Launched amid a barrage of patriotic fervour, the Austin Metro was, for two brief years, Britain’s most fashionable car – it proved a continued success for the company, too, racking up more than two million sales during its 17-year production run.
Sadly, its success alone was never going to be enough to stop BL falling further behind the other major players during the 1980s.
Austin Metro: The car that saved BL
It’s a question car historians often ask: if BMC had created the Mini in 1959, why had it taken so long to come up with a convincing replacement? Its creator, Sir Alec Issigonis, had been planning an expansion of his Mini concept since the late 1960s, but production reality was little more than a pipedream. He correctly asserted that his Mini/ADO16 package was the way to go forward with small family cars, but felt that the idea needed expanding somewhat in terms of practicality from the Mini.
Little serious consideration had been given to developing the ADO16 with a view to creating a definitive ‘Super’ Mini. Logic and hindsight dictated that this was the way to develop a new small car, but as BMC was adopting whole scale range-on-range replacement of model ranges, this appealing idea was never pursued.
This is a shame because, had some weight been taken out of it, a fifth door added and more modern styling, Austin could have had a supermini of the classic mould on the market years before Renault and Fiat got in on the act with the Renault 5 and Fiat 127.
As it happened, it took until 1980 for BL to launch its Mini-based alternative, the Austin Metro.
The 1100/1300 opportunity missed…
So, the idea of slimming and updating of the ADO16 into a supermini was never looked at seriously; an idea, seemingly, no less logical than obvious but, as we can see, no one within Austin was willing or able to identify and then understand this emerging market niche.
The Austin Allegro was basically an ADO16 expanded slightly and brought up to date (with disastrous consequences) but, because of this growth, it left an unfilled chasm in the Austin range between it and the Mini.
Much in the way of company resources were thrown at replacing the Mini, but the saddest example of what might-have-been was undoubtedly the Austin 9X, as designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, arguably the only man who could create a ‘Super Mini’ having been responsible for the original.
Replacing the irreplaceable
Back in 1967, Alec Issigonis took the unprecedented step of asking George Harriman if he could step down from his role as head of new car development, so that he could concentrate his efforts on creating a new Mini.
After much persuasion, Harriman agreed with his idea and soon Issigonis gathered around him a small team of hand-picked Engineers – as he had done previously with the Mini – in order help him with his creation. By the start of 1968 and very much in the background compared with wider company events, the wonderful little car began to take shape.
Working to the strictest set of goals, Issigonis managed to create a totally new car. It owed absolutely nothing to its predecessor, and it managed not only to be shorter than the Mini (9ft 8in, as opposed to 10ft and a quarter-inch), but also lighter.
Because of some very smart thinking, it was also roomier than the Mini. Even today, these facts seem almost impossible to believe. The only prototype produced can still be seen at the British Motor Museum at the former Rover HQ at Gaydon – a testament to the Issigonis mastery of small car design.
BMC 9X: stymied by Harriman
Harriman was unable to offer Issigonis any commitment to production and, sadly because of events, had little budget to spare either. But this practically unofficial and almost single-handed effort by Issigonis would suffer no compromises: Issigonis insisted that the new car should have an entirely new chassis as well as engine.
The package was designed for simplicity of assembly and low-cost, benefiting not only to the manufacturer, but also the customer (through low purchase price). These aims would surely have been successfully met, as the 9X used an amazing 42 per cent less separate components than the Mini. The 9X would prove to be the last design from Alec Issigonis.
It was cancelled soon after the completion of the only prototype; the first victim of the BMH-Leyland merger.
New Leyland supermini: a victim of circumstance
Once the Morris Marina was established on the marketplace and the Austin Allegro was signed-off for production, Donald Stokes, John Barber and George Turnbull turned their combined attention to the matter of what car to introduce next. At the time, they were optimistic about the chances of the Allegro and the Marina had also made a good start, so they would devise their business strategy around both cars succeeding.
The one thorny issue that rose again out of this process of review was that the Mini was now 13 years and needed replacement with a new supermini. BL management tasked Harry Webster’s team to come up with a number of proposals in that area of the market for analysis. In the end, three projects were forwarded to management:
- Codename Ant
This proposal was a true Mini replacement, being similarly sized to the original. It was conceived that the car would be available in 750cc-950cc engine sizes and both two- and three-door bodystyles. It’s now been confirmed that Project Ant was the Mini update project also known as ‘Barrel car‘.
