David Morgan looks at how the re-introduction of the Rover grille from November 1991 helped raise the company’s profile. Did it succeed in meeting the aims its Designers had for it?
Okay, so I’m devoting an entire article to talk about an item of ornate trim, but bear with me as the importance of the characteristic chrome-framed radiator grille on Rover’s cars should not be underestimated. Aside from helping to raise the aspirational perception of the Rover brand, the re-introduction of the grille also provided a more coherent family identity on models that were often constrained in their styling through either licensing agreements or being an updated version of an existing model.
Rover Cars was not alone in recognising that a radiator grille was seen as a symbol of prestige. Back in 1989, Toyota was about to unleash its new Lexus brand to enable it to sell premium-priced luxury models in lucrative markets such as North America. Taking inspiration from the grille design found on the W126 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the Lexus LS400 may not have had lineage to trade off but recognition that an elegant grille design can convey perceptions of distinction and pedigree was definitely a step in the right direction. Then again, Mazda might disagree when recalling its own short-lived Xedos sub-brand…
For Rover it was more about recreating a visual sign-post to its once illustrious heritage. Since the launch of the P1 in 1933, Rover’s range of saloons cars had featured a recognisable full-depth grille design consisting of a chromed surround with a central vertical spine and corresponding vertical radiator vanes finished in silver.
With the exception of the P6 2000, this was a design template that would remain unswerving to fads and fashions for the next four decades, with occasional minor tweaks leading to its stylistic highpoint on the P4 and P5 models.
More than just a pretty face
When Rover’s Designers were looking for inspiration for a grille design for the 600 Series (SK1), it came as no surprise to find the P4 and P5 grilles were commanding the most attention. Design Director Gordon Sked led the challenge to revive an important reminder from Rover’s past, with the need for it to form an integral part of the design brief.
As Denis Chick, the former Product and Communications Strategy Director at Rover Cars recalled, when the decision was made to add the Rover grille, it brought the challenge of getting the proportions right so that it could be applied to different models. The plan was to stylise the grille into a more squat shape over that of the P4 and P5, with only slight variations to the same basic design in terms of proportion and form. This was so that it could accommodate the engineering needs of various Rover models. It was an entirely in-house project with design reviews being held at the Canley Design Studio.
The 600 Series was actually an all-new design produced under a licensing agreement with Honda, with some of its body pressings being shared with the Honda Accord. Despite this, it still presented sufficient artistic freedom to deliver an upright grille design with much presence, supported by slim headlamp treatments and a shallow bumper profile. From every, angle it implied that the exterior design process had started with the grille and everything else had followed on afterwards.
Compromised roots, elegant solution
While the 600 Series had been the first model to be designed with a grille treatment, it would be beaten to the showroom by the second-generation 800 Series (R17) and 400 Series (R8). As already covered on AROnline, the second-generation 800 Series (above) was formally announced in November 1991 and would be the first model to test the buying public’s reaction to the ‘drive down Memory Lane.’
Compared with the 600 Series, the R17 presented a whole host of different challenges. These centred on having to work within existing parameters such as the surface form of the front wings and bonnet edge, as well as carryover headlamps. Despite this it did not detract from the overall result and it was well received by the buying public.
As the R17 was a heavily updated version of the previous generation 800 Series, for reasons unknown, the Designers specified that the vanes were finished in satin black. This would change to a silver finish from January 1996 to tie in with the launch of the KV6 engine and other associated colour and trim enhancements.
Up where you belong… the 200/400 Series
The 400 Series (R8) was actually a new design when thoughts turned to giving it the grille treatment. In addition, it was also experiencing healthy sales against the likes of the Volkswagen Jetta and entry-level versions of the BMW 3 Series. However, the strategy for the saloon bodystyle had always been to reaffirm it as a more upmarket prospect to the 200 Series hatchback, hence why it had a higher nomenclature.
This was further emphasised in a minor cosmetic update for the 1993 Model Year which included a new deeper front bumper and a chrome radiator grille. The enhancements worked particularly well, with the revised front indicator lights featuring quarter-circle shaped trailing edges giving the grille a more agreeable profile. As with the 800 Series, it had a satin black finish to its radiator vanes.
