The cars : Maleo – the mysterious Indonesian Rover Metro

In the 1990s, Rover exported Maestro production to Bulgaria and Montego assembly to India. But did you know that it almost repeated the feat with the Rover Metro/100?

Read on for the story of the Indonesian Metro that never was. What we know about the the Proyek Mobil Nasional Maleo has been pieced together by Mike Burns and Jesús Alonso Balado.

Maleo: the Indonesian connection

Zagato-styled Rover 100-based saloon

Sometime back in 2015, an odd auction appeared on eBay for the blueprints to ‘make your own Metro’ – and, within the photos of this strangely unique auction, a drawing appeared of the Zagato-styled, Rover 100-based saloon and written reference was made to the abandoned Indonesian spin off of Rover Metro/100: the Rancang Maleo. Although, by the mid-1990s, this car was well past its sell-by date, it was a business model that saw the Maestro and Montego being exported to Bulgaria, India and China.

The name Maleo is taken from a bird found on the island of Sulawesi with the name macrocephalon maleo. Sulawesi is in Eastern Indonesia, and it is the birthplace of Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, who was then the fourth State Minister for Research and Technology of Indonesia. He would become the seventh Vice-President of Indonesia and, later, the third President of Indonesia.

In April 2015, the Birmingham Mail and Daily Mirror provided an insight into the Indonesian plan which existed in the mid-1990s to launch the Rancang Maleo in mid-1997. The political situation of Indonesia at the time should not be underestimated. The Suharto-led Government was widely deemed to be a corrupt regime with accusations of human rights abuses. The upcoming presidential elections of February 1998 were certainly a key factor in the anticipated launch date in mid-1997.

Rover Group playing politics?

While the plan appears to have been to design a four-door variant of the Rover 100 (above), the timing of the election meant this plan was abandoned in favour of a facelifted version of the then-current Rover 100. Discussions on the whole project were held in secret and at a time when the Rover Group were under BMW control. The plan then evolved into one for the construction of approximately 10,000 Completely Knocked Down kits (CKD) exported from the UK.

In a way somewhat similar to the start up of Proton in Malaysia with Mitsubishi behind the scenes, the Bahana Pakayra Industri Strategis (BPIS) was seeking a partner for what was essentially described as a technology transfer to allow the start up of an independent Indonesian car industry and create the Indonesian national car. The adoption of a unique variant would act as a catalyst to onboard and encourage local supply chains to develop the national car industry.

The Maleo’s development programme started in the 1990s, while Habibie was the Minister for Research and Technology. The starting year isn’t quite known, and various sources say sometime between 1993 and 1995, while being seriously developed from 1996. The car would be an affordable, city car for Indonesian people, carry up to five people, environmentally friendly, with excellent fuel efficiency, and a high percentage of local components, from 60% to above 80% – the information differs from source to source. This project also appears to infer the potential transfer of Metro tooling from the UK at some point in 1997.

Details surface in 2019

The Indonesian Times published information in late 2019, which appears to be a follow-on result of a special programme called Selasar Beroda, Episode 5Mobnas Maleo (broadcast by a car channel on YouTube known as Four Wheel Chat – C4R), where the long-abandoned Maleo project was brought back into the public domain. While the car was known as the Rancang Maleo, the national holding company which was being set up was called Mobnas as the Government had wanted to create a wider holding company to allow parts sharing between different brands which were each tasked with hitting separate market sectors (minivans and hatchbacks). The price range set for the Maleo was 14-40million Ruphia in the mid-1990s.

The Indonesians contacted Rover in order to develop the Maleo project, but the scope of the project isn’t fully known. One source says Maleo would have been developed together with Rover, sending cars from UK but using domestic components, whereas other reports claimed the Maleo would adopt and modernise technology from Rover. What also isn’t clear is whether the Maleo would be a licence-built product or a more-extensively adapted product.

The earliest released copies of drawing surfaced in 2018 on an Indonesian motoring website – and show a Vauxhall Corsa-esque side profile with a Daewoo-like front end. The body was designed by Millard Design in Australia, and rumours suggest that a prototype did exist, but was subsequently destroyed.

