HISTORY OF A LEGEND
1940 The first Solihull-built production Hercules engines were tested in October, and other Rover plants also produced Bristol aero engine components. On the night of 14 November, apparently in response to an RAF raid on Munich, the German Luftwaffe attacked Coventry.
Radio guidance systems provided the bombers with unusual accuracy, and most of the city center was destroyed, including the Rover car works in Helen Street. The board was told: “Our Coventry works have been severely damaged. It has been necessary to transfer the offices, and these are now being located in that portion of the Chesford Grange Hotel, which is available.”
Land Rovers became the mainstay of emergency services, coastguards, the armed forces, roadside rescue, and police patrols. 1936–1939 Manufacturer since 1904 of One of Britain’s Fine Cars, Rover together with other Midlands motor manufacturers with the exception for a time of Nuffield, became involved with what was known as the shadow factory scheme. Britain was rearming, creating factories not only widely dispersed in case of air attack but also capable of dealing with sudden demands of the military in the event of war. Shadow factories were not secret.
The government expected them to have a deterrent effect on aggressors. Unfortunately they did not, the Munich Crisis of 1938 came and went, buying the country a little more time to make ready, and on 27 April 1939 the Rover board minuted: “Mr. Wilks (the managing director) reported that discussions had taken place with leading officials of the Air Ministry, and suggestions made by the Ministry that we should undertake the erection, equipment, and management of a factory for the manufacture of airplane engines.
He pointed out that in the event of war this scheme would mean the stoppage of manufacture of motor cars by us.” Rover had plants round Coventry and Birmingham, and the Air Ministry wanted it to run a new one at nearby Acocks Green. Rover was not to risk capital; the government was erecting the factory, equipping it, stocking it, and even providing the workforce.
In July 1937 Rover began making aero engine components, then on the brink of war, it was asked to manage a second, much bigger site at Lode Lane, on the northern edge of the Urban District of Solihull, southwest of Elmdon Airport. A few miles from Acocks Green and three times the size, employing 7,000, it was to build Bristol Hercules 14-cylinder air-cooled sleeve valve radial engines for the Royal Air Force’s new heavy bomber. Four of the 1700bhp (1267.7kW) 2360cu in (38.68litre) engines were to be used in the Short Stirling, prototypes of which were flying in May 1939 and which was to be assembled at the Austin works in Longbridge. Hercules engines were made in association with the Rootes Group at Ryton-on-Dunsmore, in a factory that had machine shops, assembly lines and test houses. Building work started in June 1939 and was completed by September 1940. Rover wisely bought up 200 acres of surrounding agricultural land.
1941–1945 Rover worked with Frank (later Sir Frank) Whittle’s Lutterworth Power Jets company, in the development and production of jet gas turbine aircraft engines. Power Jets’ production facility at Whetstone was small, so Rover was commissioned to develop the Whittle engine for production and manufacture. The plan was for Gloster Aircraft, with whom Rover was already working on Armstrong-Whitworth Albemarle (another Bristol Hercules aircraft) airframes, to build the aircraft. Whittle proved problematical but Rover’s role was momentous, engaging its engineers in advanced technology, which they were able to exploit long after direct connections with aircraft had ceased. The principles of gas turbines were well known, but because of the extreme temperatures and pressures they created, manufacture was regarded as almost impossible