Raise a glass to : 25 years of the Rover Metro

David Morgan

25 years young this month. Happy Birthday Metro!
25 years young this month. Happy Birthday Metro!

May 1990 and Rover Cars Limited unveiled Project R6, the new K-Series-powered Rover Metro. Benefiting from a £200 million investment in updating the original Metro design, its production facilities, interior trim and, of course, heralding the launch of the new 8-valve versions of the K-Series engine, the Rover Metro became a popular seller.

“The World’s Best Small Car” (or similar words to that effect) is how Autocar described it. Similar sentiments and praise were soon ringing across the land for this first small car to wear a Rover Viking longship badge, while awards were soon adorning Rover Cars’ trophy cabinet in Longbridge. It really did show how well the newly renamed Rover Cars division of the Rover Group had finally come good after a decade of uncertainty, management upheaval and, of course, chronic under-investment in new products.

The entry level 1.1 C model may well have felt rather impoverished in the equipment levels, but it still exuded a sense of quality, interior comfort and point and squirt cornering prowess that put many of its rivals to shame. Meanwhile, the range-topping 1.4 GTi powered by the same 95Ps 16-valve engine as found in the R8 Rover 200 Series was a seriously competent small hatch that could take on the opposition and show it was worthy of the evocative three letters (G-T-i), as also found on a sporty-looking Montego and 130bhp Rover 416 GTi.

Metro GTi - a genuine hot hatch
Metro GTi – a genuine hot hatch

In 1992 the Metro experienced a few ‘firsts’ in its life – the availability of a diesel engine option, courtesy of Peugeot, and the unveiling of a production-spec Cabriolet version conceived and developed by Rover Special Projects.

There were also a few memorable special editions along the way, usually based around value-for-money incentives and colour and trim enhancements. These included the Impression, Tahiti, Manhatten, Quest/Quest Plus and, of course, the Rio and Rio Grande which featured its own television advert with Brummie group Duran Duran’s hit ‘Rio’ as the soundtrack. Even Joan Collins was driving a Metro 1.4 GTi for a television advert with a voice-over by Jonathan Ross…

Cabrio was a new diversion
Cabrio was a new diversion

On 26 December 1994 the Metro name was finally put to bed and the 100 Series nomenclature, as had already been used in export markets since 1990, was adopted for all markets. Despite a few cosmetic nips ‘n’ tucks to keep it looking fresh, a 1.5-litre diesel engine (again, courtesy of the PSA Group) and a red card being shown to the GTi 16-valve version in preference to the 8-valve GTa, it was business as usual. With a healthy dose of pomp and middle class aspiration in the advertising strategy, aided by actress Natalie Rolls for the television advertisement depicting feminine independence, the Rover 100 Series could not have been further removed from its more humble, Austin origins it if tried. Well, at least, in terms of brand image and how it was projected.

100 replaced Metro at the end of '94
The Rover 100 replaced the Metro at the end of 1994

The final example of the R6 generation Rover 100 Series (nee Metro) had left the assembly line at Longbridge on 23 December 1997.

However, let us not mourn the passing of Longbridge’s last great supermini-sized, small hatchback – the Metro (unless, of course, you think the CityRover was even better). Now, May 2015, is a time to remember and toast the Rover Metro.



  1. This is the car that BL should have made in the 80’s. Interconnect the hydragas for a better ride, and get rid of that in sump gearbox to put a five speed on it.

    It was a brilliant update done with a tiny amount of money, but it was still a 10 year old body shell dating back all the way to the a 70’s design. That is what killed Rover in the end, it was starved of investment by BAE, who just wanted to flog it as soon as possible. The NCAP tests came along and the poor Metro was found out.

    Imagine what could have been if Rover’s engineers had been given the budget other car makers gave their engineers? The company might still be with us.

    • Wholeheartedly agree. Metro was the first all new product in Michael Edwardes’ ‘product-led’ revival, but such a shame Edwardes was too late to the helm to have any say over the design direction, which had been in a slow birth canal for several years. With a tighter focus on market requirements and earlier commitment to developing the K-series, it could have been a genuine market leader in the 1980s. By 1990 when the full “ADO74” spec finally arrived, I’d say the ship had sailed as a new influx of compact Japanese cars (not least the second gen Micra) was fragmenting the market with endless model line-ups of cheap, economical and well packaged little cars.

