Concepts and prototypes : Metro saloon

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Although it seems inconceivable now, in the late 1970s, when the miniMetro was being developed, it was being groomed to replace the original Issigonis-designed Mini, a car that remained in production until 2000.

For all those die-hard Mini owners who didn’t believe they needed a hatchback, BL developed a saloon version of the Metro. Keith Adams tells its story.


Three-box heaven

(Picture: The Giles Chapman library)
(Picture: The Giles Chapman library)

The convoluted development of the Metro has been covered in great length elsewhere on AROnline – suffice to say that replacing the Mini had not been the work of a moment, and BMC, then BL, made several attempts before reaching its definitive solution.

Codenamed the LC8, Metro had been a cosmetic revision of the ADO88 project, itself a cost-conscious Mini-rebody suspended on Hydragas and repackaged for the more demanding 1970s.

Yes, the Metro’s responsibility within the BL’s product-led recovery programme of the 1980s was absolutely massive – not only to replace the Mini, but also to compete in the hard-fought and rapidly growing supermini sector.

Saloon Metro was planned for…

Although it was launched with a single body style – the three-door model – a five-door had been planned for from the early stages of development, and that hit the marketplace when the Metro received its first facelift, in the autumn of 1984.

However, a saloon model was on the cards, too, and as can be seen from the accompanying photographs, it was actually rather well styled and balanced, proving that the boxy supermini’s design could lend itself to all manner of body variations.

Conceived in 1978, the saloon version – codenamed AM1 – was part of the programme from the outset, but as ex-BL insider Ian Elliott recalled, ‘…it wasn’t very high priority.’

Niche-filling three-box saloon

The car’s role was simple – to niche fill but, at a time when finances were impossibly tight and development funds were channelled to the most important models, saloons like this were given attention only when it was possible.

Ian added, ‘The Metro saloon was one of the very first things to be cut back when we had the CORE saga, in response to the sky falling in around 1979. I think CORE stood for something like Concentration of Resources and Effort, but basically it was a ‘going round turning off expenditure taps’ exercise in order to preserve really vital projects like Metro.’

Dropped early on

It was a logical car to drop, as this market sector wasn’t exactly overflowing with successful cars – and the later sales performance of the Volkswagen Derby (and replacement Polo Classic saloon) and the Nova saloon – would indicate that killing the Metro saloon was the right thing to do if it ensured the continued smooth development of the Maestro and Montego programmes.

Ian recalled his seeing the car: ‘I remember seeing a white saloon sitting rather forlornly in a dead car park at Gaydon, must have been around 1981. I think at about the same time I saw a three-door Maestro, as well!’

Photographed at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon around the time of its opening in 1993, the Metro saloon prototype had been treated to a set of TD wheels. The well-integrated styling had stood the test of time pretty well.
Photographed at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon around the time of its opening in 1993, the Metro saloon prototype had been treated to a set of TD wheels. The well-integrated styling had stood the test of time pretty well.


Notes

Confirmation needed here – it could well be that the LC8 project was renamed AM1 (with the saloon being AM2) in the wake of the corporate restructuring initiated by Michael Edwardes in 1978 under which the Leyland Cars division of British Leyland Limited became a separate legal entity called BL Cars Limited with two divisions: Austin-Morris and Jaguar-Rover-Triumph. This was a short-lived arrangement and the separation of Austin-Morris and Jaguar-Rover-Triumph ended when BL Cars Limited changed its name to Austin Rover Limited in April 1982.

If you know the definitive answer to this, please get in touch.

Further reading: Development codes


With thanks to Ian Elliott for his input.

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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51 Comments

  1. i have been to Gaydon dozens and dozens of times over the years, but have never seen this car, it is one i have wanted to see for many years.

  2. Spiritual successor to the Riley Elf / Wolseley Hornet.

    From an era when hatchbacks were seen as the utilitarian option.

    Small saloons still sold reasonably well until recently in markets like Ireland (eg. Nova/Opel Corsa, VW Polo, recently the mk1 Fabia)

  3. It would of been interesting to see the Metro saloon go into production, perhaps spawning a 4-door saloon and 2-door estate along the way like in the Nova and Polo respectively. What if the rebodied R6 continued the theme by spawning saloon and 2-door estate versions, along the stillborn Scout mini-mpv with the rear-end styling of the saloon resembling a scaled down R8?

  4. If BL were still selling in the States & Canada this would have gone down well. The amount of Focus saloons we say in May this year compared to hatchbacks was weird, but my cousin said Canadians don’t like hatches!! As an earlier post said, this would have competed well against the Nova and Polo if developed properly

  5. Gaydon got this car out for the Metro 30th event in 2010 – I along with may other Metro owners were there with a timeline of the cars from 1980 to end of run. They had the saloon and the Aluminium Metro outside in the car park for people to look around. Have to say however that he Saloon looked very ungainly, very definitely a grafted on appearance like so many saloons did at the time including the Nova. The Aluminium Metro however was a revelation and could have had such an impact on the economy market way back when – sadly cost of production put paid to that until Jaguar came along and managed to convince people to pay £50,000+ for the pleasure.

