Mike Humble on the continuing series of iconic cars that once littered the highways and by-ways of the UK. There was nothing exotic or high tech here with our very own MG Metro, but it really caught the imagination of a buying generation.
It might not have been the fastest, or the coolest, hot hatch – but the Metro was one of the most fun.
Back on top for the Octagon
Sometimes, going back to basics can be fun – even John Major told us so, but in the hurley whirly world of cars, nobody offers a simple, fun and jolly four-seater car. Everything is fitted with three-way catalytic coverters, fuel injection, ABS and other baffling abbreviations, when sometimes all you need is a steering wheel, a seat and a ruddy big smile on your fizzog.
It’s nice to have all the bells and buttons in your car but, now and again, I yearn for a simple box of fun on wheels that can even make the most mundane of chores like doing the shopping run – a joy. Our very own Sir Alec Issigonis, for all his foibles and notorious temper, gave the world a huge smile with the Mini. And for all its faults (and there are hundreds of them), the Mini was a brilliant hoot to drive. It was quite possibly the only English car to connect all human senses together once you pulled the door shut and fired up that A-Series engine.
Like eating a doughnut without licking your lips, driving a Mini without being a little hoolgan was, quite simply, impossible.
My own Mini was an A-plate 1100 special, which sported an Allegro 1300 engine. It was truly a death trap. But I didn’t care. Still sporting its 10in alloys, and almost useless drum brakes, she would scream and whine her way to over an indicated 95mph, but trying to stop the thing would almost make you pee yourself. After two good tugs on the brakes, they would fade away just like the end of a favourite record – and just as quickly. But I didn’t care.
At any speed over walking pace, it was impossible to light a cigarette thanks to the spine-destroying ride (dis)comfort, and holding a conversation at motorway speeds was akin to making yourself heard in a nightclub – equally impossible. But again, I didn’t care.
The car burned oil, misfired like an old blunderbuss in the wet and the demister was pathetic – but guess what? I didn’t care.
Why not? Well, simply because every time I took it out, I felt great and almost child like. Being a single man with a snappy looking Mini and not being the fat, grey-haired lump I am now, caused my single bed in my shared terrace house to have room for just one more on top – I loved my red Mini.
The arrival of the Metro in 1980 ushered in some badly needed confidence for BL and, for a short while, it looked like the Mini was living on borrowed time. Austin had a winner on its hands, capturing the essence of the Mini in its handling, driving position and drivetrain. The Metro sadly lacked a cheeky sporting model – a version customers cried out for. The two range-toppers at launch were the 1.3S and HLS. The former was a luxury-oriented model, with plain and pleated velour seats; and the S had nothing more sporting than a horrid striped interior trim, and seats shaped like patio furniture.
With BL’s budget of £275m, the fact that it had launched a genuinely world-beating hatchback car along with a new A-Plus engine, was no mean feat. It was to be another two years before a real sporting version would arrive in the showrooms, but this was possibly down to politics more than marketing. Besides, 1980 was one hell of a year for BL – a year of tears as well as joy.
BL had a busy time in 1980 – the launch of the Ital and the Metro kept the sales and marketing guys busy – and, certainly in the case of the miniMetro, the company had a serious hit on its hands. Sir Michael Edwardes had to a degree quietened down the union unrest by stating that the company would be shut down if unrest continued. Many a bitter pill has been swallowed by management and shop floor workers since the arrival of Edwardes, but there was no denying that BL was a leaner, fitter company as this new decade began.
There were, of course, some sad times with the closure of MG in Abingdon, but to be honest both the Midget and MGB were about as modern as the Iron Age, and made skydiving a less draught-free way of travelling at speed. The MG range had become a bit of a laughing stock – the hardy, but antiquated B-Series engine was thirsty, heavy and made listening to a badly scratched Bucks Fizz LP more pleasing on the ear. They handled with the finesse and precision of a shot Giraffe while rusting faster than a beer tin in a Soviet salt mine.
