Blog : The Austin AR6 and me

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Ian Nicholls

Austin AR6

The BMC/Leyland show at the newly-branded British Motor Museum at Gaydon on 3 July was my first sight of the Austin AR6 prototype, the car that was meant to replace both the Mini and the Metro in around 1988-89. Until I saw the AR6 in the metal, I was in no doubt that the main reason for the axing of the AR6 was on budget grounds – there was talk of a £400 million price tag for the project, though no doubt a great chunk of that was for the new K-Series engine.

Back in 1986, the new BL Chairman, Graham Day, had been charged by the Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative Government with the task of getting the company fit enough to be sold off before it consumed any more taxpayers’ money. The three years before Graham Day arrived at BL were dramatic to say the least, with the pendulum of fortune swinging away from Austin Rover when victory seemed within its grasp.

For perhaps a year from the spring of 1983, Britain seemed to endure ‘Maestro mania’, with both BL management and media pundits convinced that Austin Rover was back to rude health. The Montego followed on in April 1984 but, instead of the recovery programme gaining momentum, in the second half of 1984 it actually went into reverse. Now obviously quality on these cars was a consideration, as AROline’s Mike Humble, has testified, but the vicious price war in the showrooms was another factor as the big American owned giants, Ford and Vauxhall, slugged it out for sales supremacy.

The decision by Ford to retain rear-wheel drive for its Cortina replacement, the Sierra, was exploited by Vauxhall, which had the excellent front-wheel-drive Cavalier MkII, and a sales war broke out, with both companies offering incentives to attract the big fleet sales. Many fleet buyers were so impressed with the Cavalier that they then began looking at the Astra as an Escort alternative, and sales of that model increased too. Indeed, I recall an Autocar magazine road test where the 1300 Astra MkI was preferred over both the Escort and Maestro.

Throw into this mix the new Maestro, which everyone thought would be superb and make the same sales impact as the earlier Metro, then you had a recipe for Car Wars. Ford and Vauxhall were not going to give up market share easily to the newcomer from Austin Rover, and the cutting of margins hurt Austin Rover more than its American owned rivals. This sales war effectively neutralised the Montego in 1984, and its impact sales-wise was minimal. When Graham Day took control of BL in May 1986 Austin Rover could no longer compete as a manufacturer of bread and butter cars.

Such was the nature of the 1980s car wars, as the decade wore on Ford actually increased its UK market share as Vauxhall wilted, despite the General Motor’s subsidiary arguably having a more advanced range. The Ford Fiesta may have been upgraded to a five-speed gearbox in 1983, but it was a 1976 design, the Escort dated from 1980 and, whilst the Sierra was from 1982, it still retained rear-wheel drive when the rest of the industry had by and large adopted front-wheel drive. What this showed was that investment in advanced technology counted for nothing if the showroom price was not right.

Graham Day was therefore confronted with a conundrum: bring the AR6 to production and hope for the best, or opt for a cheaper option and re-engineer the existing Metro to accept the K-Series engine.

The problem for advocates of the AR6 was that Ford were now selling more Ford Fiestas in the UK than the entire annual production of Metros at Longbridge. How many AR6s would Austin Rover have to sell annually to make it viable and, in the then pertaining market conditions, was it feasible? Also, because of the abortive attempts to sell Austin Rover to Ford in early 1986, Ford probably had a rough idea of the AR6’s economics.

They certainly knew what it cost to make the existing Metro at Longbridge and had incentivised buyers towards their own Fiesta. By January 1987 the media was reporting that Austin Rover was going to axe the AR6 and install the K-Series engine in the existing Metro. The BBC even devoted an edition of The Money Programme to it. Labour MPs John Smith and Doug Hoyle raised the matter in the House of Commons.

In the aftermath of the Westland affair, there was an anti-foreign ownership of British business atmosphere, a notion that incompetence and under investment as long as it was British, was preferable to takeovers by foreign companies with managers thoroughly trained in whatever it took to get the job done properly. The demise of the AR6 and Rover’s further embrace of Honda with the AR8, which became the 1989 Rover 200, along with the arrival of Honda, Nissan and Toyota as UK-based manufacturers caused a resentment in some quarters that now seems laughable.

