Concepts : Austin AR6
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 initial 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).
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.
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.’
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.
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. 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.
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 3- and 4-cylinder unit (including Turbo) and was designed to be made as a diesel without need for strengthening!
‘The target was for the 3-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.
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 very 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.
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 modifications 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.