      Having said that, the 1980 ADO88 was probably the most prudent option for the time. It’s easy to be rose-tinted with hindsight, but this was a business needing to make itself financially viable again. Raiding the parts bin might be seen as a crime by latter-day engineering purists who believe the British motor industry should have developed the best possible cars at any expense simply for the sake of national pride, but the fact remains that ADO88 Metro was competitive in the market, and the running gear was adequate to the needs of the majority of owners. The R-, S- and O- (later M- and T-) series engines represented a vast line-up of recently developed (or redeveloped) engines and were perfectly competitive in the market. What sense would there have been in developing the K-series if not to underpin Maestro, Montego and SD3 as well for production and cost rationalisation? In my view, the 1990s R8 200/400 was the impetus required to develop the K-series, and for that reason, ADO88 was always going to be repackaged ADO16 running gear.

      An interesting car in all respects.

  2. I remember the launch of the “new” Metro, and the accompanying TV ad campaign. It got a lot of love in the motoring press, and successfully rode the coat-tails of the R8. It was a good car, and sold deservedly well.

    That said, the game moved on in 1993-4 when the new Polo, Micra and Corsa hit the market and set new standards for comfort, crash safety and motorway refinement.

    • Agreed with the 90s superminis, but even by the starting point of the decade we had Renault with the “Papa” Clio, and the mk3 Fiesta (which may have carried over a lot of parts from earlier Fiestas, but with integrated gutters and 5 door options looked like a modern, larger car).

  3. We had a Rover Metro 1.4GSi that we bought 6 months old soon after the Rover 100 had been launched. It had been a hire car on Jersey or Guernsey. Great car which my wife loved except she fancied power steering and aircon. So we replaced it with a Rover 200 1.4. Again a 6 month old car. Just after the launch of the Rover 25. This time it was an ex management car plan vehicle so it had all the toys. We kept that car at her next change as our eldest was approaching 17. We still have the Rover 200 as a spare. Recently, I floated the idea of changing it for an MG Metro Turbo. To my surprise my wife seemed almost enthusiastic about having a Metro in the fleet again.

  4. It was the great leap forward and the car the Metro should have become in 1984. The new Rover did away with the harsh, old engines of the Austin car with new, refined units and finally a diesel option, and quality was vastly better. It’s amazing how a ten year old design that was considered well past became a desirable car and helped Rover through the recession.

  5. My wife’s very first car after she passed her driving test !! It was a Rover 100 Automatic with the Van Doorne autobox. Nice little car, but not fault-free, I’m afraid. We never did sort out an overheating problem and I think it was the water pump. These could, apparently, lose their impellor blades thus preventing water being circulated.

    She then went on to a Rover 25 Auto, with the 1.8 K-series. Everybody here will know what the first fault on that was !!

  6. I’ve got nothing bad to say about the Rover Metro as a car. Given the sales success in the early nineties, that £200 million development budget must have represented one of the best returns on investment ever achieved by a British car maker.

    It never should have been badged as a Rover, though. Putting the Rover badge on a small car that was recognisably a face-lifted Austin just diluted the Rover brand. If Austin was to be dropped as a brand then Mini would have been a better choice for the Metro – everyone called them Mini Metros anyway.

    • I agree – and even though the Rover Metro did well, just look at the sales figures – it never achieved the success of the Austin variant. Sales were not far off 50% less from the get go, but to be fair it did manage to maintain static production of c.80k units a year for 5 years after launch. I wonder if it was a strategic decision to reign in production otherwise it seems odd how such a successful launch, award wins and fantastic press could result in a collapse of sales?

  7. The Metro finally got the engines and gearboxes it deserved. The Rover K-series version was much better than the A series Austin ones. Even the little 1.1 was a pleasure to drive with the K series and a 5 speed box under the bonnet. It rode and handled well, the engine was a joy and the gearbox a pleasure to use after the cogs in the sump “poker-in-a-bucket-of-coal” box of the original.

    Shame that it was about 5 years too late.

    The VW Polo and Vauxhall Nova were ultimately better value and more modern feeling cars. I know because I drove all three when they were new.

    The Metro also had dreadful crash performance and I was told by a crash repair specialist that he would not buy one for his wife because of the way the footwell used to collapse and the steering wheel used to push back.

    It was a creditable effort for the money and a nice little car to drive. There is not much bad to say about the car other than that it was a 10 year old body shell that had not been sufficiently developed to keep up with the opposition.

    • The Rover Metro/100 crash test performance is often brought up.

      1 star occupant and 2 star pedestrian, from a 70s designed supermini.

      However no-one ever mentions the BMW e36 3 series.

