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Going back to our Rootes

06 October 2015

Currently housed in the History Centre at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum is the Rootes Photographic Archive. Funding has been awarded by Arts Council England to digitise and preserve the material. This is the first large scale digitisation project that the Herbert has undertaken. Previously any digitisation of material has been carried out sporadically to create imagery for specific events or promotional material.

The aim of this project is to digitise the Rootes Photographic Archive and make it more accessible for the public to enjoy. The long term goal is to create a website to showcase these images. The photographs are an important resource for Coventry residents, ex-Rootes employees, social historians and motor enthusiasts alike.

Sir William Rootes, Brian Rootes and Geoffrey Rootes in front of their new Park Avenue showroom in New York.

Photographic material makes up a large amount of the overall Rootes Group Collection which also includes press cuttings, company minute books, financial ledgers and chassis build ledgers. There are approximately 26,000 photographic prints, over 100 photograph albums and 76,000 glass plate negatives, acetate negatives and transparencies. The Rootes photograph collection dates between the 1920s-1970s and documents the design, manufacturing and sales of Rootes Group vehicles across the UK and globally.

The archive highlights how photography as a medium has been adopted within the motoring industry. Rootes as a company used photography to document itself but also as a tool in the design process and as a means to advertise its products. From a social history perspective the photographs portray the people who worked for Rootes in the factories.

William Rootes founded his Kent based car sales company in 1913. He worked with his brothers to grow Rootes Motors Ltd in to a motor manufacturing empire. Between the 1930s and 1950s they acquired several companies including Coventry based firms Hillman, Humber, Singer and Sunbeam-Talbot.

Women sewing seat covers at Sunbeam Talbot British Light Steel Pressings Division, Acton

Leading up to the Second World War the company renamed itself Rootes Securities Ltd.  Under the government’s Shadow Factories scheme production switched towards a military focus. Two sites were used for the assembly of aircraft, one at Ryton-on-Dunsmore and the other at Speke Airport near Liverpool. A third site at Stoke Aldermoor was taken over for the production of armoured military vehicles. Photographs within the Rootes collection show the impact of war on manufacturing and on the workforce.

Blenheim bombers on the main assembly line at Speke.

From the Post-War years the Rootes Group were producing a number of marques such as the Hillman Husky, Hillman Super Minx; the Humber Sceptre; and the Sunbeam Tiger and Sunbeam Alpine. Photographs of motor shows and publicity shots demonstrate how the Rootes Group advertised their vehicles to target audiences and the tactics they used to do so.

Sunbeam Alpine series III, Geneva Motor show 1963

The Rootes Group also entered cars in to major UK and European rallies and races as a publicity strategy. Another large proportion of the collection covers rallying and racing from the 1950s-1970s and the social events which went alongside these events. A number of notable drivers are featured including Sterling Moss, Sheila Van Damm, Rosemary Smith and Bernard Unett.

Sunbeam Tiger driven by Lew Spencer

London to the Cape by Humber Super Snipe 1952

By 1967 however the Rootes Group was taken over by Chrysler due to financial failures, until 1978 when Peugeot-Citroen took over the reins. Peugeot cars were built at Coventry’s Ryton plant until closure in 2007.  The Rootes Photograph Archive spans six decades and ends with photographs made under the Chrysler takeover and ownership. The collection not only documents the rise and fall of a major UK motor car company but tells a wider story of changing trends in motoring.

Hillman Imp Prototype

Over the coming months we have a lot of work to do and will be keeping you up to date with our progress of digitising the collection. We hope to begin a series of regular drop-in reminiscence sessions for those who were previously involved with Rootes.


Written by Francesca Issatt, Rootes Digitisation Trainee

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