We’ve talked about the Metro-replacing Austin AR6 a lot in relation to the company’s development in the mid-1980s, and its march towards privatisation. Keith Adams tells the car’s full story – from the glint in its Designer’s eye to the moment it was cancelled.
Would this Ford Fiesta rival have been a success, or was Rover right to stick with the Metro?
Updated: 28 July 2018
Austin, MG and Vanden Plas AR6: Paradise lost
The Roy Axe studio in Canley had been created to move Austin Rover forwards with a new design direction. Interesting projects were soon underway, with the first effort being concentrated the XX Programme. However, by the end of 1982, ARG’s Designers were also working hard at the replacement for the Metro, dubbed the AR6.
The AR6 was designed to fit into a suite of models that would be launched by Austin Rover during the mid-to-late 1980s, bracketing the AR5 (Rover 213/216 reskin) and the AR7 (Maestro reskin). It’s DNA lay in the ground-breaking ECV3 prototype, which featured a three-cylinder engine (that would evolve into the K-Series).
The AR6 was always intended to be powered by the K-Series engine which was concurrently under development at BL Technology in Gaydon. This new engine was totally unrelated to the K-Series that was designed for the 1973 ADO74, and incorporated many lessons learned during the ECV3 Programme.
Big ideas from Gaydon
Unlike the Metro, and following the lead of the Maestro and Montego, the new car was developed with a conventional MacPherson strut/rear coil suspension system, which would no doubt have been honed to a level of competence shared with its bigger brothers.
The body, styled by Roy Axe’s team, was always intended to be highly aerodynamic, and the early prototype model (pictured above) certainly reflects this way of thinking. Even the most cursory of glances are all it takes to realise that the styling of this car was heavily influenced by Ital’s then current work, such as the Megagamma and Medusa, especially at the rear with its radically curved rear window.
It would have been bodied in aluminium following the work on the ECV3 and the ALCAN/Austin Rover aluminium Metro. Following on from Spen King’s desire to keep it as light as possible, this was the best way forwards in making it more weight efficient than the portly LC8 Metro.
Cutting edge design work
Stephen Harper, a former Designer at Longbridge, and then Cowley, recalled: ‘The AR6 project, the replacement for the Metro, had been evolving for some while in the Design Studios at Canley. Late in 1984, David Saddington and I were given the opportunity to share halves of a clay model, to investigate some more advanced themes. From the first doodle sketch of the “mouse”, the design theme was approved, and the clay model was created by a model team led by Charlie James, in just one week.’
He added: ‘The review of the models by the Rover management, was concluded by a statement that the designs were “a little too advanced” to continue at length with. That was proof enough that car to replace the Metro, would never see the light of day.’
The styling that Rover’s management did approve was a more conventional proposal, based closely on Roy Axe’s design, first shown at the Canley Studio’s opening, a couple of years previously. With that settled, then it was down to the matter of engineering the project.
- The BMC>MG Rover Story: Part Six – The 1980s, a decade of lost opportunities
- Rover Group and BAe – Part One, the background
- The Harold Musgrove interview
During 1984/1985, the most critical parts of the car’s development, upheavals were going on in the company. Finance for the AR6 and its engine were proving hard to obtain from the Government and this was, in part, down to the disappointing sales of the Maestro and Montego, which it had been hoped would have generated sizeable profits for the company.
Always with the finance…
Without these profits, it was proving difficult for BL to fund these new Austin Rover programmes without outside help. In fact, the Government did relent in the end, and provide BL with a further hefty injection of cash, which assured the future of the K-Series programme.
Design sketches and prototypes
Speaking to AROnline in 2017, Harold Musgrove filled in some of the blanks in what we know about the AR6 prototype. He said: ‘By 1985, it was a steel-bodied car in three- and five-door forms, with further derivatives planned. You have to design the derivatives from the outset.’
The plan for an aluminium shell ended up being dropped on cost grounds. It was to have added derivatives designed in at the outset, and these included the convertible MG Midget and a coupe that looked like the Honda CRX designed for global sales.
The engines would be K-Series in 1.1-, 1.4- and a 1.4-litre Turbo forms. ‘There would be no three-cylinder version, due to the increased weight of the all steel bodyshell,’ Harold confirmed.
