CC looked yesterday at how BMC and BL tried and failed for over ten years to come up with a viable replacement for the Mini, dithering with one concept after another. When the need became so overwhelmingly obvious, and the will to create a successor was finally mustered, it came together very quickly, in the form of the the LC8. It was rushed into production and launched in October 1980 as the Austin miniMetro, twenty one and a half years after the Mini first saw the light of day.
A quick word about the name: The “Metro” part was chosen by BL workers in a ballot from a short list and the “mini” element added to avoid legal issues with other users of the Metro name, principally the Birmingham based train and bus builder Metro-Cammell-Weymann. In practice it was known and advertised as the Metro from the start, and the badges changed within a couple of years.
The LC8 had moved forward quickly from the final definition in late 1977 and early 1978, which given the earlier saga was pretty impressive. Mechanically, it was a bit of Allegro (Hydragas suspension, 1.3 litre A series engine, now known as A+, with some new interior pieces), some Mini here and there (1.0 litre engine) and all excellently packaged – the gearbox under the engine and Hydragas both helped here – and it was as roomy inside as the 6-9 inch longer competitors. Economy was good (very good indeed on some versions); it was and looked modern, and was well equipped and well priced.
Cast your mind back to 1980. A new decade had started, but BL was still struggling with a range of elderly and, unarguably, quite dated, inappropriate and uncompetitive models, such as the Marina, Maxi and Allegro. A dearth of new cars had been the result of the lean years – nothing properly new had come from British Leyland since the Rover SD1 in 1976.
All press discussion about British Leyland had been doom and gloom – factories had closed, jobs had been lost – whilst BL Chairman Michael Edwardes was doing all he could to convince the new incumbent at Number Ten Downing Street, a certain Margaret Thatcher, not to close down the operation for good as market share dropped and imports ran at the highest ever level.
The press had made great play about just how much taxpayers’ money (£275 million, say £800 million now) had gone into the development of this car and the overhaul of Longbridge, the factory the Metro was to be built in. On the launch day, the BBC presented the country’s main evening news programme from inside Longbridge, which gave the BL PR people a bit of a headache, as the assembly shop chose that morning to come out on strike. Somehow, BL managed to keep that fact from the BBC, the nation wasn’t told, and all seemed well. The same day, Michael Edwards was driving a Metro with Alan Jones, the 1980 Formula 1 World Champion who drove for the Leyland Truck-sponsored Williams Formula 1 team, to Birmingham, to the British Motor Show.
Meanwhile, BL had started one of the largest advertising campaigns ever seen for such a car, based around the themes of versatility (of the car) and patriotism (of the potential buyers); the strap line actually was “A British car to beat the World”.
It may look a bit cheesy now, but it worked to generate a huge level of awareness and positive public sentiment to the car. Margaret Thatcher might have resisted the temptation and stayed in an armoured Jaguar, but Diana Spencer bought a red one.
Britain needed, and wanted, the Metro to succeed. And, to be fair, it did. For a while it became Britain’s best seller and regularly traded UK market sector leadership with the Ford Fiesta. Rather more worrying were the initial warranty costs, but at least this time BL seemed to take note, and production quality did improve.
In his Account of his BL years, then BL Chairman Michael Edwardes makes the crucial point that that he could have chosen to introduce the Metro in 1978, and the Maestro in 1981/2 instead of 1983. He chose the former because, among other things, the company needed new product just as soon as it could and those who remember the reaction in 1980, will see his point. It is not often that a car can be advertised like this one was, without someone laughing out loud in the corner.
There was another aspect to the LC8 programme directly traceable to decisions BL took in the early 1970s – the complete modernisation of Longbridge to build it. It was always going to be built at Longbridge – Longbridge built the Mini, which this was to replace (at least in part), and Cowley was dedicated to Marinas, Maxis and Princesses. But partly for economic reasons, partly for quality reasons, but also as part of a process of managing the industrial relations issues associated with the expected higher volumes, BL had committed to building ADO74 (and then reconfirmed for ADO88) in an up-to-date robot-based body assembly, in a vast new building, known as the New West Works, connected to the existing final assembly building known as CAB2 by a covered tunnel.
BL’s ambition was to create the most modern body shell assembly facility in the Europe, possibly the world. Fiat may have been advertising such technology in 1978 (“Designed by computer, built by robot” was the slogan), but the new Longbridge facility was significantly ahead of that. Internally, the joke was “We’ve either bought the best body plant in the world, or the world’s most expensive baler”. And sometimes, a simple ad can seem to work just as well.