The demise of the AR6 was seen as a tragedy, the end of Austin Rover’s ability to individually develop a small car to follow on from the Austin 7, A35, Mini and Metro. Austin Rover never officially acknowledged the cancellation of the AR6 and the last mention in the news files appears to be the April 1987 of CAR Magazine, where Rover Chairman Graham Day was interviewed.

On AR6, the ‘new Metro’, Day insisted that the questions were much more complex than ‘chop Metro‘ or ‘dress-up Metro’ as they had been portrayed in press discussion of the product up to then.

That, he said, was simplistic: ‘We don’t have to take the low-end decision for some time. When we do, we’ve got a series of decisions to make. Just take a look at the basic class. You’ve got competition from places like Korea. You’ve got Eastern Europe. And we have to take a decision at the Metro level, which will last at least 13 years. So we’re trying to make it a very careful one. That base car has got to be price competitive…’

‘One of the small car issues – and I’m not prepared to draw a firm conclusion – is that if you push for a larger product at the low end, you risk vacating the class altogether. We know that some of the cars in the Metro’s class are bigger than ours, but we’re not sure we should follow them up. That’s just a cheap way of using the other fellow’s market research. What if it’s wrong? Or he hasn’t done any? Our research says the Metro is seen as a particularly handy little car.’

Having now seen the AR6 for real, what Graham Day said makes sense. The surviving prototype at Gaydon is a five-door car and, when photographed in isolation, it looks okay. But when seen alongside other exhibits, the AR6 is a big car for a supermini, even by today’s standards. It certainly looks larger than the Ford Fiesta MkIII of 1989, which would have been its main rival in the market place. The decision to re-engineer the existing Metro with the K-Series Metro, because Rover believed consumers wanted a smaller car, was backed up by Nissan with the K11 Micra, which was also a compact super-mini, and a very successful one at that.

I can now see the coherent thinking behind the axing of the AR6. The AR6 was too big, and would have been sold at a budget price in a cutthroat market dominated by the Ford Fiesta, which after a decade on sale now had strong brand values.

On the other hand the AR8 collaboration with Honda was only a little larger than the AR6, was cheaper and could be sold at a premium price. Roy Axe signed off the AR8 design in August 1986, but it was not until December that year that Rover and Honda officially agreed to develop the car. From then on progress was very rapid indeed, with the AR8 being renamed the R8, and announced to the public in October 1989.

Fortunately, despite the apparently rapid development programme, the second-generation Rover 200 had none of the quality issues which had come as standard with previous BL cars – that then begs this question: how much of the AR6 was in the R8? Certainly the K-Series version of the R8 probably owed a lot to the AR6, which had thoroughly evaluated the new engine.

So was the cancellation of the AR6 a disaster? In hindsight, I think not. An all-new supermini with a K-Series engine was a good idea, but the AR6 was not the right car for the job. Its cancellation in favour of the AR8 resulted in the Rover 200, which sold 950,000 cars at a premium price.

Moreover, the AR6 was not the only British car under development at the time which never made it to the showrooms. Sir John Egan, the Chairman of Jaguar, was telling the media that an XJ-S replacement, called the F-Type, was in the pipeline. This was the XJ41/42, which met its demise after the Ford takeover in 1990 when it did not meet their criteria for a successful sports car.

In the end, Rover did produce an all British small car with the K-Series engine. This was the third-generation Rover 200, the R3 of 1995, and it was still smaller than the AR6. In 1997 Rover built more than 144,000 of them, impressive, but not Ford Fiesta-type volumes.

Those who decry Rover for failing to bring the AR6 to fruition should remember the ludicrous volumes which BMW expected the Rover 75 to achieve in order to pay its way – volumes way in excess of any previous British executive car. It was BMW which solved the problem of selling a small car manufactured in a higher-cost European country. Buy a brand associated with small cars – in this case MINI – and design a new car which retailed at a premium price.

That was a strategy which worked…

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23 Comments

  1. Interesting point re the R8. From the front 3 quarters view, looking at the AR6 from the windowline up only, it has got a lot of R8 about it.

    They were right not to put it into production though. It’s one ugly bloody thing.

  2. I still like K-series engined Metro(one of my favorite), and I could respect Graham Day’s idea, but the problem was it became and became too old quickly, especially in the Western Europe market and the 1990 result was wearing Rover badge.

