Essays : The slightly premature euthanasia of the final BMC model
13 years ago last month, the Metro productions lines stopped. Spurred on by Mike Humble’s recent blog, Steven Ward looks back at its final stint in sales.
Maybe euthanasia’s not the correct term - I mean the model was hardly in its first, second or even third flush of youth. It wasn’t a trendy or even a sensible purchase any more. Yet, for some, the Rover 100 née Metro (we never did get used to that numerical moniker) represented a set of values which marked it out from the rest of the supermini herd.
We know, of course, what killed the dear old Metro, it was those dastardly NCAP results. NCAP seemed to be a committee of men assembled by the European Union to show us exactly how unsafe our cars were. Who cared about abdomen loadings? Not us. We Brits were not particularly bothered by such trivia and I doubt the Europeans were either. Until, that it is, NCAP discovered a test that would shock and shake-up people’s perceptions of crumple zones and they were going to flog the images to death to make their mark on civilised society – this was going to be their calling card into our modern motoring lives forever. Renault sensibly, were to cash-in.
The dear old Metro never stood an earthly and this was the excuse BMW needed to finally pull the plug. Longbridge had made some attempt at improved crash safety – side intrusion beams and a driver’s airbag - when the 100 emerged in late 1994. Bizarrely, these modifications seemed to make the NCAP dummy’s plight even worse on the footage. Oh dear.
Still, us die-hards knew that the Metro, sorry, 100, was as safe as its contemporaries. Stout, complex, all encompassing subframes, stepped inter-locking sills, robust, spot-welded inner wings, a collapsible steering column, an award-winning safety steering wheel, fuel shut-off, a notably stiff shell which always felt very well engineered, need I go on?
Yes, and anti-submarining seats too. Probably not, you’re either convinced of the car’s crash-worthiness or you were persuaded by one of its more modern and significantly heavier rivals. I bet those who looked to NCAP for guidance were also actively avoiding British Beef at the same time.
I was selling new Rovers back in the summer of 1998-for-the-S-plate and recall being taken aback by how many people wandered into the showroom and asked to buy one. Notice that, they asked to buy one. The car sold itself and the customers who bought them were lovely people. Sadly, mainstream stocks had long since – and unexpectedly – sold out.
There was approximately 15-17 weeks worth of 100-Series orders cancelled when the car was cruelly chopped. The AA still used them as a driving school car, an invaluable sales tool for the range. The gradual wind-down never happened and that hurt people. Sure, the range was steadily being trimmed (the diesel had been dropped, the GTa’s bespoke gearing had gone too), but there was still advertising bumph for the LE Ascot lying around. Little tweaks had continued - trim changes, headlamp levelling and the caramelising of the little K-Series (MPI fuelling) but the car was cut short and without notice, almost as a sop to the NCAP brigade.
That was, of course, always going to happen. In the harsh world of large Dealer Groups where used cars are stocked alongside each other according to size, the Metro was becoming deeply unfashionable (read unsellable), despite its increasingly bargain basement price.
Where stock turnover is a ruthless 60-90 days, buying a transporter full of grey-bumpered 111is to sell along side Puntos and Polos was starting to become a bit of a gamble. The 114GSi was still a smart looking and well-equipped car that drove nicely too, but the lack of a PAS option was a bit of a hindrance when stacked alongside those two cutting-edge cars.
The dealership I was at then held no stocks of the car, barring a single courtesy car. They feared the demand would die with the car, but they were wrong and inexperienced. They wouldn’t be buying anymore, despite the steady stream of customers and my pleas. Traditional Rover Dealers knew they’d be an unprecedented demand for a discontinued BMC-derived product.
The dealership I’ve spent most of my life at stock piled Maxis, 213s and Maestro/Montegos in anticipation of the final rush. You see, Rover Group, and all that went before it, never really got to grips with replacing a successful car and people rushed to buy a model when production ceased (we’ll ignore the 800 Series for this essay).
Enter then, the Metro’s replacement or, then again, maybe not.
Rover took the R3 200 and set about making it acceptable to would-be Metro owners. They installed the 1.1-litre K-Series engine in MPi form with a delightfully shiny aluminium alloy inlet manifold – a super, sweet unit which had to be ragged to pieces to in order make decent progress. That, to me, was no hardship, but it was alien to Metro drivers where the low kerb weight made for effortless progress.
Next Rover removed the well-weighted power steering from R3 and installed the awful manual rack from the old R8. A full four stodgy and hefty turns lock-to-lock if you remember – only, in this instance, it was a bit worse as the R3 had a lot more castor at the front end compared to R8. Central locking was also missing on the 211 (as, in fairness, it had been on the 214i) only Rover had changed the door lock specification which give us terrible issues. The tumblers had been cheapened and they all, without fail, collapsed, meaning no entry from the driver’s door. You’d have to enter from the passenger door and eventually the boot - the alarm would usually go off at that point. Remember also that the 211 had manual windows. Compared to the manual windows of the Metro, they were ergonomically flawed, heavy in use and slow in operation. Likewise, the space where you rested your left foot was confined compared to Metro.
Here we are then, for £9995, this was your Rover 114GSi replacement. Oh, and for that money, you’d lost two doors and gained two bigger, heavier, less handy items. Rear visibility was much poorer than the Metro too and the 211’s tailgate, while having an internal handle, opened a bit high for some. Finally, the ultimate indignation – the 211 had no dashboard shelf. Not surprisingly, traditionally loyal customers flocked to Hyundai and Kia in their droves.
My company car was the 211 demo. I loved it and have many fond memories of racing it, but I had to point out that it was heavily (sensibly?) optioned and that to get one to my spec added well over a £1000 to the base price.
People left their names in order to buy that one remaining 114GSi courtesy car. Rover and BMW were crazy. You see, up to this point, Rover customers were the best customers in the game for car finance. They gave big deposits, never ever missed a payment and quite often bought again as soon as the finance was cleared. They were the most loyal and most honest people in the land and Rover had just barred the entry point to many of them.
Lucrative wasn’t the word – most took CPI as a matter of course. What was left of the Metro’s image soon tumbled away to nothing. The AA stopped reconditioning them before they were entered into sale and nothing looks worse than damaged alloys, which most of them had (damage and alloys!).
Let’s not forget either that the Metro was a big hit with the Motability user choosers. The driving schools, daily rental fleets and Motability were previously precious sales to Metro as they gave potential customers a ‘soft’ and lengthy test drive and familiarised the car with impressionable drivers.
I must, at this point, say the Metro/100 wasn’t without its faults. The rear wheel arches rotted away, something introduced with the R6 back in 1990 and quite perplexing as to why. The rear radius arms wore alarmingly quickly. Central locking solenoids failed with depressing regularity. The fuel tank seams split. The upper front suspension arms wore out on the heavier diesels.
I could go on and on and on as it was so dated and quite frail in many respects. However, despite it all, the Metro/100 was such a sweet little thing. Handy in size, refined in powertrain, sweet to ride and sharp to steer. The interior was thoughtfully designed - all round visibility was outstanding (at 88% was this ever bettered PK fans?) and the thing just looked so restrained and tidy.
How could anyone not fall for its charms? Indeed, with the plethora of BMW MINI models being launched and previewed, I for one am eagerly awaiting the day they rediscover the mighty Metro.