Raise a glass to : 40 years of the MG Metro

Well, here we are. Would you believe that it’s four decades since the MG Metro 1300 was launched, and enthusiasts of the marque were getting all hot and bothered?

But it’s true – 40 years on, we take a look at the conception, launch of and reaction to this fine little hot hatch that saved the famed Octagon, and stopped it from slipping into obscurity.


MG Metro: return of the prodigal…

MG Metro 1300

With no new cars launched since the Rover SD1 in July 1976, BL’s model range looked moribund. Salvation was just around the corner, though. After years of what felt like terminal decline, former Chloride Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes had been persuaded to run the ailing corporation in November 1977, and in order to save it, that would mean radical surgery. New cars were coming, but rationalisation was the name of the game.

Speaking in 1979, Edwardes said: ‘Our business has two fundamental weaknesses which make it more difficult to cope with this type of situation than would a normal, healthier company. The first is that we have gaps in our model range. The second is that BL has too many facilities and fixed expenses in relation to volume now being projected. It is over-structured.’ In short, factories needed to close.

However, it wasn’t all bad news, because MG in Abingdon continued to sell a decent number of Bs and Midgets in export markets, turning a tidy profit. Abingdon stood at the top of the league, both in terms of quality of product and fewest number of stoppages, with the workforce having earned a reputation for being the most loyal in the corporation.

Stormy waters overseas… and at home

Rubber bumpers change the 'B's profile

However, since the end of 1978, the value of Sterling had on the slide, putting the profitability of sports cars in the USA on a knife edge. Although sales were still strong with Baby Boomers, they weren’t the cash cows for the corporation that they once were – and they were also coming under threat from the rival Triumph TR7 in the USA and changing tastes in Europe, where sports cars were falling out of favour as younger buyers turned to the Volkswagen Golf GTI for their thrills.

That put Abingdon under the microscope. However, 1979 was the factory’s half-centenary, and despite the general sense of doom and gloom over BL in the wake of the closure of Triumph’s Speke factory near Liverpool, MG chose to celebrate the half century with a series of events in the town, culminating in a parade through the streets of Abingdon on 9 September 1979. This was a glorious way to celebrate the marque’s enduring achievements.

The following day, now dubbed Black Monday by MG enthusiasts, came the hammer blow. As part of the streamlining of BL, the factory would be closed (along with Triumph’s in Coventry) with the result being to, ‘cease car assembly at Canley and Abingdon. Abingdon would be converted to become an extension of Cowley to enable the Cowley modernisation programme and therefore model introductions to be accelerated. We would retain the MG marque.’

Talk about bad timing. the MG Car Club’s Archivist, Peter Neal, concluded: ‘All the assurances that Abingdon had been given over the years meant nothing. The feeling among the workforce from shop floor to senior management was one of utter disgust. Their loyalty, their hard work, their achievements, their total domination of the American sports car market all counted for nothing.’

The failed rescue bid

MGB-Aston Martin

The future for MG looked bleak. Initial plans for the factory and the MG marque revolved around selling the former and licensing the use of the latter. Famously, the consortium led by the-then Chairman of Aston Martin, Alan Curtis had pledged to stump up at least £30 million to buy Abingdon, showing off a revised MGB to sell and keep the factory at least turning over.

Former Austin Rover Group Chairman Harold Musgrove recalled: ‘After I closed Abingdon, which was losing £750 a car, I knew we had to keep MG. Alan Curtis wanted to buy the MG brand and I said no, you can have the factory but not the MG brand.’ With terms not agreed, that was that, and the factory would close, with the last MGB rolling off the line on 23 October 1980, just two weeks after the launch of the Austin Metro.

There was definite synergy with this timing, because although we didn’t know it at the time, the future of MG would be tied-up with BL’s shiny new supermini. The story of the Metro is a fascinating one, not only because the car’s ability and success far exceeded the sum of its parts, but also because it had been the final flowering of several Mini replacement programmes that had been in train since the late 1960s. It relied heavily on existing parts, such as the Mini’s drivetrain and a simplified version of the Allegro’s suspension system. It was to be built by state-of-the art robots in Longbridge, swallowed £275m of investment, leading Michael Edwardes’ much-vaunted ‘product-led recovery’ for BL.

MetroPlus original catalogue

How to make the Metro faster

Even before the ink had dried on the Metro’s launch brochures and the customers had placed their first orders, BL was investigating how to build a faster version. First there was the intriguing Metro Plus (above) – a go-faster Metro built by BL Motorsport in Abingdon – which ended up becoming the Wood & Pickett Metro Plus after the idea was canned in favour of something a little more commercially appealing.

