The cars : Austin Metro 1.3 S (1980-1982)

Chris Cowin remembers the short-lived ‘sporty’ Austin Metro 1.3 S – a car blessed with some amazing colour choices. 

It disappeared soon after the faster and rather more appealing MG Metro 1300 arrived in the spring of 1982.


Metro 1.3 S: the tepid temptation

Austin Metro 1.3 S

Though rather a ‘flanker’ in the home market, the 1.3 S was the range-topping Austin Metro in continental Europe for a while.

And given its appealing sporty trim, and a similar configuration to rivals such as the Ford Fiesta 1300 S and Volkswagen Polo GLS, it was a good match for the opposition.

The 1.3 S in Britain

The 1.3 S was part of the original five-car Metro range launched in the UK in October 1980, and therefore originally marketed as the ‘Austin mini Metro 1.3 S’.

The 1.3 S shared its 60bhp 1275cc A-Plus engine with the Metro 1.3 HLS, but lacked a lot of that model’s luxury trim – it could, though, still boast tinted glass, a tachometer, brake servo, mud-flaps, rear wash-wipe and a digital clock.

But although the Metro 1.3 S may have cut a sporting dash in the supermarket car park, it wasn’t really aimed at Silverstone. With a single carb and steel wheels, this was more a warm hatch than a hot hatch, and performance was identical to the 1.3 HLS.

That didn’t stop the copywriters from talking enthusiastically of the ’96mph’ Metro 1.3 S and pointing out how flush halogen headlights (shared with the 1.0 HLE and 1.3 HLS) aided aerodynamics and thus top speed.

As a Metro, it shared all the attributes of BL’s new baby, including excellent packaging which gave a maximum load space of 45.7 cubic feet (gross), and the asymmetric rear seat (a novelty in 1980) which allowed that space to be exploited to the full. Automatic transmission wasn’t available and wouldn’t be on any Metro until the arrival of the specific Metro Automatic during 1981.

Austin Metro 1.3 S
Five adults fitted easily into the Metro. Here, they illustrate the flexibility of the seating aboard a 1.3 S

The sportiness (or ‘trendiness’) of the 1.3 S was more of a visual thing. You could spot a 1.3 S by the twin tape stripes in contrasting colours on its flanks, which took the place of the rubbing strip fitted to HLS models. Depending on the colour of your 1.3 S, these tapes could be grey/black (as seen on the Snapdragon yellow car pictured) or beige/tan (as seen on the Sombrero Brown car).

The 1.3 S, aimed at youthful buyers, let the designers be novel with colours and trim – although such coloured side striping had been used on sporty Austins before. The Austin/Morris 1800 S back in 1969 is one example, and the original twin-carb Austin Maxi 1750 HL of 1972 is another. That offered four different colours of rubbing strip, although hardly anybody noticed.

Austin Metro 1.3 S
An export-specification 1.3 S with head restraints and sunroof

Most memorably, the 1.3 S came (at first) with seats upholstered in striking ‘Strobe’ woven fabric, in green, brown or grey depending on exterior colour. Though they didn’t stick around for long, those rather trippy seats are what most people remember about the Austin Metro 1.3 S.

In the UK, head restraints were optional, as was a passenger side door mirror.

Austin Metro 1.3 S
The ‘Strobe’ seats of the original Metro 1.3 S are not easily forgotten

Mid-life revisions 

With the 1.3 S only sticking around for two years, it’s perhaps a surprise to learn there was time for an update in the autumn of 1981. Maybe the ‘Strobe’ fabric proved a bit much for potential customers, because it was replaced by a more sober ‘Herringbone’ material. But head restraints were still an option on the home market for the ‘S’ even though the new Metro 1.3 Automatic got them. Logical?

Marketing material for 1982 described the 1.3 S as the Metro that combined ‘pace, performance, style and all-purpose versatility’.

The 1.3 S was priced at £4574 including tax in mid 1982, notably cheaper than the 1.3 HLS at £4948, underlining its place some way down the (Austin) Metro ladder which by that time in Britain had extended to include eight models excluding the new MG 1300 (more later).