- Codename Ladybird
This was a larger car than the Mini, being some 15-20in longer than the Mini and 2.5in wider. Engine range was 900cc-1100cc and would be a true supermini, created in the same idiom as the Fiat 127 and Renault 5.
- Codename Dragonfly
Was a whopping 24-30in longer than Mini (making it Allegro-sized) and was planned to be sold in 1000cc-1200cc forms. The styling was ‘classic’ three-box and would be pitched as a rival to the Ford Escort – something the Morris Marina had moved away from being.
The new supermini takes shape
After review by the BL Board, Project Dragonfly was the first and most easily eliminated. Projects Ant and Ladybird were both more seriously investigated.
Reigniting past associations, and possibly in response to the fact that he was very aware that this sector of the market was fashion-led, Harry Webster asked Michelotti in Italy to put forward a proposal for the Ladybird.
This extremely attractive small hatchback (above) was not pursued by the company because it went against the go-it-alone ethos that was prevalent at the time, so was dropped in favour of the Harris Mann-penned version of the car
The Leyland ADO74 crystallises
Project Ant (above), which never received its own ADO number, was known as the Barrel Car because of its convex flanks. This was certainly a clever little design and it made it as far as a full-size mock-up before being finally dropped in favour of the ADO74.
The decision to go with the larger car was an easy one to make for Stokes, Barber and Turnbull, because they could see the way the market was going. Extensive market research in both the UK and Europe backed up this view that the supermini was the way to go. Project Ant was dropped, the larger car became known as the ADO74 and was given the green light by the BL Board.
A victim of circumstance?
Within weeks, and as a result of this gradual process of development, they were working upon a car that ran on a more realistic 88-90in wheelbase. At this point in development, it soon became clear that management were becoming increasingly excited by the car, recognising the fact that it had the potential to comfortably out-sell both the Marina and the Allegro.
As was the case of all cars that endured a convoluted gestation period, the ADO74 proposal was revised to fall inline with constantly changing market conditions. It was also the subject of much debate within the company: both the marketing men and the financial men liked the direction that the ADO74 was heading, because as a larger car, it had the potential to general larger profits.
The marketing men also could see that this car was exactly what the market wanted and because it was to hit the upper-end of the supermini market square-on, it was going to sell in huge numbers; none of the ‘domestic’ producers had an answer to it, but in Europe (where the Mini was still BLMC’s best-seller), a new small hatchback by the creators of the original Mini would surely go down a storm.
ADO74 gets the rug pulled out from beneath
The ADO74 had reached the semi-engineered prototype stage of its development and a commitment to production was required from management. When Donald Stokes announced John Barber as his number two, the ADO74 was put under further – and decisive – scrutiny. Barber considered that the ADO74 had grown too large and had moved too far away from the Mini to replace it.
The fact that the costs of getting it into production were estimated to be in the order of £130 million also did not endear the car to Barber. The result of this further analysis of the ADO74 meant that financially-focused Barber would lobby hard to get the project stopped before costs got out of hand. His reasoned argument was that he wanted BLMC to replace the Mini directly and, because it was still selling in large numbers, the company had more urgent priorities.
Barber made no secret of the fact that he felt that the future of British Leyland lay further upmarket and so he made the decision to scrap ADO74 and only look to replace the Mini once the company had devised their plan of action further up the range. It is worth noting that Barber made this decision on the eve of the October War and the ensuing Energy Crisis.
From 1974 to ’78: a process of simplification
The Metro as it would become only emerged when the company yet again dusted off the idea of producing a ‘supermini’ in late 1974. Because BLMC were now rapidly heading towards a deep and irrecoverable financial crisis, the feeling among many executives was that, to survive as a going concern, it would be essential to field a competitor in the supermini market.
The first ideas were fielded only a year after the ADO74 was scrapped and already the embryonic new car would owe nothing to its still-born predecessor. It would be true to say that the Metro was born in the last few days of BLMC’s existence as an independent company and came about as a result of the departure of Harry Webster.
Into Webster’s shoes, stepped Spen King, who was put in charge of product development for British Leyland, and the man who was chosen to oversee the product development at Austin Morris (and therefore the development of any new small cars), Charles Griffin.
From ADO74 to ADO88
Between them, they would father the ADO88. Griffin was definitely old-school BMC and had worked alongside Alec Issigonis in the past – he was regarded as a popular man, being seen as neither Austin nor Morris in his outlook when at BMC and, because of this, he could dictate firmly how the development of the new car would take place.
