Steve Cropley's tribute to one of Britain's most distinguished car designers, who died yesterday
Steve Cropley Autocar
5 October 2010

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.

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"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."

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5 October 2010

[quote Autocar]Royden Axe,[/quote]

What a great name. It evokes an image of a leather helmeted figure, matching goggles, oil spattered face, flys in teeth racing vintage Bentleys and flying Vickers' Supermarines in air-races.

I remember the Sunbeam Rapier from my childhood: a bonny car and a testiment to a talented designer. Shame the British car industry had not the resources to utilise such talent to its full potential. Could be said of many other sectors of UK industry of that era. Sad. And sad to see him gone. Born the same year as my Dad. It's these little details that help to identify with the family's loss. Respect for the man, coldolences to the family.

5 October 2010

A sad loss. I think that Rover's designed when Axe was in charge were some of the smartest looking mainstream vehicles. Impressive considering the cost constraints he had to work with compared to the lavish budgets enjoyed by the competition. Saying that, the UK motoring press still unfairly slagged off 'dowdy' Rover cars at every opportunity. Looking back with relatively fresh eyes I can only say that they were extremely unfair on Axe and his team.

5 October 2010

Sad news, he was a great designer, very talented, RIP.

5 October 2010

Very sad, my condolonces to his family, who must be very proud of his achievements. I am a regular reader of, & they announced last week that his autobiography "A Life In Style" is due to be published on the 15th October. I for one can't wait to read it.

currently a happy owner of a Mitsubishi Shogun Pinin :)

5 October 2010

As others have said, sad news indeed. Cars like the MG EXE and the Rover CCV were what inspired me in becoming a car designer. The Java was very special too. He was responsible for creating a distinctive look for Rovers in the 80s and 90s, there must be a few chiefs out there who were guided and influenced by him. Sad news.

5 October 2010

The Simca/Chrysler/Talbot Alpine must rank as his greatest achievement (IMHO) – being a true precursor to the type of family hatchback which all mainstream car makers aspired to in the 1980s. With the Rover 800, he set the template for 80s Rovers, paving the way for the highly successful R8 range, which we all thought had saved Rover’s bacon. I really wanted to be a car designer as a youth, and started training to be one, but for various reasons drifted away from it. Reading Roy Axe’s story make me regret that decision – he made it all sound great fun (even the Montego!), and very rewarding – a car man to his boots. RIP Roy Axe – you’ll never be forgotten by people who truly care about car design.

5 October 2010

[quote Mr_H]The Simca/Chrysler/Talbot Alpine [/quote]

My old Papa had one of them. A brown one.

7 October 2010

It's become fashionable to use the word "Rover" as a shorthand for the failure of the UK owned motor industry but a lot of the cars that Roy Axe was involved in were good machines and had a cleaness to their lines that is in contrast with some of the overfussy tripe that we see today - and were usually produced against a backdrop of both industrial and managerial unrest. RIP, Roy, you did a great job in often trying circumstances.

7 October 2010

[quote Mr_H]The Simca/Chrysler/Talbot Alpine must rank as his greatest achievement [/quote]

Indeed it was.

But how much fun can it have been to style a car as well as the Rover 800 and have it so compromised by poor engineering and build quality ?

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