By Kevin Phillips
By 1929 the Rover Company's problems were serious. This was mainly due to the wrong models being built at the wrong time, poor quality control, erratic sales forecasts and inexperienced management. The boardroom shake-up of 1928 had achieved nothing except to exchange one incompetent management team for another, leaving the company with no clear future strategy, unsettled ideas and a frightening lack of specialised industrial experience.
Rover's Managing Director, Colonel Frank Searle from London, had no previous motor industry experience of any kind. Although he had no positive impact on the company during his short three-year term, he is remembered for making one vitally important move - the engagement of Spencer Wilks as general manager in September 1929. This decision was vital to the future growth of the company and without the influence of the Wilks brothers it is doubtful that Rover could have survived the Depression.
When Wilks took up his post at the end of 1929, the 1930 models were already on sale and the 1931 range was being prepared. His standing in Rover was not yet high enough to have any influence and his philosophy, which was to become very clear over the next 30 years had to take second place to that of Colonel Searle. The Wilks' philosophy was that quality should always take precedence over quantity, whereas Colonel Searle and his associates believed that more and more production would lead to higher and higher sales. In depression-hit Britain Searle's philosophy didn't stand a chance and although more Rover cars were built in 1931 than in any previous post war year, there were fewer genuine Rover customers than ever. Since 1928 quality had sagged and the cars were piling up in dealers showrooms. At one point in 1930 cars were being built at the rate of 280 per week while orders totaled only 55 cars.
In 1930 the Rover 10/25' which had been a descendent of the '9', was given a wider and lower chassis frame and a cheap all steel body supplied by Pressed Steel in Cowely. This was the first such Rover body shell and was supplied in painted and ready trimmed form for the car to be assembled at Tyseley. The price dropped from 250 pounds to 189 pounds due to the quantity produced Pressed Steel body shells being much cheaper to produce than the craftsman erected Weymann bodies.
Another model known as the '10 Special' shared the same basic four door body shell supplied by Pressed Steel but was almost entirely different under the skin. This car would become the precursor to a whole series of Wilks inspired improvements over the coming years. It sported a four speed gearbox where the '10/25' used a three speed unit and introduced a dramatic innovation for Rover - a driver controlled roller and incline freewheel device mounted to the immediately behind the gearbox. The combined gearbox / freewheel unit was flexibly mounted
It is interesting to note that this new Rover had a body very similar to the Hillman Minx, in fact it actually shared body panels with that car in order to keep costs down. It was common in the 1930's for car companies to share body designs in order to counter the huge cost for Pressed Steel to produce the unique body press dies for each new model.
Further development of the '10' would lead to two new models, the 'Light Six' and the 'Meteor'. The 'Light Six' cars were available as either a two-door 'Sportsman Saloon' or a four-door saloon and had a short wheelbase. The 'Sportsman Saloon' had cycle type front wings and no running boards, a longish bonnet and a dumpy and well set back two-door body. It was this car that made the headlines in January 1930 by racing the famous French express, 'The Blue Train', from St. Raphael on the French Riviera to its destination in Calais. The Rover did everything that was asked of it, eventually winning the race by 20 minutes. With 750 miles completed in less than 20 hours there was good cause for celebration.
The 'Meteor' cars became 'Speed 16's' and 'Speed 20's' before 1935, were luxurious, better equipped cars and cost around 400 pounds depending on the coachwork chosen. The 'Special Speed Tourers' first built in 1931 had the big 2565 cc Meteor engines in the short wheelbase 2 litre 'Light 20' chassis.
In 1932 Spencer Wilks was finally able to take control of Rover. One of his first acts was to commission ex-Hillman engine designer Major BH Thomas to produce a new small 'six' engine which would be a gap filler between the 1185 cc 10 hp and the 2023 cc / 2565 cc Poppe designed 'six'. This new engine evolved from the existing 10 hp 'four' and became an engine that was to be very important to Rover throughout the 1930's.
This new engine was first placed into a new car in 1932, the Rover 'Pilot'. The engine was squeezed into a scarcely altered four cylinder chassis - that of the Rover '10/25'. Body styles wheelbase and axles were not altered.
For 1933, the 'Pilots' and 'Meteors' were given a thorough design overhaul by Maurice Wilks and Robert Boyle. They were also improved mechanically to match the new 'Ten Special' with many features that Spencer Wilks would standardise in future models. These cars had a new chassis, suspension, four speed constant mesh gearbox, freewheel unit, spiral bevel axles, flexible engine mounts, new radiator shell designs and the complex Lucas Startix electrical system which ensured that the starter would always come into operation every time the engine stalled.
Also in 1933 came a new unique underslung chassis frame, which allowed a much lower and more sporting body to be created. The first of these cars was the 'Speed Pilot', which was given a raised compression ratio, closely followed by a closed two-door four seater coupe from Carbodies, of Coventry. This model was known as the 'Hastings Coupe' and featured a four window cabin with notch-back shape including a spare wheel bootlid impression at the rear. It was fitted with the increased capacity 1577 cc six-cylinder engine that now ran three carburettors, and it was a car that made a big impact on the Wilks brothers.
Colonel Searle had placed Spencer Wilks in charge of Rover's affairs when he left for an extended vacation to Australia and New Zealand at the end of 1931. As a result of this trip the first Rover cars would soon be assembled in New Zealand. At this stage the company had just turned in a loss of nearly 80,000 pounds and it was now essential to stem the serious outflow of cash. Wilks decided to reduce production and concentrate more on quality. A blitz was mounted on wasteful expenditure and a more rigid costing and cashflow control system was installed, resulting in annual cost savings of more than 100,000 pounds.
Car production was now to be concentrated on only two factories-Tyseley in Birmingham would produce engines and transmissions, while the New Meteor Works in Helen St. Coventry became the centre of all final assembly of Rover cars from 1932 to 1939.
In the middle of all this turmoil Colonel Searle left the company just as Lloyds Bank were squeezing their overdraft provision very hard indeed. If there was ever a time when Rover might have folded completely, this was it. Losses for the year's trading ending in August 1932 were nearly a quarter of a million pounds and it looked like the Bank's receiver would be called in.
The company's saving grace came in the form of the greatly improved 1933 models that had been introduced early, a few days before the end of July 1932. It appeared that Wilks' philosophy was correct, and once it became clear that the company had much needed success on their hands the atmosphere improved considerably.
Spencer Wilks was formally appointed managing director early in 1933 and by August the 'New Deal' cars were finally ready to be launched. Both the press and the public were duly impressed with the new sports saloons, which leaned heavily on the 'Hastings Coupe' for inspiration. The mechanical transformation was now complete with all chassis frames being underslung, but the kernel to the new cars' triumph was the entirely new three bearing overhead valve four cylinder engine.
The recovery since the dark days of 1932 had been quite unprecedented with debts being progressively cleared. The 'New Deal' cars of 1932 and 1933 had been produced with the very minimum of capital, but now early in 1934, the Wilks brothers had the confidence to start work on a new and much bigger project. This would become known as 'Project 1', and soon developed into a whole range of similar cars with various engine capacities, these cars later being given the classification of 'P1'.