With the agreement of the BL Board of Directors and the Product Planning Department, Griffin once again looked at developing a replacement for the Mini. This time, there would be tight cost management because lessons had to be learned from the ADO74 – a good concept, but one that cash-strapped BLMC could ill-afford.
Unlike ADO74, the new car would not be as large as the competition such as the Renault 5 or upcoming Ford Fiesta, but would, by necessity, be bigger than the Mini – Griffin insisted on this set of parameters. The Austin Allegro had only been on the market for 18 months and there was a great fear that, if the size of the car was not tightly controlled and allowed to grow, as had happened with the ADO74, it would seriously encroach on the Allegro.
Mini thinking in the new supermini
Because of this, the smaller size was agreed on by everyone in a position of responsibility – the Engineers at Longbridge knew full-well that, with their vast experience of front-wheel drive packaging, they could build their smaller car to be as roomy as the new superminis.
Thanks to this reasoned argument and the fact that Griffin would be tightly controlling the car’s development, John Barber revived his interest in the new Mini project and gave it the go-ahead. It would prove to be Barber’s last significant decision – but a major one.
After the Government bail-out of BL and the departure of John Barber, his successor, Alex Park looked at the company’s works-in-progress and, after receiving assurances from Sir Don Ryder that the Government would foot the bill, he gave the new Mini programme the green light for production and ADO88 was born.
Effective and cost-effective approach
Work rapidly got underway on the ADO88 (so named because its wheelbase was planned to be about 88in) and, because costs were to be tightly controlled, many carry-over parts from the Mini would be used. The parts bin nature of the ADO88 also facilitated a rapid development programme and Charles Griffin was soon reporting to management that the new car would hit the market at the end of 1977.
Griffin was very strict on the space efficiency goals for the new car – it was a priority that he continuously reminded his Engineers about. There was no way that he would allow them the luxury of allowing the car to grow (something reminiscent of the methods Issigonis applied) but he still expected for it to match ‘inch for inch’ the interior dimensions of the Europeans. He wanted to deliver the promises that he had given to his management.
Mechanically, ADO88 was to use the A-Series engine and gearbox-in sump: the classic Mini arrangement, but variance was made on the suspension. Out went the Mini’s rubber cone springing medium and in came Hydragas, recently developed by Dr Alex Moulton for the Austin Allegro. Hydragas had distinct packaging advantages over the industry standard arrangement adopted by all the Metro’s rival manufacturers (and the 9X and ADO74 predecessors), lending more interior and under-bonnet space to the Metro.
Mini-like interior packaging
This gave the Designers more freedom and resulted in a remarkably spacious and airy interior, for a car of such short length – something that was inherited from the Mini and demanded above all else by Griffin. Unlike the Allegro, Metro’s Hydragas was interconnected side-to-side, not front-to-rear, which resulted in a compromised final product which, although doing the job, didn’t show off the system’s advantages as well as front-rear interconnection would have done.
Speaking in 1987, Dr Alex Moulton, the father of Hydragas, stated that Spen King wanted a more conventional suspension system on the Metro and so Moulton was unable to develop the system thoroughly for the Metro, being constrained by cost and time. He was vindicated in 1990 when the world’s press saw just how capable the R6 (Rover) Metro was on front/rear interconnected Hydragas.
To be fair to Spen King though, BL’s market share was falling so rapidly that everyone in the company must have felt compelled to rush the development of the car – and just get it into production – such was the sense of urgency. Work had been undertaken on the venerable A-Series engine, which had been in service powering various British Leyland cars since the 1940s.
Engine and powertrain options
Around the time of the formation of British Leyland, a low-cost overhaul of the A-Series incorporating an Overhead Camshaft cylinder head (dubbed, unoriginally A-OHC) was being planned to giving the smaller-engined cars in the group a badly-needed fillip. What the Engineers were up against was a thermally-efficient long-stroke, overhead valve engine which delivered impressive torque and, most importantly, class-leading fuel economy.
Because the Engineers could not develop the new engine to produce significantly better numbers, A-OHC was dropped. It was now clear that the Government would not be giving the company unlimited cash reserves and so the existing engine was left to soldier on for a while longer.
