In-house designs : Austin AR6

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

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...
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.
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.
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.

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.
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 overy aerodynamic detailing. The rear treatment shows showcar-like rear lamps (that probably would not have made production) and complex curving of the rear glass.
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)
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...
August 1983, and the final design takes form…

Some work to do, but the fundamentals are there...
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, wheelsize). 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.
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.
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.

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

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17 Comments

  1. AR6 was a casualty of the Maestro/Montego debacle , the ramifications of which were far reaching .
    I am sure a production AR6 would have been a great car , but would anyone have bought it ?

  2. The 1.6 S-Series diesel sounds intriguing and wonder if any potential high-powered version would have superceded the 62/81 hp 2.0 Perkins Prima or even be compared against the 54-79 hp 1.6 Volkswagen (from the mk2 Golf) 1.8/1.9 PSA XUD engines.

    As for AR6, it would have been interesting to see what the finished product would have looked like though I somehow suspect the styling could have adopted elements from the stillborn R6X that appeared after AR6 was canned or be given an more attactive production ready body.

  3. Graham Day’s cancellation of AR6 seems another example of the key problem – short term strategy, thinking.

    OK, build on the Honda link and go ahead with R8 but to cancel AR6 was short sighted – it would leave the company without a wholly new car in a key market segment. R6 was a remarkable update but at the end of the day that’s all it was – a revision of an elderly car which would only have short term appeal.

  4. What about those black graphics around the windows in the R6 (last photo)? I’m tempted to give my white rover Metro this treatment! The bumpers look good with a mix of black and body colour.

  5. Only in recent years have premium manufacturers managed to make an effective business case to use Aluminium construction, and the means to actually build cars with it in a mass production environment. What chance did Austin Rover have to achieve this in 1986 with a super-mini? Another waste of time and money. If this car had been designed to be built in steel with carry over engines or Honda power plants it would have probably made it to market and your average Metro buyer wouldn’t have cared what it was made of or powered by.

  6. Sometimes, it is very hard to take this site seriously! How can you say (in a caption under a picture) “Some work to do but the fundamentals are there” The fundamentals of what are there? A Citroen Visa that was launched in 1978? That is exactly what it looks like.

    The prototype looked quite futuristic, but by the time of your photograph with the number plates on, it looks quite similar to the Citroen. It even has the single windscreen wiper and the shape of the rear wheel arch is the same. Perhaps it is a Citroen Visa that they bought(second-hand of course) and then modified to look like a prototype.

    As for launching it in 1988 – that was when the Citroen went out of production (after 10 years). It would have looked like Austin Rover had bought the tooling, slightly face-lifted the Visa and started re-making it! Instead they slightly face-lifted the Metro and kept selling that.

    • You have a point though both the 1983 One-Box styling proposal (in Gallery: Austin AR6 – albeit with a bit of work on the front-end) and the radical “Mouse” proposal by Stephen Harper looked modern enough for the 1990s and beyond.

  7. A Roverised Honda Jazz would have been nice, especially as Honda had not been able to make much, if any, money importing them.

  8. In the picture entitled “AR6 design shared between Stephen Harper and David Saddington.” at the top right the profile looks very much like the first generation Audi A2. That had an aluminum body too.
    The read window in photo entitled “This running prototype of the AR6 from c.1985…..” is like a Citroën C4 (first gen 3 door). a be it this car teh rear window was a bit larger.

  9. Aluminium panels such as door skins bonnets etc are a disadvantage, even the most minor supermarket carpark knock leaves a stretch mark dent or crater which is extremely hard to remove, even by experts, steel panels are so resiliant and reparairable in comparison

  10. Going off topic, a little, but in the mass market MM’s point is an important one. Makes you wonders how (by way of example) A2 owners get on.

    For me, it’s bad enough with my steel-bodied 1998 “S” Rover 400 and 2005 “05” MG TF. Thankfully (I suppose), it’s “only” dents on the MG, but over the years there have been a few such scrapes on the Rover which have broken the paint.

  11. I have an aluminium car, I rarely take it to the supermarket, and when using a public car park its the furthest lonely corner and the long walk for me

  12. I have an Audi A2 and there are no more dings in her doors than anything else I have owned. The prone areas- wheel arches and bumpers- are plastic.

    There are a number of similarities between the “Mouse” and the A2.

    A shame it wasn’t put into production…

  13. It’s all such a shame. With AR6, 16 and 17 the company really did seem to have found its way, struck on an appealing quality design theme. Miles ahead of Maestro, Montego in terms of appeal. Produce these cars in conjunction with R8 and XX and bingo – a cohesive, appealing range of cars with a slight premium edge. This would have been a better plan than further Honda reliance – 600 (as attractive as it was) and HHR.

    • Let’s not forget that AR6 was to also form the basis of the AR7 Maestro and AR5 SD3 replacements, the latter two likely becoming two versions of the same model (e.g. Escort / Orion) below AR16/AR17 which might have better served Rover in later years.

      Assuming though the Maestro and Montego were successful enough to realise the above projects, how would that have affected Rover’s ties with Honda beyond the Rover 800 (XX)?

      Would a successful Rover by that point be able to stand on its own two feet without government support or being sold off to BAe, let alone give to another carmaker?

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