      2 star occupant and 2 star pedestrian, from a 1990s executive saloon!

      (Interestingly, a 2003-> Saab 93 only gets 1 star pedestrian rating, meaning that if you’re going to run over people, you’re better off doing it in a Rover 100!)

      • Yes, the E36 was pretty dreadful too, just shows that BMW could get it wrong too. In those days, almost no-one thought about pedestrian safety so 2* for pedestrian impact was pretty standard. I used to have a Saab 9-5 and it is interesting to note that the pre-2002 9-5 got 4* and post 2002 got 5*.

        Top Gear dropped a BMW on its roof and a Saab some years ago IIRC. The BMW cabin was flattened but the Saab remained intact. The Saab was nicer inside too.

  8. Congratuations for your 25th birthday, Metro!

    Hmm…… If ‘Rover‘ Metro were launcjed as Mini(ex. Mini Metro 7even, Cooper, Clubman. Etc…), could its history been changed better? Selling it with Rover badge was a somewhat mistake about marketing streagy. Or they could use Austin, if BAe left Austin alive for low budgeted lineup.

    • Back in the late 80s / early 90s it was all about brand consolidation.

      Mini would never have been considered a marque of several vehicles, especially while memories of the original square front Clubman were fresh in everybodies mind.

      The shortlived MiniMetro moniker (which was still used by some to describe the new car) may have been an attempt to link the car to the Mini and to placate Metro Cammell, who objected to the name.

      Would it have fared better? It was still seen by some as an aging product, when other manufacturers had radically updated their superminis (mk3 Fiesta, mk1 Clio – arguably the best looking Clio).

      Austin was killed off, leaving the Maestro and Montego in a strange, marqueless void. Though with the longship-shaped badging, they were often referred to as Rovers, or their original Austin marque in Halfords window wiper lookup books.

      Nowadays it is a different story, VW group have shown that a range of multiple marques can be exceptionally successful while still using parts commonality in terms of platforms, engines, switches etc. They’ve almost come full circle to BL at it’s most diverse.

      Austin would still make a useful marque for SAIC to sell cheap, comfort oriented Roewes.

      • Personally, I think they went too far with brand consolidation back in the 80s. The 200 was too small for the Rover badge, never mind the Metro. Austin could have been used across the face-lifted Montego, 200 and new Metro ranges, with the Maestro being retired when the 2nd gen 200 came out.

        I understand that they’d market tested the Austin brand and found it was seen as undesirable, but these kind of impressions can be changed quite quickly with new products. Skoda went from being the butt of Little and Large jokes to being a solid, desirable marque in a few years.

        If SAIC were to bring back a marque now for a range of cheap, utilitarian cars then I’d go for Morris. Mini have already used Austin’s Countryman badge, also the clearest mental association people have with Morris is the Minor which is a more positive association than the Allegro/Maestro/Princess.

        • Let’s ignore the fact that Allegro and Maestro weren’t Morris products, and Princess was for only a few months.

          Within the industry (and I’m not talking about retailers), it is considered that one of the biggest mistakes ever made in the UK car industry was the use of the ‘Rover’ name on anything after the 800 series. The name was considered a serious impediment, carrying associations with poor quality, dull image, and modest performance.

          It should have been Triumph.

          • Re: the Allegro, Maestro and Princess, I meant that their association with Austin makes that marque a less obvious candidate for revival than Morris.

            For some reason Triumph seems an incongruous brand to put on the front of a Metro, albeit less so than Rover.

          • “Dull image, and modest performance”?

            Really? Clearly most of those ‘experts’ had never heard of, let alone, driven a Rover SD1 Vitesse or an earlier P6 3500S.

            It was these aforementioned models, together with the dramatic styling of the SD1 range in general and the elegance and refined brawn of the earlier P5B 3.5 Litre Coupe, that got me interested in Rover cars in the first place. I have never associated Rover as having a dull image. Austins, yes… until the clever updates and raft of colour and trim special edition models introduced from about 1987 onwards.

            Even my father’s former 1991 Model Year Rover 827 Sterling with TWR Exclusive Body Styling Enhancement Pack drew plenty of admiring glances and favourable comments from fellow automotive design engineers he worked with. And not just from the looks either, but also how responsive it was and able to eat away the miles with incredible ease, while cossetting all the occupants in what was actually a well assembled and finished car.

  9. My Kensington SE was one of my favourite cars – small, practical, comfortable, well specced, nicely trimmed and fun to drive.

