Once a serious developer of automotive technology, Rover would become huge before falling so very far.
When we say Rover in the context of this article, we’re referring in part to the Rover brand itself, but also to the Rover Group, the name given to a collection of brands which went by a number of different names over the years. Certain of these brands still exist in the hands of other parent companies, but Rover itself is not among them. It was a company which suffered from horrible problems, and was at times seen as everything that was wrong with British manufacturing.
Rover was formed in Coventry, England in 1878 as a bicycle manufacturer. The name comes from a sort of blend of the Polish word "Rowar" and the Belarusian "Rovar", both of which mean bicycle. The company began developing its first motorcycle in 1899 with technology largely taken from Peugeot, a company which was at the time also a motorcycle manufacturer. The first production motorcycle would come in 1902, and the bikes would be a success at first. This would lead to contracts from both the British and Russian armies during the First World War, both of which were good for business. But by the Twenties, things had slowed down.
Rover had built a prototype car, an electric model, as early as 1888, and it built both cars and trucks under license until the end of WWI. The company had a series of ups and downs in the years between the wars, some of them its own doing and some being just bad luck. Military contracts would again revive Rover during WWII, and the Fifties and Sixties would be the best years for the company. It was after the war that Rover’s subsidiary of Land Rover would take off, and it is Land Rover’s current parent company of Tata which now holds the rights to the Rover name. During the Fifties, Rover was one of many companies which started experimenting with the idea of turbine-powered cars.
Although Chrysler often gets the most credit in this department, Rover had a mid-engine turbine prototype called the JET1 (a far cooler name than Chrysler’s "Turbine Car") in the early Fifties. Rover would even build a turbine prototype racer, which would run in the 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans. Since there was no class for turbine cars, its results didn’t count in the final standings, but the car completed 310 laps, the same number as the seventh-place overall finisher, an AC/Shelby Cobra. This turbine technology allowed Rover to make advancements in turbocharging technology.
This in turn was combined with the work being done with Land Rover in the area of small diesel engines, and the result was some of the most advanced and efficient small diesels of the day. It was also during this period that the infamous Rover V8, derived from a design purchased from GM, made its debut. In 1967, Rover was acquired by Leyland Motor Corporation, which had been buying up several smaller British carmakers. The following year, this joined with British Motor Holdings to become British Leyland. The company, which would be partially nationalized in 1975, would come to own as much as 40 percent of the entire British auto industry.
This is a fact widely regarded to be a not entirely good thing. Early BL models included the Morris Marina and the Austin Allegro, both widely regarded as terrible cars by the end of their production runs. Labor problems during the Seventies led to a reputation for some of the lowest quality automobiles produced anywhere in the first world. Technological stagnation didn’t help much either, and the partial government buyout did next to nothing, as there was no accompanying change of business practices. The company’s name was changed in 1986 to Rover Group, and government shares were sold off to British Aerospace in 1988, re-privatizing the company.
Pieces of the company were sold off over time, with Jaguar and Land Rover going to Ford, for example, before the whole thing was bought by BMW in 1994. BMW made a serious effort to return the company to profit, but it was effectively dead, done in by a couple of decades worth of terrible products. So BMW held on to Mini and sold off everything else piecemeal starting in 2000. Britain had lost control over a huge portion of its own automotive industry as a result of putting so many eggs in a badly constructed basket.