In-house designs : Austin AR6
We’ve talked about the Austin AR6 a lot in relation with the company’s development in the mid-1980s, and its march towards privatisation. Here is the car’s full story – from the glint in its designer’s eye to the moment it was cancelled.
Would this Ford Fiesta rival have been a success, or was Rover right to stick with the Metro?
The Roy Axe studio in Canley had been created to move Austin Rover forwards with a new design direction. Interesting projects were soon underway, with the first effort being concentrated the XX Programme – however, by the end of 1982, ARG designers were also working hard on the replacement for the Metro, dubbed the AR6.
The AR6 was designed to fit into a suite of models that would be launched by Austin Rover during the mid-to-late 1980s, bracketing the AR5 (Rover 213/216 reskin) and the AR7 (Maestro reskin). It’s DNA lay in the ground-breaking ECV3 prototype, which featured a three-cylinder engine (that would evolve into the K-Series and aluminium bodywork developed by ALCAN).
Unnamed and uncommented, this prototype was on display to the press at the opening of the Roy Axe Studios at Canley in 1982…
Big ideas from Gaydon
The AR6 always intended to be powered by the K-Series engine that was concurrently under development at BL Technology in Gaydon. This new engine was totally unrelated to the K-Series that was designed for the 1973 ADO74, and incorporated many lessons learned during the ECV3 Programme. Unlike the Metro, and following the lead of the Maestro and Montego, the new car was developed with a conventional McPherson strut/rear coil suspension system, which would no doubt be honed to a level of competence shared with its bigger brothers.
The body, styled by Roy Axe’s team, was always intended to be highly aerodynamic, and the early prototype model (pictured above) certainly reflects this way of thinking. Even the most cursory of glances are all it takes to realise that the styling of this car was heavily influenced by Ital’s then current work, such as the Megagamma and Medusa, especially at the real with its radically curved rear window.
Cutting edge design work
Stephen Harper, a former designer at Longbridge, and then Cowley, recalled: ‘The AR6 project, the replacement for the Metro, had been evolving for some while in the design Studios at Canley. Late in 1984, David Saddington and I were given the opportunity to share halves of a clay model, to investigate some more advanced themes. From the first doodle sketch of the “mouse”, the design theme was approved, and the clay model was created by a model team led by Charlie James, in just one week.’
Stephen Harper’s radical AR6 proposal, which he nicknamed ‘the Mouse’ was converted into a full-size clay model (below). Pictures, Stephen Harper, www.shado.co.uk.
AR6 design shared between Stephen Harper and David Saddington.
He added: ‘The review of the models by the Rover management, was concluded by a statement that the designs were “a little too advanced” to continue at length with. That was proof enough that car to replace the Metro, would never see the light of day.’
The styling that Rover’s management did approve was a more conventional proposal, based closely on Roy Axe’s design, first shown at the Canley Studios opening, a couple of years’ previously. With that settled, the it was down to the matter of engineering the project.
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During 1984/1985, the most critical parts of the car’s development, upheavals were going on in the company. Finance for the AR6 and its engine were proving hard to obtain from the government: and this was in part, down to the disappointing sales of the Maestro and Montego, which it was hoped, would have generated sizeable profits for the company.
Always with the finance…
Without these profits, it was proving difficult for BL to fund these new Austin Rover programmes without outside help. In fact, the government did relent in the end, and provide BL with a further hefty injection of cash, which assured the future of the K-series programme.
Design sketches and prototypes
March 1983, and the design begins to develop into something more production tolerant.
This running prototype of the AR6 from c.1985 shows that there has been a significant amount of tweaking of the design since the 1983 styling mockup (above). The design is still pretty radical at this point with some very aerodynamic detailing. The rear treatment shows show car-like rear lamps (that probably would not have made production) and complex curving of the rear glass.