  6. Pensioner special – a big hit if it were to have been made in beige!

    I’d have considered an estate at the time. Ended up with a Maestro.

    CP

    • Your probably right about the likely demographic – but their money is as good as anybody’s and right now I would guess they make up the lions share of retail business. The Nova saloon and VW Derby where around in significant numbers in the 80s and seemed as common as their hatchback stable mates. BL could have done with some of this business. If CORE meant abandoning the saloon for 1980, surely by the time the 5 door Metro was being developed in 84/85 the minimal funds needed to get the saloon into production could have been found then?

  7. “it was actually rather well styled and balanced”

    looks horrible to me, the rear overhang looks very awkward (as is usually the case with such booted hatches), the glass of the rear window starts too high up and the boot lid is at a funny angle to the side window line!

  8. Would’ve sold well in Ireland, where even today manufacturers offer saloon variants no longer sold in the UK (eg. Fluence, previous gen Astra, Focus/Mondeo, Lancer, Corolla).

  9. The back end looks like it could of done with a bit more work, it would interesting if a 4-door Metro saloon was also considered though despite probably being a dead-end, I cannot help be wonder if the Metro saloon concept would of been better executed had it been styled as a fastback or fastback-like.

    To be honest, I am actually surprised that a 3-door estate version of the Metro was never considered along the lines of the Volkswagen Polo mk2 or larger Ford Escort mk3.

  10. A 3 boot profile may have suited the Allegro more than the Metro, even though the Allegro was meant to be a shrunken 18-22/Princess.

  11. The nearest car it looks like to me is a MK1 Vauxhall Nova 2 door saloon. I never cared for those much either but they seemed to be fairly popular. So by that token a Metro Saloon may have sold well to a particular target market.

  12. Viewed from the side, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious which end was the front.

    The tiny wheels and the huge rear overhang make it look pretty nasty. I agree that, with money non existent at the time, this was an obvious one for the chop.

  13. I had a 2 door Nova saloon (in brown!). It rocked! You have to wonder about the person who ordered it new, “I’ll have a saloon (rather than the hatch?) in turd brown, please!”.

  14. Ignoring the poor attempt I made at a 4 door saloon, I think it’s better to look at the rear aspect with the lights coloured, somehow makes it a bit more palatable!

  15. That is the laziest bit of design I’ve ever seen, a bit like having a large cyst on your arse! Good job they popped it and stuck with the hatch!

  16. I think it looks OK. It only looks like a tacked on boot if you have your head full of Metro, as we all do.
    If you can forget you’d ever seen the hatchback (not easy but it’s possible) and look at it with fresh eyes it’s fine.

  17. I had a couple of Nova 2 door saloons. They were darn good motors both. Lots of space, dirt cheap to run and reliable — and easy to fix if they did go wrong. The Metro looks wrong because the wheels ae too small but otherwise, largely similar to the Nova.

    The Nova and Metro hatches had minimal boot space, and if, like me, you needed more boot space then the Nova saloon was ideal. I always thought the “Polo Classic” looked much better than the bread van hatch though.

  18. I think the Metro saloon is a bit too ungainly – the small wheelarches being a bigger problem than with the hatch version and heavy-handed rear overhang just about kills it.

    Certainly the VW Derby/Polo Classic hid their tail bulk well and even the Nova/Corsa saloon looked tidy, if rather duller and old fashioned by the time it was launched.

    Agree that these ‘uncool’ saloon versions were nearly always better cars than popular hatchbacks they were based on.
    Aside from the already mentioned bigger/more practical boots, they often handled and rode better – mainly due to stiffer bodyshells and a slight increase on rear-bias weight, helping with balance and reducing understeer a fraction.

    My 1980 Derby certainly had a better handling/ride balance than a Polo and even cooking versions of the Mk.1 Golf that VW were selling at the time.

    I’ve kept the saloon ‘faith’, (or rather, re-discovered it) with my current 2009 Proton Persona Ecologic, which is roomier, drives nicer than it’s GEN-2 hatch sister and is just as handsome IMHO.

  19. Not many saloons left on the UK market, aside from the Teutonic choices.

    Most car ranges now read:

    Small – medium hatch – MPV – small SUV – large SUV.

  20. The 2 door Nova Saloon is becoming quite sought after, and prices have shot up over the last 5 years. While the floorpan is the same with a 30cm extension spot welded on, the body shell is quite different. While the saloon shares the A pillar and doors from the 3 door, the B pillar, rear quarter light, C pillar and rear screen are different. The 2 door shell is also lighter owing to the 3 doors heavy tailgate and glass, and stiffer, due to a bulkhead behind the rear seats.