However, lessons learned from the A-OHC programme were pressed into an even lower-cost and higher value project: the A-Plus engine. This would prove to be the Metro’s sole power unit from 1980 through to its demise in 1991, but would still produce more than effective performance and economy figures when used in the car. Total cost of development: £30million.
Styling: a vexed issue
Now the package was all-but finalised, David Bache, fresh from the successes of his world-beating Rover SD1 was brought in to oversee the final styling and production engineering of ADO88: the Metro was now entering the later and drastically vital stages of development.
When Sir Michael Edwardes and the new Austin Morris chief, Ray Horrocks, looked at the ADO88 for the first time in January 1978, both realised immediately that it needed re-evaluation. It was, though, too late in the development cycle to make any drastic changes the car.
Luckily the basic concept was good, but disastrous customer clinic results were backing-up Edwardes and Horrocks’ own feelings that the concept of the ADO88 was too utilitarian when compared with sophisticated rivals like the Volkswagen Polo and the new Ford Fiesta.
What potential customers in Paris and the UK were telling the Marketing Department in no uncertain terms was that the car looked too unsophisticated. Main points of contention were that the almost-vertical tailgate made it look too much like a small van and the flat sides of the car sadly backed-up this impression.
A last-minute update led by David Bache
Thankfully, the arrival of the new management and the very poor showing in customer clinics were the catalyst needed to get the required changes made. Harris Mann, along with Roger Tucker and Gordon Sked, overseen by David Bache (below), were charged with giving the ADO88 an emergency restyle. They managed successfully in five weeks.
At this point, the ADO88 project was renamed LC8 (for Leyland Cars), in order to tie the car in with the upcoming LC10, but also to reflect the car’s changed focus. This was more than a simple panic-induced pre-launch facelift. What had been seen by potential customers at the Paris customer clinic as the prototype’s uncompromising shape led to every external panel being revised. This resulted in a more stylised and aerodynamic car. More definite and upmarket features were added, making it less of a Renault 4 rival and more of a supermini in line with the best of the continental rivals.
A new nose and more aggressive front spoiler were added, chiselled sides echoing the SD1’s side swage lines were also incorporated and the tailgate angle was altered, being less upright – less van-like. The interior was upgraded and safety lessons from the ESV prototypes were incorporated. The LC8 was considered by the Product Planners to be different enough from the ADO88, that testing and development was practically restarted.
Austin Metro: a British car to beat the world
Seen in this light, a development period of less than three years from the inception of the LC8 to the launch of the Metro was remarkable indeed!
Cast your minds back, if you will, to 1980. A new decade had started, British Leyland was struggling with a range of elderly and, arguably, incompetent models, such as the Marina, Maxi and, most unforgivably, the Allegro. A dearth of new cars had been the result of the lean years – nothing new had come from British Leyland since the Rover SD1 in 1976.
All the press coverage about British Leyland had been doom and gloom: factories had closed, jobs had been lost, Michael Edwardes was doing all he could to convince the new incumbent of Number Ten Downing Street not to close down the operation for good. Imports were running at the highest ever level and, against this backdrop, was the open secret that a new and exciting car was on its way from British Leyland. The press had made great play about just how much taxpayers’ money (£275 million) had gone into the development of this car and the overhaul of Longbridge, the factory the Metro was to be built-in.
Everyone wanted Metro to succeed
Unfortunately, BL would still have to fight a running battle with the British Leyland Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee, the unofficial body that claimed to represent the BL workforce. This organisation was still smarting over the dismissal of its former leader, Derek Robinson, and its defeat in August 1980 over the imposition of new working practices which included the acceptance of mobility of labour.
On 2 October 1980, 500 workers walked out when a rectifier refused to be moved to the assembly line. The dispute arose out of moves to increase production from the existing 1500 Metros a week to more than 2000. A second trim and rectification line had just been started, necessitating the movement of some workers. The dispute was quickly resolved, but it showed how fragile industrial relations were at the time.
Friday 8 October 1980 was the day that the Austin miniMetro (to give the car its full but short-lived title) was launched amidst scenes of flag-waving and a swelling of national pride. Much was already known about the upcoming car and it was possibly the worst kept secret ever that a new, small BL car was on its way.
People finally had a modern and efficient British car that they could buy – and not feel they needed to justify buying on grounds of patriotism. As CAR was oft quoted as saying: ‘At last a British car that no-one needs apologise for’. Adverts ran on national television showing the Metro scaring off freighter-loads of foreign superminis – and sending them away whence they came.
