Under the skin, there was plenty to crow about the Rover Metro of 1990 – the K-Series engine and interconnected Hydragas suspension were a technical marvel in this class.
However, the same-again styling stunted its long-term sales success…
Rover’s Metro transformation
The story of the Rover Metro is one of missed opportunities, a convoluted development programme and genuine innovation in the face of strict cost control. The matter of replacing the Austin Metro actually started as early as 1982, when Austin Rover embarked on an ambitious project, dubbed Austin AR6.
The brief laid out by the company was simple: the new supermini would need to be grown slightly in order to counter the larger opposition from Fiat and Peugeot, but also to take advantage of the extra development potential of the company’s new engine, the K-Series, which was also coming together at the same time.
In the early stages of planning the AR6, there was a long-held belief within Austin Rover that the Maestro and Montego would, at the very least, earn their keep – and, along with the extra £1.5 billion inward investment from the Government, the company believed that there would be sufficient funds to develop an entirely new supermini.
Metro replacement part one: AR6
The car quickly took shape – and, following on from the lessons learned from the ECV3 concept car of 1983 (above), it came as no surprise that the AR6 would sport such advanced features as flush glazing and extensive aerodynamic detailing, which had been carefully developed for the BL concept car. Also in the small car’s portfolio was a lightweight construction which, allied with the advanced engine being drawn up at Longbridge, meant that therein lay a potential for startling fuel economy.
Certainly, the AR6 (below) was to have been a radical small car which, in the eyes of Harold Musgrove, was the ideal vehicle for the high technology image that he was chasing for the car division.
Unlike the Metro, the AR6 was devised from the beginning to be available in three and five-door versions – and, along with the traditional idea of a long wheelbase within a short body, the interior packaging of both models looked efficient. The ECV3, from which the AR6 was inspired, offered a tremendous amount of interior room – and the large glasshouse ensured that the ECV3 cabin was also a very airy place to sit. Austin Rover executives were bullish about the AR6 and its chances in the marketplace, and much of the company’s development resources went into its gestation.
Questions start to be asked
Throughout 1985 and 1986, development of the car continued, and several running prototypes were built. The AR6 was reaching the stage of production readiness – all that was required for the final go-ahead were the finances from within the company to bankroll the final stages of development and productionisation.
However, there was now a growing crisis of confidence within Austin Rover and it was becoming clear that, because of the uncertainty over the company’s future and the Government’s growing impatience at its stubborn refusal to show any form of profit, plans were drawn up for a lower cost alternative.
At least its engine was progressing nicely. Under the leadership of Roland Bertodo, the 1.1 and 1.4-litre K-Series were shaping up to be light and efficient power units – worthy enough to replace the A-Series. Through necessity, a lower cost alternative to the AR6 was taking shape at Canley. Why was this so? Management and planners knew that the AR6 was going to be an expensive project, and the Government was determined to sell Rover Group. What it didn’t need was the ongoing costs of AR6 development, rumoured to be more than £500 million.
Out with AR6, in with the new R6
Sometime around early 1987, the axe fell on the AR6. Graham Day’s regime could no longer afford to engineer the advanced little car for production, while maintaining the appearance of a healthy financial performance for any potential suitors. As it was, the Rover 800 was the only new product nearing production. The decision to kill the AR6, might have been a sound one, but it was a short-termist solution, and was greeted with huge disappointment internally.
Now that the replacement of the AR6 had been cancelled – this car’s replacement, the K-Series powered Metro facelift, known at Project R6, was given the go-ahead. The car was given the official development tag of R6 and the engineering make-up of the car was rapidly devised. Because funds were tight, the existing car’s monocoque would be used and changes would be made to it only where necessary.
Re-engineering the Metro’s hull to accommodate the K-Series engine and its end-on, PSA-derived R65 gearbox was not so straightforward. When mounted transversally, the unit occupied more width than the A-Series. Luckily, because the Metro was blessed with a stiff hull and a favourable accommodation/length ratio, it was easy to see that the Engineers had a good starting to point to work from.
