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 1913 - 1971 (Chrysler Takeover)
United Kingdom

William and Reginald Rootes

When William Rootes' father purchased a car in 1898, he developed an early fascination , fostered by the senior Rootes' decision to open a motor sales section in the shop. Gradually the sale of cars became the major part of the family business and after World War 1, William Rootes and his brother Reginald, took over active control of the business, by then centred in Maidstone, Kent.

A short time later the brothers formed a company called Rootes Ltd, and transferred their headquarters to Devonshire House, Piccadilly, London. By 1926, they had created the largest motor distribution company in Britain, if not in Europe. Not content with brilliant reputations as salesmen of drive and imagination, they turned their thoughts to vehicle manufacture.

The pair were stimulated by the volume production methods of pioneers like Lord Nuffield and also of companies representing American interests. These methods were bringing down car prices and creating a new mass motoring market. Although, at that time, many smaller and older vehicle manufacturers were staggering under the blow of the cheap mass produced vehicles, the Rootes brothers had sufficient vision to recognise that a number of these companies could be re-shaped to meet the demands of the volume-producing age.

The Hillman Car Company

As a result, in 1927 they acquired an interest in the Hillman Car Company. A year later they took a similar interest in the Humber Car Company which included the Commer car and commercial vehicle companies Humber had acquired in 1926. The Hillman Car Company was born out of the work of Louis Coatalen, a talented engineer with a reputation for designing cars of speed and performance. His first design, the Hillman-Coatalen 25 hp four-cylinder model, was built for the Tourist Trophy of 1907.

Coatalen's association with Hillman came to an end in 1909 but not before he had contributed towards the distinctive design of the Hillman radiator which continued on all models up to 1930. After he left, the company turned to building reliable, value for money, family saloons such as the 9 hp Hillman 1357 cc side-valve four which sold for UK£200, in a factory establsihed in Coventry in 1910.

The Hillman Wizard

This was progressively developed until 1925 when it was powered by a 1.6-litre engine. In the early twenties a sports version of the car with a V-radiator, outside exhaust and polished aluminium bodywork was raced on numerous occasions. Between 1926 and 1928, the only model Hillman offered was a conventional side-valve 14 which had a four-speed gearbox and magneto ignition. When the Rootes brothers took over, production of this model was increased in line with their progressive production line theories. Their first fling at introducing a new model, the Hillman Wizard, a 2.6-litre overhead-valve straight eight, was not the success they expected.

The Hillman Minx

Undeterred they pressed on and their next model, introduced in 1932, was destined to become one of the all time greats in motoring history - the Hillman Minx. Their first real mass produced car, the Minx was powered by a 1185 cc side-valve engine and sold for UK£159. An immediate commercial success, it was a triumph for the two brothers, and especially William who had tested the prototype himself over thousands of miles in Europe and North Africa. Variations and improvements to the Minx continued to be made until the outbreak of World War 2. A four-speed box was introduced in 1934, and optional equipment available for the car included a radio.

Sunbeam, Clement-Talbot and Karrier

The following year all-synchromesh boxes were introduced, these, however, were abandoned in 1939. An integral luggage boot was incorporated in 1936 and unitary construction in 1940. In the years that followed the introduction of the Minx, famous names such as the Sunbeam, Clement-Talbot and Karrier companies, and other smaller concerns, joined the company. As a result, by 1939 the company was firmly established as one of Britain's, at that time, 'Big Six' vehicle producers, which between them accounted for more than 90 percent of the industry's total output.

William Rootes, who would later become Lord Rootes
William Rootes, who would later become Lord Rootes.

HRH The Duke of Edinburgh driving a Hillman Imp
HRH The Duke of Edinburgh driving a Hillman Imp during the opening ceremony of Rootes' Linwood factory held on the 2nd May, 1963.

Sunbeam sedans rolling off the Rootes Group factory at Ryton-on-Dunsmore at Coventory
Sunbeam sedans rolling off the Rootes Group factory at Ryton-on-Dunsmore at Coventory in 1966.

Hillmans in production at Rootes Group factory, Ryton-on-Dunsmore at Coventory
Hillmans in production at Rootes Group factory, Ryton-on-Dunsmore at Coventory.

Hillmans in production at Rootes Group factory, Ryton-on-Dunsmore at Coventory
Hillmans in production at Rootes Group factory, Ryton-on-Dunsmore at Coventory.

Chrysler Arrow body shells approaching the final stages of production
By 1975 the Rootes Group had been taken over by Chrysler. Pictured are some Chrysler Arrow body shells approaching the final stages of production.

Manufacturing Bombers, Scout and Armoured Cars

With the outbreak of war, however, all peace-time vehicle production was halted and the factories turned to the manufacture of armaments. In fact, during the war Rootes produced one out of every seven bomber aircraft made in the UK; 60 per cent of the armoured cars and 30 per cent of the scout cars as well as building 50,000 aero engines and assembling 20,000 vehicles imported from other countries. The challenge of reorganising after the war was dealt with promptly and efficiently. In 1946, the Ryton-on-Dunsmore plant in Coventry, which had been used for aero engine production during the war, was converted into a new assembly factory, releasing space for major expansion at the main manufacturing plant in Coventry, while the Aldermoor Lane Shadow factory, also in Coventry, was converted into an engine manufacturing plant.

