The ‘Rochdale’ sports car

Between 1948 and 1973 Rochdale Motor Panels and Engineering on Hudson Street produced sports cars under the ‘Rochdale’ name, turning out about 15 car bodies a week at their peak in the 1950’s. The business was established by Frank Butterworth and Harry Smith who were entrepreneurs as much as they were panel beaters and mechanics. The ‘Rochdale’ went through a number of stages and developed various models through the years but the basis was a kit car featuring aerodynamic styling made possible with a fibreglass body. These bodies were moulded in a single piece and the whole, because it was sold as a kit car and therefore avoided purchase tax, was sold at an affordable price. Manufactured initially as racers rather than road cars, a GT model was introduced in 1956 which sold for £140 although one of the most popular was the Mark VI body shell which sold for £48.

By the mid 1950’s the company was adapting fibreglass shells to fit different chassis, the buyer having a choice of engine but most choosing a Riley 1.5 litre unit. Later the company produced a hatchback to fit a 1.6 Ford engine and special bodies were made to order, initially for Austin Seven chassis and specialist racing cars.

From 1957, following the ST model, a Rochdale GT was developed. 1350 were manufactured at the works and in time this proved to be the best selling ‘Rochdale’ of all. The GT was designed for the Ford Popular chassis and was based on the Rochdale F type racing body, a roof being added to increase the chassis’ stability compared to the open ST. The GT came ready-fitted with doors, bonnet and a stylishly curved windscreen.

Taking its name from the local lido at Norden, in 1959 The ‘Rochdale Riviera’ was produced as a convertible version of the GT. Costing about £140, there was the choice of a 2 or 4 seater version as well as the option of having a hardtop.

One of the key men in this story, apart from Butterworth and Smith, was Richard Parker who designed, in 1960, the monocoque (integrated chassis) ‘Rochdale Olympic’ which was only the third fibre-glass car to be developed after the Berkeley and the Lotus Elite. Parker went on to work for Lotus, then with Advanced Engineering at Ford in Germany and in the 1970’s launched a Skijet company. Rochdale Motor Panels sold up to 400 ‘Olympics’ from 1960 to 1972. However, a fire in February of 1961 at the garage on Hudson Street saw the destruction of the Olympic moulds and a great deal of business was lost before new premises could be set up at Littledale Street Mill off Spotland Road in 1962. In its new works, the company was soon back on its feet, developing a Phase II Olympic in 1963 based on the Cortina GT. Some lightweight versions of the Olympic were trialled at Silverstone with a 1.5 litre Riley engine, achieving speeds of 0-60 mph in 12 seconds. However, as they were designed with a flat underside and a rounded top, one of the cars became airborne and ended up in a field at track-side. Notwithstanding such accidents, Phase I and II of the Olympic were produced and modified through the 1960’s, costing around £930 fully-built.

Through the 1960’s the Rochdale models were beginning to be showcased internationally – in Copenhagen at a Racing Car Show and at the Geneva Motor Show. Available with left or right-hand drives, Rochdale cars were exported to many parts of the world. However, dwindling sales affected the company from 1966 and the company saw the end of the line by the 1970’s. The Rochdale Olympic was featured in the Northern Classic Car Show in 1985 as a collector’s item and by 1993 150 were known to exist including two in Canada, three in Holland, one in Malaysia and one in Japan. With its glass-fibre monocoque construction, the various models of the ‘Rochdale’ were sold to the top end of the market.

A ‘Rochdale’ Owners Club was founded in 1981 with members claiming, with good cause, that the cars were ‘pretty from any angle, they don’t rust and are economical.’ A Mark VI was featured in the London 2012 Olympic Rally and in 2005, as a mark of their importance to the town and to the specialist car market, the Rochdale Olympic was commemorated with a line of red metal cut-outs of the car on Nelson Street, commissioned by Rochdale Development Agency (RDA) and designed by Manchester-based artist Adrian Moakes.