HISTORY OF THE MG - ROVER MARQUES

Rover 2.3 litre 12 hp 1912    Rover 8    Jet 1    T3    T4    Rover/BRM    P4    P5    P6    P8    SD1    Rover 800    Rover 600    Rover 200    MG EX-E

MG RV8    MGF    R25    R45    KV6    R75


The Rover brand has always been at the heart of Britain’s motor industry from 1904 until today. The products that bear the name Rover are quintessentially British - reliable and timeless designs flourishing on innovative engineering.

The MG and Rover car marques have contributed to the history of the British motor industry and to the history of the MG Rover Group. Of the brand names in the current market place, Rover and MG have a clear identity and a set of strong brand values that build on the heritage and history of each of these marques while embracing the technology of the future. Towards the end of the 19th century, the city of Coventry had become the capital of the British cycle industry. Foremost among the many bicycle makers in the city was the Rover company, which had pioneered in 1884 the modern safety bicycle. This product was the first of many to proudly proclaim, "Rover Set the Fashion to the World".

The Rover company was founded in 1877 as a partnership between John Kemp Starley and William Sutton. While Sutton soon pulled out of the business, Starley was to remain at the helm until his death in 1901. As early as 1888, he had built an experimental electrically powered tricycle.

The company entered production of self-propelled vehicles in 1903. A conventional petrol engine powered the first Rover Imperial motorcycle. The following year, the first Rover car was introduced – the single cylinder 8-hp model designed by Edmund Lewis, which had the first central backbone chassis in the world. In the same year, Rover built its first four-cylinder cars, the 10/12 and the 16/20 hp models, and in 1907 a 16/20 hp model driven by Earnest Courtis won the Tourist Trophy race in the Isle of Man.

Over the next few years, Rover made a wide variety of cars, including some models with the Knights sleeve-valve engine. In 1912, two new cars were introduced to replace all the earlier models – a 3.3 litre 18 hp car and the better known 2.3 litre 12 hp model, designed by Owen Clegg and which for many years formed the backbone of the Rover range. During the years of the First World War, Rover supplied motorcycles to the British and Russian Armies and the company built Maudslay trucks and Sunbeam cars to government orders. 

By this time, many people in the industry were trying their hands at manufacturing motor vehicles, seeking to take Rover’s market share. In response, Rover continued to develop its fleet of cars. In 1919, a revised 12 which soon became known as the 14 was put back on the market. In the same year, Rover bought a design for a small car produced by Jack Sangster of the Ariel Motorcycle Company. This became the Rover Eight, which was manufactured in a new factory at Tyseley in Birmingham. The Eight featured an air-cooled flat-twin engine; a type of power unit often associated with motorcycles or cycle-cars. By comparison, however, the small Rover was well made and sturdy. Selling for as little as £145 at one stage, it was popular in the market until interest in the Austin Seven eclipsed it.

To differentiate its products from its competitors, Rover brought out a complementary four cylinder Nine and began to move its products upmarket, away from the mass-produced Austin and Morrises. During this time, the 14/45 was launched. A technically interesting car, it featured an overhead camshaft engine for which Rover was awarded the Dewar Trophy. An underpowered car, it was later fitted with a more powerful engine and re-named, the 16/50. It was around this time, 1922, that 33-year-old Cecil Kimber joined Morris Garages as sales manager, to be appointed as general manager in the following year. Kimber had a great interest in body styling and coach building and was also an enthusiastic sports car driver. At the time, the Bullnosed Morris Cowleys and Oxfords were the best-selling cars in Britain, but were undeniably staid. So, it became natural for Kimber to turn his skills to fitting Morris chassis with a special bodywork of a more sporting nature.

In 1923, the first special-bodied Morris cars were marketed by Morris Garages, and in March 1924 the first MG car – a four-door saloon body on a Morris Oxford chassis – was advertised. It was followed immediately by the first examples of the MG four-seater Special Sports, also on the Oxford chassis.  For 1925 a range of MG Super Sports models were offered, with two or four seater bodywork, or in ‘salonette’ form. In the same year the first entirely special purpose built MG sports, ‘Old No. 1’ was made for Cecil Kimber’s own use. Kimber entered the car in the 1925 Land’s End Trial and won a gold medal.

