The cars : Austin Metro (LC8) development story

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

Austin/MG Metro development history

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.

1968 Mini 9X by Issigonis shows what could have been. The car on the left is a mock-up built by Pininfarina, while on the right is the later road-going prototype.
1968 Mini 9X by Issigonis shows what could have been. The car on the left is a mock-up built by Pininfarina, while on the right is the later road-going prototype

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.

Michelotti ADO74

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?

Three proposals for the ADO74: On the left a Harris Mann design, with distinct Princess overtones, the middle design lacked style, even though it made it to full-size styling buck. On the right is Harry Webster's Michelotti-styled supermini proposal; very stylish and European in appearance.
Three proposals for the ADO74: On the left a Harris Mann design, with distinct Princess overtones, the middle design lacked style, even though it made it to full-size styling buck. On the right is Harry Webster’s Michelotti-styled supermini proposal; very stylish and European in appearance

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

Full-sized ADO88 prototype being discussed in the Elephant House at Longbridge... (Picture: BMIHT)
Full-sized ADO88 prototype being discussed in the Elephant House at Longbridge… (Picture: BMIHT)

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.

Prototype testing to the limit. (Picture: BMIHT)
Prototype testing to the limit. (Picture: BMIHT)

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.

ADO88 undergoing testing at Gaydon – this was a style that was never going to win the car any admirers…

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.

David Bache with the Austin Metro

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.

Sir Michael Edwardes with the new Austin MiniMetro at the launch in October 1980.
Sir Michael Edwardes with the new Austin miniMetro at the launch in October 1980

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.

BL was understandably proud of the interior packaging of the Metro and the practicality is evident when looking at the seat fold permutations of the hatchback. The sectioned Metro shows interior room in a favourable light and it should be noted that in this shot, the front seats have not been pulled fully forwards to create the impression of rear room!
BL was understandably proud of the interior packaging of the Metro and the practicality is evident when looking at the seat fold permutations of the hatchback. The sectioned Metro shows interior room in a favourable light and, in this shot, the front seats have not been pulled fully forwards to create the impression of rear room!

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.

Production under way at Longbridge: A great deal of the Metro's £275 million pound development costs were invested in Robotising the assembly line. Build quality was a step forward from Allegro, but sadly, still slightly behind some of the car's continental rivals
Production under way at Longbridge:  a great deal of the Metro’s £275 million development costs were invested in robotising the assembly line. Build quality was a step forward from Allegro, but sadly, still slightly behind some of the car’s continental rivals

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.

Late 5-door model shows how detailing on the car's styling was tidied up. The picture also the effectiveness of the addition of two extra rear doors in the 1984 facelift - the look remained fairly well balanced, it certainly looked no worse than the 3-door model, not a bad achievement when you think that the 5-door model was not part of the original design programme.
Late five-door model shows how detailing on the car’s styling was tidied up. The picture also shows the effectiveness of the addition of two extra rear doors in the 1984 facelift – the look remained fairly well-balanced, it certainly looked no worse than the three-door model, not a bad achievement when you think that the five-door model was not part of the original design programme

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.

Another fascinating could-have-been, this Metro pickup remained a one-off... (Picture: Reed Business Information)
Another fascinating could-have-been, this Metro pickup remained a one-off… (Picture: Reed Business Information)

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.

Hydragas improvements

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.

Next:  Read about the Roverised Metro and 100-series

November 1986, and the millionth Metro comes off the line at Longbridge. (Picture: Peter Melville)
November 1986, and the millionth Metro comes off the line at Longbridge. (Picture: Peter Melville)

Metro Facts:

  • 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.

Keith Adams


  1. To me, the Metro had all the bad bits of the Mini (noise, choppy ride, hopelessness on the motorway, tendency to rot) with absolutely none of its charm. This is one BL car that I do not mourn the passing of.

