Memories of a Rootes Group Apprentice and Body Engineer

from Ken Elvery

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

I have been invited to tell you tell some of my memories and experiences about my former employment with the Rootes Group, firstly as an apprentice and later as a junior body engineer. That covered a period between Aug'1953 and Oct'1959. But first, some personal background.

I was born in Oct'1936 in Southgate, North London, where I grew up during the 2nd World War. My first experience of cars was not via my parents. They owned a detached house, with a garage which was rented by a local bank manager. He owned a large black 1936 Austin 14 saloon. Throughout the period of the war he would regularly come to the garage and start the engine of the Austin, usually by turning it over first on the starting handle – very strenuous for such a small and fragile man! I was very impressed by this large, immaculate saloon – registration number RV4593 – and hoped secretly that my father would be able to buy a car when he returned from overseas war service in the Royal Air Force. My first contact with a Rootes car was via another nearby neighbour during the war. He was a sales manager (for a cigarette company, I think ) and owned a 1939 Hillman 14 saloon – a more modern and streamlined design than the earlier Austin. He also maintained this well during the war, though there was almost no petrol available for private motorists during the hostilities. After the war I remember that our two families went for a day trip to a company sports meeting on the other side of London and travelled in the Hilllman – I was very impressed with its size, comfort and smoothness for those days.

After the war, there was a London parade of the latest post-war cars held sometime during 1946, through some of the famous streets in the West End of London, including Piccadilly. As a young enthusiast I went "up to town" on the Underground (Metro) to Green Park station and stood outside the Rootes Group head office, Devonshire House, whilst the hundred or so cars drove by. After the parade I went into the Rootes showroom to look at the new post-war models, the first of many future visits!

Growing up with an enthusiasm for cars and taking science subjects at secondary grammar school, I decided that I wanted to work in the automotive industry. Early in 1953 my parents, with little guidance from my school, suggested that I take an apprenticeship with one of the major car manufacturers. We obtained information from Rolls Royce, Ford, Vauxhall and also the Rootes Group. My father worked at the head office of Fyffes Ltd, the well-know banana importers, in street very close to the Rootes Group headquarters at Devonshire House, Piccadilly. He obtained information from Rootes about its various apprenticeship schemes. After several application forms had been sent in to the various manufacturers, I had interviews with Ford at Dagenham, Vauxhall at Luton and Rootes at Coventry. Being keen on body styling, Rootes training coordinator, Harry Dearns, recommended that I take an apprenticeship with British Light Steel Pressings Ltd, (or "BLSP") at Acton, West London, which was one of the major body building companies in the Group. As Rootes was the first to offer me a training place, and knowing that they manufactured a range of solid and well-built vehicles, I decided to accept its offer. Thus, after taking my General Certificate of Education examinations at school, followed by a two-week summer holiday, I joined BLSP on 10/8/1953. My "indentured apprenticeship" (training contract) would run until my 21st birthday on 14/10/1957 – 4 years and 2 months.

My apprenticeship with BLSP

The General Director at the time of joining BLSP was George Shrigley and the Production Manager was Bill Chandler, who was responsible for the training and development policies for the apprentices. BLSP had been purchased by the Rootes Group during the 1930's and in Aug'1953, was producing the bodies for the Sunbeam Talbot Mk 11A saloon, convertible and Alpine sports model, the major vehicle cab for Commer lorries, and press tools and pressed components for various other companies within the Rootes Group. The Sunbeam Talbot bodies were sent by road from London to Coventry to complete painting and final assembly into finished vehicles. The Commer lorry cabs were transported to Luton, for assembly into finished lorries.

There were about 30 apprentices at any one time, the majority of whom were being trained to become trade "toolmakers" in the press tool workshop. A much smaller number were being trained to become "draughtsmen", either jig and tool designers for the press tools and production equipment, or body engineers who designed and developed the large number of pressings and assemblies which form a vehicle body. This included both cars and commercial vehicles (lorries).

It was agreed that I would follow the programme for development as a Body Engineer. A 4-years, 2-months programme was designed for me comprising:

During the programme, I would also take one day per week for part-time technical studies in mechanical engineering at the local technical college at Acton. This would lead to obtaining nationally recognised engineering diplomas with the aim of obtaining a full professional title and qualification with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, with its headquarters at Westminster, London.