The new Metro range – something for everyone
Shown to the public for the first time at the British Motor Show in Birmingham, the Metro was available in 998cc and 1275cc versions of the A-Plus engine. The Metro was initially available in a plethora of trim variations, ranging from 1.0 Basic model to the 1.3HLS model.
Most attention was drawn to the high economy 1.0HLE model, which was claimed to be the most economical car Europe in flag-waving adverts. Much play was made of the 83mpg fuel consumption figure that the AA had achieved in steady-speed tests on the HLE – read the small print and this amazing figure was achieved at a steady 30mph, not really related to real-life driving.
There were lots of clever design features in the Metro, competitive interior space, good use of what space available, well-designed interior features, good quality textures and a quirky, but contemporary exterior. What this all meant was that British Leyland had produced probably the best and optimum package with the base materials to hand.
Heading to the top of the class
Road testers soon heaped praise on the car, rating it as good, if not better than the current state of the small car art, the Ford Fiesta. There were comments that maybe the Metro wasn’t the huge leap forward in automotive evolution the original Mini was, but no one, least of all British Leyland themselves, would have been able to serve up such a car at that time.
Small car development was still very much in its infancy, buyers were still only reluctantly downsizing, as a result of the Second Energy Crisis of 1979. What was good news for British Leyland was that the Metro was an instant sales success (unlike the Mini), fighting tooth and nail with the Ford Fiesta on the British market place and winning new sales for the British company. All was looking good as market share started to make signs of recovery after the decline of the 1970s.
By the end of October 1980, BL was looking at turning the Longbridge plant entirely over to Mini and Metro production. The decision was made to produce the forthcoming LC10 at Cowley and, by axing the Allegro, which was produced in CAB 2 at a disappointing rate of 1200 cars per week, this would free up capacity to produce 8000 Metros a week. At launch, demand for the Metro was insatiable and with weekly production now at 2500 and still working up, this was not enough.
Industrial issues start to sour the Metro
Back then, bad news and BL were synonymous and it wasn’t long before the spectre of industrial strife reared its ugly head. Having narrowly avoided a strike over pay, BL found itself back in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. It all came to a head on 21 November 1980 and the cause was Metro seat production.
Discontent, which had rumbled among the 130 seat assemblers on the day shift for weeks, ended in a strike on the preceding Thursday. The management had pressed unsuccessfully for output to keep pace with the big demand for the new car and claimed that a few seat assemblers were refusing to work properly so that the day shift was achieving only 80 per cent of its target output compared with the night shift’s 98 per cent. It said the disparity between shifts with the same manning made nonsense of the day shift’s claim that it required more workers. As a result the Metro production line was stopped.
Angry groups of Metro workers stormed through the Longbridge plant, smashing windows and doors in protest at the management’s stopping production of the new car. The plant was soon at a standstill. The trouble occurred when 500 assembly workers were laid off for the second time in a week because of the shortage of car seats.
Their colleagues had refused to unload seats from an outside contractor brought in as a result of the dispute involving Longbridge seat assemblers. Within minutes of the track being stopped, workmen began to storm through the plant, hurling car components through windows; knocking over racks of parts and terrifying female staff in adjoining offices.
The Kremlin gets stormed
One group of about 30 went to The ‘Kremlin’. When they found the doors locked, they ripped one from its hinges and forced their way into the office of Mr Stanley Mullet, the Plant Director. They demanded and got a meeting with him, and other senior managers, to protest at the shutting down of the Metro line.
They were told that production would not resume until their colleagues began producing seats for the Metro in acceptable numbers. Several police cars were sent to the plant, but did not enter. The difficulty over seats has been simmering for several weeks. With thousands of seatless Metros on the plant roads and more joining them daily, the management brought in outside suppliers but, as related above, workers refused to unload them.
Pickets said that the clash was simply a reflection of the widespread bad feeling resulting from the company’s refusal to increase its 6.8 per cent wage offer. One picket said: ‘Today’s trouble was always on the cards. It had brewed for weeks. For a time it was pretty hot in there with exhaust pipes and other parts from the racks flying all over the place. We are as proud of the Metro as any of the bosses, but they must learn they cannot keep riding roughshod over us.’