For 1982 the Metro 1.3 S was revised - with herringbone tweed replacing the Strobe fabric.
For 1982 the Metro 1.3 S was revised – with herringbone tweed replacing the Strobe fabric

In Europe

As so often in the history of British Leyland (and family), what happened on the European continent differed quite markedly from the UK. Although the Metro would inherit the crown of the Mini, the only car from the company to ever reach the best-seller charts in most countries, a more stream-lined Metro range than offered in the UK was favoured by executives at BLEO (BL Europe & Overseas) – the marketing unit headed by Tony Ball which supervised such things in that era.

So, as mentioned at the start, the Metro 1.3 S served as the range-topping Metro in European export markets, for the period between launch of the Metro range there, and the 1982 arrival of the Vanden Plas and MG 1300 versions which, unlike the 1.3 HLS, would be sent across the Channel.

As the range-topper, the 1.3 S appears to have come with a sunroof and head restraints as standard in most countries (they were options in the UK). Meanwhile, the 1.0 L (or 1000 L) Metro available on the continent was considerably up-specced from the 1.0 L sold at home, with flush halogen headlights among other things, offering another fairly luxurious Metro with the 1.0-litre engine from the start, alongside the HLE.

Nearly all exports of the Metro would go to continental Europe, with France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands counting among the most important markets. However, although a sole Metro 1.3 S appeared at the Paris Auto Salon in October 1980 (coinciding with the UK introduction) sales in continental markets didn’t commence until the spring of 1981, which gave Longbridge time to phase in left-hand-drive production.

Unlike the Mini which was still being assembled at Seneffe in Belgium for the continental market, all Metros would be supplied complete from Longbridge. The assembly of cars at Seneffe ceased in 1981 – there was little rationale for that to continue once tariffs on UK car imports to the EEC disappeared.

It should perhaps be added the Mini did not disappear when Metro was launched (as occasionally thought). It still had 20 years ahead of it and, in a couple of cases – one being Italy – the round-nosed Mini was actually re-introduced during the 1980s after an absence. The French, always keen on the Mini, continued to buy one Mini for every two Metros right through the 1980s – or around 7000 annually.

A Metro 1.3 S at the Paris Auto Salon - October 1980
A Metro 1.3 S at the Paris Auto Salon – October 1980

That 1980 Parisian Metro 1.3 S, in metallic Green, attracted a lot of attention. To avoid pre-empting the British Metro launch taking place the same month, it could not be displayed on the BL stand at the 67th Paris Auto Salon until midway through the show, when it appeared on a turntable involving a pool and water jets, having bumped off the Triumph TR7 which occupied that position for the first week of the event.

Banners proclaimed (in French) ‘A car ahead of its time’ even if the French press felt the engine and four-speed gearbox did not quite answer that description. Bernard Lamy, head of the French operation, welcomed Jacques Chirac (who was then the Mayor of Paris) to inspect the Metro 1.3 S on the morning of Saturday, 8 October 1980.

In France, the 1.3 S (or ‘1300 S’) model was the range-topping Metro for 1981, although there had been plans to offer the 1.3 HLS as well. Apparently, at the last minute, it was decided two 1.3 Metros was one too many and, even though references to a ‘1300 HLS’ appear in some early documentation, only four Metros (pictured below) were launched.

However, the French soon added their own locally-confected Metro to the range: The ‘Metro Commerciale’ was based on their quite posh ‘1000 L’ but was a two-seat car, with full glazing, aimed at business users, who were entitled to big tax savings on such models. It wasn’t a van – but what the Americans would call a ‘business coupe’.

France would prove a good market for the Metro, at times taking over 10% of total output, with French sales peaking in 1986 when over 18,000 were sold.

The French Metro range launched in 1981 was topped by the ‘1300 S’ on the left. Note the ‘1000 L’ with flush headlamps unlike its British-market equivalent. (Press photo)

In Italy, the same decision to pass on the 1.3 HLS applied and, as a result, the 1.3 S appears as the featured car in a lot of Italian advertising. As seen below, Italy joined other continental markets in retaining the Strobe seat fabric, but adding a sunroof and head restraints as standard equipment. The 1.3 S played a role in Metro’s very successful Italian introduction, helped by Leyland Italia’s excellent (if accidental) timing. Italy was very much a small car market where the leading Fiat 127 was looking old by 1981, and the Metro sold like hotcakes at first.

