Conservatives bolstered Rootes fortunes in the '50s, but Labor and the Hillman Imp doomed it in the '60s

Of all the sad sagas told about the collapse of the British automotive industry, none is more depressing than that of the Rootes Group, and the once-respected marques it took down with it.

We all know about the demise of Rootes because of the death of the Sunbeam Tiger, when new owner Chrysler didn't have a suitable engine to replace the Ford 289, but there is more to the tale. Not unlike the fable of how for want of a nail, a kingdom was lost, this is the story of how one small car brought down an empire.

The story begins back in 1928, when the foundering Humber company sought to save itself by grabbing Hillman, which was even closer to sinking. As with many such mergers (think Studebaker/Packard in 1954), all this did was make the wreck heavier. But car salesman Billy Rootes and his brother Reginald, financed by Prudential Insurance, acquired the combined company in 1930.

Much the same story was repeated with struggling Sunbeam-Talbot, which the brothers took over in 1935. Billy was no engineer and cared little for technical excellence, but he knew what customers wanted.

Introducing the affordable Hillman Minx and more luxurious Humbers, Rootes gained the reputation of selling cars that were less expensive, prettier, and more fashionable than those of their competitors.

Offered VW after WWII, but turned it down

Ever the supersalesman, Billy turned his attention to selling the government on armored cars and bombers in WWII. Over half of all British armored cars, one out of six bombers, and nearly all staff cars came out of the Rootes factories. With the profits, Rootes was able to lease the huge Ryton factory in the Midlands after the war and turn its attention back to automobiles and trucks.

One interesting misstep during this period was when Rootes was offered Volkswagen as part of Germany's war reparations, but turned it down, since Billy didn't think the Beetle would have any appeal in the postwar world.

With war-time profits and manufacturing resources, the Rootes Company was able to capitalize on pent-up postwar demand for automobiles. To complete the story of Rootes's growth, the company easily swallowed up Singer in 1955.

Taking several pages from Alfred Sloan's management of General Motors, Billy Rootes focused each marque at a separate price level, making frequent model changes to encourage buyers to trade in and trade up. The third part of the Rootes strategy was to use the same basic components in as many different marques as possible, differentiating the cars on the basis of trim and accessories, a practice that later became known as "badge-engineering."

But what goes around comes around, and while Conservative government bolstered Rootes's growth in the 1950s, the Labor government brought about its demise in the 1960s. Rootes engineers proposed a compact rear-engined car, ironically to respond to competition from VW. The new, economical Hillman Imp was to use an 850-cc variant of the aluminum Coventry Climax firepump engine favored by Lotus.

But the Labor government refused to allow Rootes to expand Ryton, pushing them instead to construct a plant in Scotland near Glasgow as a part of the government's program to assist depressed economic regions.

There were a few problems with this scheme. Building a new plant, rather than simply expanding and reorganizing current capacity, is expensive. Unlike the Midlands workers, who had been manufacturing since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the Glaswegians had little mechanical or assembly line experience.

It made as much sense as the Allante

And all of the suppliers of the component parts were in the Midlands. So, for example, the rough engine blocks would be cast in Scotland, shipped 320 miles south for finishing and basic assembly, then shipped back to be installed in the cars, before they were shipped south to Ryton again for final distribution. It made as much sense as Cadillac's America/Italy/America trail for the Allante, and it turned out about as well.

All of this would likely have been an insurmountable economic burden on a tried-and-true automobile, but the Hillman Imp was anything but. On the contrary, in a company not known for its engineering innovation, this was all-new technology, and much of it was new to the market as well. The engines turned out to be light, powerful time bombs, known as "emulsion" engines for their ability to mix oil and water, with disastrous results.

Introduced in 1963, the Imp stayed in production through 1966, and in three short years, it effectively bankrupted Rootes. The failure pushed it into the arms of Chrysler, which was gathering up European companies in an effort to compete with Ford of Europe. Chrysler Europe, in turn, collapsed during the 1970s global downturn, to be taken over by PSA Peugeot-Citroën, burying nearly all vestiges of Rootes in the rubble.

There isn't a lot in the wreckage of Rootes to interest collectors, except for the Sunbeam Tigers and Alpines, and to a lesser extent the Sunbeam-Talbot automobiles of the 1950s. The Hillman Hunter, though a pretty basic sedan, did have some rally success, winning the London to Sydney Rally in 1968.

Think Minx, Gazelle, and Rapier

Aside from the obvious Sunbeam Alpines (both versions) and the Tiger, our particular favorites among the Rootes orphans are the trio of small sedans built between 1957 and 1966. These represented the peak of Rootes badge-engineering, differing only in appearance and price points.

The Hillman Minx, Singer Gazelle, and Sunbeam Rapier were virtually identical under slightly different body panels, but sported different grille and rear fender treatments, as well as varying quality of interior trims.

Should one of these turn up for sale in your vicinity, take a careful look. They sell for less than $10,000, and are pretty practical run-around cars. The Sunbeam Rapier in particular is almost pretty, and its cute little grille and tailfins show its origins at Raymond Loewy's design group, which also created the Studebaker Hawk.

Don't buy anything that requires any body parts, because trim pieces can be very hard to find. If you do find a Gazelle, Minx, or Rapier, drive it with pride as an appropriate memorial to the hubris of Billy Rootes and the short-sighted industrial policies of the British government.

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