    See: http://www.corsafan.de/bilder/raeder/runder-radlauf.jpg

  21. 3 box are preferred in Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy, Greece Turkey to name a few. In spain, Renault started the trend in the 70’s with the 7 (Siete) a R5 4 door-3 box.
    Dacia owes its “born again” success to the Logan, 3 box who spawned the Sandero hatchback.
    Nowadays, all car makers have 3 box versions of their superminis in south Europe, eastern countries and south Americas. People are shorter-that’s a fact- but more importantly, small families with young kids don’t need masses of rear legroom but a big boot for their pram(s), try that in a hatchback. Also allows cheap motoring for taxis who, again, will need a big boot for luggages.
    They often look ungainly, admittedly. The one that stood apart was the MKI Mazda 3 Sport-saloon, seems it was conceived along the hatch not an after thought.

    • “big boot for their pram(s), try that in a hatchback.”

      And that’s how I ended up with an Octavia, a saloon shaped fastback hatchback – best of both worlds – big boot and easy access.

  22. The Nova saloon had a decent following, so why not a Metro one, which could have sold well in saloon loving countries like Spain and Ireland. I think a four door saloon with a 1.3 engine and Vanden Plas and HLS trim could have sold quite well, and a two door saloon could have been available as a 1.0 with basic trim.
    Actually the Nova was a car that seemed to cover all the bases and was a popular model during its ten year life. Powered by lively Opel engines, available in four body styles, usual Vauxhall running costs and reasonable reliability, not much to dislike about the car in the same way the Metro in Austin form was a success with a similar lifespan.

  23. Hmmm, interesting, the Metro was another Issigonis-worthy masterpiece of packaging, a quart into a pint pot. Therefore, why, when extending the length of the car with a boot compartment, fail to utilise the volume above the boot? Extend the roof rearwards and create a Metro Estate car! ,

  24. Funny you should mention the Nova saloon as I saw a 5dr Nova saloon yesterday. Years since I last saw one and they were rare when they were new. This one had customised ? by some young lad. I expect his mates must wonder what he has got. maybe he will start a trend to customize Nova saloons like the Citroen Saxo.
    Either that or was incredibly young looking for the average Nova saloon driver !!!

    • The Nova is a classic now, as most are over 25 years old, and as they died out, the boyracer brigade moved on to Saxos and Corsas. It’s unusual to see a Nova like this, as the few that survive are mostly the hot hatch version.

  25. Note: the images are of two different cars, a 3-door and a 5-door.

    The 3-door has the look of a 1981 bodyshell, the 5-door a post 84 face-lift bodyshell

    Perhaps several years of production separate the two cars, a cancellation, a resurrection and another cancellation?

    .

  26. Could a 4-door Metro saloon (or even a derived 3/5-door estate) have worked with just the 1.0-1.3 A+ engines?

    While the 1.3 A+ unit could probably have been further uprated above the 72 hp MG Metro / Metro GTa / Metro VDP and below the 94 hp MG Metro Turbo, could the Metro saloon have coped without a larger 1.6 engine compared to the Vauxhall Nova and other rivals?

    Am aware the Metro had little choice but to make do with what was available and that it was impossible to install the 1.6 S-Series into the Metro, just that a Metro range available with more bodystyles would still be held back from covering all bases due to having no engine above 1275cc.

  27. Another metro with a boot was done in the late 1990s. I think it was done to support a local manufacturing proposal in India, though my memory is not clear on the country.
    I did not work on the project , but when I moved to a Mayflower Coventry office that we were using short term for a Landrover concept project, This metro study had just finished in the same office. ( It was all Rover people, we were just using the office and studio facilities).
    The metro 4 door was obviously unsuccessful along with the sale of the tooling!
    That white prototype could be from this project.

    • Looking again at the photo of the 4 door mock-up. I reckon it is much later than 1978/79. The fuel filler looks like a production 5 door one, the rear door looks like a mock-up up round the glass house.
      I think this was done to support the proposal in the late 90s.
      The 5 door fuel filler is a contentious and comical subject: the 3 door fuel filler was where the rear door is, the body development continued for quite sometime at Cowley on the 5 door without a fuel filler! The team were ridiculed for this omission for years…….

    • Are you thinking of the Rover 100 based saloon designed by Zagato for the Indonesian state car. I think the engineering was done by IAD.

    • That yellow car does have the look of the ADO88, judging by the shape of the rear side windows.
      ADO88 being the early prototypes “straight sided” at the rear, the ADO88 fared poorly at customer clinics viewings. The car sides were revised to the familiar “cottage loaf” profile for production. The subframe track was not changed which explains why the production Metro emerged with a large overhang of the wheel arches well beyond the tyres

    • And yet Ford did very much the same thing to the Fiesta, called it Ikon, and sold it in the Indian market….and made money doing it.

  28. This car (and many others like it) is now on display at the Collections Centre at Gaydon, with the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust (JDHT) of notable cars on display on the floor below. Well worth a visit, and better than the main museum for a true enthusiast of BL tat.

    It’s even uglier in person than in the pics.

  29. The Metro must be the only car in history that was the replacement for another model but when out of production long before the model it was replacing!

    • It’s happened before, the Citroen Dyane was supposed to replace the 2CV but was taken out of production 7 years earlier.

      I’m sure there are some other examples.

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