Industrial action is ended
Hundreds of other workers walked out in sympathy, stopping production of the Mini and the Allegro. As a result several thousands more were sent home by management. BL said at the time: ‘We are still checking reports of damaged cars, but so far we have not been able to establish that anything significant happened in that respect. Talks are taking place with the works committee to try to resolve the problem but we have stated that the assembly line will not be restarted until the seat dispute is resolved.’
The strike lasted two days and workers returned to a stockpile of 6000 seatless Metros.
By mid December 1980, BL was planning to recruit 1000 extra workers to boost Metro production in preparation for its European launch.
Meanwhile, sales are booming
The Metro was now being produced at a rate of 3500 cars a week and took 9 per cent of the UK car market – half of BL’s sales. Weekly Allegro production was now down to 600 and the Mini was still being produced at a rate of 1150 cars per week. BL claimed the Metro was not eating into Allegro and Mini sales, but it was. The Longbridge weekly car production figure had now reached 5220, the highest since March 1975.
The repercussions of the November Metro seat dispute were about to hit BL. Eight workers had been dismissed by the company, including four Shop Stewards, for allegedly instigating the near-riot. The British Leyland Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee led by Derek Robinson’s successor, Jack Adams, demanded their re-instatement.
On 16 December 1980, 900 workers walked out, demanding the reinstatement of the eight dismissed men and halting Mini and Metro production. By 17 December, this had increased to 1300 men and the dispute threatened to spread and develop into a full-blown confrontation with the Transport and General Workers Union. Longbridge was at a standstill and thousands of other workers were laid off. Normal working did not resume until 5 January 1981, and the dispute had cost BL at least 5000 Minis and Metros in lost production. Longbridge was soon back up to speed as a BL statement revealed.
‘We are delighted with the way employees have buckled down in what could have been a difficult time. Longbridge produced 5793 cars, including 3666 Metros. That beats the 5200 reached before the strike began and is the highest weekly output since December 1974.’
Teething problems don’t dim enthusiasm
Initial unease with the Metro started immediately after the ‘honeymoon period’ of late 1980 and early 1981. Problems centred on poor build quality, resulting in reliability issues, all too familiar to owners of other products of the British Leyland stable. The Metro suffered from carburettor maladies, poor starting, dealer apathy and it was not long before these stories started getting into the press.
Although warranty claims were running at high levels, the sheen of the new car was only slightly dented. What differentiated the Metro from its poorly-built predecessors, was that assembly workers as well as management wanted the new car to succeed and so, along with ongoing development, build quality improved rapidly and, as a result, the reliability of the car improved too.
By 1980, the template for the small car had been set and was exemplified by the Volkswagen Polo and Ford Fiesta: transverse engine, end-on gearbox, front-wheel drive, three-doors, 1.0-litre entry models and 1.3-litre premium models. Within this template, the Metro fitted in perfectly – only its gearbox and suspension setting it apart. What made the Metro excel in this context was the eagerness of the 1.3-litre models; sharp steering and good ride quality and keen roadholding – in its higher model variations, the Metro was a genuinely fun car to drive.
The mechanical make-up of the Metro being so similar to the Mini meant that it inherited the same ‘Bus driver’ seating position: drivers sat with an upright backrest behind a steering wheel mounted far too biased towards horizontal, offset pedals finishing the effect. The gearbox was good and there was the same positive action that Mini drivers were used to.
Metro production ramped up
In March 1981, it was revealed that BL intended to increase the speed of the Metro production line from 25 cars per hour to 28.5. However, by early May, this had resulted in a strike which came after 45 trim shop workers walked out over a 500-cars per week increase in production targets. Other workers went on strike in sympathy and, within a few days, 1700 Metro workers were out and 2600 laid off before the dispute was resolved.
Later in the month, Harold Musgrove defended the Longbridge workforce from condemnation. He maintained that the level of productivity over the past 18 months had been competitive with the best in Europe and that, in the first four months of the 1981, the company had not lost a single vehicle, which was an exceptional performance. The weekly output of about 6000 Metros, Minis and Allegros was almost double the plant’s output in recent years.
On 26 July 1981, BL admitted it was developing a performance model of the Metro, but what form it would take was not revealed. The next disruption to Metro production did not come until the November 1981 BL pay dispute, when Longbridge was surrounded by 2000 pickets. However, the strike collapsed after two days and production was soon back to normal. Unfortunately, this was rapidly followed by the ‘tea break’ strike which halted Mini and Metro production after 2200 men walked out and stayed out for four weeks which cost some 24,000 vehicles in lost production, most of them Metros.