1933 spelled out a year of change for Rover. The company came under new management from the Wilks Brothers – Spencer as managing director, Maurice in charge of engineering and design. Between them, they formulated a new product philosophy aimed at turning Rover into "One of Britain’s Fine Cars", with the desired discreet and understated image of typical British quality.  In 1934 the company introduced new 10 and 12 hp four cylinder models, while the six cylinder 14 was developed from the old Pilot. It was later followed by similar 16 and 20 hp models, which gave Rover extensive market coverage. Between 1933 and 1939, annual production increased from 5,000 to 11,000 cars and net profits soared from £7,500 to £200,000.

The period 1930 to 1935 saw the classic MG years, with a great variety of four and six cylinder models being manufactured. Most were sports cars, although a number of pure racing models were also developed and won countless successes on rack tracks and road circuits in Britain and abroad. The name MG became synonymous with sports cars and it was in this period that the foundations were made for the lasting fame of the marque.

During the Second World War, more than 21,000 people were employed at Rover producing aero engines, tank engines and aircraft wings. The company was closely involved in pioneer work for Sir Frank Whittle’s jet engine. At the same time, work began in secret on the development of a small gas turbine engine. The early post-war Rover range consisted of the 10, 12, 14 and 16 hp models in saloon or sports saloon form. The company also introduced a four cylinder 1.6 litre 60 and 2.1 litre six cylinder 75, with all new engines featuring overhead inlet and side exhaust valves in a new chassis with independent front suspension and hydromechanical brakes. These cars were known at the P3 models. Rover built another experimental small car, the 700 cc 2-seater M1 and in 1948 brought out the first Land Rover. 

Until 1935, the MG company had been the sole property of Lord Nuffield. However, in that year he sold the company together with Wolseley and his other interests to Morris Motors Ltd as part of a general rationalisation of the Morris companies, forming the Nuffield Organisation. It was simultaneously announced that MG would withdraw from racing. However, although there were no more MG racing cars, the company entered a new field of achievement with a series of record cars. The first was the EW120, the ‘Magic Midget’ which George Eyston drove at over 100 mph. This was followed by the EX135, the ‘Magic Magnette’ which was rebuilt with streamlined bodywork and in the course of its 15 year career, broke numerous records in different capacity classes, using five different engines. At the 1949 Motor Show, Rover showed the new P4 model, at first available only in the 75 form with the six cylinder engine. This had an all-new body with full width American styling. A large radiator grille and a centrally mounted fog lamp earned this model its Cyclops nickname. The radiator was replaced with the original design and went on to become one of Rover’s favourite cars, affectionately being known as the "Auntie" Rover. The range was extended with a choice of engines, ranging from 2 litre four to a 2.6 litre six. Once again, Rover produced a car that in engineering terms, "set the fashion to the world". 

Inspired by Rover’s wartime involvement with the jet engine, the Jet 1 of 1950 was built on the platform of the P4. The JET 1 became the world’s first gas turbine engined car. Earning Rover the Dewar Trophy for the second time, it was driven at speeds of over 150 mph. After the war, it became increasingly important for Britain to export the majority of new cars in order to earn much needed foreign currency, particularly dollars. The MGTC was developed and was the first MG to sell in large quantities overseas, including the USA.

Over the next few years, Rover built several experimental gas turbine cars, including the T3 of 1956, a four-wheel drive Coupé  with a glass fibre body, the T4 of 1962 with front-wheel drive and a racing car which competed in the Le Mans 24 hour race in 1963 and 1965. In 1965, this Rover/BRM was the first British car to finish the race, finishing tenth. Subsequently, Rover gave up turbine development as the technology was not yet suitable for production cars.

The P5 model of 1958 was a major milestone for Rover. It was a large luxury saloon with a 3-litre version of Rover’s six cylinder engine and was the first Rover car with unitary bodywork, styled by David Bache. This model combined elegance with tradition and had a well appointed interior. Later developments of the P5 included the 3.5 litre V8 model of 1967 which for the first time used the V8 engine to a design bought from the American Buick company. The 3 and 3.5 litre models became favourites with British Prime Ministers from Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher and HM the Queen even used these cars for her private motoring. 

In 1963, Rover entered the new "executive" market sector with its P6 2000, a compact and sporting saloon. It featured a new overhead camshaft four cylinder engine, an all disc brake system and a deDion rear axle. It was the first British car to be fitted exclusively with radial tyres. Its advanced engineering and styling earned it the Car of the Year Award, the first year that the international award was made. The P6 range was extended with the V8 engine 3500 model. This put Rover on the map as a high performance car. When the last derivatives of the P6 were made in 1977, the range had become the best-selling Rover, with a total production in excess of 325,000.

