The Rootes Group was a British conglomeration of brands that built up over 50 years. Like GM in the US, Rootes acquired brands that suited different market segments although for many years, the same car was just rebranded with a different level of trim.
William Rootes founded the original company in 1913 in south England as a car dealer and became one of the biggest dealer networks by the early 1920s. During the First World War, Rootes had been repairing aero engines for the war effort and this helped to establish a group of mechanics that could work on cars after the hostilities had finished.
It was during the 1930s that Rootes started to build his empire. In 1931 he bought Humber. Thomas Humber had acquired Commer, a commercial vehicle manufacturer in 1925 and Hillman, a no-frills car manufacturer in 1928. These three brands became the foundation for the Rootes Group with each initially retaining their brand names and market segments.
In 1934, Rootes added the Karrier commercial vehicle brand to increase their market presence for light delivery vans. Then in 1935, Rootes picked up some of the scraps after the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq company based in England and France had gone into receivership. They bought the Sunbeam brand and the Clement-Talbot brand – a second brand Lago-Talbot remained in France and was ultimately bought by Simca who were then bought by Chrysler.
To consolidate all the company’s body manufacturing, Rootes acquired the British Light Steel Pressings (BLSP) company in 1937, starting first with the Sunbeam sports cars and then adding in Humber body shells.
Thrupp & Maberly, a coachbuilder, who specialised in bodies for Rolls Royce, Daimler and Bentley chassis was merged with BLSP in 1939. They continued to provide coach-building services until they closed in 1967 when the market for bespoke luxury cars had shrunk sufficiently to not make it viable.
Most of the Rootes manufacturing plants were based or were moved to a central location in the Midlands specifically around Coventry – this was becoming the centre for car production in the UK. During WW2, Rootes built a massive plant at Ryton on the outskirts of Coventry to build armaments, the Bristol Blenheim aircraft and other military vehicles. This factory survived many takeovers and mergers to produce cars for the UK market for 50 years. It was razed to the ground only a couple of years ago.
After the war, William Rootes decided to branch out overseas. Firstly he looked at the VW factory as war reparations and decided against the factory but he did start production of Hillmans in Melbourne in 1946 – the first British manufacturer to build a factory in Australia. This facility lasted until 1965 when it was sold to Chrysler Australia and the manufacturing was moved to Chrysler’s factory in Adelaide. Hillman, Humber and Singer models were built in Australia.
In 1950, Rootes added to the commercial business by buying Tilling-Stevens, a truck and bus builder, however this brand ceased production quite quickly and the factory was used to manufacture engines and bodies for the other commercial brands in the group.
To further the overseas expansion, Rootes signed a deal with Isuzu in 1953 to build the Hillman Minx under licence in Japan. Incidentally, did you know that Isuzu in English means “fifty bells pealing in harmony and celebration”!
Three years later, Rootes bought the financially collapsing Singer to add to the car brands. Business was strong until the early 1960s when the group wanted to build a car that competed with the Mini. The British Government forced the company to build a new factory in Scotland (with a workforce not used to car manufacturing) and the design of the car was rushed to get something to market quickly. The car was the Hillman Imp, powered by a rear mounted aluminium 875cc engine, originally developed by Coventry Climax as a fire pump! The car was also badged as a Sunbeam, a Singer and even a Commer van.
The logistics of building bits of the car in Scotland and the Midlands with final assembly also in the Midlands meant the whole group started to get into financial difficulties. 500,000 Imps were built this way. To stave off the losses, Rootes signed a deal with the Iran Khodro Industrial Group to build the Hillman Hunter under licence – firstly as kits then being manufactured completely in Iran. The car – named the Paykan remained in production for 38 years, finally being discontinued in 2005. Over 2 million were made.
In the late 1960s, Chrysler gradually acquired Rootes and Simca in France, bringing together the two parts of Talbot again. By the mid 1970s most of the brands had been discontinued in favour of the Chrysler name, although the Rootes models were being manufactured in overseas plants with Chrysler, Plymouth or Dodge badges. In Argentina, Rootes models were also badged as VW’s after the Chrysler factory was sold to the German company.
The Rootes name finally disappeared in 2007 when the car dealerships were renamed Robins & Day. So, like the Titanic, Rootes made a huge impact on the world before sinking ungraciously but the legacy lived on for many more years.