However, from that programme, a modified cylinder head and carburettor were developed to tease out a Mini-Cooper S-matching 72bhp. Although it wasn’t obvious to industry watchers at the time, there was never any doubt that this would take the form of an MG Metro.

Harold Musgrove confirms this: ‘We never gave a thought to using the Cooper name. Why pay John Cooper royalties when we had MG to use? In hindsight, a Cooper S might have made more sense, but Austin Rover was weak on marketing, and I had no marketing experience.’

Metro Cooper rattles BL’s cage

Metro Cooper

John Cooper had been thinking the same way and, in 1981, he announced the Metro Cooper – a Janspeed-tuned version with 80bhp and Wolfrace alloys that looked remarkably like the MG Metro. It was planned for production at the rate of ten per week and to be sold through the Wadham Stringer dealer network.

But BL asked Cooper to rename it after threatening Wadham Stringer that it would not offer a factory warranty on the car. So, it became the Metro Monaco but, as John Cooper recalled at the time, ‘I wish they’d told me sooner – that would have made things a lot easier for Jan Odor, for me, for everyone…’

By this point, the UK had been gripped by Metromania. You couldn’t move for aftermarket-converted Metros. It even had the Royal seal of approval thanks to Lady Diana’s high-profile ownership. And it was into this climate that, in May 1982, Austin Rover rolled out the first production MG since the closure of Abingdon, and one which perfectly encapsulated the brand values of its maker. It was much needed, looked good and, as the adverts proclaimed, ‘Your best friend will hate you!’

The MG Metro arrives

And that was the MG Metro 1300. Launched into the booming hot hatch market, there were enough changes to it to justify the relaunch of the MG brand. It had even been given an official stamp of approval from the MGOC and MGCC after both clubs were offered previews of a pre-production model.

After all, badge-engineered MGs has been a fact of life for decades, with the 1100/1300 and Magnette already finding favour as classics at the time. However, the MG Metro 1300 looked very much a product of its time, with red seatbelts and pinstriping inside and out, bold-looking alloys and a neat-looking boot spoiler.

It would prove extremely popular with buyers despite being outgunned by rivals such as the Ford Fiesta XR2 and Renault 5 Gordini. Undaunted, development continued, with the Lotus-tuned MG Metro Turbo duly following in early 1983. That car gained a bodykit and new alloys to signal its 93bhp and 110mph capability, and it soon developed a reputation for being a bit of a giant killer – at least while wasn’t breaking its gearbox. It couldn’t quite keep up with a Peugeot 205 GTI but, on the right road, it was every bit as much fun.

MG Metro Turbo

On track, they shone in the Metro Cup – a one-make championship series which supported the British Touring Car Championship in the early 1980s, and which helped a generation of saloon car racers cut their teeth. However, the ultimate MG Metro was the Williams Grand Prix-developed 6R4 Group B rally car, which had as much in common with the 1300 and Turbo as Elvis Costello does with Elvis Presley. Tony Pond famously said of it: ‘I know it’s an ugly beast, but the 6R4 is easily the best rally car I’ve ever driven.’

And as the 1980s progressed, the MG marque re-established itself. Harold Musgrove recalls: ‘the success of the MG Metro caught everyone by surprise, and it was felt that a MG Maestro and Montego were needed as well.’

They duly arrived and both of which would be offered in Turbo form. So equipped, in the 0-60mph dash they could blow all of their rivals into the weeds. It wasn’t until 1992 when the MG RV8 was launched that the famous Octagon would re-appear on a two-seater sports car, only to be replaced more comprehensively by the MGF (below) in 1995.

Arguably, this is the car that should have replaced the MGB decades before, but it was worth waiting for.

MGF rear view

Keith Adams

34 Comments

  1. Great little cars. The MG Metro was what me and my mates, all impecunious apprentices around that time wanted to own but couldn’t afford!

  2. I’ve seen a lot of MG Metro hatchbacks on the road. For my stories the 1300cc Austin Motors ‘A’ Series overhead valve (OHV) engine has been modified to run on unleaded petrol.

  3. I always liked the bright red seatbelts on the MG Metro (and later Maestro / Montego’s). Gave them a look of power

  4. What is surprising given the success of the Mini Cooper and 1275 GT that BL did not have a hot(ish) Metro in the plans from day one.

