Rootes Group cars: Sunbeam, Singer, Hillman, Humber, and more - the British part of Chrysler Europe
Chrysler bought a large number of British nameplates when they acquired the single British company Rootes Group. Rootes was much better at buying companies than at building cars; there is a singular pattern of buying companies, shutting their factories and abandoning their product lines, and just keeping the nameplate going, sometimes not even going that far, making one wonder why they squandered their cash so readily. Chrysler acquired Rootes but, aside from injecting capital, didn't interfere much at first; when they did, it was too late for the most part, though the Horizon did prove to be a success in the US — unlike other Chrysler Europe imports, which were not Americanized. The Horizon, through greater Chrysler engineering involvement, SIMCA engineering, or construction in the US, had much higher quality and desirability than the prior imports and was a runaway success. (Using the relatively powerful and torquey 2.2 liter engine may well have prolonged its life, as well.)
Here are the companies that Chrysler or Rootes acquired:
Hillman originated in Coventry in the 1880s, on the crest of a wave of cycle builders, which were set up predominently in the Coventry area. William Hillman was a qualified engineer, and he joined John Kemp Starley (who later formed Rover) to find his feet in in the cycle business. Once established, he soon decided to form his own bicycle building company. Hillman's new company, Auto Machinery, soon established itself, and before the turn of the twentieth century, Hillman was a millionaire.
With that wealth, William Hillman moved into Abingdon House in Stoke Aldermoor (near Coventry, not Oxford, despite its name) and set up a car factory in its grounds. In 1907, Hillman entered the entered the industry in style, launching the 24HP Hillman-Coatalen (Coatalen was its designer), which was entered into that year's Tourist Trophy. The car was put out the race by a crash, but it had made a splash. Coatalen, a Breton, left Hillman for Singer (which was to join Hillman years later as part of Rootes Group), leaving Hillman to produce a succession of conventional models in tiny quantities, which included a 6.4-litre four-cylinder model and a 9.7-litre six.
Hillman then achieved its first success with the 1913 9HP, which survived the war and went on to sell into the 1920s. The model gradually evolved during its life, but it remained essentially the same, and it was not until 1926 and the launch of the 14HP that Hillman seemed to move forwards. Although the Hillman family remained in control of the company, William Hillman had withdrawn from the running of the company, handing the day-to-day decision making to John Black and Spencer Wilks. Both men would go on to much greater things in later years.
For 1928, Hillman previewed the enormously expensive 2.6-litre Straight Eight model. It was new from the ground up, and pitched at the luxury end of the market. However, delays getting it into production resulted in its launch being put back to 1929 - just as the Great Depression had started.
In the depth of the Depression, the Rootes brothers bought out Hillman; it became the dominant marque in the Rootes Group, and Hillmans were sold under other marques, so that the company was one of the few to survive and perhaps even benefit from acquisition by Rootes.
Some of Hillman’s cars after the War were the ill-fated Imp, the Avenger, Tiger, and the Hunter. All are discussed at rootes-chrysler.co.uk (and will eventually make their way here to allpar). Hillman was the mainstay of Rootes Group throughout its history, only really disappearing when Peugeot took over the entire operation.
Thomas Humber founded the Humber cycle company in Sheffield in 1868, but it was not until much later that the company would become involved with the production of motor vehicles. The Humber company expanded through the 1870s to the point where it was producing bicycles in Nottingham, Beeston and Wolverhampton. Factory number four was opened in Coventry in 1889, by which time Humber was seriously looking at motorized transport. There was a brief flirtation with such oddities as tricycles and quadricyles — one of which sported front wheel drive and rear wheel steering.
In 1899 the first Humber car, the 3 1/2 horsepower Phaeton, was built at Beeston, but the first Coatalen designed car, the Voiturette, did not appear until 1901. This was followed by the 1903 Humberette, which sported a tubular frame and 5hp single-cylinder engine. Larger cars came in the shape of the 1902 four-cylinder 12hp, which was soon followed up in 1903 by a three-cylinder 9hp and a four-cylinder 20hp model. By this time, Humber car production was concentrated at a new factory in Folly Lane, Coventry, which - coincidentally - was situated close to Hillman.
After 1905, the smaller engined models were dropped, allowing Humber to concentrate on the production of its staple 10/12hp model and the larger 16/20hp. In 1907, this range was supplemented by the arrival of the Humber 15hp.