Austin, MG and Vanden Plas versions planned
The branding would be Austin Metro, MG Metro, MG Metro Turbo, and luxury version would have been the Vanden Plas. The MG Midget name would have been used for the convertible and possibly coupe. North American sales of the MG versions would be a priority, especially the MG Midget.
‘I did not agree with the later process of Roverisation,’ said Musgrove. ‘The man with an 800 does not want to see a Rover Metro on the drive next door at a third the price. It devalues the brand. BMW has gone down that route today, and it’s having to advertise a lot more now than it used to.’
‘Sales forecasts suggested volumes of 5000 per week from the West Works. The increase in volumes over the original Metro would come from North America and Europe thanks to the all-important additional derivatives,’ Harold reckoned. ‘Pricing would be higher than the original Metro to reflect the larger size and better specification. However, this was a volume car, and the efficiency of West Works was to be maintained and the profits substantial.’
Gallery: Austin AR6 Running prototype
The Austin AR6 running prototype was spotted at what was then the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon in 2007 looking a little bedraggled, but still very much in one piece. In the metal it looks pert and attractive. Interestingly, it doesn’t sport a K-Series engine under the bonnet, but a Maestro/Rover 216-spec 1.6-litre S-Series, and much of the interior came from a Maestro Vanden Plas donor car.
Does that mean the AR6 wasn’t as advanced as we thought, or this is an early development model? The B-plate suggests it’s from around 1984, somewhat earlier than the scoop shot, which could well have been K-Series powered – as always, if you know the answers, please get in touch…
Austin AR6: The 100mpg ambition
Former Austin Rover marketing man, Simon Weakley added: ‘The target was for the three-cylinder to get 100mpg – a long time before others were targeting that figure. The light weight, roomy interior and improved quality combined with Roy Axe’s excellent interior/exterior styling skills would have surely created a true world-beater. It was to be the only car to carry the Austin name, with the Mini set to be discontinued at its launch.’
The rest of the AR6 was also pushing forwards. The 1985 product plan identified that the AR6 would hit the market in 1988, with the diesel version (powered by a dieselised S-Series engine of 1.6-litres) following on in late 1989. By this time, fully-engineered prototypes were nearing completion, and the three/five-door hatchback was looking all set for production.
However, the Government of the time was now becoming increasingly set on selling the company at the earliest opportunity, and the poor 1985 sales figures pushed them into action. They decided that the sell-off had to happen sooner rather than later, and negotiations with Ford quickly ensued.
Sidetracked by privatisation plans
Many executives including Ray Horrocks and Harold Musgrove were dead against selling out to Ford, when they were on the cusp of producing some genuinely exciting cars, and made their objections pretty clear. As we all know, the sell-off to Ford did not happen (for political reasons) and the management of BL, and therefore, Austin Rover was handed to Graham Day. Day’s mission was clear: get ARG into shape and sell it off ASAP.
Graham Day made it clear that he felt that Rover’s future lay upmarket, and that its relationship with Honda was the, ‘only part of the company worth a damn’. In other words, projects such as AR6, AR7 and AR16/17 – those not committed to production were going to be put under serious scrutiny.
In the case of AR7 and AR5, they were replaced by the AR8 (R8, as it would soon become), and the AR6 would be cancelled due to the huge costs involved in getting it into production. This was a very sad decision to make on a couple of levels:
- AR6 proved that in-house design skills were still very strong, and that to dismiss them so readily in favour of Honda did all concerned a great disservice.
- Without AR6, the company’s small car presence – still its strongest point at the time – would be severely compromised.
From Austin AR6 to Metro reboot
The rest of the story is well-known and covered in the Rover 100/Metro development story: the AR6 gave way to the R6 – and this car received the Alex Moulton changes to its Hydragas suspension system. It also received the excellent K-Series engine which would have powered the AR6.
The last chance of an exciting body would have been the R6X, but even that project was considered too much of a luxury. So, the question remains: was the AR6 a missed opportunity? Well, yes it was, because although the car the replaced it, the Rover Metro/100 was a fine car, its Metro bodyshell and floorpan shortened its shelf life considerably.