This meant that the R6 styling was stuck with the familiar Metro theme, despite some promising sketches (above). The only room for movement was at the front, where the new front section was to be fitted. Roy Axe stated that the styling of the R6 should not be attributed to one Designer, as it was a committee job… and perhaps given the nature of the overall ‘look,’ this is probably the best way to view the R6.
However, it could have looked a whole lot better. Once the technical package was roughly set, David Saddington worked on a more comprehensively restyled version, using the R6 underpinnings. This car, known as the R6X (below) was, essentially a more stylish version of the final car, but sadly, it was cancelled due to lack of funds…
Technical questions to answer
With the question of engine and transmission answered, the only real headache that the R6 posed was what suspension system would be needed. When launched in 1980, the Metro’s Hydragas system gave it class-competitive ride quality and handling – as well as a degree of ‘chuckability’ that endeared it to its buyers. But times had moved on: the Peugeot 205 especially, had shown that smaller cars had grown, but also that small car ride and handling had become significantly more sophisticated.
Because of these huge leaps made by the opposition, there were still unanswered questions on what was the preferable system to use in the R6: on one hand, work was completed on adapting the conventional set-up used in the AR6 for the R6, but as the Metro’s floorpan would require expensive re-engineering, this was not an ideal solution. With this in mind, work also continued in-house on refining the existing car’s Hydragas set-up.
The driving position of the Metro had also been a constant source of criticism from the press as well as customers so work was also done on improving that. Although the bodyshell of the Metro would be used unchanged, Engineers were given enough leeway to lengthen the nose of the car and also move the front axle line forward. The result was that the driver footwell was lengthened, the steering column could now be set as a more conventional angle and the front seats be set in a more natural position.
Swiftly, the configuration of the R6 was set: K-Series engine, PSA gearbox, and a slight increase in track front and rear – only the suspension layout was yet to be settled. That is, until the efforts of Dr. Alex Moulton (below) were brought to the attention of Rover.
Alex Moulton: suspended genius
Moulton was keen to demonstrate the benefits of his system: Hydragas suspension units were more compact, and therefore easier to package than coils. Besides, Rover knew that in order to use a conventional system in the R6, a degree of re-engineering in the floorpan would be needed. Moulton had modified his own W-registered Metro to accept front/rear interconnected Hydragas suspension.
Why front/rear interconnection as opposed to the vestigial side to side as it was on the existing car? When the front wheel encounters a bump and rises, the suspension fluid will rush from the front suspension unit to the rear. The rear wheel will resultantly lower, lifting the tail of the car and allowing a level ride. Citroëns demonstrate this trait perfectly when encountering a ‘sleeping policeman’ – the whole car rises in unison and suspension ‘see-sawing’ encountered in conventional cars (and the original Metro) is eliminated.
Why this ideal arrangement was omitted from the original Metro can be best summed up by Moulton himself, ‘I was struggling to show how an interconnected Hydragas Mini, for all its diminutive size could give better results than a VW Polo. But BL’s Spen King, a very strong-minded and knowledgeable Automotive Engineer, didn’t like it. He preferred absolutely conventional cars. Yet I was persistently and consistently offering something superior in Hydragas.” In fact, the original Metro was so compromised by its non-interconnected Hydragas arrangement, that Moulton felt that, ‘at best, the solution would only produce a car that was average.’
Learning from the errors of the original Metro
Mouton continued: ‘All they’re doing is substituting the conventional spring and damper with a Hydragas unit’ and that because of the compromise engineering in making this system work, needless complexity was designed in anyway. ‘Anyone coming in from outside would take one look, pronounce it burdened with nasty costs to no advantage and get rid of it.’
The real reason that Spen King adopted non-interconnected Hydragas for the original Metro was that the extra pipe work of the system employed on the Allegro and Princess would have cost extra money. So it was dropped – and it has to be said that the decision to do so was a rather questionable one. King recalled that, ‘we all had guns to our heads…,’ which would go some way towards explaining the immense pressure he was under as the company’s Technical Director.