Until 1908, Humber cars continued to be produced in Coventry and Beeston, but thanks to financial difficulties, the Beeston factory was closed (despite producing higher quality cars), allowing the company to concentrate on one factory. The event saw the defection of Coatalen to rival Hillman. These austere times also led to the re-introduction of the company's two-cylinder models.
In 1913, the Humberette model re-appeared in a new form: the car was powered by an air-cooled 8hp V-twin engine... this was aimed at a decidedly different end of the market to the company's next endeavours. The company shelled out £15,000 on a three-car team to compete in the 1914 Tourist Trophy race. The cars were designed by FT Burgess, and were powered by double overhead camshaft 3.3-litre four-cylinder engines.
Sadly, the ambitious programme failed to deliver results, and Humber's involvement in the TT was something of an anti-climax. The World War I days were spent producing arms and aircraft engines, but by the 1920s, Humber had become well established as the producer of solid and reliable cars, which were mainly powered by side-valve engines. In 1922, a step towards modernity was taken with the launch of overhead inlet/side exhaust engines, and the 8/18 of 1923 made good use of it. It was a light and refined car, and proved sprightly for its day thanks to its light kerb weight and relatively powerful 985cc engine.
When the 8/18 received an enlarged version of its engine, it was re-named the 9/20. However, with an enlarged engine came a much heavier body, and as a result, the car's previous reputation for sprightliness was soon lost. Sales of Humbers remained buoyant during the late 1920s, when annual volumes exceeded 4,000, thanks to the continued success of the 9/20, 14/40 and 20/55hp models. Confidence was such, that Humber bought up the Luton-based commercial vehicle producer, Commer (which was to continue as a Rootes brand, eventually producing what would become the Dodge Spacevan).
The late 1920s saw a rapid shift in the company's fortunes; Humber was neither big nor exclusive enough to tough out the recession. 1929 saw the joining of Hillman and Humber; Humber would become a fully owned subsidiary of Rootes in 1932 (Rootes also acquired Hillman). Two new sixes were launched; the 2.1-litre 16/50 and the 3.5-litre Humber Snipe. Rootes influence soon could be seen throughout the Humber range - in 1932, the overhead inlet/side exhaust engine was discontinued, and the following year, the company introduced a 1.7-litre four-cylinder 12hp. Still, as Humber was positioned above Hillman, by World War II, Humbers were powered solely by six-cylinder engines; thanks to stylish bodies by Pressed Steel, the company's reputation was good. Production continued throughout the hostilities, when the 4.1-litre Super Snipe and its variants were built as staff cars; General Montgomery had one called “Old Faithful.”
After the war, production of the big sixes continued; except for a Hillman-based 2-litre four-cylinder in the Humber Hawk. In 1950, a Super Snipe driven by Maurice Gatsonides (he of GATSO camera fame) and the Baron van Zuylen de Nyvelt took second place in the Monte Carlo Rally, even though "Gatso" had - amusingly - chosen the least sporting car he could think of. In 1952, a Snipe was driven from London to Cape Town in a record 13 days and 9 hours.
In 1953, Super Snipes and Pullmans received overhead valve engines (the Hawk got one a year later, in 1954). The Super Snipe was dropped and then re-launched in 1959, thanks to customer demand. Following the Chrysler acquisition of 1964, the Humber range was expanded to include the Super Minx-based Audax Sceptre, and in 1966, the Arrow based Sceptre model was launched. As Rootes continued to lose money, though, Chrysler shut down unprofitable lines, with the Sceptre the last to go, in 1976; Humber died with the Sceptre.
Singer’s first really successful car was the Ten, introduced in 1912, which offered a steel chassis, four cylinder engine, and two seats; the economical car achieved 40 mpg, quite high for any time in automotive history, and was apparently more reliable than many competitors, thanks partly to its steel frame and partly to its more modern rear transaxle. While its price was right at £185, its success may also have been helped by a racing version which won a stock car race and, perhaps more important, owned a variety of speed records in its class. The Singer Ten was appropriately sized and weighted, lighter than most existing cars but heavier than motorcycle-based models. Factory apprentice Billy Rootes bought fifty of these cars when they were first brought out and used the profits from reselling them to start a motoring empire.
By the 1920s, the range was fairly diverse (and more modern; for example, the gearbox was moved forward).
