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…
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.