The AR6 would have appeared a vital couple of years earlier, was an altogether larger package and was undoubtedly more advanced. As in so many cases, this car’s non-appearance compromised the company’s chances significantly in future years.
Blog : Austin AR6 and me
In 2016, Ian Nicholls blogged about his close encounter with the Austin AR6 prototype at an event in Gaydon.
The BMC/Leyland show at the newly-branded British Motor Museum at Gaydon on 3 July was my first sight of the Austin AR6 prototype, the car that was meant to replace both the Mini and the Metro in around 1988-89. Until I saw the AR6 in the metal, I was in no doubt that the main reason for the axing of the AR6 was on budget grounds – there was talk of a £400 million price tag for the project, though no doubt a great chunk of that was for the new K-Series engine.
Back in 1986, the new BL Chairman, Graham Day, had been charged by the Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative Government with the task of getting the company fit enough to be sold off before it consumed any more taxpayers’ money. The three years before Graham Day arrived at BL were dramatic to say the least, with the pendulum of fortune swinging away from Austin Rover when victory seemed within its grasp.
For perhaps a year from the spring of 1983, Britain seemed to endure ‘Maestro mania’, with both BL management and media pundits convinced that Austin Rover was back to rude health. The Montego followed on in April 1984 but, instead of the recovery programme gaining momentum, in the second half of 1984 it actually went into reverse. Now obviously quality on these cars was a consideration, as AROline’s Mike Humble, has testified, but the vicious price war in the showrooms was another factor as the big American-owned giants, Ford and Vauxhall, slugged it out for sales supremacy.
The decision by Ford to retain rear-wheel drive for its Cortina replacement, the Sierra, was exploited by Vauxhall, which had the excellent front-wheel-drive Cavalier MkII, and a sales war broke out, with both companies offering incentives to attract the big fleet sales. Many fleet buyers were so impressed with the Cavalier that they then began looking at the Astra as an Escort alternative, and sales of that model increased too. Indeed, I recall an Autocar magazine road test where the 1300 Astra MkI was preferred over both the Escort and Maestro.
Throw into this mix the new Maestro, which everyone thought would be superb and make the same sales impact as the earlier Metro, then you had a recipe for Car Wars. Ford and Vauxhall were not going to give up market share easily to the newcomer from Austin Rover, and the cutting of margins hurt Austin Rover more than its American-owned rivals. This sales war effectively neutralised the Montego in 1984, and its impact sales-wise was minimal. When Graham Day took control of BL in May 1986 Austin Rover could no longer compete as a manufacturer of bread and butter cars.
Such was the nature of the 1980s car wars, as the decade wore on Ford actually increased its UK market share as Vauxhall wilted, despite the General Motor’s subsidiary arguably having a more advanced range. The Ford Fiesta may have been upgraded to a five-speed gearbox in 1983, but it was a 1976 design, the Escort dated from 1980 and, whilst the Sierra was from 1982, it still retained rear-wheel drive when the rest of the industry had by and large adopted front-wheel drive. What this showed was that investment in advanced technology counted for nothing if the showroom price was not right.
Graham Day was therefore confronted with a conundrum: bring the AR6 to production and hope for the best, or opt for a cheaper option and re-engineer the existing Metro to accept the K-Series engine.
The problem for advocates of the AR6 was that Ford were now selling more Ford Fiestas in the UK than the entire annual production of Metros at Longbridge. How many AR6s would Austin Rover have to sell annually to make it viable and, in the then pertaining market conditions, was it feasible? Also, because of the abortive attempts to sell Austin Rover to Ford in early 1986, Ford probably had a rough idea of the AR6’s economics.
They certainly knew what it cost to make the existing Metro at Longbridge and had incentivised buyers towards their own Fiesta. By January 1987 the media was reporting that Austin Rover was going to axe the AR6 and install the K-Series engine in the existing Metro. The BBC even devoted an edition of The Money Programme to it. Labour MPs John Smith and Doug Hoyle raised the matter in the House of Commons.
In the aftermath of the Westland affair, there was an anti-foreign ownership of British business atmosphere, a notion that incompetence and under investment as long as it was British, was preferable to takeovers by foreign companies with managers thoroughly trained in whatever it took to get the job done properly. The demise of the AR6 and Rover’s further embrace of Honda with the AR8, which became the 1989 Rover 200, along with the arrival of Honda, Nissan and Toyota as UK-based manufacturers caused a resentment in some quarters that now seems laughable.