In 1952 Nuffield and Austin merged to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC). This gave MG a family rival in the form of the Austin Healey sports car. In 1957 Austin-Healey production was transferred to Abingdon. The decline of Britain’s motor industry in the postwar period did not leave Rover nor MG untouched. In 1965, Rover bought the small Alvis company of Coventry, maker of hand-built luxury cars as well as military vehicles. The following year, Rover was in turn bought by the expanding Lancashire based truck maker, Leyland, which already owned Standard Triumph.

 In 1968, a grand alliance of Britain’s motor industry was created when the Leyland group merged with Britain’s largest marker of popular cars, British Motor Company (BMC), which produced Austin, Morris, MG and other makes. BMC had previously allied itself with the Jaguar company. Within the Leyland hierarchy, Rover was eventually merged with Triumph and Jaguar as a maker of upmarket specialist cars.  The post 1960 period saw only six different MG models. The two saloon cars, the Magnette Mark III/IV and the 1100/1300, were relatively tame badge-engineered versions of the mainstream BMC products and were both made in the Cowley factory rather than in Abingdon. The 1100/1300 became the most popular saloon model, with 175,000 made between 1962 and 1971.

The Rover P5 model was discontinued in 1973 without a successor. The prototype for the P8 supposedly remained on the drawing board as it was thought to be too close competition for the Jaguar XJ6. In addition, the P6BS did not go into production. Instead, an important newcomer was the first Range Rover of 1970. Land Rover sought to expand their range of four wheel drive vehicles into the luxury sector. Rover’s next achievement was the SD1 of 1976, which like the P6 before it, took the "Car of the Year" title. Initially only available with the V8 engine as the 3500 model, the range was subsequently widened with four and six cylinder versions, as well as Rover’s first diesel engine car. The SD1 became a successful saloon racing car and won the second TT race, 76 years after the first. Although the engineering was less adventurous than the P6, its sleek body gave it a unique position in the executive class.  A fuel injection engine was fitted to the Vitesse version, and the SD1 became the fastest Rover production car. While the SD1 was earning itself a good reputation, the parent company, British Leyland, was experiencing financial difficulties which led in 1975 to the nationalisation of the company.

Drastic restructuring occurred in the wake of Sir Michael Edwardes becoming chairman of British Leyland in 1977. In his role, he initiated the link with the Japanese company, Honda, with selected Honda cars being built under licence. This relationship resulted in the first small Rover car for many years being built under licence. Project XX, a joint development between Honda and Rover commenced and was introduced to the public in 1986 as the first Rover 800 series. The Rover 800 was a front-wheel drive, fitted either with a Honda V6 engine or Rover’s own new 16 valve 2 litre four cylinder engine. It was originally available only as a four-door saloon but later joined by a five-door hatchback, which was offered as a high performance Vitesse model. In the same year that the Rover 800 was introduced, Sir Graham Day was appointed as chairman of British Leyland. He quickly renamed the company Rover Group and began a programme of moving the company and its products upmarket, away from mass-produced cars. In his role, Sir Graham set about completing a privatisation programme which saw many of British Leyland’s subsidiaries (including Jaguar) being sold. In 1988, this was finally accomplished with the sale of Rover Group to British Aerospace. As part of Sir Graham’s brand philosophy, all new saloon models were to be called Rover. The Land Rover brand was positioned in the luxury four-wheel drive sector.

Although Rover Group was considered as its own entity, a working relationship with Honda continued through joint product developments, including the new 200 series of 1989. This was fitted with the new 1.4 litre K series engine – a revolutionary design that earned Rover the Dewar trophy for the third time. The original five door 200 saloon was soon followed by a host of derivatives, including the booted four door 400 of 1990. In the same year, the K series was also fitted in the Rover Metro – a much-developed version of the corporate best selling small car that later became the 100 series.  During the 1980’s, the MG versions of the Metro, Maestro and the Montego were produced. These models were very successful, but were progressively phased out as derivative offerings were rationalised.

The design project MG EX-E was unveiled in 1985 and displayed at various motor shows. It was a futuristic-styled MG designed by Gerry McGovern, who also styled the MGF. In October 1992, the MG RV8 was introduced, celebrating 30 years since the introduction of the MGB. In the same year, there was a radical return to traditional brand values for Rover. For the first time since the demise of the P5, almost 20 years before, the new 800 featured a version of the classic Rover radiator grille. Continuing the brand image was the luxurious Coupé that was added to the range.

