John Kemp Starley was born in Walthamstow in 1854, the son of a gardener. In 1872, at the age of 22, he moved to Coventry to work with his uncle, James Starley and William Hillman. They were building Ariel cycles, otherwise known as Penny Farthings.

In 1877 he set up on his own account, starting Starley & Sutton Co with William Sutton - a local cycling enthusiast. They set about developing safer and easier to use bicycles than the prevailing penny farthing or "ordinary" bicycles. They started by manufacturing tricycles. In 1883 their products were being branded as 'Rover'.

In 1885 Starley made history when he produced the Rover Safety Bicycle - a rear-wheel-drive, chain-driven cycle with two similar-sized wheels, making it more stable than the previous high wheeler designs. 'Cycling Magazine' said the Rover had 'set the pattern to the world' and the phrase was used in their advertising for many years. They were right, though it had been in development for many years before Starley decided he'd perfected his designs. A key step was the classic diamond frame designed the year before in 1884.

Starley's Rover Safety Bicycle is usually described by historians as the first recognisably modern bicycle, and can still make it into lists of the greatest inventions of the last couple of hundred years. It had equal-sized wheels, chain drive, a sprung saddle, cross-frame, crank and bottom bracket: essentially every element of the modern bicycle. This new "safety bicycle" was an immediate success and was exported across the world.

In 1889 the company became J. K. Starley & Co. Ltd and in the late 1890s, it had become the Rover Cycle Company Ltd. Soon after his death due to a heart attack in 1901, the Rover company Starley founded began building motorcycles and then cars.