Dr. Moulton invited CAR magazine to drive his modified Metro, which they did… and they were stunned at the difference that interconnection made to the package. How Rover’s own Engineers heard about the car is an interesting tale in itself: during July 1987, Moulton had received Sir Michael Edwardes (below) as a guest at his house and, during the meeting, Moulton invited Edwardes to drive his interconnected Metro.
Like CAR magazine, Edwardes was very impressed, and he telephoned Graham Day up to tell him that they,’should incorporate the system and charge £100 extra for it!’ Duly alerted about the existence of the Moulton solution, and allied with the painful decisions that the company had made over the AR6 and with question of the what the configuration of the R6 needed to be still to be unanswered, a viewing of Moulton’s solution would prove irresistible for Rover.
And so it was. Rover took the car away to Canley and Engineers thrashed it around, before concluding that Hydragas had a great deal of life left in it and, that following the example set by Moulton, the system could be developed into a class-leading package. The decision was made: the R6 would be launched with Moulton’s interconnected version of Hydragas – and, in taking that decision, Rover demonstrated that lateral thinking sometimes produced results far in excess of corporate compromise…
By 1988, road going versions were being tested and were delivering impressive results. Attention now turned to marketing the car.
What to call the new car?
Rover was aware that, in the UK, the Metro was still a best-selling car and the name was still regarded fondly by customers. Moreover, as there had been no mass abandonment of buyers following the deletion of the Austin badges during 1987, it was decided that the new car should become a Rover and not a ‘non-Rover’, as Kevin Morley used to refer to the Austin-era cars. At the time, the smallest Rover available was the Rover 213 which, although clearly a Honda-based car, was a popular choice with customers.
However, it was the smallest car to wear a Viking badge in living memory, and there was a sense of unease that there would be some buyer resistance to a Rover-badged supermini. The decision for the car to adopt a Rover badge may have been reasonably straightforward – naming the model was not: on one hand, the Metro name may have been a known quantity in the UK, but it also pointed to an increasingly outmoded car.
It also, clearly, was linked with the old days. Consideration was also given to the fact that customers would see the car as a lightly revised Austin Metro, rather than the re-engineered new car that it really was. After researching many different options including, amusingly, ‘Metro, by Rover” the decision was made to call it the Rover Metro in the UK and the Rover 100 Series (111 and 114 models) in overseas markets, where being seen as an entirely new car would be no disadvantage.
A successful launch
By the May 1990 launch date of the Rover Metro, the firm was on a roll: the Rover 200/400 had been a success and the 800 was undergoing a renaissance on the marketplace. In the wake of the 200/400 launch, Rover announced the new Metro, which incorporated Rover 200 front seats, trim and colours and was equally well received. Thanks to the number of awards which it had won, much was made of the K-Series connection. If the press were disappointed at the styling of the new car – oh, so familiar inside and out – they found the driving experience a revelation. An example of this was the verdict reported by What Car? magazine which, after testing the Rover Metro 1.1L against the Peugeot 205, Fiat Uno and its then Car of The Year, the Ford Fiesta, pronounced the Metro an easy victor.
‘The New Metro is a quantum leap, and on several accounts,’ said What Car? ‘For a start it’s light years ahead of its predecessor, far more so than its obvious family resemblance would suggest. But, more important still, it sets new standards of quality, ride and refinement for the class… In its chassis dynamics – ride and handling – it takes on the acknowledged masters of the art, the French, and beats them. It’s probably the quietest, smoothest, most refined car this side of £10,000 or even a bit higher.’
‘Drive the Metro, and unless you need more space you wonder if you need anything grander. Our only reservation concerns the fuel economy, which really ought to be better.’