Setting Up Shop in Melbourne

In the same year, Rootes established their first overseas assembly plant, in Melbourne, Australia. In 1947 marketing companies were also established in the USA, Canada and in Europe. By this time the company had launched an additional major programme of expansion in its manufacturing plant, which, between 1949 and 1954, doubled total output to just under 100,000 units a year. Production was to pass the 200,000 units mark in 1963. Early in 1956 Rootes Motors purchased Singer Motors Ltd, ironically enough the manufacturers of the range of cars with which the Rootes brothers had built their first business successes, and with which the first Lord Rootes (William) had served his apprenticeship.

Production of Hillman Minx models continued with the reconstruction of the factories. The 1949 versions had five/six-seater bodywork; 1950 saw the introduction of a 1½ litre version and the Californian, a hardtop coupe model, appeared in 1953. Two years later the range was extended by the addition of the Husky estate and the deluxe versions of the Minx were given 1395 cc power units. In the same year, the Japanese Isuzu concern took up licence production of the Minx. Between 1959 and 1966 engine size was progressively increased to 1.7 litres in the UK built models.

The Scottish Built Hillman Imp

From 1957 onwards the Rootes-owned Singer company's Gazelle had a Minx-type body shell and after 1959, the Minx engine was employed in the car. The Super Minx was introduced in 1962. In 1960 the Rootes board determined to embark on another major phase of expansion involving the production of a new small family car - the Hillman Imp. Although intensely competitive, the world's small car markets had been growing steadily in importance and a new model was considered essential to make the Rootes range - then extending from 1390 cc to three litres - fully competitive. A completely new plant to manufacture the car was built at Linwood in Scotland and on 2 May 1963, the Duke of Edinburgh officially opened the new factory and launched the Imp; the first car to be produced in Scotland for 30 years.

The Sunbeam Alpine

The Imp was also the first British car to have a rear mounted all aluminium ohc 875 cc engine, which drove through a four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox and all round independent suspension. Singer and Sunbeam versions followed and a Husky wagon version was introduced, together with the low roofline Californian version. Although Rootes had acquired the Sunbeam company in 1936 - in addition buying the famous marques of Talbot and Darracq which had amalgamated with Sunbeam in 1924 - the Sunbeam name did not appear on a Rootes car until 1953, when it was given to the Alpine, a sports two-seater version of the 2.3-Iitre, overhead-valve, four-cylinder Sunbeam Talbot 90.

In the thirty or so years before the Rootes concern bought them out, the Sunbeam Motor Car Co. Ltd, manufactured world beating cars which carved them a niche in automobile history. Formed in I905 their great years did not begin until yet another ironic note in the history of Rootes took place-the entrance of Louis Coatalen in 1909 after he had left Hillman. Within a year of his joining the company, Sunbeam was experimenting with new engines culminating in 1912 in a 74 bhp version of the three litre 12/16 scoring first, second and third in the Coupe De l' Auto. In the actual Grand Prix at the Dieppe circuit these same cars took third, fourth and fifth places.

5 World Land Speed Records for Sunbeam

Success followed success and new model new model, until in the 1922-27 period Sunbeams had taken the World Land Speed Record five times, and had taken it up to over 200 mph with Segrave at the wheel. A succession of new models followed ranging from a 3 litre, six-cylinder, twin-overhead-camshaft sports car between 1925 and 1930 to the company's last model before the Rootes takeover in 1936, the Dawn, which was powered by a four-cylinder, overhead-valve, 1.6-litre engine. A dormant period then followed for the Sunbeam marque after the takeover by Rootes. The Alpine carried on the winning tradition with which the Sunbeam name had become associated, winning, in the year of its launch four Coupes des Alpes in the 1953 Alpine Rally, a Gold Cup and a Coupe des Dames in 1954.

The following year the basic 90 saloon model was put on the market as the Sunbeam Mark III and this car won that year's Monte Carlo Rally. It continued to be sold until 1957, being joined a year earlier by the Rapier, a Hillman Minx based sports saloon, powered by a 1.4-litre, four-cylinder, 62 bhp engine. This also had numerous succeses in rallies including winning the 1956 Mille Miglia. In 1958 it was given a 1½-litre engine which produced 68 bhp. A sports two-seater version, another Alpine, was introduced in 1960. Subsequently this was given a diaphragm clutch in 1964, a synchromesh box in 1965 and a 1.7-litre, five-bearing, engine in 1966.

The Humber Sceptre and Tiger

Two variations on the basic running gear were seen in 1964; an Italian bodied Venezia sports saloon based on the Humber Sceptre and the Tiger, an Alpine with a 4.3-litre Ford V8 engine. In 1966 the Rapier V, Alpine V and Tiger were Sunbeam's complete range, although the Hillman Imp was marketed in the USA under the Sunbeam banner. A 51 bhp Sunbeam version of the Imp became available in the UK in 1967 and this was followed by a more sporty version, the Stiletto coupe in 1968. The same year saw a completely new Rapier powered by an 88 bhp engine, and the Alpine discontinued.

