T he Voca l Yokel
Bicycles and cyclists aren’t universally popular with fellow road users, but if you’re a green oval fan you really should love them, because if it wasn’t for push bikes there wouldn’t have been any Land Rovers. Let me explain…
Back in 1897, in Coventry, a young engineer named John Kemp Starley got fed up working in his uncle’s sewing machine factory and got together with cyclist William Sutton to set about improving the design of the bicycle. It wasn’t too difficult, as the standard bike of the Victorian era was the penny-farthing, with its impossibly big front wheel and tiny rear wheel. It was highly dangerous and just getting on one was a challenge in itself.
The Starley & Sutton company started by making tricycles, then in 1885 made the world’s first modern bicycle – a rear-wheel drive, chain- driven cycle with two similar-sized wheels – the socalled ‘safety bicycle’ that cyclists still ride today. They called it the Rover.
It was a mode of transport that changed the world – some parts of which adopted the name Rover as the word for bicycle, as in Poland (Rower) and Belarusia (Rovar).
In the late 1890s the company was renamed Rover. Its founder, John Starley, died in 1901, aged just 45, but he had already set in motion plans to build a motorcycle. The Rover Imperial, with a 3.5 bhp engine, was introduced a year later and was years ahead of its time. By the time motorbike production ended, in 1924, Rover had produced more than 10,000 – including a large consignment ordered by the Russian army during the First World War.
Bicycle production ended a year later, in 1925. Rover moved away from two wheels to concentrate on four. Its first car, the Rover Eight, had been introduced in 1904. It boasted a whopping 8 bhp, hence its name. A 12 bhp model followed in 1912 and was so successful that it became the only car made by the company until WW1.
The company enjoyed mixed fortunes in the post-war years, until Maurice Wilks was recruited from Hillman in 1929 as general manager. His brother Maurice, who had been chief engineer at Hillman, joined a year later. They were to make a huge difference.
In the early 1930s the Wilks brothers took the Rover brand upmarket, with the slogan “Quality First”. It paid off. Following record losses of £103,000 in 1932, the company recorded a profit of £46,000 a year later.
During the Second World War, the government built a shadow factory at Solihull, and appointed Rover to build aircraft engines there. Meanwhile, Maurice Wilks secretly worked with jet engine inventor Frank Whittle to develop gas turbine engines. The company’s Coventry factory was destroyed by bombing, so after the war Rover moved car production to the Solihull factory, which it bought from the government.
It was in the post-war years that Rover enjoyed its golden period, with the hugely-successful P3 and P4 saloon cars, launched in 1948, as well as the Land Rover, of course. Its 1947 launch was seen as a stopgap by the company, who were intent on concentrating on upmarket cars and the further development of the gas turbine engine, but it went on to outsell and outlive the rest of the company’s activities.
But don’t knock Rover cars, nor the gas turbine project. I remember the Rover saloon cars with fondness from my childhood. They were brilliant. My mate’s Aunt Bob was landlady of the local pub and she drove a lovely Rover 75, in which she’d sometimes take us on sea fishing trips to the Norfolk coast. Happy days. And in case you’re wondering, Bob was short for Roberta.
Meanwhile, in pursuit of the jet-powered perfection that the Wilks brothers thought was the future, they went into partnership with BRM to produce jet-powered racing cars that won the Le Mans races of 1963 and ’ 65. Graham Hill was at the wheel both years, sharing stints behind the wheel with co- drivers Ritchie Ginther and Jackie Stewart. The problem with the gas turbine was its prodigious fuel consumption, which never bettered 6 mpg. But it did provide some excitement, as well as a new company legend in Spen King, who was recruited from Rolls-royce in 1945 to help develop jetpowered cars. He never managed that, but he did lead the project to build the Range Rover, in 1970.
The latter was the Rover company’s bid to marry the capability of the Land Rover with the comfort and style of Rover cars. In succeeding, they laid the foundation for the success story that is Land Rover today.
So, whether you drive a Defender, a Discovery, an elderly Series, or any one of the plethora of Range Rover choices available today, you can thank John Kemp Starley and the success story of his groundbreaking push bike for starting it all. And remember to be nice to modern cyclists, even if they do wear lycra. EX-LRM Editor Dave has driven Land Rovers in most corners of the world, but loves the British countryside best
“Cyclists aren’t popular but if you’re a green oval fan you should love them”