However, Rover Cars had not envisaged the reception for the new grille, with many Rover dealers being inundated with requests to retro-fit it to older versions of 400 Series and even brand new 200s. The original plan for the 200 Series had been to keep its sleeker low bonnet profile in order for it to have a different image to the 400 Series but, by the time the 1993 Scottish Motor Show arrived, the company had relented and announced its intention to fit the radiator grille to all variants of the R8 200/400 Series line-up for the 1994 Model Year.
The Rover 600 Series duly followed from April 1993 with the silver finish to the vanes looking particularly elegant. In many ways the grille’s more upright stance conveyed a stronger link with Rover’s past which helped give the 600 Series greater stature against its opposition.
Don’t get me wrong… the Rover 100 Series
With the traditional radiator grille now firmly established as the corporate ‘face’ of the Rover brand it came as no surprise to find it would be extended to an updated version of the Rover Metro from December 1994. The Metro itself, to be renamed as the 100 Series for sale in all markets, presented a different set of challenges based not only on cost, but also the fact it was competing in the supermini market where the emphasis was on youthful design.
Rather than create a bold statement through the grille treatment, Rover’s Designers instead chose to offer something more subtle. This was achieved by the grille panel itself having the outline shape of the Rover corporate grille forming part of its moulding and not being a separate-fit part. It was also painted to match the rest of the bodywork. The vertical radiator vanes were finished in satin black while the Viking longship badge sat in place of an obvious central spine.
This approach not only delivered an effective mid-life refresher to the Metro/100 Series but, at the same time, also demonstrated the flexibility to embrace the grille’s design in a more contemporary and understated style.
Modular designs and performance intentions
The 400 Series (HHR) was unveiled in March 1995. Like the 600 Series it sat below, it was an all-new design for Rover Cars which presented a greater opportunity to emphasise the grille as a central part of the design brief. This was aided by HHR having a modular front end where all the surface area below the bonnet’s high leading edge formed part of the bumper moulding.
Rover’s Designers took this as an opportunity to deliver a more upright grille profile to that of the R8 200/400 Series, which HHR was a partial replacement for. At the same time the grille’s overall shape was emphasised more by not extending it to the edges of the headlamps. As an all-new design, the HHR’s grille vanes were finished in silver. Collectively, this more confident expression of the Rover grille added a shot of much-needed character to a model heavily based on the Honda Domini/Civic.
A similar design approach also extended to the new R3 generation Rover 200 Series unveiled in October 1995. As an entirely in-house project the R3 project had presented plenty of freedom for considering various grille treatments. This included different sizes and finishes for the grille’s surround to appeal to a younger buyer.
More of the same
After much deliberation, Rover’s Designers, now under the direction of David Saddington, settled on a squat chrome grille with silver finish vanes. This approach worked well as the rest of the body’s design was already conveying an overtly youthful interpretation of Rover’s design language, with the grille giving it a more premium look.
From late 1996, when Rover’s Designers were starting to look at some interesting design concepts based on the HHR and R3, attention turned to how the grille could deliver a more obvious message linked to performance. Thoughts turned to replacing the vertical vanes with woven mesh, similar to that found in a Bentley grille, although the grille’s frame with central spine would remain unchanged.
The Rover 425 V6 limited edition and 200 BRM LE were two design concepts to showcase this ‘performance’ message at the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show. Whereas the 425 V6 featured a chrome finish to its woven mesh to link in with the grille frame’s regular chrome finish, the 200 BRM looked more contemporary with its sparkle silver painted finish to both the mesh and grille frame.
Only the 200 BRM was ultimately signed off for production, with showroom-spec examples starting to leave the assembly line from September 1998. The production-approved grille now featured a bright finish woven mesh in the regular chrome frame. No official reason was given why the design concept’s painted grille treatment had not been carried forward to production. However, one reason possibly centred round the chrome version having a more expensive and upmarket appearance.
The new face of Rover
In October 1998 Rover Cars unveiled the Rover 75 as the first all-new Rover design from the wheels up for more than two decades. Here was a clean-sheet opportunity to celebrate Rover’s heritage with references to past luminaries such as the P4, P5 and P6. What could be better?