Front view of the AR6 demonstrates the ‘family look’ that Austin Rover was trying to achieve. Compare the frontal arrangement of this car with the Rover CCV and MG EX-E concepts of 1985 and 1986 – slim, elongated headlights and a slit like grille; these were also a feature of Gerry McGovern’s AR6-based MG Midget concept (see below). These styling cues would become industry standard by 1990, but by that time, Rover was already seeking to move away from the look it had helped to pioneer. (Picture: Kevin Davis)
According to Simon Weakley, a marketing trainee between 1982 and 1986, the AR6 was a very interesting technical package indeed. He said: ‘The ‘new’ Metro was due to be launched in 1985/86 and Harold Musgrove was clear that it needed to be a world beater and technically advanced.
‘This involved making the car out of bonded aluminium and I was tasked with tracking aluminium prices on an almost daily basis! The new car was going to have the new K-series engine as a three- and four-cylinder unit (including Turbo) and was designed to be made as a diesel without need for strengthening!’
August 1983, and the final design takes form…
Some work to do, but the fundamentals are there…
The 100mpg ambition
Simon added: ‘The target was for the three-cylinder to get 100mpg – a long time before others were targeting that figure. The light weight, roomy interior and improved quality combined with Roy Axe’s excellent interior/exterior styling skills would have surely created a true world beater. It was to be the only car to carry the Austin name, with the Mini set to be discontinued at its launch.’
The rest of the AR6 was also pushing forwards. The 1985 product plan identified that the AR6 would hit the market in 1988, with the diesel version (powered by a dieselised S-Series engine of 1.6-litres) following on in late 1989. By this time, fully engineered prototypes were nearing completion, and the three/five door hatchback was looking all set for production.
However, the government of the time was now becoming increasingly set on selling the company at the earliest opportunity, and the poor 1985 sales figures pushed them into action. They decided that the sell-off had to happen sooner rather than later, and negotiations with Ford quickly ensued.
Sidetracked by privatisation plans
Later fully engineered prototype on test at the Gaydon proving ground scooped by CAR magazine in late 1986. Little did anyone outside of the company know at the time, that the car was so close to death. In profile, the rake of the windscreen looks pretty radical for its day, and many of the advanced features pictured on the earlier two models had been watered down somewhat for production (i.e., door handles, rear lamps, wheel size). All told, the AR6 looked like a fantastic little package, that had it reached production would have demonstrated that the British company had lost none of their magic touch in producing small cars.
Many executives including Ray Horrocks and Harold Musgrove were dead against selling out to Ford, when they were on the cusp of producing some genuinely exciting cars, and made their objections pretty clear. As we all know, the sell-off to Ford did not happen (due to Political reasons) and the management of BL, and therefore, Austin Rover was handed to Graham Day. Day’s mission was clear: get ARG into shape and sell it off ASAP.
Graham Day made it clear that he felt that Rover’s future lay upmarket, and that its relationship with Honda was the, ‘only part of the company worth a damn’. In other words, projects such as AR6, AR7 and AR16/17 – those not committed to production were going to be put under serious scrutiny.
In the case of AR7 and AR5, they were replaced by the AR8 (R8, as it would soon become), and the AR6 would be cancelled due to the huge costs involved in getting it into production. This was a very sad decision to make on a couple of levels:
- AR6 proved that in-house design skills were still very strong, and that to dismiss them so readily in favour of Honda did all concerned a great disservice.
- Without AR6, the company’s small car presence – its strongest point at the time, still – would be severely compromised.
From AR6 to Metro reboot
The rest of the story is well-known and covered in the Rover 100/Metro development story: the AR6 gave way to the R6 – and this car received the Alex Moulton changes to its Hydragas suspension system. It also received the excellent K-Series engine that would have powered the AR6.
The last chance of an exciting body would have been the R6X, but even that project was considered too much of a luxury. So, the question remains: was the AR6 a missed opportunity? Well, yes it was, because although the car the replaced it, the Rover Metro/100 was a fine car, its Metro bodyshell and floorpan shortened its shelf life considerably.
The AR6 would have appeared a vital couple of years earlier, was an altogether larger package, and was undoubtedly more advanced. As in so many cases, this car’s non-appearance compromised the company’s chances significantly in future years.
From AR6, we got the R6, which in light of what could have been, was frankly a disappointment. Thankfully, its terrific chassis and classy interior rescued it from obscurity.