  2. a great story,imagine what posistion bl would have been in if it was roverised at inception?also wasnt a six cylinder small capacity metro prototype built i seem to have read about it way back.

  3. How times have changed! The MG6’s chances would be far greater if this type of patriotism still existed. Of course, even the most patriotic buyer would still need to be made aware!

  4. “To me, the Metro had all the bad bits of the Mini (noise, choppy ride, hopelessness on the motorway, tendency to rot) with absolutely none of its charm. This is one BL car that I do not mourn the passing of.”

    I had 3 Metro’s, found the hydragas gave a superb ride, but it was choppy as hell if it was left with the fluid level down as the built in dampers would stop working. Many were just left to sink or even lowered deliberately for that ‘sporty look’. Metro’s were also way quieter than the mini! Though the old gearbox design did give it that Milkfloat sound! They were no more noisy than the competitors of the time though. The Valencia/Kent X-Flow lump in the Fiesta was willing, but a noisy clattery thing! They did tend to Rot, but then so did the Fiesta, Fiesta’s rotted just as badly! Nova’s weren’t known for their rustproofing. The Citroen AX didn’t rust, but then plastic doesn’t rust! The venerable A-Series was still good for reliability, maintenance, fuel economy and fair performance, but continental competitors soon brought their new generation engines on stream.

    The metro’s biggest problem was it arrived about 5 years too late, sadly though after a few years as sales built up, it became outdated. Compare the MG Metro/Turbo with the Pug 205GTi or the Renault 5 Turbo and the late design is obvious. In the lower spec cars it held its own though. Really i think it should have been launched in about 1975 and replaced in about 1985, or at least given the facelift it received in 1990.

    The R6 Metro was still competitive, but again it was always going to have a short life by the outdated 1980’s body shell. Dynamically i think it was better than the MK3 Fiesta launched around the same time. In 1990 it offered far superior ride to any other car in it’s class. But within a couple of years the likes of the new Corsa and Micra hit the roads. The R100 was just a stretch too far though, it looked quite smart and to be fair to the designers it was a good effort, but the competition had upped their game, apart from the Fiesta the rest had pretty much cured their rot problems and all offered Power Steering as at least an option.

  5. I had one as a works van in the late 80,s
    I found it “Ok” but nothing special. However the biggest bug bear i found was how difficult it was to get in and out of.
    A combination of a low car plus a very high sill.

  6. I was suddenly made redundant and had to find some cheap transport to tide me over. Somebody in the pub was selling a mk1 VP, which I think was his wife’s, but it ws taxed and MOT’d and he only wanted £250 for it, so I gave it the once over and a quick test drive. Amazingly I couldn’t find anything wrong so I shook his hand on it. I caned that car up and down the country looking for work and she didn’t miss a beat or let me down, not once. It was a great fun to drive and I soon got to enjoy bombing around in her. It took a while to find the right job but when it came they gave me the usual company BMW, very nice but I’m not a Beemer fan. Sad as it sounds my heart went to that little Metro, which was an absolute life saver. It was comfy, revvy and I had great fun with the four speed box and manual choke ( I had to explain to my work colleague what that was ). She went as soon as she came but I wished I’d hung onto her – I felt like I’d let an old friend down when I sold her to some Mini mad lad who just wanted the engine. BL had their problems but that little VP Metro wasn’t one of them, quite the reverse.

  7. Nah, there was just the 1.0 & 1.3 A-series in the original Austin Metro. The 2nd Gen Rover metro had the 1.1 & 1.4 Rover K-series 8-valve engines,the 1.4 Citroen AX Derived Diesel and the top whack 1.4 Fuel-injected K-series, plus the 1.5 Peugeot Diesel (in the later Rover 100)

  8. “Unlike ADO74, the new car would not be as large as the competition such as the Renault 5 or upcoming Ford Fiesta…. 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.”

    Yet another BL car compromised because they were worried about the effect on other models in the range!

