Some of the following text is in the spirit of the Web site of T.J.Higgins and we also thank Tim Sutton for his contributions which were published in our Devonshire House magazine.
The full history is available in a number of documents which we have in The Archive Centre. These were published by the Sales and Publicity Department in the 1960s. For a more detailed transcripts see here: http://tardis.dl.ac.uk/ARCC/History/history/index.html.
If you can contribute information on the history of the Rootes Group, its associated companies or any related activities, please contact:
283 Chester Road,
Warrington WA4 2QE, UK
Tel: 01925 267084
Just how far back is it necessary to go to introduce the Rootes Group? Relatively little has been written about such a great firm, so we really have to go back to the beginning. The Rootes Group developed from a small cycle shop in Kent to one of the biggest motor manufacturing companies in Britain. Since the 1990s a few books have emerged covering different aspects of the story by Bob Allan, John Bullock, Graham Robson and other. Most publications however focus on the cars and commercial vehicles the Group produced and their competition success on the rally stage.
William Edward Rootes started his career at Singer Motors Ltd., little knowing that he would eventually own the company. He served in the R.N.V.R. during the 1914-18 war and following this he contacted his brother Reginald, and talked him into joining him in partnership in order to re-establish the car sales firm of Rootes Ltd. This was the start of the Rootes Empire.
By 1926 the brothers had acquired offices and showrooms in the heart of London's West End, at Devonshire House. Within a matter of months they claimed other branches in various parts of the country and become the largest motor distributing company in Europe. As they prospered, many well known and old established firms in the motor industry began to feel the impact of economic recession. But while some companies closed down, the brothers accepted the challenge.
The following are the closest dates we can find to the various mergers and other important events which took place affecting companies which eventually became synonymous with Rootes and which gave their names to the various marques sold over the whole period. This information is mostly from Graham Robson's essential with a few additions from sources such as Commer and Karrier.
1789 Thrupp and Maberly coach and carriage builders formed 1867 Thomas Humber starts making cycles in Coventry 1876 George Singer makes cycles in Coventry 1880s William Rootes snr. started a cycle shop in Goudhurst, Kent 1894 William Rootes born, followed by Reginald in 1896 - they later attend Cranbrook School 1887 John Marston starts Sunbeamland cycle factory in Wolverhampton 1897 Tilling-Stevens founded at Maidstone 1898 First Humber car made 1899 First Vulcan built by Joseph and Thomas Hampson 1901 First Sunbeam car 1902 First Vulcan production car exhibited at Liverpool Cycle Show 1902 Clement-Talbot established in London 1904 First Singer car introduced 1905 Commer Cars founded at Luton 1906 William Hillman founds Hillman Motor Car Company 1907 Clayton and Company of Huddersfield formed 1907 The Rootes Motor Agency was formed 1908 Clayton and Co. manufacture 30 cwt goods chassis the ``Karrier'' 1910 William Rootes became an apprentice at Singer Cars 1913 Talbot car is first to reach 100 mph 1914-18 WW1 1918 Rootes Ltd. Maidstone established 1918 Vulcan concentrates on commercials rather than cars, last car built 1927 1920 (13th August) Sunbeam merged with Talbot and Darracq to form STD Motors under director Alexander Darracq 1920 Claytons becomes Karrier Motors Limited c.1920 William Rootes buys equity in Standard 1921 Coventry-Premier merged with Singer c.1920-5 Coventry-Repetition and Sparkbrook Manufacturing joined Singer 1922 Dodge Brothers imported trucks from USA 1923 Karrier introduce 6 wheel chassis for export markets 1925 Rootes Limited were formed with sales premises at Long Acre and later Piccadilly 1925 Rootes takes over Thrupp and Maberly 1925 Attempted takeover of Clyno 1926 Commercial Cars merged with Humber to become Commer 1926 the Calcott factory was acquired by Singer. 