The Rootes Group is a now-defunct British automobile manufacturer, which was based in the Midlands of England. Rootes was the parent company of many famous British marques, including (but not limited to) Hillman, Humber, Singer, Sunbeam, Talbot, Commer and Karrier.
Introduction & Early History
Originally founded in Kent in 1919 by William Rootes as a car sales company, Rootes grew and took over other companies, and became one of the earliest advocates of the policy of “badge engineering”. Hillman was intended to be the basic brand, Singer slightly more upmarket, Sunbeam was the sports brand, while Humber made luxury models. Commer and Karrier were the commercial vehicle brands, with Commer manufacturing light vans with the Karrier badge appearing on heavy vans and light duty trucks (mainly for municipal use).
Rootes was best known for manufacturing stolid, dependable, well engineered (and largely unexciting) middle-market vehicles. Famous Rootes models include the Hillman Minx, Singer Gazelle, Humber Super Snipe and the Sunbeam Alpine.
With the onset of the Second World War Rootes, like most other British car manufacturers, became involved with the production of armaments. In 1940, under the Government’s shadow factory scheme, Rootes built its massive assembly plant in Ryton-on-Dunsmore, near Coventry, initially manufacturing aircraft. Following the war, the plant was the main focus of the company’s passenger car operations. Rootes also sponsored satellite manufacturing operations around the world, notably in Australasia and the Middle East. The best known example of the latter being the Iranian-built Paykan, based on the Hillman Hunter.
The Gamble That Backfired – The Imp and Linwood
In 1963, Rootes introduced the Hillman Imp, a compact rear engined saloon with an innovative all aluminum engine. It was intended to be Rootes’ answer to the all-conquering Mini, and they endorsed their confidence in the Imp by building a massive new factory in Linwood, near Glasgow in which to assemble it. The move to Linwood was forced upon the company by the British Government which had introduced the principle of Industrial Development Certificates (IDCs). By their use, it was intended to concentrate new factory building in depressed areas of Britain. Thus, Rootes were not allowed to expand the existing Ryton plant, but instead obliged to move to an area of Scotland with a shortage of work. The Linwood plant was a major disaster for many reasons – chiefly the Glaswegian workforce who had no experience of motor vehicle assembly, and the build quality and reliability of the cars inevitably suffered. Another problem was that the component suppliers were still based in the Midlands, and the company incurred further costs in transporting half finished engine castings from Linwood to be machined at Ryton and returned to Linwood once they had been assembled – at the same time as completed Imps returned south again – in all a 600 mile round trip!
The Imp itself was tragically underdeveloped, and the aforementioned build quality and unreliability problems, coupled with buyer apathy towards the quirky design was reflected in poor sales. After a reasonably successful start in 1963 – ’65, the Imp’s fortunes in the marketplace went into terminal decline. Lost production caused by constant strike action by the Linwood workforce only added to the problems, and the mess was further exacerbated by cripping warranty claims. Rootes had no money left to develop its other models, which soon left the company in an uncompetitive position.
The Chrysler Years (1967 – 1978)
By the mid-1960s, Rootes was taken over by the Chrysler Corporation of America, following huge losses amid the commercial failure of the troubled Imp. Chrysler was also only too keen to take control of the struggling firm as it wished to have its own wholly-independent European subsidiary like arch rivals Ford and GM. Chrysler took over Simca of France at the same time, merging it with Rootes (now renamed as “Chrysler UK”) to create Chrysler Europe. The Rootes name had largely vanished by 1971, and soon its other brand names were progressively phased out as the 1970s progressed. Only Hillman was left by 1977, when it too was shelved in favour of the Chrysler pentastar. The Commer name also vanished in the ’70s, the famous van and truck manufacturer assuming the Dodge nameplate by 1976.
Chrysler UK soldiered on with a range of worthy but dull rear-wheel drive family cars like the Hillman Avenger and Hillman Hunter, while desperately trying to develop the Imp into a decent car. An attempt to take the Avenger to America as the Plymouth Cricket was aborted after only two years, and Chrysler’s lack of interest in the former Rootes products was further reflected in its development of the Simca-designed Alpine/Solara and Horizon ranges instead. The Imp had been killed off in 1976, and the Hunter followed it three years later. Only the Avenger-based Chrysler Sunbeam hatchback, launched in 1977 kept the Rootes lineage 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 Rapier name has once again been resurrected on certain special edition Peugeot models.
Chrysler had spent much of the 1970s unsuccessfully trying to integrate its Rootes and formerly-French Simca ranges into one, coherent whole. The traditonally-engineered, rear wheel drive cars of the British company never fitted well in marketing terms with Simca’s relatively advanced front-wheel drive hatchbacks. Build quality suffered, and the Ryton and Linwood factories were the subject of frequent Government bail-outs. The resulting lacklustre product range, severe financial problems back home in the United States, coupled with a multitude of industrial relations problems in the 1970s led to the collapse of Chrysler Europe in 1977, leading to the company’s 1978 takeover by PSA Peugeot-Citroen (for a mere $1), with the only surviving remnant of the car-producing part of the company in Britain being the Ryton assembly plant which today produces various Peugeot models for European markets. The former Commer/Karrier truck and van factory was sold separately to Renault. After the withdrawal of the last Dodge-derived trucks (latterly badged as Renaults when the licensing agreement with Chrysler to use the name expired) it became a production plant for engines for Renault Véhicules Industriels.
The Peugeot Years (1978 – present)
Peugeot axed the loss making Linwood factory in 1981, signalling the end of the road for the Avenger and Sunbeam, but the production tooling for the Hunter went to Iran, where the Paykan went into full local production, which continues well into the 21st Century. It remains a common sight throughout the Middle East, especially as a taxi. The Simca-based models continued to be built at Ryton using the resurrected Talbot badge for the first half of the 1980s. When the decision was taken by PSA in 1985 to shelve the Talbot name, the Peugeot 309, also a Simca-based design, became the first Peugeot to be assembled at Rootes’ former home.
Today, the Ryton plant manufactures the Peugeot 206, and the French company (who still owns the original Rootes trademarks) briefly revived the “Rapier” nameplate once again for run-out special editions of the 406. The plant’st importance in PSA’s overall strategy has become marginalised in recent years, largely due to its small size compared to the company’s main factories in France. In April 2006, after years of speculation surrounding Ryton’s future, the PSA Group announced that when the 206 is replaced in 2007, car production at the former Rootes plant will end, leading to the loss of 2300 jobs.
It will mark the end of nearly 60 years of car manufacturing at Ryton, and the final conclusion of the Rootes story.