ROVER ---- OUT OF THE WAR AND INTO THE RED.

By Kevin Phillips


The arrival of peace brought about a hurried re-conversion from war-time to peace-time factory conditions.

There appeared to be an inexhaustible demand for new cars and Rover was happy to bring its 12' back into the market. Unfortunately War material expenditure had led to serious inflation and by November 1919 the Rover was selling for twice its 1914 price of 375 pounds. Every other British car maker was in the same position but imports were now much cheaper, particularly those from North America which became very popular.

To counter the American Invasion a price cutting war soon erupted, being kicked off by Morris, and this helped to keep the Rover production line moving.

Rover had had a good war and finished it with more Coventry based factories than they had started with, Helen St. becoming their newest acquisition. In 1920 they would break through the 1 million-pound turnover barrier for the first time. They now decided to go back into the small car market that had been abandoned since 1912.

The new Rover '8' was designed by Jack Sangster and would be built in a new factory in Tyseley, Birmingham. This factory had been built before the Great War and was used by the Government controlled Component Munitions Ltd to make fuses during the war. The new Rover '8' would be completed to rolling-chassis form at Tyseley and then delivered to Coventry for the bodies to be added.

This Rover '8' was all new with a simple channel section chassis frame and an air-cooled 998 cc flat twin engine. The basic cylinder dimensions of 85 mm bore and 88mm stroke were those of the successful 3 HP Rover motorcycle. Valve gear also as on the motorcycle was at the side which because of the layout of the unit meant that the valves and camshaft were physically on top of the engine. The output of the little '8' was 14 HP and it was a sturdy little machine that could tackle virtually every hill on the public road, but it was no great performer.

This new car went into production early in 1920 after 400,000 pounds had been spent on tools and fixtures. For the next four years the '8' and the modernised 12' comprised Rover's entire range and this sensible concentration on two models paid off with sales peaking in 1924 at 6,749 with more than 5,000 sales going to the '8'. Rover had settled on a winning formula. The British motorist, hard hit by higher taxation and inflation, was ready to buy a cheap and simple car. Apart from Ford's now heavily taxed Model "T", there were very few competently built cars of this type available on the market.

Things were now looking up for Rover but there were dark clouds on the horizon, one of them having the name of Herbert Austin! Having made the biggest possible error in 1919 by deciding to make only one model, and the wrong model at that, he decided to build a new small car - the Austin "7". This was to create big problems for Rover. The first was that the Austin dealer network and the potential output of Austin "7" 's was far greater than that of Rover. Worse still was the fact that the Austin "7" was cheaper than almost every other car on the market.

Rover's problems were just starting and from 1924 the company was running at a loss. Each year it would get worse as the great depression started to take hold with Rover's losses finally piling up to the tune of more than 400,000 pounds.

Something had to be done about the company's multiplicity of dispersed factory buildings. The New Rover Cycle Co Ltd was closed down and for a short time the parent company took direct control of pedal cycle and motorcycle production. In 1924 however, two wheeler production ended altogether - more than 400,000 pedal cycles having been made since 1896, and more than 10,000 motorcycles in- the two periods of production which had begun in 1902/1903.

Two new Rover models were now released. The first was the '9' with a new four cylinder water cooled engine to replace the air cooled flat twin. This new car had a conventional overhead valve engine of 1074 cc with a bore and stroke of 60 mm by 95 mm. It produced 20 BHP at 3,000 RPM and was precisely what Rover needed at the time, and lasted in developed form in production until the middle of 1933.

The other new Rover was the '14 / 45' a replacement for the long running '12'. Its designer was Peter Poppe who had been connected with the 'Bullnose' Morris and was a director of the firm White and Poppe'. Poppe had been working on a complex overhead camshaft four cylinder engine design since 1918, and it was this engine that went into the new '14 / 45'. The engine consisted of a four cylinder, three bearing design of 2,132 cc with a bore and stroke of 75 mm by 120 mm. The valves were inclined to each other at an included angle of 90 degrees, alongside and outside of the inlet valves. The inlets were directly operated via rockers while the exhausts were worked through pushrods and rockers.

Although this new car appeared to promise high performance it was unable to live up to expectations and for 1926 the engine was enlarged to 2,413 cc and the car became known as the '16 / 50'. These engines had been very expensive to produce and it is thought that Rover never made a profit on the '14 / 45' or '16 / 50' models built in the four years from 1924 to 1928, less than 2,000 cars being sold.

By 1927 the company s finances were in serious disarray, the loss recorded for 1926 I 27 being nearly 78,000 pounds, serious for a firm with a turnover of only 1 million pounds. Poppe had been striving to rescue both Rover and his own reputation and designed a simple straight six unit of 2,023 cc. This was launched towards the end of 1927 and was cheaper to build, simpler to service and no less powerful than the '14/45' and had the sweet running qualities of a six' that the '14 / 45' could never provide.

By 1928 Rover's financial situation had deteriorated still further and a shareholders meeting resulted in two shareholders being made directors. These men had no motor industry experience and Rover was still without guidance. It was obvious that an injection of some genuine industrial management talent would be required if Rover was to survive the depression. In one last desperate attempt in 1929 a new position of general manager was created. The man who was chosen to fill this position was Spencer Wilks, who with his brother Maurice went on not only to save The Rover Company, but to totally transform it as well.