The car was offered with a choice of 40 bhp 1.0 or 60 bhp A-series 1.3 litre (actually the evocative 1275cc block from the Mini Cooper, but in a very different level of tune) engines, with a four speed gearbox. Suspension was the Maxi/Allegro/Princess Hydragas system, and all in the same three door body. There were variations, of course – basic models were easily spotted with sunken headlights, no rear wiper and just one rear fog light, and missed out on then novel, now commonplace asymmetrically split folding rear seat. There was also a high economy version, badged as the 1.0HLE with a high top gear and a rear spoiler across the width and down the sides of the rear window. In the days before standardised economy testing, BL claimed 83 mpg for this one.
The driving experience was an encouraging combination of class standard and Mini – a good ride, decent roadholding and tidy handling, linked to an almost Mini level of chuckability. The driving position was still a bit awkward, with a flat steering wheel and slightly offset pedals, but the car stood comparison with the best in class.
BL had a stab at a performance version too, with the MG badge. BL had dropped the last of the MG sports cars in 1980, so this was the first use of the MG badge on a saloon car since the late 1960s. The MG Metro arrived in 1982, with a great interior to go with the great badge, and a 72 bhp version of the 1275cc engine. In 1983 the MG Metro Turbo arrived, with a turbocharged 1.3-litre A+ engine and the visual trimmings to match.
A five door version and facelift with a new dash came in 1984. However, by then, only four years in, the game was starting to move on. Fiat had the new Uno and Peugeot the new 205, Ford a heavily revised Fiesta, Vauxhall the Nova (the first Opel Corsa) and VW a new Polo. Renault had the new 5 (known as Supercinq) in 1985. All the major cars the Metro had been initially pitched against had now been replaced, and the BL product was looking a little smaller, a little bit older and technically slightly out of step – unusual suspension, gears in the sump, no five speed gearbox. Production peaked in 1983 at 180,000. After that there was little development until the new Rover K series engine was installed in 1990, and the car renamed the Rover Metro.
Some traditional BL quality issues were also by now apparent. A three year old car should not need a bumper-off process to address surface corrosion on the valance behind it, but that’s how I spent a weekend in August 1985. By 1986, there were plenty of examples around with rust bubbles in the front wings and the valance under the front bumper was always peppered with aggressive stone chips. Carburettor and other starting issues didn’t help, and BL dealers were all too often, well, BL dealers.
BL considered a saloon version as well, although such cars have never done well in the UK and Northen Europe. To be fair, it looked no worse than a Vauxhall Nova/Opel Corsa or VW Derby (a Polo derivative) saloons, but the business case could never have been strong.
The more obvious van version did appear, though it was literally a hatchback with no side windows and rear seats.
BL also had a serious go at the 1980s Group B rally scene with the MG Metro 6R4 – a 6 cylinder rear engined 4 wheel drive rally car developed for BL by the Williams Grand Prix company. This showed huge potential and promise until Group B rallying was suddenly discontinued (after a series of tragic accidents) before the 6R4 could show its mettle in the 1985 season. The engine lived another day though, as it was used in the Jaguar XJ220
In the spirit of full disclosure, I owned two Metros – a 1982 1.0 litre with a vinyl top and a sunroof which took more than its full share of accident damage to say the least, and then a 1987 1.3 litre 5 door, in 80s all white, until the russet (ok, rust) added a duotone element. Both were more dependable than one might have expected, even if I did have to change the seat belts on the first one to replace a defective buckle unit, were fun to drive in urban environments and loud on the motorway. But I did get quite competent at light corrosion repairs.
Between 1983 and 1986, BL had exciting plans for a Metro successor known as the AR6 (above, next to the last car produced which was signed by those who assembled it, in a Longbridge tradition), based on a technically advanced monocoque of bonded aluminium, like the Jaguar XJ of 2002, and using the new K-Series engine as a 3- and 4-cylinder unit, including a turbocharged version. The target was for the 3-cylinder to get 100mpg – a long time before others were targeting that figure. The low weight, roomy interior and improved quality were expected to be combined with Roy Axe’s excellent interior and exterior styling skills to create a true world beater.
But this car never got past the prototype stage. BL simply did not have the resources or access to finance on the necessary scale. The K series engine did get past the government bean counters, and came in 1989 with the Rover 214 and 216, a product shared with Honda as the Concerto.
Graham Day, Rover’s government appointed Chairman from 1987, had made it very clear that he felt that Rover’s future lay upmarket, and that the collaboration with Honda was, in his words, “the only part of the company worth a damn“.