  9. I wouldnt say that Mikey, the Metro wasn’t compromised in respect of it’s size IMO, it certainly didn’t harm sales. In fact if you look at the car’s dimensions today, the citycar segment that grew in the 90’s mirrored what the Metro did in the 80’s as everyone pushed their supermini’s up market (or more correctly charged more for the same). The boggest flaw was when the R3 was launched, it did not fill the supermini segment like it was supposed to, so whilst people like Ford had grown the Fiesta slightly and then filled in the gap with the KA, the Metro remained to fill both segments – something it couldn’t do because A) it was now too small and B) it was bloomin ancient.

  10. Meant to say ‘biggest’ but all things considered ‘boggest’ is an equally appropriate word to describe many of the decisions taken by ‘the firm’….

  11. Hard to work out who was being most unreasonable. The seat makers who had downed tools, or other workers expecting the lines to keep rolling and spitting out thousands of unfinished cars that couldnt be sold!

  12. Remember the Metro saved British Leyland and Longbridge in the eighties. While the Polo was nicer to drive and better built, the Metro was cheaper to buy, cheaper to service, equally economical and reasonably reliable. Yes it could rust, but was it any worse than some of its rivals, and as for the lack of development, then I’m sure if the cash was available( Maggie should have stumped up a couple of hundred of millon for this), a heavily revised version would have come out in 1984. Just imagine a Polo sized Metro with five speeds, fuel injection on the top models and diesel versions. Then the Metro would have really raced on.
    Ironically the little car underwent the same modifications when it was ten years old and seriously out of date and with a Rover badge gained a new lease of life and threatened the underwhelming Mark 3 Ford Fiesta and ageing rivals from Vauxhall and Nissan in the sales charts.

  13. I absolutely loved the mighty Metro & I always will! I have owned 5 of them in total. These included a Mayfair, MG Turbo & 2 mk3 Rover K series Metros.
    I always loved the simple fun that they were to drive. The smooth ride that the hydragas suspension gave(never been anything to come close to it in a small car) and the sheer amount of space there was inside the cab, due to its clever space optimising design. Sure they had their problems and quirks, but what car from the early 80’s didn’t!
    The Metro saved BL from certain collapse single-handedly! It also kept the British car industry alive for a good couple of decades, sadly a industry we can lay claim to no more:(
    Long live the mighty Metro, will be forever the only car in my heart!

  14. We had a 1986 MG Metro as a runabout for 7 years, and it was a lovely little car, which had plenty of space, good acceleration , a useful top speed , exceptionally good ride, and exemplary economy . It was missing a 5 speed perhaps, but even at motorway cruising speeds it was still very refined for a small car . Its one real fault was the rot in the footwells which meant its premature demise . Much missed

  15. My first car was a Mk1 fiesta, which when it died was replaced with a Mk 1 Metro. The difference was like chalk and cheese, by comparison the Metro was quiet, comfy and even though both cars were low end models the Metro was like a luxury car by comparison.

    It served me well for 2 years, but was killed by a range rover coming round a blind bend at speed in the middle of the road. My choice was die ubder the RR or swerve and mount the raised kerb, I chose the latter which unfortunatly ripped the rear subframe away from the bodywork. Thankfully we were ok, but the car was fatally wounded, with suspension fluid formig under the car.

    It was missed and still is, I ‘upgraded’ ir with an MG Metro dash, giving me the tachomiter I craved, made working by the addition of a single wire.

    The car that replaced it? Well that was my first SD1, complete with 2 litre O series twin carb engine 🙂

  16. As a smaller-car nut, I found myself in heaven during 1990 when I realised I could afford/just about justify my seventh car – but more to the point, my first brand new one.