Proyek Mobil Nasional Maleo specifications

Very few changes were anticipated with the CKD approach and it was expected that the car would retain the K-Series engine. For the development of the four-door saloon, consideration was given to a range of engines by Orbital Engine Development, Australia – three-cylinder variants of between 800cc to 1200cc and, allegedly, a two-stroke proposal. The range was expected to cover everything from a lead-in taxi variant to a high-specification model with chrome finishers, two-tone dashboards and body-coloured bumpers.

The capacity of the Orbital-produced engine, is also unclear – with various reports describing it as anything between 1.1- and 1.3-litres, with one more fanciful report claiming that a hydrogen fuel cell was also under consideration. However, the suppliers of the ICE engine would either be Ford and GM. The two-stroke fuel injection engine from Orbital was favoured because it was a simpler power unit to maintain than a traditional four-stroke engine.

Although attempts appear to have been made to revive the project, it seems to have been finally killed off in the early 2000s. However, in an interesting might-have-been, with unfounded rumours that existed of the MG Rover Group at one stage looking at restarting Metro/100 production, the timings do add an air of credence to these rumours of tooling availability (which remained in the UK).

What about the saloon that evolved from it?

In the end, the Maleo evolved into the four-door saloon shown in the video above. Whether it was based on the Metro platform or something else isn’t quite clear, although it’s likely to have been a clean-sheet design. It was built in collaboration with Australian company Millard Design, which was contracted to produce 60 prototypes, although only five or six appear to have been built in the end. Five trim levels were planned – the top model had body-coloured bumpers, audio system, cloth seats, alloy wheels and a two-tone dashboard, while the lowest trim would be used as a taxi.

It seems that just one Maleo hatchback prototype has survived along with two saloon prototypes. Reportedly, one of these remains in the USA and the other in Russia. Why Russia? It seems that the Maleo saloon programme was sold to a Russian enterprise, which intended to take on the project and develop it into production – but it failed to get off the ground. And that was that: the Maleo was dead. It failed to succeed because of lack of funds, as well as the wider Asian financial crisis, the fall of the Suharto government and its replacement by the Timor project – a rebadged Kia Sephia.

A handful of Metros in Australia

One of the more casual one-liners in these articles suggest that three and five-Rover Metros were left stored in Australia as part of the design process. We’ve yet to see any evidence of that, so if you know anything more, please do get in touch.

If you have good Indonesian language listening skills, you can find the YouTube video (below) discussing the Rancang/Mobnas ‘Metro’ Maleo with what appears to be a surviving, re-badged Rover Metro/100 sitting quietly in a corner of Indonesia and offering a fascinating glimpse into what might have been.  The video description states: ‘National car, state prestige or political elite? What is clear, Bobi will not discuss politics, he will discuss one of Indonesia’s forgotten and the only national car in Indonesia. With Bobi, whose eyes can’t be silenced, let’s explore Maleo’.

Keith Adams
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  1. This was a real low profile project. The body project was based at Motor Panels in Coventry – they were just using office space. I know this because my project at the time moved into that office for a short time as they were finishing Maleo. They moved out we moved in. This would have been 1995/6 maybe. If I can find any more information I will update.

  2. Unfounded rumours of Rover 100 production restarting – I was at a supplier in the early 2000’s when it was officially asked by Rover as part of an enquiry to all suppliers of what tooling still existed/what capacity was still available because they were considering reintroduction of the 100 (at 50k per year?)

    I also remember the Indonesian Maleo project in the early 90’s when at Longbridge but specific details now elude me.

    When 100 production ceased a company in Walsall bought the BIW framing line and were trying to sell it but I guess they had a very limited market!

  3. Interesting. First I’ve heard about MGR’s plans to reintroduce the Rover 100 – although, given how creative / desperate they were, it doesn’t come as any real surprise. Would love to know what they had in mind, if anyone knows.

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