    If AR6 was way too expensive and large to compete, things like R6X proposal could be a better idea rather than just a little facelift in my opinion. As putting K-series Engine and is a good one, it means what R6 Metro really needed was a more fresh design.

  3. Is there a way to find out the exact dimensions of AR6? Find it difficult to believe it was larger than the R3 200 and only slightly smaller than the R8 200.

    While agreeing to some extent with the cheaper smaller option likely being the better option that was half-baked by not giving R6X the production green light over the R6 (since work on R6X might have improved its safety) or updating the Mini to Minki-II specs (and sharing many components with R6X), it is possible that AR6 might have been profitable over a longer period and spawned many variants (AR6-based MG Midget, etc) similar to what Ford, Fiat and Vauxhall were offering.

    The mk3 / mk4 Ford Fiesta had a 14 year production run (from 1989-2003), spawned the related Ford Puma and Ford Ka (until 2008 or 2013 in Brazil) as well as the Ford Ikon (from 1999-2011).

    The mk1 / mk2 Vauxhall Corsa had a 13 year production run (from 1993-2006), spawned many related variants (such as the Tigra, Meriva, Combo, etc) like the mk3 / mk4 Ford Fiesta with Corsa-derived models still being produced to this day.

    The mk1 / mk2 Fiat Punto had a 17-18 year production run (from 1993-2010/2011), spawned many variants (such as the Barchetta, Idea, Doblo, Palio, etc) like the previous 2 cars above with production of mk1 / mk2 Punto-derived models finishing in 2012 in Italy to 2016 in Brazil.

  4. If only …..

    I think the AR6 looks great – the front end needs a bit of a tidy up and it would have been a great looking car . If it had been marketed as a premium brand – just what BMW did years later things could have been so much better . A small downsized luxury Triumph Dolomite perhaps ?

  5. Looks like an ugly little Renault. I think it would have been a disaster for ARG. The Rover 100 looks like a beauty queen in comparison.

  6. It’s ok until you get to the area around the rear wheel. Did they just stop bothering to design it when they reached that point ?

  7. The car you see is the test mule not the actual final design – look at the http://www.aronline.co.uk/blogs/concepts/bl-concepts/ar6/gallery-austin-ar6/ page to see what the final car would have looked like – rather bland.

    I think Rover missed the shot with the R6X. A different looking body that hid the metro underpinnings at a small cost would have been more sense than the warmed over R6 look we got. It was just another example of BL/AR/Rovers bad decision making, and introducing a facelift to car over 10 years old, no matter how good the improvements were under the skin showed they didn’t understand the consumer – as BMC hadn’t in the 60s and BL in the 70s.

  8. You must remember that Ford performed a simple restyle on the Fiesta in 1983 and it paid off. The Metro was a well liked small car brand in 1990, so keeping a resemblance to the original may have been desirable.

    • True Ian, but the Fiesta was just 6 years old when the restyle was launched not a whopping 10 as in the Metro’s case. In addition if Rover were going up market with everything else why was the R6 never launched as a Rover from day one?

      It just smelt that they knew that it looked like a Metro and didn’t think that it would be accepted as anything but. It’s Rover 100 name plate come about as the range was rationised but most people still called it a Metro!

  9. The AR6 looks like a bad take on a Citroen Visa and the second generation Renault 5, both weird looking cars that were past their sell by date by the late eighties. I’m glad the AR6 never went into production as Metro owners would find it too weird and it would be too big to take on the Fiesta, so could have been yet another embarassment for Austin Rover.
    Yet the K series engine that was to power it found a market in the 1990 Rover Metro, and it was a leap forward from the A series in terms of refinement, economy and performance, and for all the K in its later life became infamous for HGF, early versions of the engine used in the Metro and R8 proved to be reliable and refined.

  10. The 3 most successful cars I can recall were ADO16, VW Golf Mk1 and Peugeot 205. All within the same size, weight and engine range for “bread & butter” models. That is were BL lost it, the Allegro was too big and not well-packaged. A modest revamp of ADO16 with a hatchback would have been a better bet and cheaper. I thought the Nomad was too much like a Maxi.

  11. It always struck me that BL suffered from the curse of the Mini, the result being a succession of ground breaking prototype small cars to replace it, all pushing the boundaries of what was possible and all unviable and soaking up valuable resources.