At BLSP, production employees and apprentices commenced work at 7.45 hours each morning, and worked at least an 8-hour day. Pay was very small during those 4 years and my parents had to give me additional financial support. During the working week I lived at a students' hostel at Holland Park, West London, either cycling to work each morning, or taking the trolley bus from Shepherds Bush Green to Acton. Thus, before my 17th birthday I was starting to become independent!

The BLSP factory was a range of buildings originally constructed in the early 1900's and was obviously not very up-to-date when I joined the firm in 1953. The major departments were the Tool Room, Major and Light Press shops, where a huge range of both large and small steel pressings were produced (in very noisy surroundings), Body Assembly lines for both cars and lorry cabs and a primer Paint Shop.

Tool Room

During my first 18 months, I worked in the Tool Room, learning how both large and small press tools and dies are made and the production processes necessary to do this. Press tool designers in the Drawing Office design these tools. For those panels with major shaping, such as most exterior panels, facias, doors, etc, major castings are produced from accurate wooden patterns produced by the Pattern Makers.

The Tool Makers then manufacture the press tools and dies to the designs from the Drawing Office, using a wide range of machining and assembly process to complete highly accurate equipment. During this 18 month period I was assigned to work with various experienced and skilled tradesmen, to learn machining, assembly and testing skills. Each press tool must be tested and adjusted after it is completed so that the panel it produces is to the accuracies and qualities set out in the component drawing. In those days each body needed about 200-350 individual pressings, large and small, which then went into welded sub-assemblies and major assemblies to become the finished vehicle body.

Inspection Department

The main responsibility of this department was to check new production panels from new press tools and dies, to ensure that they met all dimensional and material requirements as laid down by the Drawing Office. To do this large cast iron inspection tables were available on which panels and sub-assemblies could be set up and measured to within close limits with a range of accurate measuring instruments (metrology). I learnt the inspection skills from the senior and experienced inspectors.


The Laboratory was responsible for carrying out a wide range of physical and chemical tests relating to products and process used with the factory; for example, tensile testing of sheet steel samples and chemical analyses on paints, lubricants and other fluids. It was here that I learned the initial skills of photographic development in the dark room.

Body Engineering Department

Joining this Department during 1955, I spent the remainder of my apprenticeship period under the responsibility of the Chief Body Engineer, Cliff Marshall, and Section Head, Denis Riley. However, during this time several periods were spent at other Rootes Group companies in both London and Coventry. The Department was at that time responsible for body engineering of the new, forthcoming Humber Hawk and Super Snipe, which were to be built on the new body assembly lines at Acton, before road transportation to Coventry for final vehicle assembly. Here I learned the skills of the draughtsman and body panel designer. The entire vehicle was drawn very accurately on a large master draft table, on a sky blue painted aluminium sheet about 10 metres long, from designs developed from the full size clay styling models produced by the Styling Department at Humber Ltd, Coventry. The Body Engineering Department at Humber Ltd decided what the major panel assemblies were to be, and we did the detail panel and assembly design and drawings. Once approved, these were then passed to the tool and dies designers further down the Drawing Office, who designed the necessary press tools and dies for their production. Thereafter, the jig and tool designers designed the assembly line processes and specified the assembly equipment. I still have a blue print of one of my body panel drawings, a Humber Hawk front wing, and a personal styling drawing which I did in what little spare time I had.

Rootes Service Department

Here I learned how the major London service department of a vehicle manufacturer is organised, and was given exposure to the repair of damaged passenger cars, particularly the repair of major bodywork damage. Difficulties of repairing bodywork, particularly removal and re-welding of damaged panels were highlighted. Other problems included the accurate colour matching during re-spraying of bodies, where allowance has to be made for ageing and colour changing of the various paints and lacquers used.