Between 1989 and 1993 Rover embarked on the most intensive programme in its history. The programme was ambitious, moving new models into new areas or into niche sectors and creating new business opportunities. The company set about their 200 range and developed a Cabriolet and a Coupé range. The Total Quality programme was also implemented, which involved the training of the entire work force, more than 30,000 people, in the philosophies and tools of total quality. The exercise was crucial in creating an environment for change, setting the widespread use of quality tools and processes. In 1993, the gap in the middle of the Rover range was filled by the elegant 600, a 2-litre saloon that was manufactured together with the 800 models in a new facility at Cowley near Oxford. Production of the small Rover models was concentrated in the Longbridge factory in Birmingham.

After six years in the ownership of British Aerospace, in early 1994, the Rover Group was taken over by the German carmaker, BMW. Under the new owner, Rover began to fulfil its potential and in 1995 saw the launch of two important models – first the Rover 400, a medium sized car available in saloon and five door versions and then the Rover 200, a three or five door hatchback with a youthful appeal. Both featured versions of the well established K series engines and also Rover’s newly acclaimed L series diesel engine. In 1996, the ageing Honda V6 engine in the 800 series was replaced by Rover’s own new KV6 2.5-litre engine, pointing the way to future developments for the brand. The Rover 75, the first of all new series of Rover cars under BMW ownership, was launched at the Birmingham Motor Show in October 1998 and went on sale in June 1999. A thoroughly modern British motor car, it incorporated the latest technological features and the ability to cover long distances, cruising with ease, with comfortable seats.

From a safety perspective, every Rover 75 featured front seat mounted side (thorax) airbags, driver’s airbag, a wood veneer dashboard and a passenger airbag. Body coloured door mirrors and bumpers with bright inserts complemented the tasteful application of full length chrome finishes along the waist and sill, helping to set the Rover 75 apart from its competition in the executive car market. The 1999 London Motor Show represented a historic milestone in the evolution of the Rover marque beneath BMW ownership, with the world-debut of the new Rover 25 and 45 models. Positioned alongside the successful Rover 75, the new 25 and 45 ranges provided a clearer indication of the future role and direction of the Rover marque. 

All three model ranges demonstrated a clear Rover family identity, which they hold today. The Rover 25 and 45 echo the distinctive four headlamp style introduced with the 75, yet each range has its own individual character.The spirited Rover 25 is primarily targeted at drivers aged between 25 and 34 while the Rover 45, with its refined new engine line-up and class-leading specification is popular among business customers. An intensely focused engineering and investment programme delivered excellent value in developing the 25 and 45 from the previous 200 and 400 ranges.The Rover 25 is priced and positioned as a ‘premium super-mini’. It competes directly with cars such as the VW Polo, Ford Fiesta and Peugeot 206.

In a similar way, the Rover 45 was targeted at the lower medium sector, against the VW Golf, Vauxhall Astra and Ford Focus, offering a competitive package with strong emphasis on refinement and luxury. Following six years under the ownership of BMW, on March 16, 2000, BMW announced fundamental ‘reorganisation plans’ that resulted in the sale of the key constituent parts of the group. The MG Rover Group took responsibility for the development, production and distribution of Rover Cars and acquired the MG brand and some heritage brands. The group also took over production in Longbridge (Birmingham) of the Rover 25 and 45, the MGF sports car and arranged the relocation of the Rover 75 production facility from Oxford to the Longbridge plant in late summer, 2000. Once the BMW Group announced plans to split the company, it concluded that the new Mini (Codenamed R50) would stay within the BMW Group and be produced at Oxford, rather than at Longbridge as originally planned. Production of the ‘Classic Mini’ came to an end on October 4, 2000, after three final versions were produced – the Se7en, the Cooper and the Cooper Sport. 

The new company, MG Rover Group Limited, is now an independent, medium sized, British company that produces cars under the Rover and MG brands from the Longbridge, Birmingham plant. The company started life with a debt free balance sheet and a strong revenue stream, which included car sales, parts, accessories and vehicle financing. At present, the single facility at Longbridge is currently producing the Rover 25, 45 and 75 models plus MGF, the top selling UK roadster. In 2001, the plant will additionally build the Rover 75 Tourer model and a range of three new MG Sports saloons. In total, the plant will, from mid year 2001, produce eight different models.