Developments on a theme
Further Metro development was limited to running changes to the car and May 1982 brought the warmed-over MG 1300 model, harking back to the 1960s and 1970s practice of badge engineering. This theme was also extended to a Turbo version of the MG Metro in October 1982, the forced-aspiration installation being handled by Lotus, and both MG models did sell reasonably well, not so much hampered by the ‘Essex Boy’ image as Ford’s hot-rod XR range of cars.
In line with the rest of the Austin Rover range (as it was called by now) a top-of-the-range Vanden Plas model was introduced, resplendent with strips of wood, thick Wilton carpeting and luxurious velour (or, optionally, leather) upholstery. This addition to the Metro range was a far cry from traditional Vanden Plas cars of pre-war years, but it was an effective answer to Ford’s range of Ghia-badged luxury versions.
In August 1982, BL gave its Mini and Metro workforce an extra two weeks paid holiday due to a serious fall in small car sales. The company halted production for a three-week period, but then resumed at the normal rate of 4025 Metros and 1000 Minis a week. This followed by an extended three-week Christmas break, as a recession in the continental car market was hitting sales.
Struggling to keep up with the opposition
What worked against the Metro was the relentless progress made by the European competition. When it came to the small car, class standards events rapidly overtook the Metro. Firstly, the second-generation VW Polo arrived in late 1981 and redefined how the small car should look with its small estate car looks and upright tailgate – something the Metro itself had helped to initiate.
Secondly, in 1983, both the Fiat Uno and the Peugeot 205 were launched – two seminal cars which were to completely transform small car buyers’ expectations. Neither manufacturer felt the need to stick to the smaller size format of their predecessor cars, the 127 and 104Z, and slightly upped the size of the new cars, realising far more interior space. The Metro was now seen as a car that was almost a size class below these cars and lacked the sophistication of these new European cars.
Luckily for BL, which was still deep within cash crises of its own, British car buyers still bought the Metro in large numbers, as Ford also sat on its hands in terms of Fiesta development and General Motors was procrastinating over its small car, the Corsa/Nova, more than even BL had. The net effect of this was that British buyers were faced with the choice of the 1976 Fiesta or 1980 Metro; imported small cars were gaining ground, but not significantly so.
Metro reaches its peak
The year of 1983 proved to be the Metro’s best year of all with 180,763 emerging from the Longbridge plant. In February that year it was Britain’s best-selling car and, to mark this important news, on 10 March Metro production was halted by a walkout of 200 storemen in protest at works police searching the houses of two of their colleagues in a search for stolen parts. They were joined later by another 150 men.
Although the Fiat Uno and Peugeot 205 were technically more advanced than the Metro, perhaps the real threat to the BL supermini came from the Ford Fiesta Mk2, which was launched in the late summer of 1983. Despite being older than the Metro, sales of the Fiesta had proved resilient.
Indeed, it could be argued that in terms of sales, the one small car that had definitely lost ground to the Metro was BL’s own Mini, which was now down some 100,000 units per year. Quite clearly BL had some loyal customers who were switching from Issigonis’s baby to the newer Metro, as BL’s UK market share steadfastly refused to exceed 20 per cent.
Austin Rover’s new customers
There were some sales conquests as combined Mini/Metro sales were now in excess of the comparable data for 1979, but so much ground had been lost since ADO88 was conceived in 1974. Moreover, since 1976, the Ford Fiesta had firmly established itself as a trusted brand in the small car world, something it retains to this day, perhaps second only to the Mini/MINI.
There were many buyers who remained immune to Metro mania, perhaps they had had their fingers burnt by previous much-vaunted British Leyland models? And the fact that BL were still suffering from industrial dispute suggested that the leopard had perhaps still not changed its spots.
The revised Fiesta Mk2 came with new engines and the all-important five-speed gearbox that the Metro did not have. Aided by snappy TV advertising aimed at the emerging yuppie market, the Fiesta Mk2 was an immediate hit. 1983 was the year of the Metro, but in 1984 the Fiesta regained its crown as Britain’s best-selling small car and then steadily pulled away, selling some 150,000 units alone in Britain in 1987, when total Metro production for the year was 161,285.
Metro HLE: Massive economy potential
The HLE, high economy model was further developed, Austin Rover being locked in a battle with Renault and its 5GTL to produce ‘Europe’s Most Economical car’. The ’83 version of the HLE was to have and MG-style rear aerodynamic spoiler and engine/gearbox modifications.