In 1927, the Junior was produced, using an 848 cc chain-driven overhead cam engine that was to be the basis for many other engines in later decades. The Ten had grown and gotten heavier; the Junior was, like the Austin 7, a return to lighter, more nimble cars.
Singer remained at the forefront of technology, with independent front suspensions, fluid-coupling transmissions, and other first-in-Britain achievements. The Nine qualified to compete in Le Mans - the first car with less than 1.1 liters and no supercharger to do so. However, a multiple-car crash - the result of last-minute steering box adjustments ordered by race judges - caused Singer to leave car racing, and the financial crash hurt Singer sales. Factories were closed and most cars and trucks were discontinued, and just when sales started to rise with the introduction of a new car (the Roadster), the war broke out. The company never recovered, and in 1955 was forced to join Rootes; soon afterwards, Singer was just one of many brands sharing the same vehicles, and by 1971, Chrysler made the name follow reality.
Sunbeam started out selling Peugeot designs, started making their own succesful cars, and merged with Darracq, building a successful racing heritage and selling quite sporty vehicles. But Sunbeam went bankrupt due to the expenses of racing and not being paid for World War I government work, and was purchased by Rootes, which closed the assembly plant and dropped all Rootes vehicles. Eventually Rootes resurrected the name as Sunteam-Talbot. Postwar racing was mainly in road rallys, and Sunbeam was successful there.
The Sunbeam Alpine was based on the 90, essentially a two-seat roadster version. It was made from just 1953 to 1955 but was successful in rallys, as was the 1955 Sunbeam Rapier; a four door version was the Hillman Minx (and Singer Gazelle). The Alpine returned, based on the Hillman Husky with Rapier running gear, in 1959. The related Venezia appeared in 1963. The Tiger, essentially an Alpine with an American V8, was brought out in 1964, and was assembled by Jensen, which used Chrysler V8s in some of its cars. Carroll Shelby-prepared Alpines were entered in Le Mans in from 1961 to 1963, though in 1962 and 1963, all the Shelby Alpines failed to finish.
In the 1960s, due to Rootes’ financial problems, Chrysler bought the company, cancelling proposed Alpine and Tiger updates; all Sunbeam production was moved to Linwood, Scotland. However, Roy Axe’s new Rapier was introduced on schedule. Sunbeam survived until 1976, when Chrysler simply called all the various Rootes vehicles Chryslers.
There was also a Chrysler Sunbeam. Being designed by Rootes engineers, it could be considered as much a Sunbeam as any of the newer ones.
The end of Rootes
Chrysler embarked on a short-sighted cost-cutting campaign which did not sit well with customers, including (from 1976-78) eliminating the many Rootes brands, which, though inevitable, but ended the friendly “domestic” brands in favor of an “imported” one.
When Chrysler ran out of cash in the US, it needed to raise money and sold the entire outfit to Peugeot; SIMCA was profitable at the time, making enough to offset Rootes’ losses. The remaining British automakers would all be lost to foreign concerns, even the sacrosanct Rolls-Royce, Jaguar, and Bentley. However, as Bill Cawthon wrote, Chrysler gained a considerable amount of money for Rootes and SIMCA:
In a front page article on August 14, 1978, Automotive News announced that Peugeot was acquiring Chrysler's European operations for $230 million, plus a 15% interest (1.8 million shares) in Peugeot-Citroen SA, also worth about $230 million. Peugeot also assumed all outstanding debts of Chrysler Europe, worth about $400 million. This deal did not include any assets of Chrysler Financial.
Chrysler gained $460 million in cash and stock, and removed $400 million in debt off the books.
Chrysler’s operations outside North America suffered total losses of $32.8 million in 1977, compared to earnings of $91.3 million in 1976. The British operation lost $36.6 million (with half covered by the British government for a net loss of $18.3 million) and South America lost $35 million (vs $2 million in 1976). Only France and Spain showed a profit.
Without Chrysler, Rootes may have simply vanished from sight, from liquidation or takeover by BMC or Rover, with similar end results, accelerated by additional debt. Given poor labor relations, far too many models and brands for the sales numbers, and too many short-sighted decisions, saving Rootes required deep pockets indeed — and Chrysler, thanks to their own decisions, went from deep pockets in the 1960s to rather shallow ones in the 1970s.