In 1969 the H120 version of the Rapier was introduced and the following year a simplified version of the Alpine was put on the market. The Stiletto was discontinued in 1972. In 1964 the Chrysler Corporation acquired 46 per cent of the Ordinary shares of Rootes Motors Ltd, and 65 per cent of the 'A' shares. This had almost immediate consequences on the Hillman range of models with, in 1967, a new version of the Minx and the Hunter being introduced to replace the existing Minx and Super Minx models. Although the existing 1496 cc and 1725 cc power units were retained, the cars were of entirely new design.

The 1968 London to Sydney Marathon

A Hillman Hunter won the 1968 London to Sydney Marathon. In 1970, the Hillman Avenger appeared with a choice of 1248 cc or 1496 cc four-cylinder engines. These went on sale in the USA as Plymouth Crickets. Wagon/Estate and twin carburettor Tiger versions of the Avenger were added to the range in 1972 and a GLS version appeared during 1973. In January 1967, the Rootes board reported that, in the light of their experiences with Chrysler Corporation and the need for the continuation of a five year multi-million pound capital expenditure programme, an even closer association with Chrysler would benefit both the UK company and the national economy.

As a result, proposals were accepted by Rootes shareholders which provided for Chrysler, which acquired its initial stake for approximately £27,000,000, to invest a further sum of up to £20,000,000. Consequent to this, the name of the company was changed to Chrysler United Kingdom Ltd in July 1970 and three years later the transformation was completed; Chrysler United Kingdom Ltd, nee Rootes Motors Ltd, became a wholly owned subsidiary of the American company.

Chrysler UK introduced several new models in the 1970s: a British-assembled Chrysler Alpine (sold in France as the Simca 1307/1308) was introduced in 1976, and the Avenger-based Chrysler Sunbeam 2-door hatchback was introduced in 1977. Also, Chrysler UK made a significant contribution to the design of Chrysler's European range. As well as the Alpine and Sunbeam, there was the saloon derivative of the Alpine – the Talbot Solara – and Chrysler/Simca Horizon. Both of these cars were awarded "European Car of the Year awards, and the Horizon was the basis for the US Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni, which were very successful for Chrysler.

The Chrysler Sunbeam

The Chrysler Sunbeam kept the company buoyant in the 1970's, and the Imp was finally laid to rest in 1976, and the Hunter followed it three years later (although it continued to be produced in Iran). Indeed, componentry for the Iranian version of the car was a successful UK export during the 1980s. Only the Avenger-based Chrysler Sunbeam hatchback, launched in 1977 kept the Rootes marque alive, although the Alpine name was still in use and later Alpine and Solara special edition models were given the old Rootes model names, Minx and Rapier.

The rights to the Rapier name remained with the successors of the company, and were eventually resurrected again on a few "limited edition" Peugeot models. There was also a special "Sceptre" edition of the 205, 405 and the 605 SRi models. This used a black plastic badge with the chrome effect 'Sceptre' cursive script similar to that on the sideflashes of the '60's saloons. In the case of the peugeot cars the sceptre badging is applied to the bootlid and lower aft part of the front wing.

Integrating Rootes and Simca

Chrysler had spent much of the 1970s unsuccessfully trying to integrate its Rootes and Simca ranges into one, coherent whole. The traditionally-engineered, rear wheel drive cars of the British division had limited appeal outside the UK, although the Avenger and Hunter - the first locally-assembled car to reach a total of 30,000 units sold in its 12-year lifespan - were both relatively successful in New Zealand. Hunter production continued there and in Ireland until 1979, and it was built in Iran by Iran Khodro as the Peykan for many years more. Iran Khodro now produce locally manufactured models of the Peugeot 405 saloon amongst others.

Unfortunately, with its problems in the US, Chrysler did not have the capital to invest in refreshing their entire product range, and sales of the older designs stagnated in the face of more modern competition. Also, the production facilities were outmoded, industrial relations problems were persistent, and the products had a poor reputation for quality. In the face of massive losses, and the risk of significant unemployment if the factories closed, the Ryton and Linwood factories were the subject of frequent government bail-outs.

Despite the government assistance, the weight of problems bearing on Chrysler Europe resulted in its collapse in 1977, leading to the company's 1978 takeover by PSA Peugeot-Citroen. PSA soon wielded the axe over the troubled Linwood factory in Scotland, and exhumed the Talbot marque from the pages of Rootes' history to re-badge the former Chrysler models. Whilst Ryton was saved, PSA took little interest in the heavy commercial vehicles and the former Commer/Dodge/Karrier truck and van factory was run in conjunction with the trucks division of Renault. After the withdrawal of the last Dodge-derived trucks (latterly badged as Renaults) it became a production plant of engines for Renault.

An aerial photo of Rootes' Scottish Linwood factory in its heyday. It was built in 1963 to produce the Hillman Imp
An aerial photo of Rootes' Scottish Linwood factory in its heyday. It was built in 1963 to produce the Hillman Imp.

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