    I guess left wing political influenced in the Ryder Plan, did not see the need for such “aspirational” variants in the Ado88 range.

    Sadly such thinking is one reason we do not have BL volume car division and brands with us today and testament to the qualities of the two cars that were signed off before BL creation and went on to outlive it the Range Rover and XJ6/12, both of which of course were considered to be “Sunset” products in the Ryder Plan.

  5. Great fun little car! I bought an ex-development MG Metro, which had 100k on the clock, and took it up to 237k in 10 years. The only mechanical failure was a gearbox bearing, a well known fault. Oh, and running the bearings on a 1430 engine I’d fitted when the oil pump drive failed. Luckily I still had the original engine so that went back in.

  6. My father in laws is still laid up after the hydragas spheres gave up the ghost a few years back. The guy who was going to refurbish them went bust so it hasn’t turned a wheel for a while and is sitting in a lock up.

  7. 103 mph from a 1300 cc non turbo car was very good for 1982 and the MG Metro soon developed a following among people who couldn’t afford a Golf GTI and found the Fiesta XR 2 too common. Using the well loved MG badge gave Metro sales another boost and probably helped the car take top position in the new car sales chart in January 1983. By then, Austin Rover, the BL Cars name had been shunted into the background, were definitely on a roll as improvements to the Rover SD1, the new Triumph Acclaim, MG Metro and the Austin Ambassador saw market share rise from 15% in 1980 to 18.5% in 1982.

  8. Quote: “Launched into the booming hot hatch market, there were enough changes to it to justify the relaunch of the MG brand. It had even been given an official stamp of approval from the MGOC and MGCC after both clubs were offered previews of a pre-production model.”

    Mmm, I’m not sure about the stamp of approval from either MG club or its members towards the MG Metro, as I certainly remember the cold shoulder many owners of these 1980s MG saloons were given at MG events in the 1990s, me included with my MG Maestro 2.0i. I even recall the Secretary of the MG Owners Club (RB) stating in a video on MG history that “They weren’t real MGs” (whatever a ‘”real” MG is) and not hiding his dislike for them. The same individual also made the point that these 1980s MG saloons are “still not cool” in a more recent copy of the club’s magazine.

    I remember being invited to display on the local MG Owners Club display at an annual classic car show held near Exeter in 1996 and all their members looking horrified when I parked my shiny MG Maestro next to equally shiny MGAs, Bs, Midgets and the local secretary’s new MGF. No-one spoke to me!

    Thankfully there was the MG ‘M’ Group devoted specifically to these 1980’s MG saloons who provided support and events to owners from 1994 until 2013. More recently, the MG Car Club has itself become more proactive in trying to embrace these 1980s MGs, although sadly it has come too late for many owners who felt they were not welcome in the MG scene and therefore not encouraged to keep their examples. Me? I kept my MG Maestro 2.0i regardless of what the MG scene said, as it was such an enjoyable car to drive and I didn’t need their approval on what I chose to own.

    So I will raise a glass to the MG Metro’s birthday as it paved the way for the creation of additional MG saloon model variants across three ranges, while the MG Metro itself was actually quite a hoot to drive.

    • Hmmmm, not so sure about that – both Bill Wallis and Roche Bentley (chairmen of the MGCC and MGOC at the time) were consulted some months before the launch date for the MG Metro, and both ordered one (and I believe, prior to the price being announced). The side striping was one of the things that resulted from their visit. Roche Bentley was later quoted as saying: “It is a sporty model in every sense of the word and I am delighted that the MG marque lives on in such a worthy car”. Whilst Bill Wallis was a little more cautious, he certainly took the view that any MG was better than none, and raising the brand awareness once more could lead to further models (possibly two-seaters) in the future – as indeed it did.

      There have always been the head-stuck-in-the-sand curmudgeons who won’t adjust to anything wearing an MG badge unless it has no more than two seats and an open top, but thankfully they are a minority, and at the time, the sales figures proved decisively that the market disagreed with them. The diminished worldwide demand for such cars nowadays (supercars excepted) would leave MG with a very small market. If the ‘two-seat-only’ philosophy for MG had prevailed at BL/Austin-Rover, I very much doubt if we would have seen another car wear the MG badge ever again, and in all likelihood the possibility of the MGF would never have even been thought of?

      I had two MG Metro 1300s in succession, a 1982 one in Cinnabar Red with the black and herringbone seat coverings bought at 18 months old, and swapped in 1989 for brand new one in White Diamond. Loved them both, despite the rust that inevitably developed.