1926 General strike in England 1926-7 Singer bought the BSA and Daimler armaments premises in Birmingham 1927 Attempted takeover of Standard 1928 Karrier-Clough trollybus 1928 Hillman joined Humber 1928 Commer taken over by Rootes 1929 Singer bought the Aster factory at Wembley 1929 Singer introduces commercial range - gone by 1932 1929 Wall Street crash 1929-31 Humber joined Rootes 1932 Rootes Group founded as Rootes Securities Ltd. 1932 Tilling-Stevens (T.S. Motors) acquired Karrier 1933 Dodge starts production at Kew using imported engines and gearboxes 1934 Karrier into receivership and acquired by Rootes 1934 Production of Karrier trolley bus transferred to Sunbeam in Wolverhampton 1935 STD joined Rootes, Talbot were acquired in Jan'35 and Sunbeam in July 1937 BLSP joined Rootes 1938 Loewy Studios first started design work for Rootes 1938 Sunbeam name re-introduced c.1938-45 Vulcan joined Tilling-Stevens and the Southport factory was vacated 1939 Company name changed to Rootes Group 1939-45 WW2 1946 Bread rationing in England continues along with production of pre-war models 1948 Karrier and Sunbeam trolley bus operations sold via Brockhouse and Co. of West Bromwich to Guy Motors Ltd. 1949 Company name changed to Rootes Motors Ltd. now employing 17,000 people and launched as a public company 1950 90,000 cars per year were built by Rootes, making them the 5th largest UK producer. They issued £1.25M ordinary shares to the public. 1951 Tilling-Stevens joined Rootes. Production of TSM and Vulcan at the Maidstone plant was ceased in 1953 continuing only with Commer and Karrier 1955-6 Singer joined Rootes. "Audax" range launched. 1958 Chrysler bought a minority stake in Simca 1959 William Rootes becomes Lord Rootes of Ramsbury 1961 Company now has 23 subsidiaries and employs 25,000 people 1961 "Honeymoon Strike" at Acton starts period of industrial unrest losing the company £2M. 1963 Rootes "Scotland" was formed to manufacture the Imp following Government recommendations 1963 Chrysler gained a controlling interest in Simca 1964 Chrysler bought 30% interest in Rootes. Lord William Rootes of Ramsbury died on 12th December the same year. 1967-69 Rootes absorbed by Chrysler following purchase of a 70% share and retirement of Sir Reginald Rootes. Geoffrey Rootes remained as Chairman until 1992. "Audax" range dropped and "Arrow" range introduced. Avenger launched in 1969. 1970 Rootes became known as Chrysler (UK) Ltd. and Simca became known as Chrysler (France) 1970 Equal Pay Act 1973 3-day week and miners' strike 1976 Dodge badge displaces Commer 1976 UK received £2.3bn loan from IMF 1978-9 Chrysler UK (1970) was sold to Peugeot-Citroen Group in 1979 with the UK operations taking the old Talbot name. Hunter tooling was sold to Iran for production of the Peykan which continued until 2005. 1981 Last year of production at Linwood. 1985 Ryton modernised, but only employed 3,000 people. 1987 Dodge name dropped in favour of Renault 1990 Talbot name dropped 1993 Last year of production at Dunstable. 199? Last year of production at Stoke [what year?]. 1997 New building at Ryton for Peugeot 206 production. 2006 Last year of production at Ryton.
That's some 200 years of motoring history! This timeline will be expanded as we find out more.
With ideas of how to re-shape some of these companies to meet the demands of the age of volume production, the brothers acquired an interest in the Hillman Car Co., followed shortly by a similar interest in Humber Ltd., which also included the Commer commercial vehicle concern. These three companies had problems due to outdated plant and production methods, and gave the brothers a chance to put their ideas into reality.
In 1931 the Hillman Wizard was launched as a new car for the world market. Although it met with only limited success, the brothers were not deterred, and it did give them time to develop their ideas and to straighten out the firms they had acquired. By 1932 the Rootes Group was taking shape and they launched another car, the Hillman Minx, which turned out to be an immediate and lasting success. Their ideas had paid off, and the companies had been saved. At that time they didn't know that the Minx name was to be used time and time again over the next four decades and has now become a classic name in motoring history.
