Looking forward to this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show? Well, AROnline Contributor David Morgan will be casting his mind back 20 years ago to the 1997 event, which provided some much-needed inspiration for the future of the Rover Group and its respective brands.
Was it really just New Labour who believed things could only get better when they swept into office 20 years ago? Judging by the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show the answer was a resounding ‘No!’. Indeed, for some manufacturers the emerging theme was turning their hand to delivering automotive haute cuisine with Ready Steady Cook-style penny-pinching budgets and just 20 minutes of cooking time.
Even the same principles applied: take a collection of modest ingredients, mix them together with a generous spoonful of spice, flair and colouring, and then get the audience to show their support (and, hopefully, cheque book down at the local showroom). What could go wrong?
But then, this is how many manufacturers were developing those all-important niche market variants to add some much-needed pizzazz to their otherwise unglamorous menu of volume-oriented models.
Ford targets New Edge, Rover plays heritage card
Who could forget the how Ford’s talented Design Engineers, based in its Dunton Small and Medium Vehicle Centre in Essex, spent months rather than years using the New Edge design philosophy to complete the body styling for the Puma? Ford’s new small coupe may have shared the same underpinnings as the humble Fiesta, but it was in a different league when it came to driving dynamics.
Renault, meanwhile, adopted the same strategy of using an existing platform for its Megane Scenic, but in the process also managed to redefine the appeal of mid-sized multi-purpose vehicles.
Then there was the Rover Group which, despite having no new models to unveil in Frankfurt for the Rover Cars division, wanted to reinforce the importance of heritage for their three car brands – Rover, MG and Mini. Heritage was viewed by BMW to be an attractive asset of its British brands and they provided considerable encouragement to Rover to showcase this in a confident and intellectual style. At the same time this would also deliver an explicit exposition of the core values of each brand.
The curtains rise…
When the curtains were pulled back in Frankfurt on Tuesday 9 September there were no tacky clichés to smirk at, but instead a real sprinkling of conviction from headline-grabbing design concepts and limited edition variants. Everything looked rosy in Crossroads country.
For starters there were three intriguing design concepts for the Rover brand, each one based round an existing model, but fusing luxury and elegance with a twist of bespoke colour and trim detailing. The most memorable of them was the eccentric Rover 200 BRM (British Racing Motors), embracing 1960s-style Brooklands Green paintwork, Minilite-inspired alloy wheels, together with quilted red leather and turned aluminium detailing for the interior.
To the uninitiated it was a rather odd exercise where the inspiration had actually come from a gas-turbine race car built by the Rover Company Limited in conjunction with the Rubery Owen Corporation, owners of BRM, almost 35 years previously. This race car would complete a demonstration lap at Le Mans 24 Heures race in 1963 and become an official entry in 1965, finishing in tenth position overall.
Not just the 200 BRM
Upon reading the 200 BRM’s press release and viewing the two photos sitting on my desk I immediately said ‘Wow!’ before thinking, ‘I bet this won’t get built or it will be watered down in some noticeable way’. Thankfully those thoughts would prove to be unfounded as the 200 BRM would instead go on to provide some much needed quirkiness on our roads as a production model. It never failed to create a big grin from me. Too right, I loved it!
The Rover 425 V6 Limited Edition ’emphasizes traditional values of the Rover brand – British style, craftsmanship and elegance
If the 200 BRM seemed too extrovert in its character for some, there was always the Rover 425 V6 Limited Edition which had the 2.5-litre KV6 engine from the 800 Series under its bonnet. Inside the cabin there were swathes of dark green and beige leather and lovely polished aluminium heater knobs. Described in the press release as being ‘a new classic Rover’, the 425 V6 Limited Edition ’emphasizes traditional values of the Rover brand – British style, craftsmanship and elegance.’
As one former Rover Designer disclosed a few years ago, the rather showy chrome-finish alloy wheels were actually an existing item not originally conceived for the 425 V6 but which were selected late on in the project’s design programme. No matter, I liked the 425 V6 for offering a bespoke luxury interior and Bentley-style woven mesh grille on a medium-sized car – even the thought of having that 2.5-litre engine in a medium sized car was quite appealing.
We’d see more later
At the time none of us realised that some aspects of its design such as the chrome-finish door mirrors and door pull handles were a subtle tease of what we could expect to see on the new Rover 75, to be unveiled the following year. Despite the suggestion in the press blurb that ‘500 units were planned to be built for the summer of 1998’, the 425 V6 Limited Edition ultimately became a stillborn design concept which never gave the HHR 400 Series a much-needed, stand-alone halo variant.
Building further on the luxury theme was the Rover 800 Coachbuilt Coupe concept (right) finished in Bolero Red pearlescent paintwork, with 17-inch alloy wheels taken from the 800 Vitesse.
The emphasis was very much on the bespoke wood and leather interior hand crafted by a Rolls-Royce coachbuilder ‘in traditional colours to re-create the interior personality so reminiscent of Rovers of the past’ – read this as the stately P5.
Featuring burgundy and cream leather, the two-tone colour theme extended to the dashboard fascia, doors and rear side casings, while the seat lifters and door locks were chrome-plated. There was even a wooden chess board incorporated into the illuminated centre rear arm rest.
Admittedly, the 800 Coachbuilt Coupe had been a late hour request by Tom Purves, Rover Group’s new Sales and Marketing Director. According to the press release it was about ‘the exposition of the character of Rover’. Despite not being intended as a production model, it undoubtedly tested the water for supplementary two-colour interior colour themes that would be offered as Personal-line options on the Rover 75 at its sales launch nearly two years later.
Ahoy! It’s the Land Rover Freelander
The MG brand, on the other hand, used colour and trim to emphasize luxury and ‘Britishness’ in a limited edition version of the MGF, known as the ‘Abingdon’ in the home market. This sported Brooklands Green paintwork, Lightstone leather seats and Minilite-inspired 16-inch alloy wheels.
Parked next to the MGF ‘Abingdon’ was Project EXF, a specially-prepared MGF which had achieved a top speed of 217mph during the Speedweek festivities in Bonneville, Utah. This success had come forty years after Sir Stirling Moss had achieved an historic international Land Speed record in the MG EX181 at the same venue and helped to reinforce MG’s history of winning international class records.
Mini flies the flag…
However, it was the Mini brand that commanded more editorial column space in more ways than one. For starters there were several design concepts based on the near 40-year old model. First up was the ‘Hot Rod’ featuring a 16-valve version of the A-Series engine. This was joined by a ‘Coachbuilt’ Mini (above) with an interior majoring on technology and hand-crafted luxury.
The biggest revelation, though, was the eleventh-hour announcement of yet another Mini design concept, this time referred in the press release as ‘Mini – the car for the 21st Century’.
For the unsuspecting audience it not only displayed more realistic thoughts on how to replace the evergreen classic, but was confirmed by Nick Stephenson, Rover Group’s Engineering and Design Director, to be the actual all-new MINI set to go into production three years later. BMW’s arch rival Mercedes-Benz must have been wondering how they could upstage such a carefully planned clandestine reveal on home turf, having put so much into the launch of the A-Class.
Rover Group’s efforts to play the heritage card in such a bold fashion showed what its Designers could deliver when given freedom and a budget to spend on building colour and trim design concepts with inspiring engineering credentials. It was shrewd and uplifting and gave hope that for the Rover brand in particular, its days as a premium proposition under the guidance of keeper BMW would be long and illustrious.
Sadly, events would show this was ultimately not the case. Yet, for me, the 1997 Frankfurt Motor Show will always be fondly remembered as a golden chapter in Rover’s quest to be anything but mainstream or complacent.