Interestingly, although the traditional ’round-nosed’ Mini wasn’t imported to Italy during 1981, Italians were still able to compare Metro to the ‘Mini Clubman 1000’ (as they called the end-of-line A+ powered Estate). It had been dropped at the time of Metro’s launch in every other market except the UK where it was called Mini HL Estate. The Italians loved them.

Sergio Mia, head of Leyland Italia, was able to boast of a big sales expansion for 1981 thanks mainly to the introduction of Metro, which was selling at the rate of over 1500 per month and in some months over 2000. This continued into 1982 and helped BL sell a grand total of 50,000 Metros on the continent that year, approaching a third of the year’s production.

Italian Metro advertising featuring the 1.3 S - 'Unmatched purpose and luxury'. Sunroof was standard.
Italian Metro advertising featuring the 1.3 S – ‘Unmatched purpose and luxury’. A sunroof was standard

In the Netherlands and Belgium four Metro models were available: the 1000 / 1000L / 1000 HLE and 1.3 S.

The Netherlands was unusual as three versions of the Innocenti Mini-derived hatchback remained available alongside Metro into 1982 at BL dealers. (90L/Mille/De Tomaso). That allowed Dutch customers to make some interesting comparisons between two different takes on a three-door hatchback with Mini-derived mechanicals.

As the evergreen Mini was also still very much available, Dutch BL showrooms were rather crowded just with small cars – all of them variations on a theme in a sense.

An Austin Metro 1.3 S is displayed at the Dutch motor show (Europahal – RAI) in early 1981. (Press photo)

That slightly awkward comparison with the Innocenti three-door hatchbacks (launched in 1974) was also possible at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1981, as BL in West Germany was (like the Dutch) still marketing those cars alongside the new Metro.

However, they would disappear from continental BL showrooms (as had already occurred in France) after Innocenti severed its links with BL and switched to Daihatsu engines in 1982. In Italy itself, many dealers held both the Innocenti and Leyland franchise – a legacy of the two companies having been merged prior to 1976 – meaning side-by-side comparisons could still be drawn right through the 1980s.

Anyone making such a comparison couldn’t fail to note how the cleverly-packaged Metro, a slightly larger car in any case, offered a great deal more usable interior space.

Metro 1300 S in West Germany - 'The versatile and nimble one'. Here we see the Strobe woven seat fabric in brown.
Metro 1300 S in West Germany – ‘The versatile and nimble one’. Here, we see the Strobe woven seat fabric in brown

Even the wealthy Swiss, rather keen on luxurious small cars, were denied the Metro 1.3 HLS, with the 1.3 S stepping in as the range-topper. This strategy makes more sense when one remembers the Metro Vanden Plas was only a year away from being launched when the Metro range first hit continental showrooms in the spring of 1981. The Swiss catalogue features a 1.3 S kitted out with headlight jet-wash (a rare option in the UK).

At the internationally-orientated Geneva Motor Show in March 1981, a range of Metros was displayed, but the multi-lingual information handed out implied the 1.3 S was the top model.

The Swiss Metro 1.3 S pictured here has headlamp jet-wash which, if standard, was an improvement on the UK specification.
The Swiss Metro 1.3 S pictured here has headlamp jet-wash which, if standard, was an improvement on the UK specification

Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland, which typically mirrored the UK model range rather more closely than continental Europe, also made do without the 1.3 HLS.

All this emphasis on the European export market might seem a side issue, but of course that wasn’t the plan. To fulfil production projections made in the 1970s when funding for Metro and the new West Works at Longbridge that helped build it was approved, the Metro needed to sell in the same kind of numbers abroad as it achieved at home – in other words, the sort of 50/50 export ratio a rival like the Renault 5 could claim, as could the Mini in its prime.

That flag-waving ‘British car to beat the world’ TV advert showing landing craft full of imported hatchbacks being repelled on the beaches was all very well. But if Metro was to fully succeed, BL needed to send plenty of craft in the opposite direction, out into the world – well into Europe anyway.

That pillar of the Metro business plan never quite met expectations. The Metro did better on the continent than any model from the company since the Mini, but even though the car was a success on the home market, projections that up to 350,000 might be built annually were never met. Production never reached 200,000 cars for any calendar year. Compared with Fiat, Ford or Renault, that was low volume for a small car, spelling trouble in a field where economies of scale were key.

