History of Rootes

The Rootes Group’s origins began in Goudhurst, a small village in Kent where William Rootes Snr was born in 1869, and where in 1895, he opened a cycle repair business with £75 capital that he and his wife had saved. William Edward Rootes, known as ‘Billy’, was born in 1894 and two years later, in 1896, Reginald Claude Rootes, known as ‘Reggie’, was born. Both were educated at Cranbrook grammar school, with Reggie being the more scholarly. Billy left school at 15, and with his father’s help, was apprenticed with Singer, being paid the princely sum of a penny an hour. Reggie joined the Civil Service working at the Admiralty.

William Snr was greatly interested by the new motor car, and visited the first motor show held in England at Dunorlan Park, Tunbridge Wells in 1985. William Snr recognised the opportunity and expanded his business to include car sales and repairs and moved to new larger premises in Hawkhurst in 1898.

William Rootes Snr first garage in Hawkhurst circa 1900

William Snr sold his first car, a Charette, in 1899 and by 1901, William Snr had his own car, a 2¾ hp single cylinder New Orleans. The business prospered in the early twentieth century, acquiring numerous agencies, including: Argyll, Briton, Clement, de Dion, Darracq, Delaunay Belleville, Ford, FN, Humber, Itala, Panhard, Metallurgique, Morris, Singer, Star, Sunbeam, Swift, Vauxhall, White (steam cars) and Wolseley.

In 1913, William Snr opened another garage at 110a Week Street, Maidstone and after completing his apprenticeship with Singer, Billy joined his father’s business as manager of the new garage in Maidstone. Billy made a great success of the business, selling cars and introducing wholesaling to other garages. The business expanded further and in 1914 moved to 22 High Street, on the corner of Pudding Lane.

During the Great War, Billy served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, attached to the Royal Naval Air Service. His first appointment was at Clement Talbot, Ladbrook Grove, London where Rolls Royce aero engines were repaired under contract for the government.

Billy would have doubtless recognised the profitability of such government contracts and consequently became demobilised in 1917, to set up an aero engine repair business in Maidstone. The Old Tannery, adjacent to the Len Pond, Mill Street, Maidstone was acquired and equipped for the sole purpose of overhauling and repairing aero engines for the government. This new business venture was established as a limited company: Rootes Limited. The new premises were known as the Len Engineering Works and they were soon busy repairing Siddleley-Deasy, Le Rhone and B.H.P aero engines. Billy made a success of the business and a vital contribution to the war effort.

In 1920, Reggie left the Civil Service and joined Billy at the Len Engineering Works as joint Managing Director of Rootes Ltd. The brothers expanded the wholesaling of motor vehicles and became distributors for the major manufacturers. Rootes were to become the Austin Motor Company’s largest distributor. Within 6 years, the brothers had made £1,500,000 and were Britain’s largest motor vehicle retailers and distributors. The business had acquired a local company, Robins & Day in Rochester and Canterbury, and the much larger businesses of Tim Garner Ltd in Manchester and George Heath Ltd in Birmingham. The brothers relocated their head office to Devonshire House, Piccadilly in 1926, which was considered an audacious move by the two young brothers.

The brothers purchased Thrupp and Maberly, the famous coachbuilders for Daimler, Humber and Rolls Royce in 1925. Thrupp and Maberly built the body for the Golden Arrow, which broke the world land speed record in 1929, when Henry Segrave drove the car a Daytona beach at 231 mph. This was the first tentative step into manufacturing.

In 1927, Rootes Securities Ltd was formed and with a loan from the Prudential Assurance Company of £1,000,000 acquired Humber, Hillman and Commer. This was a considerable achievement; Billy was 33 years old and Reggie was 31 years old. All three companies were poorly performing and needed new modern machine tools to increase production and reduce costs. The model ranges were also ageing, and new models were needed to attract customers. The factories were quickly and completely reequipped, with Billy using the knowledge and contacts he had acquired whilst visiting American car manufacturers.

The first new model was the Hillman Wizard, which was launched in April 1931, at the Albert Hall. The Wizard did not prove to be the world beater the Rootes brothers had hoped, but success was to follow with the next new model, the Hillman Minx. Launched at the Paris Salon later that year, the Minx was an immediate success, being an inexpensive and reliable small family car. Billy was directly involved in the model’s development and completed all the overseas testing himself. For forty years the Minx was a popular family car, being sold in considerable numbers all over the world.

In 1935, the Rootes Group acquired the famous Sunbeam company, which had been losing money due its outdated and unpopular range of cars. The group also acquired Talbot who were also in financial difficulty producing small numbers of relatively expensive cars. 1935 was also the year the group acquired Karrier commercial vehicles.

By 1937, the Rootes Group consisted of eight manufacturing companies, seven distributing companies and three financial and property companies. The group employed 10,000 persons and they made all types of motor vehicles, from luxury limousines, family cars and sports cars, to commercial vans and lorries of all types. Rootes had also one of the largest export businesses in the British motor industry.

The Rootes Group made a significant contribution to the war effort. A new factory was built to manufacture aero engines, adjoining their factories at Ryton, and a new Shadow Factory was built at Speke near Liverpool, to manufacture complete aircraft. Billy was appointed Chairman of the Shadow Factory Group and head of the Supply Council of the Ministry of Supply. During the war, the group produced 1 in 7 bombers, 6 out of every 10 armoured cars, 3 out of every 10 scout cars and 50,000 aero engines. The group also assembled 20,000 imported, completely knocked down (CKD) vehicles. In recognition, Billy was knighted in 1942, and Reggie in 1946. The workforce was also recognised, with an impressive number of decorations which included the George Medal, Officer of the Order of the British Empire, Members of the Order of the British Empire and British Empire Medals.

