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The Rootes Group was a British automobile manufacturer, which was based in the Midlands of England. Rootes was the parent company of many well-known British marques, including Hillman, Humber, Singer, Sunbeam, Talbot, Commer and Karrier. The company no longer exists, having been taken over in stages by Chrysler, and subsequently sold to Peugeot and, in part, Renault.
Introduction & early history
Originally founded in Kent in 1919 by William Rootes as a car sales company, Rootes grew and took over other companies, and became one of the earliest advocates of the policy of "badge engineering". Hillman was intended to be the basic brand, Singer slightly more upmarket, Sunbeam was the sports brand, while Humber made luxury models. Commer and Karrier were the commercial vehicle brands, with Commer manufacturing light vans with the Karrier badge appearing on heavy vans and light duty trucks (mainly for municipal use).
Rootes was best known for manufacturing stolid, dependable, well engineered (and largely unexciting) middle-market vehicles. Famous Rootes models include the Hillman Minx, Singer Gazelle, Humber Super Snipe and the Sunbeam Alpine.
With the onset of the Second World War Rootes, like most other British car manufacturers, became involved with the production of armaments. In 1940, under the Government's shadow factory scheme, Rootes built its massive assembly plant in Ryton-on-Dunsmore, near Coventry, initially manufacturing aircraft, one of the first types being the Bristol Blenheim. Production included the RAF's other heavy bomber the Handley Page Halifax. Following the war, the plant was the main focus of the company's passenger car operations. Rootes also sponsored satellite manufacturing operations around the world, notably in Australasia and the Middle East. The best known example of the latter being the Iranian-built Paykan, based on the Hillman Hunter.
The Imp and Linwood
In 1963, Rootes introduced the Hillman Imp, a compact rear engined saloon with an innovative all-aluminum engine. It was intended to be a response from Rootes to rival BMC's popular Mini, and a massive new factory in Linwood in Scotland was built for its assembly. The move to Linwood was forced upon the company by the British government, which had introduced the principle of "Industrial Development Certificates" (IDCs). By their use, it was intended to concentrate new factory building in depressed areas of Britain. Thus, Rootes were not allowed to expand their existing Ryton plant, but instead were obliged to build in an area of Scotland where there was a shortage of work. The Linwood plant was a disaster for many reasons - chiefly the Glaswegian workforce who had no experience in motor vehicle assembly, and the build quality and reliability of the cars inevitably suffered. Another problem was that the component suppliers were still based in the Midlands, and the company incurred further costs in transporting half-finished engine castings from Linwood to be machined at Ryton and returned to Linwood once they had been assembled - at the same time as completed Imps returned south again – in all a 600 mile round trip!
The Imp itself was underdeveloped, and the aforementioned build quality and unreliability problems, coupled with buyer apathy towards the quirky design was reflected in poor sales. After a reasonably successful start in 1963-65, the Imp's fortunes in the marketplace went into terminal decline. Lost production caused by constant strike action by the Linwood workforce only added to the problems, and the mess was further exacerbated by crippling warranty claims. Rootes had no money left to develop its other models, which soon left the company in an uncompetitive position.
The Chrysler years (1967-1978)
By the mid-1960s, Rootes was taken over by the Chrysler Corporation of America, following huge losses amid the commercial failure of the troubled Imp. Chrysler was also only too keen to take control of the struggling firm as it wished to have its own wholly-independent European subsidiaries like arch rivals Ford and GM. Chrysler took over Simca of France at the same time, merging it with Rootes (now renamed as "Chrysler UK") to create Chrysler Europe. The Rootes name had largely vanished by 1971, and soon its other brand names were progressively phased out as the 1970s progressed. Only Hillman was left by 1977, when it too was shelved in favour of the Chrysler name. The Commer name was also retired in the 1970s, the famous van and truck manufacturer assuming the Dodge nameplate by 1976.
Chrysler UK soldiered on with a range of worthy but dull rear-wheel drive family cars like the Hillman Avenger and Hillman Hunter, while the Imp - which by now had most of its teething problems ironed out - was largely ignored by the new management. An attempt to take the Avenger to America as the Plymouth Cricket was aborted after only two years, and Chrysler's lack of interest in the former Rootes products was further reflected in its development of the Simca-designed Alpine/Solara and Horizon ranges instead. The Imp was finally laid to rest in 1976, and the Hunter followed it three years later. Only the Avenger-based Chrysler Sunbeam hatchback, launched in 1977 kept the Rootes lineage alive, although the Alpine name was still in use and later Alpine and Solara special edition models were given the old Rootes model names, Minx and Rapier. The rights to the Rapier name remained with the successors of the company, and were eventually resurrected again on a few "limited edition" Peugeot models.
Chrysler had spent much of the 1970s unsuccessfully trying to integrate its Rootes and Simca ranges into one, coherent whole. The traditionally-engineered, rear wheel drive cars of the British company never fit well in marketing terms with Simca's relatively advanced front-wheel drive hatchbacks. Build quality suffered, and the Ryton and Linwood factories were the subject of frequent government bail-outs. The resulting lacklustre product range, severe financial problems back home in the United States, coupled with a multitude of industrial relations problems in the 1970s led to the collapse of Chrysler Europe in 1977, leading to the company's 1978 takeover by PSA Peugeot-Citroen. PSA soon wielded the axe over the troubled Linwood factory in Scotland, and exhumed the Talbot marque from the pages of Rootes' history to rebadge the former Chrysler models. Whilst Ryton was saved, PSA took little interest in the heavy commercial vehicles and the former Commer/Dodge/Karrier truck and van factory was run in conjunction with the trucks division of Renault. After the withdrawal of the last Dodge-derived trucks (latterly badged as Renaults) it became a production plant for engines for Renault Véhicules Industriels.
The Peugeot years (1978-2007)
The first Rootes model to be killed under Peugeot's ownership was the Hunter in 1979, and its production tooling subsequently went to Iran, where the Paykan went into local production, which continued until 2004. It remains a common sight throughout the Middle East, especially as a taxi. The closure of Linwood in 1981 spelled the end (in Europe at least) for the Avenger. Chrysler had retained the rights to the car, and put it into production in Argentina. The Simca-based models (the Horizon, Alpine and Solara) continued to be built at Ryton using the resurrected Talbot badge for the first half of the 1980s. Eventually however, PSA abandoned the three marque strategy, and the Horizon replacement, developed as the Talbot Arizona became the Peugeot 309 in 1986, and was the first Peugeot badged car to be assembled at the Ryton plant. The Talbot badge was eventually laid to rest in 1991, whilst Ryton went on to assemble the Peugeot 405 and 306.
Ryton began assembling its last Peugeot - the 206, in 1998, and at the height of the car's success, the plant was working at capacity to satisfy demand. Despite this however, Ryton's importance in PSA's overall strategy was always marginal at best - merely being an assembly operation with limited production capacity compared to PSA's main factories in France and Spain. The writing was on the wall for Ryton when Peugeot announced that the new 207 would not be assembled at the former Rootes plant, and in April 2006, after years of speculation surrounding Ryton's future, the PSA Group announced that residual 206 production would move to Eastern Europe.
Production at the plant ceased in December 2006. It marked the end of nearly 60 years of car manufacturing at Ryton, and the end of the Rootes legacy. The plant was formally closed on 8th January, 2007, with the loss of 2300 jobs.