    Typical of Rover – there was minor mod to the facia design so they retooled the entire dash even though to all intents and purposes it looked identical – must have cost a fortune. I’ve always thought the front wings were not quite right/crisp enough and they should have used better rust protection in known fault areas like the rear wheelarches.

    There could have been a swansong – following the BMW sale, MGR contacted suppliers to evaluate the possibility of putting it back into production.

    • What was the mod to the dash Chris? Other than some ‘soft furnishings’ they are identical to the 84/5 facelift?

  10. As re-engineerings go, the Rover Metro was a great success, but when the base car was 10 years old, it could only be a short term product.
    Wasn’t the R3 Rover 200 meant to be its successor until Rover decided to push it upmarket and pretend it was a Golf/Escort rival?

    • The R3 was sketched as a 100.

      Unfortunately marketing decided that it was to fight the Golf/Escort/Astra C segment, and the upcoming 400 was to fight the Mondeo/Vectra D segment.

      They were both a segment too high, a situation only rectified with MG Rover (and using the 75/ZT as the worthy D segment contender)

  11. I had an H reg Metro GTI in BRG, it was pretty beaten up when I got it but it was amazing fun, great handling and really quite quick. I once got all four wheels airborne, four up!

  12. Not as likeable as the Mini but I do have soft spot for the Metro because my mother has a black one in the 80s. It may not be known but there was the popular Austin Metro Cup and in later years the Rover 114 came good and won titles in the Dutch Touring Car Championship.

  13. A 1993 K reg 1.1S 3 door was the first car I ever hand brand new. It was pearlescent Caribbean blue, and had all the body coloured spoilers etc and red seatbelts to make it look like the GTi. I kept it for 7 years, and absolutely loved it, as did my wife when I moved onto an R8 and she used the Metro for work. It never once let us down, and even transported us for two weeks on our honeymoon. Sadly, when children came along it was all change again and the Metro was chopped in against an estate car. I have missed the car ever since and wish I had held onto it.

  14. The Rover Metro really was an incredible transformation of the original Austin. Probably the best example of what the company could achieve on a limited budget. A sudden jump from dated contender to class leader. Yes, the shell meant it could only be a short term success but in 1990 it was utter class!

  15. When the Metro first came out I hated it as it seemed to signal the Mini’s end (this had been BL’s original intention) I didn’t get to ride in one until 1990 and felt thoroughly justified in my opinion as it was very unrefined (admittedly it was an ’80 model that had been previously written-off). In 1993 my then “new” girlfriend (now wife) had one of the earliest Rover Metro’s and I couldn’t believe it, being both refined and with much higher quality; the adverts with a blindfolded driver thinking he was in a BMW no longer seemed laughable. My wife had 4 Rover Metro’s and my mother had 2, all SOHC, none ever had a Head Gasket Failure and all were brilliant cars; my mum sold her 1988 Golf GTi and replaced it with a Metro 1.4SL which really was a better car (the Golf seemed to have been built on a Friday afternoon it was an unwilling starter from cold,had loose “squeaky” trim, breaking seat adjuster and oil leaks from the engine) My wife’s last Metro was a 114GTa which was a great car we both regret selling combining refinement, economy, a supple ride and a decent turn of speed. To come full circle I now have a 1988 Turbo; all the gadgets on an “S” class Merc can’t replace turbo / transmission whine, red seatbelts and boost LED’s!

  16. My Mum traded in a more-or-less new J-Reg Mini for a new K-reg Metro. I was only a kid at the time, but I’ll never forget crying all that day…

  17. As an owner of an 82′ Mk1 miniMetro I can attest to how rough, by comparison, they feel compared to the later Rover model, which I also owned – there is pretty much no comparison – other than the familiar vista out of the window, everything else feels completely different. I’ve never experienced such a transformation of essentially the same car right down the body pressings. Earlier Metros with the narrower track feel even more ancient by comparison. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my little miniMetro, it’s a minter, but I really want another Rover model to sit alongside. Hard to believe it’s 35 years since miniMetro and 25 since Rover Metro! Makes me feel old…

  18. @ James, the Austin Metro carried over engines from the Mini, that’s why they sounded rough. The Rover version used totally new engines which could be found in the 200 and used a five speed gearbox, which cut down on engine noise and improved the car on long journeys.
    That said both cars were good in their day. The 1980 Metro for bringing Leyland up to date and producing a real rival to the Fiesta and the 1990 Metro for making the original Metro fit for the nineties. 17 years is a long time for a car to be in production as well.

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