The grille naturally formed an integral part of the early design process, with Richard Woolley and his team opting to deliver more curvature and weight to its surface form. The central spine now featured a mildly adjusted version of the Viking longship badge which incorporated the 75 nomenclature across its main sail. To many observers the 75’s overall design came across as one where the grille had been the starting point with the rest of the car following.
Performance versions of the Rover 75 were not considered a priority under BMW’s ownership. Despite this, it did not stop Rover Cars from wheeling out an interesting, if ultimately stillborn, Sport design concept (above) at the 2000 Geneva Motor Show. Described by some quarters of the motoring press as resembling a baby Bentley, the 75 Design Theme featured an Anthracite metallic painted grille frame with central spine to match the bodywork. Bright finish woven mesh replaced the vanes in the main grille and extended to the new lower valance infill; itself finished in sparkle silver paint.
When Rover Cars had been sold off by BMW Group to Phoenix Venture Holdings in May 2000 elements of the Design Theme’s grille design would form the basis of the grille treatments to be found on the MG ZR, ZS and ZT saloons, announced in 2001. Rover’s loss was the MG brand’s gain.
Like a phoenix from the flames
However, before then, the grille design of the regular Rover 75 would influence those for the updated and renamed Rover 200 and 400 ranges. Unveiled at the 1999 London Motor Show under the heading ‘The new face of Rover’, the Rover 25 and 45 featured new ‘twin headlamp’ clusters and bigger, more rounded grille designs. This has been achievable through the update programme extending to new front bumpers and changes in the pressings for the front wings and bonnet. For the Rover 45 the grille would now been fitted to the leading edge of the bonnet.
The grille designs for both models certainly conveyed more stature, with the 45 looking particularly pleasing and giving this medium-sized model a much needed air of authority against newer rivals. Both the 25 and 45 also featured their respective nomenclature in the centre of the Viking longship badge. The 25 GTi variant had its own subtle enhancement over that of the regular grille in the form of vanes finished in satin black and not silver.
Thankfully, the GTi’s grille treatment was more tasteful than the one conceived for the Rover 25 Matthew Williamson Art Car. Unveiled in February 2002 it featured Cerise-coloured chrome to the grille’s frame, centre spine and vanes – it was a one-off design concept, which was just as well as it had few supporters!
New direction from Birmingham
With the renamed and independent MG Rover Group actively considering various avenues for replacing ageing models such as the Rover 45, it came as no surprise to see them unveiling a design concept at the 2002 Geneva Motor Show. Conceived under the direction of Peter Stevens, MG Rover Group’s Director of Product and Design, the Rover TCV (Tourer Concept Vehicle) was a contemporary design which also sported a sharper looking grille profile to reaffirm the Rover brand was as much about forwarding thinking design as it was heritage.
While the realities of the TCV becoming a production model were slim, its grille theme would prove to be influential in future Rover product actions. The first of these was the ‘urban on-roader’ Streetwise unveiled in July 2003. Intended to offer some of the visual attributes of a conventional off-road vehicle but on a road-biased Rover 25 hatchback, the Streetwise featured a new bumper design with an unpainted grained texture. This incorporated a more angular grille profile as part of its moulding. Instead of vertical vanes there was mesh in a tessellated hexagon pattern finished in dark grey.
Completing the theme was a new rendition of the Viking longship badge finished in red, silver and black which would be progressively introduced on new and updated Rover models.
Streetwise, CityRover and… ignominy
Launched alongside the Streetwise was the CityRover, essentially a mildly revised version of the Tata Indica. The CityRover was built by Tata at its factory in Pune, India, for MG Rover Group to sell in their home market and central Europe. The arrangement was highly restrictive and it did not present MG Rover Group’s Engineers with sufficient scope to make significant changes. The most notable change on the outside was a redesigned front bumper.
The need to join a version of the Rover grille without changing the existing bonnet profile was undoubtedly a challenge. However, the use of a single chrome outline strip for the sides and bottom of the radiator grille added some much needed definition to the outline shape. The grille’s central badge spine formed part of the bumper moulding so was painted to match in with the main colour, while the grille’s vanes were finished in grey.