The marque was far from dead, though, and in 1982 the Metro range gained the peppy, go kart-like sporting MG-badged model it had been crying out for – followed a year later by the Turbo version. On a personal note, the 1300 model seemed the more genuine article with no frills, no fancy turbochargers that tended to strip the gearbox quicker than a team of WRC mechanics. No gaudy body kits, but just a simple uprated engine, rowdy exhaust and some cute styling touches to the interior – and, oh, didn’t those 12in pepper pot alloys look awesome?
The A-Plus 1275cc was upped from just over 60bhp to 72bhp thanks to a cylinder head topped off with a glorious ribbed alloy valve cover. That head was ported, gained bigger valves and the camshaft had a slightly peaky profile that aided engine breathing at higher revs. An exhaust with a larger bore and slashed tail pipe looked better than the pea shooter of the cooking models, giving the new MG a nice rorty soundtrack. The strakes fitted to the tailgate added a certain cheeky look to the rear while aiding aerodynamics at the same time, nothing at all looked cheap or garish to the Metro’s clean uncluttered lines.
Gone were the shapeless seats inside – the MG 1300 looked a treat with herringbone tweed/dark velour faux Recaro front seats. And that shirt button-leather clad steering wheel looked far better than the hard four spoke corporate BL items we were all used to seeing. And check out that interior – wonderful red carpets, red seat belts and a non-slip mat on the passenger side complete with the MG logo moulded into it. Even the dash dials had a different font to the other models, adding to that simplistic sporting feel.
Who cares if it was badge engineering, this is what fun was all about. Yes, the Mini was great fun, but any journey over 100 miles on a cold damp day could make you sore, miserable, tired and deeply, deeply depressed. With the MG Metro, you could fit four people with room to spare, drive all day long and not wish you had taken the train. Even parked up switched off, it had a terrier-like, naughty puppy look that begged for a run.
Upon its launch, some traditionalist fans and dyed in the wool motoring journos bemoaned the use of the MG brand to spice up a mainstream model. Big deal… When they got behind the wheel and drove the thing like it was stolen, many of its critics shut up. All of a sudden that noisy whine from the antiquated transmission seemed perfect with the exhaust note and sit-up-and-beg driving position, sublime cornering ability with decent servo disc brakes inspired confidence.
It wasn’t even that quick either – top speed was just over the magic ton, with 60mph coming up in around 11.5 seconds, only a shade quicker than the standard 1.3-litre models. But that was missing the point – it felt and sounded so much quicker. Even its equipment levels seemed sparse – taking away the radio, rear wiper and alloys, the Metro was left with very little but, as they say, sometimes less is more.
So did Austin Rover create the modern day Mini Cooper with the MG Metro? I think so. The MG Metro’s mix of superb handling, cheeky looks and bags of character was everything the original Mini had in spades.
Austin Rover had seemingly found its mojo with the two MG Metros and SD1 Vitesse, within 18 months of each other. The Rover range was updated and new models were in the pipeline, so was the old doom and gloom of British Leyland now just a memory? Maybe not, but this new found confidence and feel good factor at least got BL off its knees and onto its feet – the 1980s were indeed a busy time for Austin Rover.
Just two years after the MG 1300 arrived, the entire Metro range was improved and updated with a new five-door shell and brand new interior. The minimalistic yet slightly flimsy dashboard with instrument pod gave way to a brand-new, high-quality fascia with chunky switches, centre console and smart plastic bumpers on certain models that looked oh so much better than the original rolled steel items of earlier Metros.
The 1275cc engines gained electronic ignition, while all models (even the 1.0 City) sported vented front discs and four piston calipers – a system that was amazingly over-engineered at the time.
Keeping to its sporting roots, the MG Metro remained a three-door car and, with ARG skillfully updating equipment or exterior graphics, right from its launch up to deletion, the MG was a strong-selling car. Many may have ended up being rusty heaps or badly customised but, to me at least, an original 1982 MG 1300 in solid red or blue metallic is the epitome of a wind of change for the better for Austin Rover in the 1980s.
For sure, the MG Metro Turbo was a fantastic little car with awesome performance and one which demonstrates that a simple car with charm in abundance is more than enough to have you grinning like a Cheshire cat.