Car of the Month : October 2004

Developed with the help of Lotus in 1982, the MG Metro Turbo was BL’s answer to the Fiesta XR2 and Renault 5 Gordini.

The Metro proved an excellent basis for the hot hatch project thanks to its stiff bodyshell and proven mechanicals. The Turbo engine development was particularly successful; so much so, that engineers needed to back off the boost in order to spare the gearbox – even so, one BL development driver remembers vividly how it easily outrun a Rover 2600 development car at Gaydon…

Sporty spice

Resplendent in bright red, this MG Metro is still more than capable of turning heads today...
Resplendent in bright red, this MG Metro is still more than capable of turning heads today...

ONE thing about the MG Metro is that it divides opinions. You either love ’em or loathe them. Those that love them cite its chuckability, torquey performance, rorty engine note and cute looks as something very positive, while those that loathe them bemoan its lack of interior accomodation, compromised driving position and misjudged use of the MG badge as negative points. However, here at we love them and have many, many reasons for doing so. This example, owned and cherished by Richard Murphy is a particularly nice one, and shows that even today, the MG Metro still has all the ingredients to make a fine sporting hatch.

Rear three quarter view shows off the rear screen spoiler, colour coded bumpers and cross spoke wheels beautifully.

The MG Metro came about because of two distinct reasons: to keep the MG flame alive after the painful closure of Abingdon in 1980, but also to allow the company to fight in the rapidly growing “hot hatch” sector of the market. Once it became clear that the MGB would be shuffling off this mortal coil, the BL management felt that the company needed an MG-badged car to compete in the market, and the initial plan was to adapt the Solihull-produced TR7 to become an MG product. Several prototypes were produced, and the idea looked to have legs, but in the end, the idea fell victim to further BL contraction (Solihull being put on ice in 1981-82), and the abandonment of the US-market thanks to stiff exchange rates (which favoured exports from the USA, and not imports in).

This left product planners with a dilemma – produce an MG, but base it entirely on an existing model. It was the end of 1980, and the answer was obvious: produce a sporting version of the newly-announced Metro, and apply the MG octagon to it.

Red-themed interior matches red exterior – and prominent MG badge looks good in the wheel centre.

Historically, this was no precedent – after all, BMC had made piles of money selling MG badged versions of the 1100 and Farina saloons, and being based on humdrum saloons was part of MG’s DNA. However, there were many in the company’s management structure that felt uneasy enough about the matter, that they felt it prudent to get the clubs involved. According to an insider, “when we were seeking MG Club approval, it was an even-handed affair – both Bill Wallis, then Chairman of the MG Car Club, and Roche Bentley, owner of the MGOC were invited to Gaydon together to sample an MG Metro.” In both cases, a solid thumbs-up was given to the baby MG saloon.

It was good PR, and as the club felt it had an “inside track”, gave the car its thumbs up.

Not that BL should have worried. The Metro tested well, and like the Mini-Cooper before it, extra power was routinely extracted from the A-Series engine. In fact, had the MG Metro idea not been mooted, we could well have been looking at Metro-Coopers as production items. In 1981, John Cooper Garages hit upon the idea of building its own go-faster version of the Metro, using its own well-established tuning methods to extract extra power from the A-Series lump. The finished car was shown to the press in October 1981, and the overwhelming feeling from those that drove it was that it was a welcome power boost for the Metro, and its dynamic package was more than capable of handling it.

MOTOR magazine tested the Metro-Cooper and loved it, realising an impressive set of performance figures, feeling that this was a car that BL should have been selling. Little did they know what the company had up its sleeve. As it was, John Cooper Garages was asked by BL to drop the “Metro-Cooper” name, as it still owned the rights. But there was more to it than that. BL managers knew the MG Metro was coming, and did not need a Metro-Cooper confusing matters. In the end, John Cooper renamed the car the Metro Monaco, but without that name, its chances were probably hampered. Only a few made it into private hands.

June 1982 saw the launch of the real thing – the MG Metro, and it with it, a general sense of relief that the MG name had been spared oblivion, even if it were attached to a “hot hatch” rather than a two-seater convertible, so loved by the purists.

There’s something special about the way the A-Series engine looks – and this one is particularly clean.