Given the many constraints MG Rover’s Designers had been presented with, the result was naturally not as convincing as perhaps they would have wanted. Even with a familiar British badge sat in the centre of its grille the CityRover struggled to be viewed as a serious proposition against more convincing budget-priced superminis that had been developed from the outset with Western tastes in mind.
The final countdown
Few observers had any doubt that MG Rover Group needed to keep up sales momentum by bringing out new models and also sustaining interest in their existing models through regular update programmes. New models were, of course, highly unlikely in the short and medium term compared to clever and low-cost revisions.
First up was the facelifted Rover 75 announced in January 2004. As the company’s most important model, the 75 had to appeal to a wider audience and at the same time still be able to cut it against a more dynamically accomplished compact executive rivals.
Along with new bumper designs, the Rover 75 sported a more chiselled profile to the grille’s corners, a wider centre spine and vanes now finished in dark grey. However, the update divided opinion, with some observers liking the grille’s more contemporary style while others felt that it cheapened the 75’s appearance and looked like it had been heavily influenced by a Lancia design.
For some critics the saving grace for the 75 came several months later with the unveiling of the new V8 (above) variant complete with a new Premium front bumper design featuring a full-depth grille. Unveiled at the 2004 Geneva Motor Show, this immediately drew comparisons with the one that Audi had unveiled at the same time to be used on its complete model line-up.
MG Rover Group maintained that their grille design had been inspired by that on the classic P5, with its outline shape also being like that of the Viking Longship badge. The reality was that the Premium grille design had been in existence within the MG Rover Group Design Studio for a while. As Kevin Jones, MG Rover Group’s PR and Brand Communications Manager explained in February 2005, ‘The Designers came up with a beautiful presence design which couldn’t be left on the drawing board.’
The full-depth grille featured a black central spine with a dark grey-finish to the mesh infill in the main grille and lower valance. The perimeter of the grille featured a one-piece chrome surround to give more definition. Aware that the Premium bumper might be considered by some buyers to be too radical, MG Rover Group fitted it as standard on the V8 and Limousine variants but, from July 2004, offered it as a £1250 extra cost option on the regular four- and six-cylinder models.
What might have been
However, as more recent sketches from former MG Rover Group Exterior Designer Lee Mitchell have confirmed (above), the plan was to use the Premium bumper design as an influential marker for another update to the Rover 75 which might have followed in 2006.
The final update to the Rover grille for production cars was announced in April 2004, this time for the 25 and 45. As with the Rover 75 and MG ZT variants, each Rover would feature a different bumper design to that of their MG counterparts to deliver greater brand distinction.
The 25 had a more angular profile to its grille’s shape emphasised by a slimmer chrome frame and featuring a main outer surround painted to match the main body colour. The grille’s inset featured a wider chrome-finish central badge spine and grey plastic side vanes. Together with new headlamp designs and a more sculpted looking bumper, it certainly had a more edgy profile to the version it replaced.
The 45 followed a similar route and actually looked more convincing with its chiselled surface forms, even if other aspects of the update were not as successful. Sadly, as with the other updates to Rover and MG models, it was not enough to prevent MG Rover Group from entering into administration in April 2005.
At the time of entering administration MG Rover Group had been working on a number of interesting variations of the grille theme for the model they envisaged would replace the Rover 45. Codenamed RDX60, the new model’s programme saw various grille treatments under consideration which continued to follow a more sculpted form with a chrome surround frame. This confirmed that the grille would have remained a core feature of the Rover brand and the next generations of models.
Since its re-introduction from November 1991, the Rover grille had undoubtedly experienced a number of interesting challenges as part of its remit to convey a stronger brand identity. Along its short but interesting journey there had been a need to work within existing design and engineering limits and also express more stylistic freedom through clean-sheet opportunities.
Then, in those last few years of the Rover brand’s survival, the grille also played an important part in putting across forward-thinking ambitions for both the brand and company – no small order for what was, at the end of the day, still an item of trim…
Eleven years after the demise of MG Rover Group the Rover grille is still a recognised symbolic reminder of the brand’s optimism for the future and a sense of honour towards reinforcing its illustrious past.
Too right, I am saluting 25 years of grille power!