    • @ David 3500, perhaps the members of these MG owners clubs might need to be reminded there were MG versions of BMC saloon cars as well as the better known sports cars, and the Metro was actually carrying on a tradition started with the MG Magnette. Surely bringing back the MG badge for the eighties market was to be applauded, as the sports cars were too uneconomic to keep going and well past their best when they were axed in 1980.

    • “I even recall the Secretary of the MG Owners Club (RB) stating in a video on MG history that “They weren’t real MGs” (whatever a ‘”real” MG is) and not hiding his dislike for them.”
      I haven’t seen the video in question, but Roche Bentley has recently gone into print in the MGOC magazine expressing those sentiments about the current SAIC MGs. Maybe it’s those he was referring to in the video, too?

  9. It’s interesting that in 1982, the use of the MG badge rather than Cooper was considered a no brainer, whereas by the late 80s Rover started phasing out the use of the MG badge for sporting “saloon” cars, or even coupes like the Tomcat and indeed reintroduced the Mini Cooper in 1990!

    • Added to which, in view of effectively forcing John Cooper to change the name for his modified ‘Metro-Cooper’ it would perhaps have been difficult (and embarrassing) to then have to approach him almost immediately for the necessary permission to use his name on their own version.

      I seem to recall in the early 90’s, the reason that was touted about for once again dropping the MG badge from the saloons was to increase the impact of the forthcoming MGF which was by then in development. Personally, I didn’t think it was such a good idea, and I feel that if the Metro GTa and Gti had continued to wear the octagon, they would have greater appeal than was the case, appearing to many as just a Metro with a GTi badge on it (to those who hadn’t actually driven one at least!).

    • The issue was Market Research, the same reason they dropped Triumph, the Market Research told them that MG and Triumph were associated with “cheap” sportscars whereas Rover was associated with Premium Saloons.

      The problem was sticking “Rover” non- premium product soon changed that.

      To me the missed opportunity was to refresh the MG Maestro and Montego with 16v M Series in 1986, would have cost penny’s to do as it literally is a plug and play swop that many enthusiasts have done. As I saw somebody once write on the matter “An M series engined Mg Maestro would not have been quite as good as the Golf 16v Gti was said to be, but then neither was the Golf 16v Gti.

  10. Just a couple of comments …..

    1) an updated TR7 / MGB / Midget / Spitfire type car could have captured the MX5 market

    2) Aston never intended to acquire MG. It was a publicity stunt.

    Source? Aston Martin at the time !

    • The Pound / Dollar exchange rate wasn’t favourable for the pound in the 1980s, which was one of the reasons the MGB, Midget & TR7/8 were dropped as they were getting too expensive to sell in the USA. Add to that the popularity of hot hatches in the 1980s & there wasn’t much incentive to develop a traditional sports car.

      Reliant bravely tried with the SS1 but fell short of the mark.

      • @richardpd, another reason for the demise of the MG sports cars, the cars were seriously old hat by 1980 and the appearance had been ruined by the American rubber bumpers and raised suspension. Also the performance was poor and something like an Escort RS 2000 could easily beat an MG BGT, and there was internal competition from the far more modern and faster Triumph TR7. Purists might have been aghast at the decision to axe MG, but it was only the purists that were buying their dated products by 1980.

    • The problem is that the MX5 hit the market a near decade after the demise of the BL range of roadsters, the world had changed and the market for a “toy” car for the boomers was opening up, in a way that had been unimaginable in the early 80s.

      Also the donor cars that these BL cars relied on to give them affordable components had also been phased out and unlike Mazda, BL did not have the sales network to shift the volume of cars that would justify the investments in model specific tooling that Mazda made for the MX5.

      MGF or something like the Fiat Barchetta was the only feasible way for BL to enter this market, noting that the MGF / TF were sold in volumes of only around 10K a year.

      • In theory was there room for a smaller Barchetta inspired roadster (or CRX del Sol inspired targa) and 2-seater (or 2+2 Tigra / Puma inspired) coupe below the MGF? Basically one that draws influences from both the AR6 MG Midget (including mk1 Honda CRX-inspired kammback coupe) as well as the Midas Gold (minus the fiberglass). .

  11. Great little cars. I had one back in 1984. What’s particularly saddening is that the surviving numbers of such a popular car are so low. For example, Howmanyleft shows just 6 1984 cars registered for the road and 24 on SORN.

