Opinion : Metro – it could have been great

Leyland ADO74 Sketch

It’s always good when an email containing information or images I’ve not seen before arrives. Here’s a great example of this from Michael Sutter, who forwarded me this picture signed by Ian Beech.

He was looking for a positive identification of the above design sketch, having found references to Beech on AROnline. Well, that was an easy one to make – I’ve vague memories of seeing a variation of this sketch before (I think on the Elephant House wall), but it was good to see it again in full technicolour.

What it shows is that the ADO74 supermini project – and its replacement the ADO88 – had the potential to be a smart, contemporary-looking supermini. There’s a pleasing industrial look about this car, which recalls the Innocenti 90/120 and one could easily imagine this playing at the front of the grid against the Fiat 127, Renault 5 and Volkswagen Polo.

Innocenti Mini UK

The unfulfilled Maestro?

Although the sketch at the top of the page may remind you of the Innocenti, it’s fair to say that there’s also a lot of Maestro in it. You see, Ian Beech’s main design legacy will be the Austin Maestro, which he penned in 1975 under the leadership of David Bache.

And, while that hatchback isn’t generally regarded as being one of the decade’s lookers (it was a neat enough 1970s design not launched until 1983), there were undoubtedly some good elements to it.

Look at the Mini replacement above and the relationship is all-too clear. The side scallops are a starting point. But look, also, at the front indicators, the shape of the wheel arches, the front wings and the minimalism. It does make one wonder – the top sketch was turned over for further development in favour of some more weird and wacky designs for ADO74.

Imagine if they’d developed this? Imagine if it had become a production reality? I suspect more people would have heard of Ian Beech today.

Austin Maestro 1975

Keith Adams
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  1. I think I saw this before, blurry in the background wall just as you said Keith. It is neat looking, and those side swages are a lot less over bearing than the Maestro’s scallops, which were just too pronounced. If this had come out first, and the Maestro and Montego had similar side swages, even in 1983 they would not have looked so out if date (in my opinion)

  2. Those swages might have made pressing difficult without panel distortion. Not sure what existing engine would fit under the bonnet. An elegant and cohesive car but those very thin A and B posts could have stored up trouble with NCAP in future years.

    • Those thin windscreen pillars would have been fine in the late 70s/early 80s – Every car had them. No other manufacturer would have kept those designs in production into the late 90s and the Euro NCAP era though.

  3. The problem with the Metro wasn’t the styling, it was ruined by BL’s short sighted cost cutting. The same foolish mistakes that ruined the Marina, by lumbering it with awful lever arm front suspension, were repeated on the Metro.

    Hydragas was designed to be connected front to back and without that connection it didn’t work properly. There was nothing wrong with A-plus engine but keeping the gearbox in sump layout was another penny pinching mistake. Making fitting a five speed impossible.

    Alas this pattern was repeated time and time again by BL and its successors.

    • Cost cutting? Lack of money more like. No point designing a technological marvel if your development funds are tuppence Happeny

      • It was not so much lack of development budget, but the lack of funds to invest in a production facility for a new engine or gearbox. Also we should remember the Metro started out as the Ado88, a cheap as chips reskin of what was in the parts bin to replace the Mini. Had it turned up in 76/77 as intended it would not have been an issue but in 1980 it was only “ok” and then of course in just a couple of years the 205 and UNO changed peoples perceptions of what a small car should be.

  4. The Metro was a great design when it was launched, a three door hatch aimed at cars like the Fiesta, but aged rapidly when newer and better cars arrived on the scene three years later. The introduction of a five door Metro scored one big advantage over the three door Fiesta, but by then, the Fiesta could be bought with a five speed transmission and a diesel option, both of which were unavailable on the Metro. Also, a poor reputation for rust protection, build quality issues and poor refinement hurt the Metro’s reputation, especially when it was pitched against precision built rivals like the Polo.

  5. The sketch has a curious resemblance to the early LC10 prototype styled by Steve Ferrada as well as some cues from the 9X (and dare say it AMC Pacer) at the front, wonder how well it would have translated from sketch to model and prototype?

    An early/mid-70s ADO88 with a well-executed version of Ian Beech’s sketch above, together with R6 Hydragas and end-on gearbox would have more or less had the measure of the supermini opposition for a number of years prior to the arrival of the 205 and Uno.

  6. wonder how well it would have translated from sketch to model and prototype?

    Look at the 1982 Honda City for about a 90% accurate approximation; even going beyond “the look” the size is likely even closer to being true to life as intended.