The optimum A-Plus engine was the 1275cc version so, unlike the original economy model, this engine was used with a higher final drive on the gearbox – obviously, a five-speed gearbox would have been used if the company had an existing one that could fit in the A-Series sump (as there was no money to develop such an item).
Limited development in the face of the onslaught of ‘Second Generation’ small cars would sum up the Metro’s life. Newly-installed design chief Roy Axe tweaked the styling of early Metro, widening the track, lowering the suspension slightly – ‘toughening’ the car’s stance.
Freshened for the mid-1980s
The year of 1984 brought the arrival of a tidied-up facelift version, further tweaked by Roy Axe, a five-door model (on the same wheelbase) was introduced, but no significant mechanical changed were made. Metro remained obstinately A-Plus powered and no alternative five-speed gearbox was offered. The lack of cash in the company was to blame for this – Metro’s in-sump gearbox would have to remain – and remain it did until 1990.
In April 1984, the Metro was once again Britain’s best-selling car and, in May, Longbridge was once again at a standstill due to a ten-day strike followed by another six-day stoppage in early June. The Mk2 Metro referred to above appeared in October 1984, but production at Longbridge was once again halted for 16 days during the November 1984 pay dispute – that was the final big showdown with the British Leyland Combined Shop Stewards’ Committee, which resulted in a decisive victory for Austin Rover Chairman Harold Musgrove.
After this, the Metro was the recipient of a running programme of development. These unseen revisions never amounted to anything major, just small adjustments to the car. Such improvements made through the car’s life by the Production Engineers were not merely cosmetic; the suspension was developed, dropping the secondary dampers to improve ride consistency, early on in the car’s life.
Running changes along the way
The driveline was also tuned in order to alleviate some of the snatchiness and clutch judder that the Metro was notorious for – it was only partially successful. The build quality did improve year on year, as did the equipment level, but these changes kept the Metro at a merely competent level – and unavoidably it did fall behind class standards.
In August 1985, Austin Rover announced it would be cutting back on production because of the vicious price-cutting war then going on. In the case of the Metro, weekly production was cut back from 4100 to 3700, an admission that the car had lost its sales appeal.
Serious work on a replacement for the Metro centred on the radical new K-Series engine, which was under development, and a larger, more contemporary car was taking shape in the background (the Gerry McGovern-styled AR6). Various proposals were investigated, many lessons being learned by the Project ECV3: light weight, aerodynamic detailing such as flush glazing and an interesting and highly efficient three-cylinder powerplant.
As time progressed and with less and less cash being made available by the Government to Austin Rover, the cost option began to favour a revision of one of partner Honda’s small models, probably the Civic or City/Jazz – something that Honda was simply not keen on.
Engineering the new car took an interesting turn when Dr Alex Moulton, the former BMC suspension guru and working in retirement presented, the Rover Group’s management his own ‘hacked’ Metro with front-rear suspension interconnection.
The difference between this and the production version was marked and profound. The level of this car’s ride/handling excellence helped tip the balance in favour of a radically facelifted Metro, as opposed to a far more costly ‘wheels-up’ replacement, which frankly, Rover could not afford. By 1987, the die was cast: a further revision of Metro with a K-Series engine and re-developed Hydragas suspension. This project was dubbed R6, and eventually appeared in 1990 as the Rover Metro/100 series.
No further changes were made to the Metro after the 1984 facelift, apart from minor marketing-led ones. Sales started to slide; General Motors and Ford divided the company car cake between themselves in the small car market. Private buyers began to see the Metro as a product from a bygone era and sales slid year on year.
A late decline – better is to follow
By 1989, Metro’s market share was down to 4.31 per cent from the high of 7.34 per cent in 1983. What people should never forget though, is that the Metro was a very popular car and it is no exaggeration to say that this car above all others of the 1980s was responsible for Austin Rover staying in business, helping offset a wholesale collapse of market share in the face of the failure of the mid-market Maestro and Montego models.
- The name Metro was chosen by BL after the company’s employees were balloted to decide which name should be used, Metro, Maestro or Match.
- The company Metro-Cammell insisted that BL could only use the Metro name, if it was prefixed with the Mini moniker. This situation only lasted a short while, thanks to success of the car, and was conveniently forgotten by both parties.