    • There is a reason for that – well three really I suppose. Apart from the number that rusted to a point that they were (at the time) considered beyond repair and were scrapped and those which found themselves ‘the wrong side of a hedge’, a very substantial number of very good/mint condition examples were bought up to have the engine ripped out of them and transplanted into some scabby Mini. This particularly affected the Turbo version, which is particularly sad as those Mini owners could just as easily have bolted a turbo onto an engine out of a standard Metro 1.3 (which is basically what Austin-Rover did to create the MG Metro Turbo in any case – it was only the non-turbo MG Metro 1300 which had the internally reworked engine).

      • I would also add that howmanyleft is not always a particularly accurate source of reliable figures, relying as it does on the model description entered on the registration documents by the selling dealer (which was not always correct), and subsequent mistakes and misspellings by staff at DVLA. For some reason, my 1982 MG Metro 1300 was recorded by DVLA as an Austin Six Westminster – a mistake which they never rectified in spite of being asked to do so several times. (Even though scrapped in 1991, it still comes up on the DVSA MOT checker if you enter DFU 232Y. Just to prove it was an MG Metro there is a pic of it on https://regarchive.com)

  12. Did Rover ever consider bringing back the MG name for a K-engine 100 series car?

  13. Was the late 1980s (Austin) Montego 2.0Si meant to be a replacement for the original MG Montego?

    • @Hilton D:

      No, the 1987 Montego 2.0 Si, and its successor for the 1989 Model Year, the 2.0 GTi, were intended as supplementary performance models which had a lower standard specification and different colour and trim features so that they wouldn’t clash with MG Montego 2.0i sales. This was a similar approach as what Vauxhall was doing with its Cavalier range and Ford with the Sierra during the same period. The later Montego 2.0 GTi had the added benefit of being offered as an estate offering, too.

      At others:

      Following the formation of the Rover Group in July 1986, the plan for the MG brand was for it to be reserved for sports cars, while new saloon car products being developed would wear the Rover badge so as to have a more premium appeal. Placing an MG badge on a product that would otherwise have worn the Rover badge (and possibly in place of its own performance moniker), would have devalued the Rover brand considerably as well as done nothing to address the widely used description of MG saloons, namely “badge engineering”. It was a sensible approach.

      • …and that seemed a very sensible strategy. So Rover could have ‘GTI’ versions, of their products as well. Of course, from what I read, BMW then didn’t want Rover to compete in the Mainstream Plus sporty segment, so that it wouldn’t impact on the FatherBrand. (which was wrong imo but understandable…IF BMW had persued with Rover as it’s Mainsream Plus Comfort Brand.)

  14. The MG Metro was a fun car, an entry level hot hatch like the Fiat 127 GT of the time, not a GTi killer or a status symbol, but a fairly cheap small performance car with a massive dealer back up and cheap to own. Austin Rover hit the bullseye and a Turbo version meant they had a car that could worry an Escort XR3i.

  15. I remember the son of my first boss being given a black MG Metro for his 17th birthday – it was an early one (my favourite version), and it looked the absolute business! I especially liked the interior – so much nicer than the later models, which tried to be ‘grown up’. Sadly, he wrote it off soon afterwards, and was rewarded with a white Rover 216 Vitesse! Anyway, I have a massive soft spot for the original MG Metro and MG Turbo – lovely cars, and must be a rewarding classic to own.

    • Sounds like the classic case of inexperienced young drivers given powerful cars that they can’t handle sensibly. .. very dangerous and still happens these days.

  16. Rust probably killed most of the MG Metros, but mechanically they were fairly strong and the engines ended up going to Mini drivers wanting some more power. I’d imagine a 1.3 Mini turbo would be a real hooligan, the very light body meaning 120 mph could be possible. It would be excellent to see someone in the nineties in their Golf GTi seeing a Mini fly past them.

    • Unfortunately, it was too often the case that the MG Metros that the Mini owners cannibalised were low mileage and in pristine condition, not always rust buckets in scrapyards. I have seen countless almost pristine MG Metro shells go to the crusher minus their engine because it was by then residing in Mini that was in a condition far more deserving of being crushed than the MG Metro it had come out of!

      A similar reason can be applied as to why there are so few Rover 220 Coupe still in existence – engines often being stripped out of good examples to satisfy the manhood inadequacy syndrome of some ZR owners (I now have two ZRs, neither of them hosting a 2 litre T series I hasten to add).

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