    After far too much research and many test-drives, (when the mostly dinosaur salesmen would allow this then fresh-faced 21 year old a demo) the final shortlist came down to either another Polo, a basic ‘Fox’, (getting-on by then, but I knew them) a cheapish ‘old’ version 1275 Metro Clubman, (with the very attractive prospect of easy/cheap tuning potential) a rather more expensive basic ‘new’ 1100 Rover Metro, (all the motor mags rave, but still only 4 speeds as standard then) Renault 5 Campus and the Panda 1000 ST that I eventualy chose.

    The A-Plus Metro was still attractive in some ways and by then well equipped, but was getting old – but it’s choppy ride/pitching and general lack of refinement ruled it out.

    The new Rover Metro fared better, but still was’nt as nice overall to pilot as the (Omega-axled) Panda and it’s ride quality no better than the Renault, (even though it’s handling was tidier.)

    The Panda won quite easily, even compared to a basic Uno of the time, (to my surprise) especialy when it’s quality of trim was taken into account – and it’s well-ratioed 5 speeder was standard…
    It served me well for 11 years and 135K before being passed to my then Sis-In-Law. Still miss that car a bit.

    aand it’s well-ratioed 5 speed was standard…)

  17. Walking past a house near my Mum’s the other day and a high gate into the back garden, normally shut, was half open. In the back garden, absolutely covered in moss, lichen was a Metro. I could only really see the tailgate, but judging by the size of the ‘Metro’ badging and what I could see of the wheels, a post 1984 facelift car. I would say an ‘L’ if I had to make an informed guess.

    Looks a bit “house of horrors” but I’d like a closer look…..

  18. The Innocenti was italian-sized. About half the interior space of the Metro… try putting four doors on that

  19. Apart from the K-Series units and different styling, the R6 Metro / 100 was the essentially what the original Metro should have been.

    In hindsight had money been available the Metro should have featured other bodystyles (2/4-door saloon and 3-door estate), had R6-like front/rear-interconnected Hydragas suspension from the outset and uprated A-Plus units as well as a suitable gearbox to cope with the original 120-130 hp intended power output for the MG Metro Turbo.

    Additionally, it should have been powered by the 85-103 hp 1.6 S-Series engine to sit in-between the 72-78 hp MG 1300 and 120-130 hp MG Metro Turbo along with a reputed diesel variant I heard BL apparently flirted with in the early/mid-80s from another manufacturer (prior to looking into a dieselized S-Series and even a dieselized K-Series before settling on the 1.4-1.5 PSA TUD in the R6).

  20. I can remember the excitement when this car was launched in 1980. British Leyland had started the year in terrible shape with nothing competitive to sell in the mass market, but by the end of the year had a highly competent small hatchback that was taking nearly a tenth of the market and was, at last for a British Leyland car, widely liked.
    The Metro probably saved British Leyland in 1980 and went on to become the company’s most popular car in the eighties. Also the use of proven technology and cheap as chips running costs made it competitive. It did have its faults, such as a tendency to rust and 1 litre versions were very noisy at motorway speeds( the 1.3 was always a better car for long journeys), but no one can doubt it was a huge success that would last into Roverisation as late as 1995.

  21. The Metro kept the flag flying a while longer, and as mentioned above, probably saved BL, at least in the short term, but it was still woefully behind the opposition in so many areas, especially in terms of refinement, comfort and rust. Whilst not many cars of that area were any great shakes on the rust front, the Mk2 Polo bread van and the Nova were certainly streets ahead of the Metro.

    I could personally never get comfortable with the bus driver position (long legs and arms) and was always never a great fan of the gearbox in sump, especially the whine and driveline snatch.

    I spent my money on an A reg Nova 1.2 and my girlfriend at the time on a Polo. Both were good on the motorway and both were outstandingly reliable for the day.

    The K-series engine versions were certainly better than the A series ones, especially with a 5 speed box, and were indeed quite capable little motors – I spent a couple of weeks driving one, but by that time the Metro had been overtaken in many other respects by the opposition.