The success of the Rootes Group was due to rationalisation of production, and soon the time came to expand. They acquired Karrier Motors in 1935, control of Clement Talbot in 1937, then British Light Steel Pressings, and by 1938 they had gained the Sunbeam Motor Co. They had in fact been supporting Sunbeams for a good many years prior to this.
Many people have said that when the Rootes Group acquired these companies the cars they produced were new, and should not be called Hillman, Humber, Talbot or Sunbeam. But these companies had been building dated cars on dated machines and were in urgent need of rationalisation and, indeed, some form of integration. Apart from this, the brothers made sure that the identities of the marques were not submerged and this policy was continued until the Chrysler take-over in 1967. The luxurious Humbers, the sporting Sunbeams and the quality Hillmans all retained their distinctive personality. All the Rootes Group cars had quality and were built to last. When compared with other contemporary marques of the same price range the fared well in public opinion. By 1939 the Rootes Group were firmly established as one of Britain's "Big Six" car manufacturers.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Rootes factories were turned over to the manufacture of military vehicles, aircraft and aero-engines. Both William and Reginald were knighted for their contributions to the war effort.
The post-war re-organisation saw yet another challenge for the Rootes brothers, as they became involved in the re-development of Britain's world trade. They played a leading part in organising the motor industry's exports, and also established Britain's first assembly plants in Australia and other key market areas. In 1959 William Rootes was created a Baron for his efforts in the British export drive and became Lord Rootes of Ramsbury.
On 30/9/1964, Lord Rootes announced that during October three representatives of the Chrysler Corporation would be joining the board of Rootes Motors Ltd. The move followed the acceptance by the shareholders of Rootes Motors Ltd. of the Chrysler Corporation's offer to acquire 30% of the ordinary voting shares in the company and 50% of the non-voting 'A' shares.
One can't help wondering just how much Lord Rootes really wanted this crucial development. It's hard to imagine that a man who had dedicated his life to building up an empire from nothing and against all odds, using methods that a great many people and manufacturers disapproved of at the time, but followed suit once they were proved successful, would want to give up such a large percentage of his business without feeling at least a little remorse. In fact sadly his behaviour became increasingly erratic and his health declined following bouts of drinking. On 12/12/1964, it was announced that Lord Rootes of Ramsbury, Chairman of the Rootes Group, had died. He was cremated at Golders Green on 15th December. Many tributes were paid to this great industrial leader from people in all walks of life, including representatives from all his major competitors. Sir Reginald Rootes was elected Chairman in succession, and Geoffrey Rootes, then the second Lord Rootes, elder son of the late Lord Rootes, became Deputy Chairman.
Many people have said that it was the late Lord Rootes who dictated company policy and, indeed, who held the Group together. However, it soon became obvious that not everyone was in agreement as to the way the company had been run, and on 19/1/1965 it was announced that massive structural changes were to be made. Although a great number of employees did not like what was happening to the company. During the financial year of 1966-7, the Rootes Group had accumulated enormous losses totalling £10 million. It became obvious to all that Chrysler would soon take over full control of the Group. This actually took place in Jan'1967, when they increased their holding of voting shares to 77.3%. It was now only a matter of time before the Rootes Group as such disappeared completely. In Mar'1967, Sir Reginald Rootes stepped down from office and Geoffrey (the second Lord Rootes) took his place as Chairman. Gilbert Hunt from Massey-Ferguson was then appointed by Chrysler as Managing Director and given the job of reclaiming what was left of the declining Rootes Empire.
Following the closure of Thrupp and Maberly in Aug'1967, the Group was streamlined and just two companies remained: Rootes Motors Limited and Rootes Pressings (Scotland) Limited.
Despite Rootes' reputation for quality at low cost their attempts to survive in the mass car market ultimately failed in common with most other British manufacturers. This was simply because they could not sufficiently increase production numbers and capital. In a market dependent on price it was essential to maximise output and minimise unit cost, which seemed to be impossible in the traditional industry at that time.