The magazines loved it: here was a Metro that could finally cut it in the “hot hatch” market, taking the fight to the more powerful opposition from Ford and Renault. And although the finished article only put out 72bhp, it was enough for a top speed of over 100mph and a 0-60 dash of under 12-seconds. That might not sound that quick in today’s terms, but it was enough to be considered peppy, and more than enough to impress at its £4700 list price.

Engine modification may have been light, but the interior and exterior received a substantial cosmetic makeover. Outwardly, the MG Metro was easily identified thanks to its Wolfrace alloy wheels and bright graphics, with plenty of MG stripes in evidence. The interior was also much improved, with smart (and supportive) new seats, new instrument graphics, and red seatbealts. Again, it sounds a little garish now, but back in 1982, it really did look good.

So it went well and looked good. Good enough to impress WHAT CAR? magazine, who voted it Car of The Year for 1983, and good enough for buyers to purchase it in large numbers despite its four-speed gearbox and cramped acccomodation (compared with bigger rivals). All that stood between it and lasting success in the “GTi” market was more power. Again, Austin Rover had this in hand, and it was Michael Edwardes himself that let slip to the press in the closing months of 1982, that he had been lapping the test track at Gaydon “rather quickly in something turbocharged”.

The turbo MG was coming.

And December 1982 saw the result of all the testing, when the MG Metro Turbo was announced to the press (alongside the Rover Vitesse). Where once, the sporting Metro made do with 72bhp, a turbocharged 93bhp saw that performance was given a useful fillip. A sub ten-second 0-60 time and 110mph maximum speed were spoken about, and it seemed as though Austin Rover had a car to tackle the big-selling Ford Fiesta XR2 head-on. Cosmetic alterations centred mainly on the exterior where new skirts and wheel arch extensions featured, as well as pretty new alloys, bold TURBO graphics, and a duotone paint job (something that would appear on many, many future Rovers).

Lotus engineers at Hethel had been contracted to help with the turbo installation, and given the company’s experience, this was a very good move. Testing had soon shown that the A-Series engine would take a BIG power hike with a blower, and outputs of 120-130bhp were easily attained. However, there was a downside: the gearbox. If drivetrain life was to measured in thousands rather than hundreds of miles, then power would need to be capped, as there simply wasn’t money in the kitty to develop a new gearbox.

Again, the road testers rated the Turbo, although maybe not as unreservedly as they had its lower powered, sweeter, brother. Some felt that the balance had been lost when this much power was added to the mix, and torque steer was a term that was introduced to the Metro’s vocabulary. However, these reservations did not slow down sales, which remained brisk enough throughout the early years.

Today, very few MG Metros remain, and of those only a miniscule amount are the turbocharged versions. Richard Murphy, however, owns what must be one of the very best left, and as can be seen from the accompanying photos, it remains a pretty car after all these years. Actually, the condition of this car belies the total mileage of 75,000, so it is obvious it has been looked after much of its life. Richard Murphy relates why he bought it:

“I first wanted a Metro Turbo when I was 19, back in 1996. Unfortunately the cost of the insurance would have been astronomical due to my age and because the Metro Turbo was still on the joyriders easy steal list. Then back in late February 2004 during some late night surfing, I found myself just generally searching for web pages about the Metro Turbo”.

“I found a web site listing some MG Maestros, Montegos, and Metros for sale. There was an ad from November 2003 selling a Metro Turbo, so I sent an email to the seller enquiring as to whether it was still for sale. As it happened, it was currently listed for sale on eBay – what are the chances of the that!”

“So I went to see the car, made the owner an offer, and a week later I was driving back from London in my Metro Turbo after an 8-year wait. In all, I went from idly browsing the web to owning the car in less than 2 weeks. Once I had got the car home, I went for a drive around the local country roads and remembered just how much fun Metros are to drive, even more so with that distinctive turbo whistle”.

In summary, the Metro remains a very useable classic car today, thanks to excellent fuel economy, peppy performance, a myriad of tuning parts and fun chassis set-up. Nothing this side of a Mini has that much-cliched ‘Go Kart’ feel through its steering – you turn, it darts. What we have here is a car very much in the MG mould – sporting, and interesting – and possessing more appeal than the car it is based on. It is a set of qualities that served the MG brand well thoughout the Eighties, and it also appears to have been the template for the current range of ‘Zed’ cars.

For evidence that these qualities continue to shine through today, you only need to look as far as August’s car of the month.

With thanks to Richard Murphy for the photos.

Keith Adams

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