Post war, the group quickly returned to vehicle production, which due to the near bankrupt state of the country, was primarily for export, with an emphasis on Dollar earning exports to America. Brian Rootes, Billy’s younger son, moved to America in 1948 to develop the business. By 1953, Brian had built up a dealer network of 800 throughout America.

The group also established a significant assembly plant at Fisherman’s Bend in Australia in 1946, employing some 800 persons, and established a plant in Toronto and a dealer network across Canada in 1951.

Rootes of Maidstone circa 1948, constructed in 1938 as a ‘modern model garage’ now a grade II listed Art Deco building

Back in Maidstone, where it all began in 1950, the group acquired Tilling Stevens and the associate company Vulcan Motors. Tilling Stevens origins go back to the end of the nineteenth century, as pioneers of petrol electric motor vehicles. Tilling Stevens designed the TS3, engine which Rootes wanted to fit to Commer and Karrier vehicles. The TS3 engine was a revolutionary design and unique, being a two-stroke three-cylinder engine with six horizontally opposed pistons and single crankshaft. The engine could run on almost any fuel and was ideal for export to countries where fuel quality was poor.

Rootes were successful throughout the fifties, and sales increased year on year with Rootes gaining a reputation for quality cars and trucks. A new truck plant was constructed in Dunstable to provide additional manufacturing capacity to satisfy demand.

In December 1955, Rootes acquired Singer Motors, where 44 years before Billy had been a penny-an-hour apprentice. Singer had an outdated range of cars and was in financial difficulties. Within a matter of months, a new Singer model was launched in September 1956, the Gazelle, which used the new Rootes Audex body and was initially powered by the Singer Hunter 1497cc engine.

The fifties and early sixties were also a period of great success for Rootes in international rallies. Sunbeam Talbot and Sunbeam were two of the most successful marques in the two premier international rallies, the Monte Carlo and the Alpine Rally. The cars were driven by famous drivers such as Stirling Moss, Sheila van Damm and Peter Harper. Stirling Moss came second in the 1952 Monte Carlo Rally at his first attempt. Moss also won a coveted Gold Cup for completing three penalty free Alpine Rallies in 1952, 1953 and 1954. 1955 saw the Monte Carlo Rally won outright by two Norwegians privateers: Police Captain Per Malling and his co-driver Gunnar Fadum, driving a Sunbeam MKIII.

For his services to the motor industry, and for his chairmanship of Dollar Export Council, Billy was created a baron in 1959 and became Lord Rootes of Ramsbury. Billy had purchased Ramsbury Manor in Wiltshire in 1958. Also, in 1959, BMC launched the Mini which was technically advanced with a transverse engine and front wheel drive. The Mini was an instant success and just the car for the swinging sixties.

Rootes’ competitor small car, started life as a minimalist car known as the ‘Slug’ in the early fifties and evolved into the ‘Apex’ that became the Hillman Imp. The Imp was an innovative car, and the first with a rear mounted and driven all alloy engine and transaxle. The company planned to extend their factory at Ryton to build the new Imp, but the government would not grant planning permission. The government wanted the company to build the new factory in a ‘Development Area’ which were areas of high unemployment. To encourage companies to build factories in Development Areas, the government offered grants and favourable loans. Rootes subsequently chose the Development Area near Glasgow, Linwood, for the new factory. The Imp was launched in May 1963. The Imp deployed too many innovative engineering firsts, was built by largely inexperienced ex ship builders and the new factory was also remote from Ryton. The Imp was launched before all the technical issues had been identified and resolved. Unfortunately, the Imp was not the hoped for success.

While the Imp was under development, 1961 saw a crippling 13 week strike at British Light Steel Pressings, Acton. In 1961, home market car sales had slumped, and the militant shop stewards were demanding no short time working or redundancies, which the reduced sales had necessitated. The strike eventually cost the company £3,000,000 with lost production totalling 50,000 cars. The cost to the company came at a crucial time when the company needed money for the development of the Imp and building the Linwood factory.

By 1964, Rootes were in serious difficulties, having made a £2,000,000 loss in 1962 due to the British Light Steel Pressing strike, and a further loss of £224,000 in 1963. The Imp had also gained a reputation for unreliability and was not being manufactured at Linwood in numbers required to be profitable. Other cars in the Rootes range were also some years old and new models were needed. The Rootes brothers turned to Chrysler for financial support and sold 30% of the Ordinary shares (voting) and 50% of the A ordinary shares (non-voting) for £12,300,000.

The fortunes of Rootes did not improve as the brothers had hoped, and the relationship between Chrysler and Rootes executives was not successful. Then tragically, Billy died on the 12th December 1964, from liver cancer.

Rootes lost £3,400,000 in 1966, and by 1967, Chrysler had invested £27,000,000 in Rootes. Finally, in January 1967, Chrysler paid a further £20,000,000 to take full control of the Rootes Group. However, Chrysler failed to restore the fortunes of the Rootes Group and sold what remained to Peugeot in 1978. Peugeot were largely interested in the Rootes dealer network for sales of Peugeot and Citroen. Linwood was closed in 1981, and Ryton became an assembly plant for the Peugeot 405 until it was finally closed on the 12th December 2006.

Contributed by John Donegan (July 2018)