    The Metro was cheap, familiar and an easy step up from the familiar and cute Mini. Obviously it was economical but the ride was (as mentioned above) choppy and the suspension under-developed. I have never been a fan of any of the hydragas suspensions and would happily have traded hydragas for a less space efficient conventional set up. Preferably without the rusting sub-frames.

    Whilst the Metro has a certain charm to be sure, it was never a car on my shopping list. The ones found in good condition now are almost always ex- grandad and grandma cars that have spent 99% of the time in a nice dry garage, mainly because a lot of Metros were sold to those types of people.

  22. British Leyland became increasingly bullish and confident around 1982 thanks in part to the Metro, but also due to rising sales, improvements in quality and genuinely good cars like the Triumph Acclaim and the Rover Vitesse. Also most of the union problems seemed to have been beaten and the company lost its defeated attitude it had at the end of the seventies. Had the Maestro and Montego been better made, the company could have taken 25 per cent of the market and still been around today.

  23. Despite the shortcomings of the car, the grip levels and roadholding of the Metro were class leading, probably the safest in the class too with the greatest margin in reserve due to double wishbone front suspension, independent on the rear, the simple McPherson strut / beam axles for the Fiesta/Polo/Nova competition was not up to the standard of the Metro.

    I too recall the early 1980s Ford TV ads for the Mk2 Fiesta, misguided attempts to reposition the Fiesta from blue-collar council estate to Sloane Square status, unlikely scenarios of over styled Sloanies dressed for a Cotswold wedding. Like the Mini, a Metro was classless, anyone could be seen in a Metro, and which car did Diana drive?

  24. The best small car I owned Travelled from Birmingham to north yorkshire with family and large labrador lots of luggage and always made it there and back Wish I had one now Lovely car

  25. While the gearbox in sump transmission was carried over from the Mini, how doable would it have been to simply fit the Metro with an end-on gearbox like on the Maestro?

    If it is doable in the smaller Minki II prototype via 2-inch increase in both wheelbase and width with the longer 4-cylinder K-Series, then in theory at least it should have been possible for the bigger Metro to have featured an end-on gearbox since the A-Series engine was roughly equivalent to a three and a half cylinder K-Series in length.

  26. I am not a design engineer, but I think the problem was not merely one of width, but was a combination of restrictions on width and length . With an end on gearbox, the final drive unit would have had to be accommodated fore or aft of the engine, and thus the engine would have had to be shunted forward ( very undesirable from a weight distribution point of view ) or back, which would be negated by NVH and safety considerations . All the Issigonis cars were ( and indeed still are ) masterpieces of packaging, but this was the price that had to be paid

  27. Car tests don’t talk much about what cars are like for back-seat passengers. In 1983 I spent quite a lot of time driving a 1.0L Metro, my dad’s 1.3 Opel Kadett and a Vauxhall Chevette – and my wife spent a lot of time sitting in the back of them with our new baby. Her verdict may surprise you. Wooden spoon went to the Kadett: its underdamped rear suspension was no problem for the driver but at any speed over 40mph on an A-road it threw rear passengers all over the back of the car – it was awful. (interestingly, the closely related front drive Cavalier did not suffer the same defect.) The Chevette was not bad – seat and suspension rather firm and rudimentary but basically well-behaved, so better than the Kadett. The Metro turned out to be easily the best – adequate room, comfortable seat and ride, no real criticism, even on a long run. Now who would have guessed that?

  28. Time might not have been kind to the Metro, Jeremy Clarkson in particular rubbished the car on Top Gear and other pundits regard the car as little better than the Allegro, but for two years, the Metro was responsible for half of all sales of British Leyland cars and was still selling well when it was replaced in 1990. I know the Metro had its shortcomings, lack of funds meant the car fell badly behind its rivals by the mid eighties, it wasn’t particularly well built or rustproofed and 1 litre versions were noisy, but it proved one thing: British Leyland could produced a successful car that was decent to drive, looked modern and was cheap to own.

