Blog : Happy 40th birthday, Austin Metro

Austin Metro 1980

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, it can’t have escaped your notice that the 40th birthday of the Austin Metro is now upon us. It’s been a long time coming, this one, and I’ve been busy keeping the homepage of AROnline nice and fresh with new and updated Metro stories over the past couple of weeks – and that’s because today is D-Day.

On 8 October 1980, and years of failed supermini projects and months and months of speculation and scoops, Sir Michael Edwardes finally whipped the covers off the Austin miniMetro, and BL followers across the country breathed a deep sigh of relief because the car looked like it was going to be perfectly competitive against its toughest supermini rivals. If that sounds almost defeatist in the context of modern car launches, it isn’t meant to.

BL had not had a good news story since the launch of the Rover 3500 (SD1) in June 1976, and four years is an absolute eternity when you’re on your uppers. Read Ken Clayton and Richard Williams’ brilliant account of the launch of the Austin Metro in 1980 to get a real sense of the importance of this car – when the covers came off in front of selected members of the trade, there were tears. Genuinely, grown men (as the trade was back then) cried with the relief of having a car that they knew would fly out of their showrooms.

And that it did…

The boys a Lonbridge wanted to build it, productivity and union unrest slowly begun to subside and, although there were struggles in the immediate aftermath of the departure of Derek Robinson, things settled down and pride began to return. The Metro was also warmly greeted by the press and, as Steve Cropley concluded in CAR in 1980, ‘At last a British car that no-one needs apologise for.’ We needed that in 1980.

The rest is history. The honeymoon period, Lady Diana, the profusion of specials, the revival of MG, the unreliability, the lack of development, the triumphant rebirth into a Rover. It was a roller coaster – and, as you’ll have already seen with recent Metro Memories stories submitted by you, our dear readers, the Metro has a place in all of your hearts, be they positive or negative. I have many of my own memories and, even today, the sight of an early Metro warms the cockles of my heart.

So, remember the Metro. Take yourself back to a time when our car industry was popular culture, and every street had one on it. Rusty front wings and all…

Happy 40th birthday, Austin Metro!

o

Keith Adams

19 Comments

  1. The unreliability? Not sure the metro was unreliable. Some of the specials maybe but mostly it was pretty sound. Certainly no worse than the competition. It definitely didn’t have that reputation. I think there was a bit of disappointment even at launch over Spen Kings decision to cut the front to rear connection, and as you say the lack of development let it loose it’s desirability. The main point for me was why the floor plan never spawned other models, No coupe or sportscar, no estate, no four box, no sizing up for the maestro or even to super mini size. A good car that cost a lot to develop and that development was under utilised. We’ve all see the metro scout, the metro midget, the saloon and indeed the MGF. So much more could have been done with this.

    • To be fair the Metro Midget was actually the AR6-based MG Midget proposal though that is not to say a developed version of the original Metro/100 platform could not underpin a FWD sportscar and coupe in the manner of the Mini-based ADO34/ADO35/ADO36/ADO70 prototypes and Midas as well as the Ford Fiesta derived Ford Barchetta by Ghia, 1976 Ford Prima concept and Ford Fiesta Aperto Roadster (with the coupe version of the latter being more akin to the US Ford Escort-based mk2 Ford EXP).

      The gearbox layout and weight of the engine would have precluded a mid-engined sportscar like early MGF or William Towns TXC Tracer, yet would have not minded a Metro-based equivalent of the GTM Rossa.

      Looking in terms of potential basis for a larger supermini between the Metro and Maestro in anticipation of the larger 2nd generation superminis of the mid-1980s (as exemplified by the Fiat Uno, Peugeot 205, Renault Supercinq, Vauxhall Nova and Nissan Micra, etc), the company could have taken two different approaches under the right circumstances.

      One being an upscaled Metro platform closer in dimensions to ADO16 (from when the R6X devolved into a committee car with 4-inches add to the wheelbase before it was abandoned), yet it would have needed to been more like the R6 with an end-on gearbox and if possible the 1.6 S-Series engine.

      They could have also reduced the length of the Metro platform to ADO88’s rough length of 126-128-inches and used that as a basis for a proper even more commonized Mini replacement along the lines of the Nissan Micra K10 based Be-1, Pao and Figaro as well as the Ford Fiesta based Ford Ka and Vauxhall Nova based Opel Junior concept, however do not see the Metro platform having the same wide scalability as the Ford B1/B2 platforms that underpinned the mk1-mk4 Ford Fiesta, Ford Ikon, Ford Puma and Ford Ka.

      The other being a downscaled Maestro platform, effectively being to the latter what the Peugeot 205 was to the Peugeot 309, the mk1 SEAT Ibiza was to the Fiat-derived SEAT Ronda and the Renault Supercinq was to the Renault 9/11. The starting point of the Maestro was said to have been the Allegro, with a SWB Allegro platform being said to have underpinned an experimental wide-body Mini Clubman prototype.

      With a bit of work a case could be have been made for an earlier Metro Scout to have become the Metro Estate if the Citroen AX Evasion prototype by Heuliez is any indication as opposed to a 3-door estate along the lines of the mk2 Volkswagen Polo. The Metro Saloon being another that could have received improved styling (with the extra length of the platform opening up the possibility of a Metro panel-van variant), while the Metro pickup and Metro Ranger prototypes are other missed opportunities.