The Metro wasn’t a bad car, but on the continent it was starting from way behind, hobbled by a weak distribution network. The weakest was in West Germany, Europe’s biggest market where Renault, which had worked hard to build its presence since the 1960s, could sell 30,000 Renault 5 cars annually. BL was lucky if it shifted 2000 Metros.

And Metro didn’t stay ‘new’ for long. The Fiat Uno of 1983 brought an end to its Italian honeymoon, and the Peugeot 205, Renault ‘Supercinq’ and new Ford Fiesta were soon proof the competition never stands still.

New kid in town

There was clearly demand for a hotter version of the best-selling Austin Metro, given the heritage of the model and the appearance of a Metro Cooper/Monaco (at a price) as a conversion. The ending of MGB assembly at Abingdon in October 1980, just as Metro production was getting into swing, had left BL looking for a car to keep the MG brand alive in the short-term, with new MG roadsters in the plan for the longer term, if resources allowed.

So, the stars were aligned for the MG Metro 1300 which broke cover in May 1982. When introduced the new MG Metro 1300 incorporated changes to compression, camshaft and cylinder head making it notably faster than the 1.3 S, although a single carb was retained. It had 73bhp which compared to 60bhp for the 1.3 S.

Compared to the comparatively tame cosmetics of the Metro 1.3 S, the MG 1300 introduced a comprehensive but tasteful package of MG trim, the highlight of which was superb Recaro-style seats originally intended only for the MG Metro Turbo, which would follow in October 1982. It’s rumoured the initial plan was to give the MG 1300 (below) similar seats to the early Metro 1.3 S, in the grey version of that ‘Strobe’ fabric, but management made a last minute switch to the specification.

MG Metro

With the MG Metro 1300 unleashed, the days of the Metro 1.3 S seemed numbered although rivals like the Ford Fiesta and Peugeot 205 would find space for both a ‘hot’ and ‘tepid’ sporty model in their small car line-up. But of course Austin Rover (as they became known from the spring of 1982) had the Metro Turbo in the pipeline, and the years to come would see various other Metros with sporty leanings unveiled.

The MG 1300 and the ‘S’ did overlap in price lists and showrooms until the autumn of 1982 with the 1.3 S priced at £4574 and the MG 1300 at £4789. However, in October the 1.3 S disappeared, to be replaced by a new variant: the Metro 1.3 HL, perhaps a more appropriate name for this package all along,

Over 40 years later, survivors of the Metro 1.3 S on British roads are rare, with only around 30 still being on the road according to registration data.

A Denim Blue Austin Metro 1.3 S fronts an advert for the range. UK 1981
A Denim Blue Austin Metro 1.3 S fronts an advert for the range. UK 1981

With thanks to Andrew Ryan, Nicholas Roughol, Adrien Cahuzac, Stefano Dusse and Colin John Corke.

Chris Cowin

4 Comments

  1. Interesting that continental market Metro’s had a higher spec than UK cars. That was the reverse with other manufacturers. In the early 80s there was a grey import industry for Ford’s, especially cars like the XR3. These where considerably cheaper in continental markets and personal imports common. To bring a Europe sourced car up to UK spec however buyers needed to raid the options list. Even radio’s wern’t fitted to continental Fords.

  2. Thank you for a great article . I had almost forgotten about the 1.3s variant . I was fortunate to be working for BL Systems / Istel around these times so I had 2 1.3s as company cars over a period of 2 years , one blue and then a green one with a sunroof . I absolutely loved both of them . A couple of years later I was lucky to get an MG Metro Turbo – probably one of my favourites
    Cars ever .

  3. The Metro ticked all the right boxes and came with a wide range of trim levels like the Fiesta, which was its arch rival in 1980. I’m sure the Metro 1.3 S was an indirect replacement for the sporting Mini 1275 GT, which was axed when the Metro was launched. Also the 1.3 S offered a more modern drive than the Mini and was faster and quieter.
    To me, though, my main memory of the Metro 1.3 S were the colour schemes: bright orange seemed to be the most popular colour and the two tone striped interior was like the last gasp of the disco era, until Austin replaced it with a more sober interior in late 1981.

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