  29. My stepdad had a 1.0 metro city when he met my mum, does anyone know what the difference in specification was between the city and city x?

  30. Has it been confirmed the Barrel Car prototype and ADO74’s Project Ant are essentially the same car or is it likely the case Barrel Car predated ADO74 only to later be absorbed into the latter project?

  31. The Metro could have been an excellent car if funds allowed a five speed gearbox to be fitted and a diesel version introduced in 1984 when rival manufacturers were introducing small diesel cars. I’d imagine if when the Metro was facelifted and a five speed diesel was introduced, sales would have remained massive. Also a five speed fitted as standard to the 1.3 petrol would have improved economy and refinement without sacrificing the car’s lively performance.
    Sadly, Austin Rover didn’t have the funds to develop the Metro in the face of heavy competition from newer rivals like the Vauxhall Nova and the car started to fall badly behind, but due to reasonable reliability, very low running costs, competitive prices and being easy to maintain, the Metro remained in the Top Ten right up to 1990.

  32. On the subject of a five speed Metro, I wondered if the Maxi box could have been spliced to the A-series. Did find that someone had done this in Australia to an unsuspecting Moke – using the box from a Morris Nomad – but could not find out any detail on the operation. So perhaps a five speed Metro might have feasible using existing hardware and it was hardly beyond the wit of ARG to improve the box’s notchy change.

  33. I’ve just been watching a clip online of the Doctor Who spin off, K9 and Company, and it features a W reg Metro cabriolet driven by Sarah Jane. Was this a one off for the show as everyone commented on never seeing a Metro like this in 1981?

  34. RCU 52Y was a blue MG Metro, it was the worst car I ever owned but also the best. Great interior, nippy when it worked, but it hardly ever did. Many of the common Metro faults such as real trailing arms, rust, but engines it went through three including a 1380 upgrade.

    Eventually I took it off the road for a year and put a new front subframe off a Metro City, it took ages as there was a problem with the steering that took me some time to sort. After it was on the road for six weeks, for my wife to learn to drive, it was nicked. I hope it was taken for a bank job and that the thief got caught by a bobby on a peddle bike as by then it was that slow with the smaller engine in it !

    • Was the Metro any worse for rust and poor quality than the Fiat 127, I doubt it, as this car was a rustbucket in the early eighties and known for being badly made with poor resale? Then there was the Renault 5, not as rust prone as the Fiat, but still no great shakes and expensive to fix when it went wrong, which could be quite often. The Mark 1 Fiesta, OK and quite well made, but 957cc versions didn’t go and it aged rapidly. How about a Datsun Cherry, very reliable and good value for money and had a bigger range of bodies, but a bore to drive and not exactly immune to rust. In the Metro supermini class, probably only the second generation Polo was a better rival and seemed to be very well made and reliable, but cost more, so I think the Metro was a good buy at the time. However, the arrival of the Vauxhall Nova, Fiat Uno, second generation Fiesta and Peugeot 205 changed the game in 1983 and the Metro fell behind.

  35. I am now pleased to reveal that the Norfolk Mini Owners Club now has a Metro wing!
    We have at least 4 in the club ranging from a 1981 mk1 to a 1989 kk2.

  36. I’m read somewhere that the original Metro was made in aluminium but due to cost was abandoned and replaced by steel. I’m assuming aluminium construction refers to the body and panels. Apparently while most Metro’s have rusted away two or three of these aluminium Metro prototypes remain in immaculate condition.

    Can anybody confirm and expand on this?

    P.S. I still hanker after a black MG Metro Turbo with red graphics.

    • There were a couple of early LC8 bodies made from aluminium, along with a Mini. However, these were never production intent. They were part of a project examining future methods, such as bonding. None got as far as crash test, failing badly on torsion test.

