Rochdale Motor Panels

Rochdale was not only one of the most successful kit car firms of the 1950s and 1960s but something of a pioneer in the use of glassfbre in cars, a fact which is seldom appreciated. During its 20-plus years, it sold almost 1,500 cars and bodyshells.

Rochdale Motor Panels was formed in 1948 by partners Harry Smith and Frank Butterworth, their first premises being in Hudson Street, Rochdale, Lancashire. They were panelbeaters who soon acquired a good reputation and who initially concentrated on repairs to motor cars. A friend of theirs, Denys Wolstenholme, introduced the partners to motorsport in the form of the 750 Motor Club and they were soon asked to produce a simple but attractive aluminium bodyshell. About six of these cigar-shaped bodyshells were produced to fit the Austin Seven chassis, and Dave Rees raced one for many years. The car is still in competition, raced by Dave's wife, but fitted with a more modern bodyshell.

Building bodyshells in aluminium was an expensive and time consuming process and they soon discovered the advantages of glassfibre. Although not the first in the field to produce bodyshells in this material - the RGS Atalanta probably started it all off - the partners were in almost at the beginning. By March 1954, they were marketing their first bodyshell in GRP known as the Mark VI., because Harry thought that customers might not buy it if it was called a MkI!
It was a bare shell, sold in pieces to be cut to fitwhatever chassis was used, from 6' 9" to over 9' wheelbase. The doors were then made to fit the gap. The Mark VI was sold until 1961 and it is estimated that around 150 were made.

Another two bodyshells, the C-type and the F-type, came on the market in 1954. They too were bare shells and normally sold with no internal framework of bulkheads. The C-type took it's shape and name from the Connaught ALSR. Although it could be modified for other lengths, it was a one piece shell aimed at the common 7' 6" wheelbase. No passenger door was cut as standard and the grill opening was left to the builder to cut open. It was often used on a racing chassis, as was the F-type. This too was a one-piece shell and name after a similarly shaped Ferrari sportscar. As a rough guess, some fifty of each type were sold up to 1961.

The Rochdale ST resulted from a desire to appeal to the burgeoning roadgoing ratherthan racing specials market: these customers wanted a body that would bolt onto the chassis they had which was usually a pre- or post-war small Ford without the need to contruct their own mounting frames, bulkheads and inner wheel arches. On the market by late 1955, the ST sold reasonably well; probably about 100 were made.

The biggest success by far for Rochdales was their GT, which was announced in April 1957 and had been developed from their F-type shape by a young man who went on to design the Rochdale Olympic - Richard Parker. Although no one person designed these cars, it was really a team effort with Harry and Frank also contributing towards the final shape. There were few 2+2 fixed-head coupes that would bolt straight on to the Ford chassis, and none as pretty as the Rochdale GT, so a ready market was found, and it is estimated that more than 1300 were sold up to the great factory fire in 1961. Both 'Motor' and 'Autosport' ran sizable articles on the GT, marking it's acceptance in the motoring world.

Rochdales felt that a more sophisticated open tourer might do better than the ST; the result, developed from the GT was the Riviera. It was sold as a two-seater or a 2+2 with optional hard top. The Riviera came on line in late 1959 but was only produced until February 1961, so it's not surprising that less than 50 were made.

The final development from Rochdales before the introduction of the Olympic was the companies own chsasis, which was supplied with the GT or Riviera, bonded in to a one-piece floor moulding, which was itself bonded to the body, making a stiff and light car. It was offered from the beginning of 1960.

Seeing the sales success of the GT body, and finding it gave considerable strength to the flimsy Ford ladder chassis, it was perhaps inevitable that thoughts would turn to a glassfibre monocoque, especially with the lively mind of young designer Richard Parker at work. The announcement of the Lotus Elite (the first monocoque in GRP) confirmed the move and after considerable development work financed by the sales success of the GT, Rochdales were able to annouce the Olympic in October 1960.

Richard Parker whilst at university had carried out a lot of work on the GT during his holiday breaks, and he was entrusted with designing the Olympic, quite a challenge for a young man almost working on his own. After two years and 10,000 pounds spent, the car finally entered production.

The glassfibre Olympic is extremely light, strong and aerodynamic, with easily maintained running gear it is a practical and distinctive classic. It was sold either as a complete kit, with all new component parts assembled for the purchaser to complete, or as a basic kit for the builder to supply his own running gear and trim. Only a few were sold fully assembled by Rochdales. The most commonly fitted engine for the Olympic Phase I was the Riley 1.5 which gave a top speed of 106mph, and a 0-60mph time of 11.7 seconds. Other engine options were the Morris 1000, MGA, Ford Anglia 105E, Ford Classic 109E, Ford Popular 103E or even the Coventry Climax.

The car was tested by numerous motoring magazines, all of which were highly impressed, and sales would undoubtedly have taken off were it not for the disastrous fire which destroyed the Hudson Street factory along with all the moulds in February 1961. A few Olympics were hurriedly pushed out onto the street before the falmes engulfed the entire factory. Alternative premises were located firstly in Duke Street then Littledale Street when new moulds were made and production was resumed for the Olympic.

January 1963 saw the launch of the Olympic Phase II, with numerous improvements including an opening rear hatch, underfloor spare wheel, and the Ford 1498cc engine, often in Cortina GT form. Icwt lighter than the Phase I, the Phase II would top 115mph, and give a 0-60mph time of 11.7 seconds. Production tailed off by 1966 and ceased completely in the early seventies, by which time 250 Phase I and 150 Phase II cars had been sold.

Richard Parker left the company to work for Colin Chapman at Lotus, working in particular on suspension design for the Lotus 20 and 30 sportscars; he later moved to Ford in Cologne before forming his own jet propulsion boat company, PP Jets.

Harry Smith and Frank Butterworth are now retired and still live in Rochdale.


Formed in 1981, the Rochdale Owners Club is the only club solely devoted to the marque, and now has just over 100 members worldwide, and an unparalleled spares service for members. Olympic windscreens, for instance, are unique to the car, and are available throught the club; also recent efforts have been made to stock all the bushes found in the Olympic, but in superior polyurethane.

The club organises a major annual kit car show at Capesthorne Hall, Macclesfield, and produces a high quality, award winning quarterly magazine packed with useful and entertaining Rochdale articles.

Two registrars keep a track of all known Rochdales made, and advice is freely available. They are always kean to hear of 'new' finds.

Early Rochdales Registrar
Malcolm McKay
75 Woodmansterne Road
Surrey SM5 4JW
Tel.: 0181-643 4321

Olympic Registrar 
Paul Narramore
31 Beresford Road
Kit's Coty
Kent ME20 7EP
Tel.: 01634-683752

Secretary & Membership 
Alaric Spendlove
7 Whitleigh Avenue
Devon PL5 3BQ
Tel.: 01752-791409


© and Copy, 1996-2000:

Pal Negyesi with Malcolm McKay