      • Nate, with all due respect to the source on this site who claimed Maestro’s starting point was the Allegro (was that Daveh? Or Kev perhaps?): have you seen or heard this claim acknowledged by any other source? I can’t find anything about this anywhere else, would like to have some conformation…

        • Admittingly the sole mention of the relationship between the Allegro and the Maestro is based on one account so-far by commenter Kev from his time at Pressed Steel in an AROnline article a while back, albeit within the context of debunking the claim the Maestro/Montego platform was somehow a reverse-engineered Volkswagen Golf.

          That said despite my own initial skepticism, do seem to recall reading about an experimental Maestro or Montego prototype with Hydragas suspension which would seem to tie in with the Allegro connection though is another element that concede awaits proper confirmation.

          At the same time with the Metro carrying over much from the Mini and others on grounds of cost, it would not be a stretch to say the Maestro/Montego project was not developed in complete isolation from previous cars within the company.

          • Agreed, especially considering continuous lack of money; that would make efforts to recycle and recoup earlier investments plausible.

  2. I still miss my Metro, 25 years after taking the worn out car to the scrapyard, it was like taking the family dog to be euthanised. Financially I went through a lean period of six years, the Metro kept me mobile, it was all I could afford

  3. The Metro was an important car for the company that was desperately needed and did well to achieve what it set out to do.

    Sure an argument could be made that something like the Metro could have appeared as early as 1976 instead of 1980 given what was carried over from the Mini, Allegro and other cars, let alone featured many of the improvements that eventually made their way over to the R6 Metro/100 from the very beginning to help maintain its competitiveness against the new generation of larger superminis that began to appear to the mid-1980s had British Leyland not been distracted by other pressing matters or been led down various blind alleys (e.g. 9X, ADO74) or stop-gap solutions (e.g. Innocenti Mini, plus another rebodied Mini project mentioned on AROnline that was reputedly on standby in the event ADO88 was not approved for production).

    However British Leyland had to make do with the cards it was given and in the case of what became the Metro managed to turn lemons into lemonade after a protracted development programme.

    • I did wonder why BL were slow introduce a supermini to their range, though with their various woes in the 1970s it’s not too surprising.

      • In some respects the Metro was essentially a more thoroughly developed variation of the ADO16-derived supermini idea that also carried over much from the Mini (with ADO16 itself being an upscaled Mini that already had some degree of component sharing), right down to being a rough approximation of the Alec Issigonis ideal for a supermini being similar in width as ADO16 yet with a length of 11ft or so.

        • That’s true, I did wonder if there had been plans for an ADO16 based supermini around the time the Allegro was still intended to be an ADO16 reskin.

          • Doubt it, it seems the company was not thinking in such terms short of being backed into a corner. Unless it was originally intended for there to be significantly more component sharing between the ADO22 prototype and what became ADO20 (or Project Ant).

  4. The Metro was a competent car and gave the market what it wanted in a country that was reeling from recession and soaring fuel prices following the 1979 energy crisis, an economical supermini with a huge range of models and very low ownership costs. Luckily it didn’t suffer from the contempt that faced cars like the Allegro when it was launched in 1973 and at times in the early eighties was Britain’s best selling car. Yes we all know things weren’t all sweetness and light with the Metro, it could rust, the build quality wasn’t the best, but at least it was a British Leyland car that could compete effectively and sell.

  5. If you were mechanically minded, tackling the work yourself, not paying garage labour costs you could run an A+ Metro for pennies, the parts were so low cost, either new from the dealer or from breakers. The rear radius arms when worn at the bearings, source a good subframe from a breaker and you could exchange the complete subframe in a couple of hours and keep the old for refurbishment. it was an easy job, six bolts to undo, the handbrake cable disconnected at the lever inside the car and disconnect the two hoses to the rear brakes.
    The clutch plate swap was easy too, plenty of working room in the engine bay.
    For the Metro I cannot think of any job beyond the skills of a DIY mechanic

    • @cycliist, the Metro had a lot in common with the Mini and shared its 1.3 engine with the Allegro, Maestro and Ital so parts were always easy to find. Probably only Fords of this era were cheaper to maintain.

  6. One of the most important changes in turning the A series into the A+ was to increase the size of the idler gear bearing between engine and gearbox, by memory from five-eighths of an inch to seven-eighths. (none of those nasty foreign metric measurements in those days). The idler gear bearing could wear out in as little as 60,000 miles on an ADO16, which was rather unwelcome as it was an engine-out job to change it. Having said that, the whole transmission was on the limit for the MG Metro Turbo.

    I have never owned a Metro; but I test drove a 1.3S as a student in Kensington; hired a 1.0L just before I graduated; test drove a new 1.4GTa at a garage outside Tredegar; and tried an old 1.4 diesel as a possible learner car for my wife. They were all great to drive, like a terrier puppy out for a walk and straining at the leash. A pity it stayed in production until it was well past its sell-by date.

    • The A plus was credited wtth keeping the Allegro viable for a few more years by offering better refinement, performance and economy, as well as making the 1.3 Ital a far better drive than the 1.3 Marina. I have heard it was possible to get 45 mpg out of a 1.3 Series 3 Allegro and wind the car up to 100 mph, although not at the same time, and the 1.3 Ital offered similar performance to a 1.6 Cortina, but with better economy.

  7. In October 1980 Birmingham hosted “The Lucas On The Streets Spectacular” using what would become the 1986 Birmingham Super Prix circuit. There was a host of top racing drivers, including Brummie Nigel Mansell, driving around the circuit in The New Metro. I stood at the top of Hurst Street and remember the sound of Touring Cars esp Rover SD1.

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