This enthusiasm was reflected across the entire UK specialist motoring press: CAR magazine drove one on a 15,000-mile marathon and came away with nothing but praise, and Autocar & Motor declared it the magazine’s new supermini ‘Hero’. If that praise sounded like blinkered jingoism, remember that the motoring press had become much more objective in its reporting during the 1980s, less afraid of pulling punches than it had ever been before – and, seen in this light, the Rover’s achievement becomes all the more impressive.
Rover marketed the Metro as a completely new car, playing the Rover angle for all it was worth: ‘The New Metro, with Rover Engineering”, sub-headed with the memorable, ‘Metromorphosis’ catchphrase. Backed up by the expensive and impressive Ridley Scott television commercial (below), the new car soon caught the public’s imagination. Sales started extremely well – so well, in fact, that Rover was completely surprised by it.
Strategists within the company had thought that the Metro would have a short shelf life – and, to a degree, this was true – and the fact that it was now smaller than all the competition, barring the Citroën AX, meant that it was going to have limited sales potential.
The fact that the CVT automatic version (leaving the A-Series-powered Metro automatic to linger on for a further year) and diesel versions were not planned to arrive until long after the initial launch did nothing to detract from the early popularity of the car. Bearing this in mind, viewing the SMMT UK sales figures is extremely interesting, considering that at the time of launch, the Rover Metro was, effectively, a ten-year old car.
Sales: falling off a cliff
SMMT Sales figures 1990-1996
As can be seen from the sales performance of the Rover Metro, it established itself and remained popular until 1995, when the Rover 100 was launched. This is particularly interesting becuase it demonstrates that the Rover plan to replace the Metro in 1995 by the R3 (Rover 200) would have been the correct thing to do in order to maintain market share. The company’s market share in the UK held no immediate concern to George Simpson and his replacement, John Towers, who both felt that the profitability of Rover was of the utmost importance.
This might be true, but it should not have led to the error of judgement which resulted in the company’s strategy going off-course – and producing the Rover 100.
Rover agonised over how to replace the Metro. On one hand, the limited profitability of superminis meant that it would be desirable to produce bigger, more profitable cars. By 1992, Rover was deep in the throes of devising a viable supermini strategy: it was developing R3, but at the same time with that car’s slow move upmarket, something needed to be done about the direct replacement of the Metro.
Did it need to be replaced? The finance men argued against, the strategists argued in favour, talking in terms of maximising market share. In the end, the decision made was to replace the Metro with the Mini replacement that was in the early throes of development, move the R3 into the Golf/Escort market and the HHR into the Mondeo/Cavalier market.
And on to the Rover 100
So, in January 1995, the Rover 100 was launched. The problem was that the styling was not changed nearly enough – the grille (basically a version of the pre-1994 R3 prototype) and headlights were smoother but, apart from that, the Metro was practically unchanged. Many people were expecting more – and by 1995 with the advent of such cars as the Fiat Punto and SEAT Ibiza, which had moved the game forwards yet again, the Rover 100 had nothing left with which to compete with this next generation.
No doubt that this was a sad turn of events, because the Rover 100 still possessed the fine engine, interior ambience and (front) seating that it always did – but, in this most fashion conscious of markets, the looks simply no longer cut the mustard.
Sales consequently dwindled, but as this was planned for, Rover was not too concerned: it had already been decided that the Metro would be allowed to die a natural death. After all, the new Mini would in theory be hitting the market around 1998/1999, by which time the Metro could be honourably retired after a long and successful run.
Unfortunately, even this plan was scuppered at the hands of Euro NCAP, which reported in its crash test of the car that it fell a long way behind what was considered a minimum standard in passive safety. It was given a one-star front and side impact rating, which was a disastrous showing. Unfortunately for Rover, this story became a lot more widespread than the specialist press and it transcended the usual car magazines and into the daily newspapers. Worse, the Rover 100’s performance made it to the early evening news on the BBC…
Needless to say, this was disastrous for Rover and, within days, orders for the car dried up. Rover was given no choice other than to withdraw the 100 from sale with production ending on 23 December 1997. What a sad end for a car that had begun so promisingly back in 1990.