Thrupp and Maberly Ltd

This was a most interesting one-month programme. T&M, a famous "coachbuilding" company for vehicle bodywork, was then producing the finished bodies for a range of convertibles sold by the Group, including the Hillman Minx, and the Humber Pullman limousines. Much emphasis was given to achieving high quality in the Paint Shop process, the construction of the cabriolet roof assemblies and body interiors, and the inspection of the finished bodies. I worked at T&M just before the official introduction of the Series 1 Sunbeam Rapier at the London Motor Show at Earls Court in Oct'1955. They had the responsibility for the final condition of the cars on stands of both Sunbeam, and Thrupp and Maberly. Two-tone colour schemes for bodies were very fashionable at that time and various colour combinations were selected for the new Rapier – one which I particularly remember was a black roof and lower body, with bright yellow upper body – much like a wasp! Nevertheless, I did admire the basic styling, which to my eye had an excellent balance. However, I have never been enthusiastic about covering a car body with chrome trim strips – the fixing points are always a major starting point for later rusting. The Rapier would have looked good in its naked form without these!

Humber Ltd, Coventry

During the summer months of 1956 I was assigned to Humber Ltd at Coventry, the first BLSP apprentice from London ever to have the opportunity of training and development at the Group's design and manufacturing headquarters.

Body Engineering Department

Here I was trained by several of the senior body engineers in the concept vehicle body designs for future Group cars, and made several good contacts with colleagues which were to prove useful later on after my apprenticeship.

Styling Department

This was the department where future Group models were originated by the Stylists who prepared design sketches and drawings depicting ideas for external and interior styling for the models to be produced during the next 4-6 years. They were influenced by current European and US styling design trends, at that time lead by cars from the Chrysler and GM groups, notably the long fin styling of the Chrysler cars and the new Chevrolets from GM, with wrap-round front and rear screens. Roy Axe was the Chief Stylist', supported by Ted White and other staff. Once initial ideas became firm from the drawings, 3/8th scale clay "mockups" of a new model were built in clay over a wooden buck. Many changes were made, but once an overall design for both the exterior and interior had been approved, full-size clay models were built, on which various alternative styling elements could be viewed, changed and improved until a final design was approved by the Board of Design. During my few weeks in the Styling Studio 3/8 clay models of the Series 1 Sunbeam Alpine were being developed, at that time a radial new design with straightforward, attractive lines and good balance, devoid of much external chrome embellishment. I was allowed to contribute my own ideas on future designs for new models. These processes are nowadays carried out on computers with advanced CAD/CAM software, which speeds up the design and development process and reduces the total new vehicle development time from over 3 years to sometimes less than 2 years.

Competitive Vehicles

Like all manufacturers, Rootes took a very active interest in the new vehicles marketed by their competitors. New cars were purchased anonymously from dealers and brought into the Competitive Vehicles Section for complete analysis. Full performance figures were taken and then the vehicles were completely stripped down to study both their design and construction, enhancing both knowledge of what the competition was offering and evaluating improvements on powertrain, suspension, braking, body construction and materials. During my period in this Section, I remember an Opel Kapitain from Germany and a new Jaguar 2.4, which had been released on the market in Oct'1955. My colleagues were very impressed with the Jaguar which, for its time, set new and higher standards of sporting performance, road holding, comfort and silence in its class – in the same price class as the forthcoming Humber Hawk and Super Snipe.

Experimental Department

Once the external and internal styling of a new car was finalised, all the various engineering departments concentrated on development and productionising the new vehicle, in terms of both chassis and body components. Pre-production prototypes were hand-built and prepared in the Experimental Department, after which they went through a very demanding programme of road and circuit testing, both at the Motor Industry Research Association testing centre at Nuneaton, near Coventry, and also international road tests, at low and high temperatures and in very arduous conditions, to simulate the most difficult operational conditions expected worldwide. There was a separate Competiton Department where the Group's rally cars were prepared. I had the opportunity to help prepare some of the experimental cars for international testing programmes and review the results of testing programmes recently run. In addition, I also went out as part of the testing team to MIRA test centre, where we did many miles on the high speed circuit, the very rough pavé simulation road, the water testing of complete cars for leaks and dust testing to simulate desert conditions. Vehicles included the new Sunbeam Rapier Series 1 convertible (to check the strength and durability of the cabriolet construction) and the new Humber Hawk/Super Snipe to check for noise, rattles and sound quality on rough roads, and also high speed performance and stability. Whilst at MIRA we saw the Jaguar team carrying out development testing on the D-type model and new prototypes, under the guidance of their Chief Tester, Norman Dewis. Very impressive high speed performance.