The demise of the AR6 was seen as a tragedy, the end of Austin Rover’s ability to individually develop a small car to follow on from the Austin 7, A35, Mini and Metro. Austin Rover never officially acknowledged the cancellation of the AR6 and the last mention in the news files appears to be the April 1987 of CAR Magazine, where Rover Chairman Graham Day was interviewed.
On AR6, the ‘new Metro’, Day insisted that the questions were much more complex than ‘chop Metro‘ or ‘dress-up Metro’ as they had been portrayed in press discussion of the product up to then.
That, he said, was simplistic: ‘We don’t have to take the low-end decision for some time. When we do, we’ve got a series of decisions to make. Just take a look at the basic class. You’ve got competition from places like Korea. You’ve got Eastern Europe. And we have to take a decision at the Metro level, which will last at least 13 years. So we’re trying to make it a very careful one. That base car has got to be price competitive…’
‘One of the small car issues – and I’m not prepared to draw a firm conclusion – is that if you push for a larger product at the low end, you risk vacating the class altogether. We know that some of the cars in the Metro’s class are bigger than ours, but we’re not sure we should follow them up. That’s just a cheap way of using the other fellow’s market research. What if it’s wrong? Or he hasn’t done any? Our research says the Metro is seen as a particularly handy little car.’
Having now seen the AR6 for real, what Graham Day said makes sense. The surviving prototype at Gaydon is a five-door car and, when photographed in isolation, it looks okay. But when seen alongside other exhibits, the AR6 is a big car for a supermini, even by today’s standards. It certainly looks larger than the Ford Fiesta MkIII of 1989, which would have been its main rival in the market place. The decision to re-engineer the existing Metro with the K-Series Metro, because Rover believed consumers wanted a smaller car, was backed up by Nissan with the K11 Micra, which was also a compact super-mini, and a very successful one at that.
I can now see the coherent thinking behind the axing of the AR6. The AR6 was too big, and would have been sold at a budget price in a cutthroat market dominated by the Ford Fiesta, which after a decade on sale now had strong brand values.
On the other hand the AR8 collaboration with Honda was only a little larger than the AR6, was cheaper and could be sold at a premium price. Roy Axe signed off the AR8 design in August 1986, but it was not until December that year that Rover and Honda officially agreed to develop the car. From then on progress was very rapid indeed, with the AR8 being renamed the R8, and announced to the public in October 1989.
Fortunately, despite the apparently rapid development programme, the second-generation Rover 200 had none of the quality issues which had come as standard with previous BL cars – that then begs this question: how much of the AR6 was in the R8? Certainly the K-Series version of the R8 probably owed a lot to the AR6, which had thoroughly evaluated the new engine.
So, was the cancellation of the AR6 a disaster? In hindsight, I think not. An all-new supermini with a K-Series engine was a good idea, but the AR6 was not the right car for the job. Its cancellation in favour of the AR8 resulted in the Rover 200, which sold 950,000 cars at a premium price.
Moreover, the AR6 was not the only British car under development at the time which never made it to the showrooms. Sir John Egan, the Chairman of Jaguar, was telling the media that an XJ-S replacement, called the F-Type, was in the pipeline. This was the XJ41/42, which met its demise after the Ford takeover in 1990 when it did not meet their criteria for a successful sports car.
In the end, Rover did produce an all-British small car with the K-Series engine. This was the third-generation Rover 200, the R3 of 1995, and it was still smaller than the AR6. In 1997 Rover built more than 144,000 of them, impressive, but not Ford Fiesta-type volumes.
Those who decry Rover for failing to bring the AR6 to fruition should remember the ludicrous volumes which BMW expected the Rover 75 to achieve in order to pay its way – volumes way in excess of any previous British executive car. It was BMW which solved the problem of selling a small car manufactured in a higher-cost European country. Buy a brand associated with small cars – in this case MINI – and design a new car which retailed at a premium price.
That was a strategy which worked…
Gallery: Austin AR6
An amazing number of design themes were created during the AR6 programme – here are some of the less well-known prototypes.