The Humber car company has featured a few times in my history articles. Most people know the Humber brand from the Rootes Group and was seen as the luxury brand within the group.
Thomas Humber who founded the company started like many entrepreneurs in the 19th century by building bicycles. He was very successful opening 3 factories across the UK. He had invented a “safety bicycle” that became the standard shape for many bicycles. Humber seemed to have been quite difficult to work with and managed to see many business partners come and go to a point where he sold out to a new group who employed him to act as the overall factory manager – not the brains behind the business. He retired in 1892 leaving a company with his name looking at new technologies and a new market.
In 1898, Humber (the company) started to extend the bicycle into a motorcycle by fitting a 2 horse power engine. The same year, they started to make cars and the success of the cars meant that the motorcycle production was outsourced so that car manufacturing could take precedence. Humber cars ranged from 600cc to 6 litre models and soon became one of the largest manufacturers in the UK. In fact they claimed to be the first production cars in the UK!
In 1925, Humber bought Commer commercial vehicles to extend the range and then in 1928 they bought Hillman to make a low cost car for the growing number of buyers. Three years later, Humber sold out to the Rootes Group who were becoming the UK’s first motoring conglomerate. The Rootes Brothers had owned a portion of Hillman so it could be considered a management buyout as the brothers found a willing finance company to support them. The bicycle division was sold to Raleigh in 1932 and they continued to sell products with the same brand name until the 1970s.
Humber were the luxury cars in the Rootes Group and built cars such as the Hawk, Snipe, Vogue and Sceptre. They followed the trend of badge engineering by making the same car as Hillman but adding in more goodies. Like BLMC did with Wolseley, the Rootes Group saved a huge amount this way. Humbers were even built in Australia – in Melbourne – alongside Singers and Hillmans. At this stage, you could say that the proud marque was being watered down in the name of cost efficiencies – something that happened to a lot of marques during the 1950s and 1960s.
The Humber name really started to disappear during the late 1960s as Chrysler increased its ownership of the Rootes Group until they swallowed it completely and another group of marques stopped production. Humber cars were favourites of the British royalty – King George VI had nearly 50 shipped to overseas outposts so that they were available for his jollies around the empire!
Some notable engineers worked for Humber, like Louis Coatelen who went on to work for Sunbeam and Hillman prior to the three being brought together by Rootes. Also William Heynes who worked briefly for Humber before making his name by designing the Jaguar XK straight 6 engine and being involved with the famous C, D and E-Type Jags plus the XJ13.