During my apprenticeship, I was a member of the BLSP Apprentices Committee and in my last year, 1957, its Chairman. There was an annual visit to another of the Group companies, an Annual Dinner and an annual presentation and prize giving, attended by management, apprentices and their parents, recognizing both training and educational achievements. At one of these meetings the guest speaker was Sir Reginald Rootes and I received a prize from him.

The London Motor Shows at Earls Court during the 1950's

Between 1955 and 1959 I was selected each year to be a representative on the BLSP stand at the annual Earls Court Motor Show, one of the highlights of the international motor show programme. The vehicles on the stand were, of course, finished versions of the bodies which we produced at Acton; in 1955 the Sunbeam Mk 3 saloon and convertible and earlier Alpine, and in later years examples of the Humber Hawk and Super Snipe. We were well briefed for our task, which was to act as sales staff – answering customers' questions on the cars, specifications, prices and deliveries. During our few spare sessions, when I should have been resting and refreshing, I took the opportunity to visit all the stands possible of the manufacturers present, and study both the detailed engineering on the stripped and well-prepared technical exhibits, and the external and internal styling and design trends of the new cars on show. There were, at that time, many European and American cars which one almost never saw on the roads of England, so it was most interesting to make a face-to-face study of the most interesting ones. A 10-day "stint" at the London Motor Show was very tiring indeed!

First appointment – Junior Body Engineer at BLSP, Acton

On completing my apprenticeship, I was offered a position as a Junior Body engineer. My weekly wage in Oct'1957 went up from £5.30 to £10.20 – what riches in those days! Our Department was continuing work on the later versions of the Humber Hawk/ Super Snipe/ Imperial body, and I made detail drawings of both individual pressed panels and small and large sub assemblies. In addition, I had been continuing my engineering studies at technical college and was making progress towards achieving my goal of professional qualification. However, my time with the Rootes Group began to draw to a close. In Aug'1959, I received notice from the military authorities that I would be called up for military service in November of that year. Thus, I left Rootes in Oct'1959, having received an excellent basic training and development in automotive body engineering, and joined the Royal Air Force.

A few years later, in the early 1960's, there was a major industrial strike by employees at BLSP lasting about 13 weeks, causing huge loss of vehicle production for the Group and very serious financial problems which ultimately lead to the financial collapse of the Rootes Group and the take over by Chrysler. Details have been published and analysed widely in the past.

My later career

After 2 years service in the Royal Air Force I decided to continue my higher engineering studies and was most fortunate to obtain a financial grant to allow me to study for a postgraduate engineering diploma at the Imperial College of Science and Technology , London University – one of the United Kingdom's foremost technical universities. Some years later I also achieved my original ambition of becoming a recognised Chartered Engineer and Member of the Institution of Mechancial Engineers – valuable qualifications in UK. Later I transferred to Fellow, became Chairman of the Institution's Benelux Branch for 4 years and thereafter was elected a member of the Institution's Trustee Board (Raad van Bestuur) in London from 2002 – 2005.

Following my engineering studies at university, I decided not to return to the UK automotive industry, which was going through very difficult financial times in the early 1960's. I obtained a new job with Shell-Mex and BP Ltd in London, and remained in the oil and gas industry for the following 34 years, until retirement at 60 years of age in 1996. Towards the end of 1969, I applied for a job as Technical Service Engineer - Automotive Lubricants with Gulf Research Laboratoria BV, at Rozenberg, and in January 1970 moved from Guildford, Surrey, to Den Haag – and for various reasons (mostly my family) I have remained here since then. From 1971-75 I had the additional responsibility of being the Gulf Racing Products Liaison Engineer for the corporate racing programme in Europe and was responsible for the production, supply and technical services for fuel and lubricants for the Gulf racing programmes with the Gulf-Porsche 917 sports car, Gulf Mirage sports car (with which we won the 1975 Le Mans 24-hours race) and the racing products for the McLaren Formula 1 team. But those are other stories for another time!

Thank you for your attention – I shall be pleased to try to answer any questions, but remember that I have to try to remember details from about 50 years ago!