    The idea to use bonded aluminium at the bottom end of the market was economic madness, all this whilst the cash cow Range Rover was sitting on ladder chassis, if they had wanted to bring bonded aluminium construction to the market the new Range Rover with its generous profit margins and as JLR have proven great potential to take advantage of the weight savings would have been the place to introduce it.

  12. @ Graham, Yet surely the Range Rover has proven to be an extremely successful brand over the last 46 years and has spawned countless 4wd imitators and in America is a very popular brand among well off Americans. I’d think of all the British Leyland era cars, the Range Rover has proven to be the most successful and, of course, being an upmarket product generates big profits.
    However, there are the numerous sad stories like the Maxi, a brilliant concept( fwd, hatchback, five speed gearbox) but let down by quality issues on early cars and controversial styling, and the tragedy of the SD1, a futuristic successor to the P6, offering a fantastic drive and a V8, but ruined by terrible quality and strikes. So terribly sad, as Bob Ferris would say.

    • Glenn

      I would say that the Range Rover (along with the XJ6/12) was a success despite BL.

      One of the BL crimes being the fact that despite the Range Rover being the BL most profitable product it was starved of investment as other projects without a hope of success received funding.

      The AR6 being an example, as BL contemplated the ambition to launch an Aluminum car into the near zero margin super mini market. This was the last place (as Audi showed with the A2) they should have been planning to launch this technology, however (as JLR have shown)they had in the Range Rover the perfect vehicle to bring this technology to market.

      However when the Range Rover finally came up for replacement, we ended up with a cheap as chips reskin work on which was not started until 1990.

  13. Meant to post this here, but put it in the AR6 Gallery by mistake:

    The 1985 BL corporate plan shows the AR6 was meant to be part of a family. It was the short wheelbase version to replace the Metro in Spring 1989 (with Mini too in effect as it would be discontinued), with the AR5 a long wheelbase version to replace the Rover 200 from 1990, and the a long wheelbase hatchback AR7 to replace the Maestro in 1991.

    The idea was that by sharing a platform and production technology volumes would go up. Capital costs for the AR6 were £162m up to 1991, the AR5 £71m and the AR7 £122m in the same period.

    AR6 was expected to have lower capital costs than the Metro as it would use much of the Metro equipment and facilities.

    The K series (including a 3 cylinder version) was expected to cost £121m and the gearbox for all three cars £72m up to 1991.

    By spring 1985 the AR5 and AR7 had been dropped for the AR8 and AR9, which would have cost a combined £176m. The AR6 was then expected to cost £195m, the K series engine £139m and the gearbox £76m.

    The government (including the PM) discussed these plans extensively. They wanted BL to make a small car – the Metro was seen as their one, admittedly low margin, success, but the Metro re-skin and a joint 1.3 engine/gearbox with Honda were pushed and the re-skin won the day. Harold Musgrove seemed willing to sacrifice the AR6 to keep the engine.

    Found loads about all this in the National Archive recently. Hope to get to Gaydon to see the AR6 in the flesh in the hope of finding out its wheelbase and whether it was made of aluminium.

    Would it have sold? It was designed to be ‘high tech’ and economical. Presumably, if it was a quality product like the second gen Rover 200 it might have sold. We’ll never know. But it was clearly Longbridge’s last ‘all new’ car in the sector that Austin had pioneered. After it went, ARG/Rover were not a vertically integrated volume car company by ambition (as they had not really been by sales for a while).

    • Assuming the 1.3 Honda engine intended for what became the R6 Metro was the 1238-1296cc Honda D unit that powered the 2nd generation Honda City, though short of the Honda D engine being further destroked to 1000-1100cc cannot see how it would work with the R6 Metro limited to a single 1.3 engine.

    • Now that’s really interesting, I’ve never heard of this being one of a family, what a shame.

      Am I right in thinking this aluminium technology eventually ended up influencing the Lotus Elise? That started out as a joint lotus/Rover project did it not?

      • Would be interested in finding out more about the joint Aluminum technology project between Lotus and Rover.

        While the AR6-based MG Midget was looked into, it also brings up the question of how the mid-engined MGF would have fared had it featured aluminum similar to the Lotus Elise and been based on AR6 instead of the R6 Metro.

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