Dave Phillips

T he Voca l Yokel

Land Rover Monthly - - Columns -

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”

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