 1979, and its production tooling subsequently went to Iran, where the Paykan went into local production, which continued until 2004. It remains a common sight throughout the Middle East, especially as a taxi. The closure of Linwood in 1981 spelled the end (in Europe at least) for the Avenger. Chrysler had retained the rights to the car, and continued its production in Argentina. The Simca-based models (the Horizon, Alpine and Solara) continued to be built at Ryton, using the resurrected Talbot badge for the first half of the 1980s. Eventually however, PSA abandoned the three marque strategy, and the Horizon replacement, developed as the Talbot Arizona became the Peugeot 309 in 1986, and was the first Peugeot badged car to be assembled at the Ryton plant. This was not an entirely successful car, since its styling was mismatched with the rest of the range, looking somewhat like an enlarged Simca 1108. The Talbot badge was discontinued on passenger cars in 1987 and commercial vehicles in 1995, whilst Ryton went on to assemble the Peugeot 405 and 306.

The Peugeot 206 was the last car assembled at Ryton.

Ryton began assembling its last Peugeot, the 206, in 1998. At the height of the car's success, the plant was working at capacity to satisfy demand. Ryton's importance in PSA's overall strategy was always marginal at best however, merely being an assembly operation with limited production capacity compared to PSA's main factories in France and Spain. The writing was on the wall for Ryton when Peugeot announced that the new 207 would not be assembled at the former Rootes plant, and in April 2006, after years of speculation surrounding Ryton's future, the PSA Group announced that residual 206 production would move to Eastern Europe.

Production at the plant ceased in December 2006. It marked the end of nearly 60 years of car manufacturing at Ryton, and severed the motor industry's final remaining link with the Rootes Group. The plant closed on 8 January 2007 with the loss of some 2,300 jobs, and has since been demolished. The only physical remnant of the Rootes Group still in existence is the Whitley research and development centre - originally established during the Chrysler era, but subsequently sold by PSA and is now owned by Jaguar Land Rover.

Maidstone garage, formerly Rootes

End of the name[edit]

The last appearance of the name Rootes was at a garage, still extant in Maidstone, which bore the name. On 1 January 2007, in line with the other 40 dealerships within its business group, the name was changed from Rootes Maidstone, to Robins & Day Maidstone. Robins & Day is wholly owned and operated by Peugeot UK, as opposed to other Peugeot dealers that are operated like many car dealerships, on a franchise basis.

Rootes' contribution to Coventry's history is commemorated by the University of Warwick in the naming of Rootes Hall, one of its largest halls of residence, on the main campus site on the outskirts of Coventry.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Kent and Sussex Courier, 25 April 2008, p. 28
  2. ^ "News: Rootes MD is Gilbert Hunt". Autocar 126 (3710): 91. 23 March 1967. 
  3. ^ Industrial Unrest
  4. ^ a b "News and views: Rootes make a profit". Autocar 129 (3793)): 99. 24 October 1968. 

External links[edit]