The legendary drawing in the sand
He was constantly coming up with new inventions, both within and outside the automotive field, and patented many of them. His nephew Spen King, who also became a hugely important figure in the history of the Rover Company, described him as an 'instinctive' engineer, and this perhaps explains why Maurice Wilks had so little regard for keeping records. He liked nothing better than to try an idea out in the metal; it could be turned into a formal engineering drawing afterwards if it worked.
Maurice Fernand Cary Wilks, born in 1904, was one of three brothers. Educated at Malvern College, he gained his initial experience of the motor industry with General Motors in the USA, where he worked between 1926 and 1928. On his return to Britain, he became a planning engineer with the Hillman Motor Car Company in Coventry. His older brother Spencer was already there as Joint Managing Director with John Black, who would later become the authoritarian driving force behind Standard-Triumph.
Maurice Fernand —агу Wilks, born in 1904, was one of three brothers. Educated at Malvern College, he gained his initial experience of the motor industry with General Motors in the USA, where he worked between 1926 and 1928. On his return to Britain, he became a planning engineer with the Hillman Motor Car Company in Coventry. His older brother Spencer was already there as Joint Managing Director with John Black, who would later become the authoritarian driving force behind Standard-Triumph.
In 1928, however, the Hillman company was bought out by the Rootes brothers, whose reorganization of the company prompted many staff to leave. Several key people found their way to Rover, including Spencer Wilks, who was appointed as the company's General Manager in September 1929 and became Managing Director four years later. Maurice Wilks joined him shortly afterwards on the engineering side of the company; he was then twenty-five years old.
Maurice initially went to work on the Scarab, a rear-engined light car that was very much part of the old Rover management team's thinking. However, as the Depression had its effect on the motor industry, it became clear that the Scarab was not the way forward, and the project was abandoned.
At this stage Rover's business position was unstable. It was trying to compete in several different sectors of the market, and as a result was making a wide variety of very different cars. Spencer Wilks believed this was a mistake, and together with his brother, who had become Rover's Chief Engineer in 1931, set about planning a rationalized range of cars, sharing common components wherever possible. These cars were carefully designed to suit Britain's professional classes, a segment of the market that the Wilks brothers understood very well. Their introduction in 1934 was the beginning of a complete turnaround in the Rover Company's fortunes.
Spen King remembered that Maurice Wilks's enthusiasms in the 1930s also embraced flying. As a boy, King was taken for a hugely memorable spin in Uncle Maurice's light plane. In due course Wilks married Barbara Martin-Hurst, and they had three sons. Barbara's brother, William, was already making a name for himself within industry and many years later he would join Rover as its Production Director, later rising to the position of Managing Director.
When war came and the Rover Company's car-making activities were suspended, Maurice Wilks headed the team of engineers from Rover who were asked to prepare Frank Whittle's jet engine for quantity production. They began work in 1941, at Waterloo Mill in Clitheroe, but the task was not an easy one. Part of Rover's remit was to make 'any changes to the design that would facilitate the manufacturing process', as David S. Brooks explains in his book Vikings at Waterloo, and 'this remit was to subsequently bring them into conflict with Frank Whittle'.
Wilks and his team realized that there were inefficiencies in the Whittle design, and gained permission from the Ministry of Aircraft Production to redesign the engine. This worked so well that it became the basis of the eventual production engine, but Whittle objected to others meddling with his designs, and the Ministry of Aircraft Production tactfully re-allocated the jet engine development work to Rolls-Royce in 1942.
Spen King remembered an incident from this period: Maurice Wilks discovered that Frank Whittle shared his enthusiasm for the sport of fencing, and challenged him to a match. The fact that Wilks comprehensively beat him probably did not contribute to good relations between the two men! Though no longer involved with the jet engine project, Maurice Wilks would later put his experience to good use when he set up a team at Rover to develop gas turbine engines for road cars. Although the cars never progressed beyond experimental prototypes, the basic gas turbine work did lead to series production at Rover of small gas turbines as stationary power plants during the 1950s and 1960s.
Back in the Midlands, Wilks began to think about the cars that Rover would need after the war was over. It was probably his earlier experience with General Motors that persuaded him to look at what the Americans were doing, not least because they had continued to design and build new cars until 1942 and were consequently some years ahead of the European industry. Adapting the latest American ideas to British conditions proved very difficult at first, but after he had seen the 1946 Studebakers, with their revolutionary 'three-box' styling by Raymond Loewy, he realized that this was the way to go. The 1949 Rover 75 (the famous P4 model) was the result.
At this period Maurice Wilks was living at Blackdown Manor, near Leamington Spa, an imposing property set in large grounds. Not long after the war ended, he also bought two small farms in Anglesey, planning to use the cottage on one of them for family holidays. There was already a family connection with Anglesey, because Spencer Wilks kept his boat there and Maurice was also keen on sailing. It was on one of the Wilks family's visits to Anglesey that the famous 'drawing in the sand' episode occurred. By the summer of 1947 Maurice was turning his enthusiasm for a Rover 4x4 runabout into metal at the company's Solihull factory, and less than a year later the Land Rover went on sale; Wilks was just forty-four years old.
The huge success of the Land Rover was just one of the reasons why Rover rewarded Wilks's major contribution to the company by appointing him as a Director in 1950. He retained his position in charge of engineering, however, and did so again when his title was changed to Technical Director in 1953. Becoming Joint Managing Director with his brother Spencer in 1956, he appointed his deputy Robert Boyle to the position of Chief Engineer, but never lost his hands-on engineering approach. He remained Joint Managing Director until 1960, though from 1957 he shared the position with George Farmer after Spencer Wilks had been appointed Rover's Chairman.
In 1961 Maurice Wilks became sole Managing Director of the Rover Company, and in 1962 he was appointed Chairman. The company was then at its height as a force in the motor industry, and was just on the brink of introducing the revolutionary Rover 2000 (known internally as the P6), which would become its strongest-selling car model soon after launch in October 1963. Sadly, Maurice Wilks did not live to see that happen: he died of heart disease at his Anglesey holiday home on 8 September 1963. He was just fifty-nine years old.
Land Rover: 65 Years of the 4 x 4 Workhorse
James Taylor It was here in the summer of 1947 that Maurice Wilks (then technical chief of Rover) first came up with the idea of a worldconquering vehicle to kick-start exports for the ailing Rover car company. After World War II, steel was hard to come by and Rover needed it to build cars. However, the government demanded guarantees of overseas sales to boost the country's battered economy before supplies would be forthcoming
A stopgap model, one that appealed to foreign markets, was required to fill the company coffers and Wilks was the man with a plan. He and his brother Spencer (Rover's managing director) owned a farm on Anglesey where their families would take vacations. To get about the land, they used a war-surplus Willys Jeep bought from a neighbor back home in Warwickshire (Shakespeare country), but they soon found weaknesses in its design. The Wilks boys reasoned they could do better.
While some work was going on at the farmhouse, the family stayed at a tiny hamlet on Anglesey called Wern-y-Wylan, where a single-lane track takes visitors down to the vast sands of Red Wharf Bay. Maurice and Spencer walked out toward the ocean, talking about the idea and sketching a basic design for a new vehicle in the damp sand. It would offer the benefits of a tractor with on-road usability. It would be a Rover for the land. A Land Rover.
They bought another Jeep and fitted it with a Rover engine and gearbox. It worked. Then they commissioned a prototype known as the 'Centre Steer' due to its central steering column. This was far too complex, so the idea was shelved and the car dismantled. The legendary drawing in the sand was the design used for the Centre Steer, but subtle changes were brought in for the next prototype-the one seen here.
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