Essay : Not their finest hour – the Rover 25 Art Car (Updated – apparently, it lives!)

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Update 16/3/2015:

This came in from AROnline reader Julian Ridge – apparently the Art Car is alive and, er, well.

Can anyone shed any light?

Hi Craig,

I enjoyed your feature about the Rover 25 Art Car in December.  In fact I think I saw it today, registered BP51 UBP (I think), crossing Lendal Bridge in York. Or perhaps there’s another rose gold Rover 25 with a pink interior out there…

Best wishes and thanks for an excellent site – I bet it’s hard work,

Julian Ridge

 

Craig Cheetham

In 2002, MG Rover engaged young British fashion designer Matthew Williamson to create a one-off Rover 25 as a PR stunt. It certainly grabbed a few headlines, but were they for the right reasons?

Back in 2002, social media was, at best, in its infancy. There was no such thing as Facebook, Twitter was yet to even be thought of, and as such the acronym ‘WTF?’ was very rarely outed in public.

And that’s a good job, because if it had been a regular feature of English slang at the time, nowhere could it have been more appropriately applied than to Rover’s 25 Art Car, unveiled in February 2002 to (apparently) try and drive the attentions of younger, more fashion conscious motorists towards the model.

Compared to the interior, the outside of the Rover 25 Art Car wasn't actually that bad. I wonder what happened to it?
Compared to the interior, the outside of the Rover 25 Art Car wasn’t actually that bad. I wonder what happened to it?

At the time, I was 25. It well and truly put me off, and I doubt I was the only one.

The car was conceived to coincide with the 2002 London Fashion Week and was revealed by supermodel Erin O’Connor, who had worked with the designer previously on more mainstream fashion projects. Like most thrusting young fashion designers, Matthew Williamson was somewhat avant-garde, so what happened when Rover gave him a three-door 25 to play with as a blank canvas was almost inevitable.

The idea of combining cars with fashionistas has become something of a phenomenon in the 21st century. The ‘Art Car’, however, has a more interesting history – BMW in particular being famed for commissioning famous artists to create works of art out of their cars. Maybe so soon after the famous divorce, Rover was trying to play BMW at its own game – but, if so, the consensus suggests that it failed.

In some respects, then, Rover was ahead of the curve in terms of predicting PR trends. It’s just a shame, therefore, that what came out the other end of the pipe was so truly and utterly hideous – a putrid pearlescent parody of a car that was already doing battle with an image problem. I dread to think what the hard-working, budget-less Designers and Engineers at MG Rover  thought of the Marketing Department, and where it was directing its dollars. Perhaps MG Rover would have been better off investing in more advertising, or a good old special edition…

But no, along came the horrific Art Car, with its gold and pink flip paint scheme, light-up translucent pink instrument binnacle and glovebox surround and tailor made Persian rug in lieu of a carpet. The cabin looked like it should have been Barbara Cartland’s dressing room, not helped by its pink velour seats, nail varnish-coloured rear view mirror and doily effect speaker grilles…

Pass the sick bag...
Pass the sick bag…

According to the press release at the time, Matthew’s inspiration for the car was ‘Bollywood meets the Moulin Rouge’. In translation, perhaps that means ‘badly decorated curry house’, but we’re not sure.

The release went on : “In his inimitable style, this racy little number has been painted in a pearlescent antique gold that flips to pink, a colour scheme which is echoed throughout the interior of the ‘Art Car’. The interior of the doors and the ceiling have been dressed in fuscia (sic) and gold Indian silk, with a detailed screen-printed design, while on the floor is a beautiful fitted Persian rug. The dashboard has been moulded in translucent plastic and backlit in pink. A specially commissioned pink leather covers the steering wheel and gear-stick.”

Sorry guys, but you’re not selling it…

According to the release, Matthew Williamson was internationally heralded as one of the finest fashion designers working from the United Kingdom. His distinctly whimsical and ultimately feminine creations had won over the hearts of not only the fashion pundits but also celebrities such as Madonna, Nicole Kidman, Elizabeth Hurley, Kate Moss, Jade Jagger and Helena Christensen.

Despite Williamson’s claims that cars were ‘the ultimate fashion accessory’, he failed to win over the hearts of the British automotive media, most of whom didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry when the 25 Art Car made its colourful debut. I was there at the time, and while none of them actually printed it, I heard more than one of them utter the phrase, ‘What the…?’

If only we’d had the acronym back then…

Craig Cheetham

A serial impulsive car purchaser, Craig has had his name on over 200 V5s over the past 20 years. 10 per cent of those have been either 800s or Austin Allegros, with between 10 and 20 cars usually owned at any one time. Started out as a local newspaper journalist then worked for car mags including Auto Express, Classic Car Weekly and Land Rover Owner. Worked inside the car industry for a decade as an employee of General Motors, now works for a news distribution agency. Home based, which is dangerously convenient for further irrational heap purchases. Lover of all makes of car since childhood, with a particular leaning towards Austin-Rover... Father of three boys, so hoping to spread the car love. Other passions include rugby union, travelling and eating out.

35 Comments

  1. The outside is ok, perhaps if you could choose what colour bumper inserts you had it would work better but the interior is a total nightmare. Too many colour clashes, a true artist would be appalled by it.

    As you say yourself, what’s wrong with a good old fashioned SE or LE? In 2002 MGR should have been getting a Commonwealth LE out on sale, I kinda like the idea of a Rover 25 ‘Manchester’.

  2. To add to this a bit, the Daily Telegraph reported in their Saturday supplement in May/June of that year (I still have my copy of the article) that MG Rover Group was going to produce one hundred examples. Clearly that was incorrect and for a number of valid reasons.

