The Land Rover: Brothers in Arms

Cars People

Having created the Land Rover, the Wilks siblings defined an automotive generation

They were both to be found in the top ranks of Rover from the 1930s through to the 1960s, successfully steering the company through the depression, the Second World War and postwar austerity.

Between them, brothers Spencer and Maurice Wilks created in Land Rover one of the most popular, long lasting and successful marques in history.

Maurice, Rover’s then Technical Director, conceived the idea of the Land Rover, and his elder Brother Spencer, the Managing Director, made it happen.

While much is written about Maurice there is little to be found about his largely unsung brother Spencer, a giant of the automobile world bereft even of his own Wikipedia page!

Spencer Bernau Wilks was born in 1891 in Hayling Island and after serving as a Captain in the First World War came home and married Kathleen Hillman. From a career point of view he married well.

Kathleen was the one of the six daughters of William Hillman, the owner of the Hillman Motor Company, which had made him a millionaire manufacturing mogul.

The Hillman Company was a major outfit with four factories in Coventry and one in Germany. When the big man died in 1921 Spencer took over joint control of the firm with another son in law John (later to be Sir) Black.

Spencer Wilks

When the Rootes brothers bought the firm neither Wilks or Black could put up with their new policies so they both stood down and Spencer Wilks took a position at Rover which was to dominate both his own, and the company’s future.

In 1929, when he entered the company, Rover was struggling financially. The astute Spencer could see that its strategy was wrong and that it was building the wrong kind of cars. His position was not yet one where he could make radical changes.

A year after his appointment he brought in reinforcements in the shape of his Brother Maurice, a talented designer and technician who had learned his trade in Detroit for GM and had followed his elder brother to Hillman.

By 1934 they had been instrumental in returning the company to profit.

Spencer, now rewarded with the Managing Directorship of the firm, was able to implement his own strategies. He had long seen the futility of competing with Ford and Austin at the cheaper end of the market and now took the Rover brand upmarket making bigger more expensive cars.

With the Second World War looming, Spencer volunteered Rover for the shadow factory scheme and they went into action producing aero engines, both brothers working closely with Frank Whittle on the development of the jet engine.

With the war over they were left with a hugely expanded factory, a shortage of steel and tough government trade policies. It was into this chasm that Maurice’s light bulb moment dropped and the Solihull plant set out on a production run which will only end this December, 67 years later.

Maurice Wilks

While the Land Rover was Maurice’s initial concept, and that has no doubt (quite rightly) earned him his wiki page, it was his more senior brother Spencer who shouldered the risk and responsibility that breathed life into what was to become one of Britain’s most successful brands.

Maurice died unexpectedly in 1963 whilst holding the position of Chairman at Rover. Spencer had stayed at the company becoming chairman in 1957. Even after retiring in 1962 he stayed on as a non executive board Director and in 1967 only four years before his own death at 81 he was appointed president of Rover.

With their many achievements and a legacy that far outlived them, the Wilks brothers must be one of the most innovative and powerful sibling partnerships the industry has ever seen.

And over fifty years at the top of British motor manufacturing must class Spencer Wilks as one of the most successful and durable bosses in the business, one we think deserving of a little more attention.

In a strange twist of fate it is Spencer’s photo that graces Maurice’s entry on the Wikipedia site.


One Response to “The Land Rover: Brothers in Arms”

  1. 13James13

    Very interesting!
    However, i thought the British army had asked car companies if they could produce something like the US’s 4×4 Jeeps, after the second world war and the Rover company just took up the challenge and produced the series one LandRover and Austin produced the Gypsy and the Champ? So, these Wolks brothers just responded to a requirement, rather than miraculously coming up with the world beating Defender on a whim, -as the title here seems to imply.