Two things are strongly suggested in the history of the AR6 – the cost of it was probably beyond the dreams of Austin-Rover and therefore would have been either unachievable or crippling for the company, and that the car possibly could have been as influential and successful as the ADO16 was 25 years earlier. But few people seemed to be sufficiently aware of it to have an informed view, except tax obsessed politicians and their appointees.
Without the AR6, Austin-Rover’s presence in the small car market, arguably the company’s strongest point at this time still, would be severely and publicly compromised. Honda had no competitive presence in the European supermini sector. It was possibly the biggest possible signal that Graham Day could make that he saw the future of Austin Rover as being dependent upon Honda to a degree not foreseen by Michael Edwardes ten years earlier..
The AR6 was cancelled, but the K-Series powered Metro facelift got the go-ahead. The car was given the official development tag of R6 and the engineering make-up of the car was rapidly devised. Because funds were very tight, the existing car’s entire monocoque would have to be used. However, this also meant that the R6 styling was well and truly stuck with the familiar Metro theme; the only room for major change was at the front, where the new front section was to be fitted.
Of course, re-engineering the Metro bodyshell to accommodate the K-series engine and its end-on gearbox (bought in from Peugeot) was not straightforward. When mounted transversely, the unit would occupy more of the width of the car than the A-series did, with its transmission in sump layout. Luckily, because the Metro shell was actually pretty stiff, there was a good starting point.
With the question of engine and gearbox choice answered, the only real headache that the R6 posed was what suspension system would be needed. When launched in 1980, the Metro’s Hydragas system gave it class competitive ride quality and handling – that “chuckability” similar to that to the Mini. But times had moved on. The Peugeot 205, especially, had shown that smaller cars had grown, but also that small car ride and handling had become significantly more sophisticated.
Because of these huge leaps and bounds made by the opposition, there were still unanswered questions on what was the preferable system to use in the R6: on one hand, work was completed on adapting the conventional set-up used in the AR6 for the R6, but as the Metro’s floorpan would require extensive (and expensive) re-engineering to accommodate the AR6 system, this was not a practical option. With this in mind, work also continued in-house on refining the existing car’s Hydragas set-up.
The driving position of the Metro had also been a consistent weak spot. Although the body shell of the Metro would be used unchanged, there were changes at the front to lengthen the nose of the car, which improved access to the engine, and also move the front axle forward slightly. The net result of this was that the driver’s foot well was lengthened; the steering column could now be set as a more conventional angle and the front seats re-positioned. So, the configuration of the R6 was set: K-series engine, PSA gearbox, and a slight increase in wheelbase.
However, it could have looked a whole lot better. Once the technical package was roughly set, Rover design, under Roy Axe, worked on a more comprehensively restyled version, using the R6 underpinnings. This car, known as the R6X was, essentially a more stylish version of the final car, but again, it was also beyond the reach of BL’s finances.
The decision for the car to adopt a Rover badge may have been reasonably straightforward – naming the model was not. On one hand, the Metro name may have been a known quantity in the UK, but it also pointed to an increasingly dated car. After researching many different options, the decision was made to call it the Rover Metro in the UK and the Rover 100 Series in overseas markets, where being seen as an entirely new car would be no disadvantage.
The featured cars are a 1993 Rover Metro GTi 16v – the successor to the MG Metro idea and in 1993 a fairly appealing compact hot hatch (I confess to nearly succumbing at one point), with a 1.4 litre version of Rover’s K series twin cam engine and a 1996 Rover 111, with a more modest 1.1 litre, 8 valve version of the same engine, showing a very 1990s colour and some alloy wheels that were either optional or a retro fit of some sort. The GTi has been parked up for some time; the 111 is still a daily driver.
Rover marketed the Metro as a completely new car, playing the Rover angle for all it was worth: “The New Metro, with Rover Engineering” and the memorable “Metromorphosis” strap line. Sales may have been promising, but it was up against a brand new Fiesta now, which outsold the Metro 2 to 1 in the UK from 1990 and nearly 4 to 1 by 1996.
The company had thought that the Rover Metro would have a short shelf life and the fact that it was now smaller than all the competition, except the cheap and cheerful Citroen AX, meant that it was always going to have limited sales potential.
Rover plugged away with R6 until 1997, by which time it had become the Rover 100 in the UK as well, after a (very) gentle facelift. But, in 1996, the car was the subject to some of the first published crash testing by the EuroNCAP safety body and didn’t too well. In fact, it was the worst in its class, which given its real age was not surprising. It never recovered in the market place. Rover had the new 200 available and the last BMC/BLMC/Austin-Rover small car almost literally hid the buffers in December 1997, seemingly forgotten and unmourned, and with many of the implications of that unnoticed and unreported.
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