  37. Comparing the Metro to the Mark 1 Fiesta isn’t always fair. Yes the Fiesta was probably more rust resistant and engines stretched to a 1.6 for the XR2, but it was already four years old when the Metro arrived, the 957 cc versions were woefully slow and terrible on long journeys, the 1.1 was no great shakes either, and by the time it was being replaced, journalists were commenting on how old fashioned the Fiesta was. Meanwhile the Metro was still a fresh design in 1983 and topped the sales charts at the start of the year.

  38. Relating to the Austin Metro and admittingly speculative on my part, am trying to look a bit further into the deal British Leyland established with VM Motori to use its modular OHV diesel engine family (aside from reputed short-lived investigation into the 3-cylinder Daihatsu diesel engine). Seem to recall reading an image from old article possibly by Car Magazine where it was speculated the then upcoming Metro would receive a 1.5-litre 3-cylinder OHV turbodiesel (likely dubbed 315 OHV) derived from the 1.8-litre 3-cylinder OHV turbodiesel (known as the 318 OHV) used in the Alfa Romeo 33 though concede it is likely to be one of a number of unsubstantiated rumours floating about during that period in the late-1970s to early/mid-1980s.

    It seems 71-83 hp 1.8-litre OHV turbodiesel used in the Alfa Romeo 33 was basically a 3-cylinder version of the 4-cylinder 2.4-litre OHV turbodiesel used in the Rover SD1 and Range Rover as well as Alfa Romeo 75 and Alfa Romeo Alfetta/90.

    A hypothetical shrunken 1.5-litre OHV turbodiesel 3-cylinder with an estimated output of approximately 60-70 hp and 95-110 lbf⋅ft would presumably be derived from the 2-litre OHV turbodiesel 4-cylinder used in the Alfa Romeo Giulietta/75 and Alfa Romeo Alfetta that also appears to be related to both the 1.8-litre 3-cylinder and 2.4-litre 4-cylinder engines.

    Looking at the rough figures for the hypothetical 1.5-litre OHV turbodiesel 3-cylinder, it would seem even in detuned 60 hp / 95 lbf⋅ft specification the engine would have had a bit too much torque for the in-sump gearbox to handle considering the torque of the MG Metro Turbo was pared back to 85 lbf⋅ft, whereas contemporary turbocharged hot hatch rivals of the latter never had their torque restricted to such an extent.

    So far the only bit of evidence of BL’s engine strategy with VM Motori comes from James Taylor’s book on the Rover SD1 where the original plan was for the 2.4-litre 4-cylinder to power the Rover SD1 with a 3-litre 5-cylinder and 3.6-litre 6-cylinder to go into the Range Rover and Jaguar XJ respectively till circumstances worked against the latter two proposals (the 3.6-litre 6-cylinder being used in the AMC Eagle turbodiesel factory-approved conversion).

    Yet nothing of a 1.5-litre 3-cylinder turbodiesel for the Metro with the later Metro/100 receiving the 1.4-1.5 PSA TUD units, though obviously the 2-litre Perkins diesel made both the 1.8-litre 3-cylinder and 2-litre 4-cylinder diesel engines by VM Motori redundant for the Maestro/Montego.

  39. Thanks for this interesting story ! I’ve just noticed in the french motor papers of the time that the Metro was unexpectedly premiered in Paris before Birmingham. In its “Spécial Salon” number of october 1980 (issued just before the Paris motor show), l’Automobile states : “We won’t see this car at the Porte de Versailles, its official premiere being forecast on mid-october at the Birmingham Motor Show”.
    In its 15 october issue, the bimonthly Auto-Journal writes : “After many issues, this birth took place in Paris on 8 october only, so that early days visitors have not been able to see the car.(…) One should not complain about its late arrival, because on initial plans it was to be premiered on the very next Birmingham show. The unions were pushing for that, but at the end, common sense prevailed over nationalism. Why didn’t they display the Metro since 2 october ! ”
    I can imagine that BL France pushed hard for something else than the Ital to be presented in Paris… Maybe someone knows more about this late change ?

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