The Rover Safety Bicycle, developed by John Kemp Starley, changed all that. And the global success of the Safety Bicycle helped turn Coventry in the British midlands into England’s Detroit as other manufacturing concerns, such as Jaguar, Triumph and Sunbeam set up plants in Rover’s hometown.
From bicycles, Rover next produced motorcycles, and then in 1904, its first cars. Over time, Rover emerged as the sort of British Buick.
After World War II, the company developed the Land Rover off-road to compete with Jeep. Sales were slow but steady. And over time Land Rovers earned a reputation for being nearly indestructible. A descendent of the original 1948 Land Rover Series 1, today called the Defender, finally ends production this fall.
Rover’s cars were not full-out luxury machines like a Jaguar, Bentley, or Rolls-Royce, yet most Rover models offered advanced engineering and traditional wood and leather interiors. Rover began sales in the U.S. in the late 1950s and was only a minor player here, selling just a few thousand Rover cars and Land Rover off-road vehicles each year until the early 1970s.
Rover tried for a U.S. comeback twice, first in 1980 with the aerodynamic Rover 3500 SD1 five-door, and then in 1987 with the Honda-powered Sterling line of sporty sedans. Both ventures ended badly, and only Land Rover, which returned to the U.S. in 1986, found success.
By the late 1980s, British Aerospace had become owner of what was once British Leyland, Rover’s parent company. BMW bought the company in 1994, but after years of heavy losses, broke it up in 2000. BMW kept the Mini brand. Land Rover went to Ford, which already owned Jaguar, while the MG and Rover brands were sold to a group of British investors for 10 pounds. But five years later on April 4, 2005, MG Rover ran out of money.
MG Rover’s assets were auctioned off, and eventually most of the remains of the company were obtained by China’s Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. SAIC ended up with Rover’s technology and production equipment, but not the brand name, as well as the MG brand.