    The main problem was that Matthew Williamson had been given a free rein to ‘add his stamp’ to a motor vehicle, although he had not considered the potential technical constraints from an automotive perspective of transforming his ideas into an actual low volume production car. There was little overlap between the automotive realities of MG Rover Group’s design engineers and Marketing personnel and those of a fashion designer. For example, some of the trim items used would not have been suitable for use in a road-going production car because of their durability characteristics. However, at least the inclusion of modified wheel hubs enabled this ‘special’ Rover 25 to be fitted with the 17-inch version of the Serpent alloy wheel design with the five-stud design taken from the Rover 75. It actually suited it and filled the wheel arches more.

    The body colour was an interesting one as I always felt it should have been offered via the Monogram colour range. It ultimately was not and the colour had no official name.

    The association with Matthew Williamson did not end with the Art Car. At the 2002 British Motor Show, MG Rover Group had on display a limited edition Rover 25 Matthew Williamson LE. This took elements from the Monogram personalisation programme such as Chatsworth supertallic paint and Alpaca coloured leather for the seat facings, door casings inserts and transmission gaiter. However, it went one stage further and also featured tasteful twin-stitched needlework finished in pink (Matthew Williamson’s trademark colour). I remember ‘crawling’ over it at the British Motor Show and thinking it was a very nice car, and the pink needlework was subtle and tasteful.

    An A5-sized landscape style sales leaflet was eventually unveiled for this LE to announce the fact that fifty examples were going to be built. Sadly, for reasons unknown, this never actually happened. Who knows, but it might have help raised the image of the Rover 25 and the brand in general beyond the numerous value-for-money led special edition variations that had been wheeled out since June 2000.

    I understand the original Art Car still survives and is in private ownership. However, I do not know what happened to the more restrained 2002 British Motor Show Matthew Williamson LE. I recall from reading the VIN that it was based on a 1.4 iL.

      • Back in May 2002 I phoned up MG Rover Group’s PR and Brand Communications Manager (a great guy with an infectious appetite for both brands) to ask him whether the Art Car would available for accredited motoring journalists to drive. I was genuinely disappointed when he said ‘no’ based on the fact it featured so many non-production components.

  3. It would make a good taxi with that interior colour scheme. It makes that Rover 25 with the orange radiator grille seem subdued by comparison..

  4. The twin-stitched needlework was actually cerise, not pink, so it was even more tasteful than the thought suggests. Honestly!

    @ Adrian:

    I think you mean the Rover 200 BRM LE rather than a more recent 25-based derivative.

  5. @ Gav, it looks very camp, but it’s too overpowering, think of the kind of car Katie Price or Kerry Katona would drive.

  6. I agree with most comments here. The exterior looks OK but the interior is awful. I would never have wanted to buy one of these…

  7. Seems to be a bit of sense of humour failure here – it happened a lot from the MG RV8 onward. Nothing wrong with a bit of fun…

  8. I could imagine a twentysomething woman who buys HEAT magazine and plays Clubland CDs on the stereo buying this art car.

    • Well, that is a market, isn’t it?! Perhaps MG Rover would have been better off designing a car for them, rather than rebadging their grandma’s!

  9. I do hope MGR didn’t pay Matthew Williamson too much. Your average chav has been doing that sort of things to small hatchbacks for years.

  10. Rootes in the early 1960s actually had something similar to appeal to The U.S, They converted Imps which they thought Americans wanted… There was the Lady Imp for Her http://www.imps4ever.info/family/lord_n_lady/lady_imp.html and the Lord Imp for Him http://www.imps4ever.info/family/lord_n_lady/lord_imp.html Lord Rootes declared “We Mean Business with this one !” Sadly few were sold (Cant understand why?) But The British Born Hollywood Actor Carey Grant Bought one !

  11. Good gods!

    As Terry Pratchett might put it…

    “At least you know who really designed it… A 7 year old girl..”

    Still you could have done a cross-over version, for the Muppets.

    @ Glenn

    Nah, even Kerry wouldn’t buy that.. one, she couldn’t afford it; two. not even she could stand it.. and three; Kim Kardashian got there first…”

    Prizes for what book and film quote I just massacred.

    I hate to say it – but the gold and pink kind of works – in a please gouge out my eyes sort of way.

  12. I know who’d buy it.. Hyacinth Bucket, finally be able to pension off the Rover 200 to Onslow and co, or maybe as a present for Rose…

  13. Perhaps it predicted the rise of the second hand MINI with pink seat covers, “Princess on board” window signs and headlight eyelashes?

  14. 2002 Was the start of bling-bling. It was more noticeable thanks to the hip hop culture with big bling wheels on anything prestige not just US SUV’s. They say you can never call any Rover bling-bling and it shows.

  15. @ Will 101, 2002 was a bit of a fashion disaster too as a year, remember those mile high thongs that used to protrude out of women’s jeans and those shiny tracksuits with Adidas in big letters, so this car isn’t exactly unique for a lack of taste. Also the whole reality show/ z list celeb thing, which blighted the noughties, was taking off then.

  16. As Christmas, and its excess eating and drinking (especially drinking) has just passed – in more ways than one – that interior could have caused many melt downs.

  17. It is excellent. It would be a winner in the Turner prize. A Rover 25 Manchester? You could rename the engine Vulture.

  18. There is (or was – I saw it being towed on Friday) one in Doncaster, which my neigbours owned briefly: BD51TOU. I have a feeling that although the paintwork and most of the interior were the same, the gold wheels and pink bumper inserts may not have featured on that car.

    The same neighbours must have had a taste for unusual-looking cars, as they also owned a Scenic RX4 and a Multipla after the Art Car-alike.

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