Royden Axe, Rover Group design chief through the 1980s, whose death at 73 has just been announced, will probably be best remembered for the Rover 800, the wedge-shaped executive saloon launched halfway through his Rover career in 1986.
The car was launched to give the beleaguered home manufacturer one of its many new starts, and — thanks to its Honda-based mechanicals — it looked for a while as if it might succeed.
Code-named the XX, the 800 was styled in what would become the highly regarded Rover Group design department. The team was created by Axe from a ragtag collection of BL remnants which he inherited on his arrival in Britain from Chrysler US, early in the ‘80s.
The 800 car lasted until 1998, and sold in reasonable numbers, given that the market for executive saloons was already in decline. The project reflected two of the popular Axe’s outstanding character traits, his practical nature — hence the Honda bits — and an optimistic, amiable nature that made him successful at encouraging his underlings. The car reached production considerably more quickly than most BL and Rover models before it.
Royden Axe was born in Scunthorpe just before the war, and developed his love of cars as a child. He became an apprentice at Rootes in the mid-‘50s, and moved to his ‘dream job’ of designing cars early in the ’60s.
The Hillman Hunter-based Sunbeam Rapier, whose shape owed quite a bit to the US-built Plymouth Barracuda, was his first design, and he became Rootes design director at the tender age of 29. Soon afterwards, Axe moved to the US with Chrysler, returning to the UK in his late 40s.Many good cars were produced on Axe’s watch at Rover, though few actually appeared because Rover couldn’t afford to put them into production. But the MG Exe concept car (penned by a young Gerry McGovern, now design director at Land Rover) was especially admired, and still looks modern today.
"He changed my life. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today because he gave me a chance," said McGovern. "I got to meet him and he sponsored me through college and got me to spend summers in his design studio at Chrysler.
"My fondest memory was working on the MG Exe project car. He taught me a lot about design. About form, sculpture and making a design work. Roy had a certain gravitas. He got the right balance of letting everyone know that he was the boss but also knowing how to get the best out of people.
In 1992 Axe set up a satellite design business, Design Research Associates, in Warwick, which penned, among other things, the Bentley Java concept car on a BMW chassis and played a leading hand in the Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph/Bentley Arnage. After a few years, Axe sold DRA to Arup and settled in Florida, where he died this week.
"Car design was a lot more difficult in Roy’s day as it was subservient to engineering," said McGovern. "But Roy was a pioneer in Britain in pushing design forward. Americans led the way in automotive design back then and Roy was one of the first to emulate their techniques which we are still using today."