  7. Have to disagree with the central point of the article – that the Metro needed better styling. I bought a new Metro with my own money back in the day so I was very familiar with the car in its prime years. The styling and package were very good. The number one problem was the build quality and reliability – real and perceived. Whenever cars were discussed with my peer group (aged in their 20s) this was always the subject brought up first and I was the subject of plenty of ribbing about my unreliable car. Even though it didn’t let me down in the time I had it, although it did have problems such as the fuel leak from the breather pipe. Lack of a 5-speed gearbox was also a problem. In the medium to long term, widespread rusting was a serious problem.

  8. Like Peugeot driver, I thought the Metro was probably the best looking of the superminis. It was also pleasant to drive, quite fast in MG form, and handled and rode well ( I do not understand the criticisms of the front suspension) . In 4 years ( albeit low mileage as it was a third car ) that we had one, there was not a single mechanical fault. However, at the end of that period, its one major fault emerged in the shape of really serious corrosion of the floors . Not alone in that, I suppose ?

  9. The Metro was a good looking small car when it launched and was praised for its handling, decent ride, low running costs and performance in 1.3 versions. Back then, lack of a five speed transmission and four doors wasn’t an issue as most of its rivals were the same. It was a car the market wanted as the country was still suffering from the 1979 energy crisis and stagflation in 1980. Also early Metros were probably no worse for rust than the Renault 5 and the Fiat 127, which was a notorious ruster and badly made.
    I think lack of development and stringent quality control and better rust protection were what held the Metro back. Had Austin Rover been able to offer the car with new engines, a five speed transmission and better quality in the mid eighties, it could have sold as well as the Fiesta.

  10. The Metro’s biggest (smallest?) problem was that for whatever reason it was very small just for the sake of it. As if there’d been a championship for space effiency of short overall length that they tried to win.
    When the established supermini brigade went up half a size in the mid-Eighties with Polo Mk2, Peugeot 205, Fiat Uno et al. thes were grown up cars in a smaller size against which the Metro just looked like a toy and an unnecessarily small one at that.
    Had the Metro arrived in a size like the ADO16 it would have been competitive for a much longer time.

    • The Metro’s small size relative to the 2nd gen Supermini opposition was the result of its protracted development programme and limited resources, even the preceding ADO74 project despite it being about 4-inches longer than the Metro still sat a similar wheelbase and was said to have possessed inferior space efficiency in comparison to the Metro.

      The latter drew upon the lessons of ADO74 and including the involvement of Charles Griffin, who worked on both ADO16 and the Metro.

      Would otherwise agree the company needed a larger Supermini to tackle the 2nd gen opposition whilst relegating the Metro to a city car, the LM platform that underpinned the Maestro/Montego and used the Allegro as a starting point could have been a suitable basis for such a car in better circumstances.

      Especially as recall watching a video set at the Gaydon Motor Museum a while ago where it was mentioned the AR6 mule made use of a shortened Maestro platform, although it is not yet clear what its dimensions were.

      There is also this interesting comment by Mike Pryce from a few years back where it is claimed AR6 was to be part of a single platform family intended to replace the Metro, Maestro and 200 (SD3).

    • @ Dave, the Metro was also hindered by being too unrefined, limited to being petrol only and not having a five speed transmission as an option. By the late eighties, apart from its size, the Metro was seriously outclassed and old fashioned. It did continue to sell in reasonable numbers, though, due to its low running costs and patriotic older buyers.

      • Compare a Metro or even Rover 100 to a Peugeot 205 diesel (don’t even think about a comparison betweeen Metro turbo and 205 GTI).
        Except for the acres of painted metal visible in the Peugeot’s interior it felt like a grown up car. It had excellent ride comfort that put many larger cars to shame and its diesel had wonderful seven-mile-boot characteristics (for the time) that made it an astonishingly ocompetent long distance car.
        Even a ‘breadvan’ Polo – that definitely was a small car – felt more grown up and was more refined and infinitely better made.
        The Metro was more a competitor for hopping driving aids like a Daihatsu Cuore which were something different altogether.

        • I really cannot agree with Dave’s summary. The Peugeot 205 was the crudest, tinniest little car I ever drove : it even made the Uno seem well made . However , it sold well in France , as did the R5 which rivalled it for unattractiveness . Quite why we always run our own products down ( often without foundation) I have never quite understood . The metro may not have been the most advanced design, but it did its designed job, and did it well

          • I have to disagree, drive a 205 then a Metro and you’ll find a good 15 year gap, very off-set pedals and add an awkward wheel angle provide an awful driving position to start with, it was needlessly small, even compared to R5 or 104 launched in 72, space efficient it may have been in 72 but it still could have benefited with 6 ins extra wheelbase, just to bring pedals and steering wheel back and at a better angle. Start of the 1980’s. game was moving too fast for the Metro to stand a chance in Europe passed 83-84… I’d rather do Paris-Nice in a Uno,205 or R5 1,4L and 5 gears with 3 more adults than in a Metro 1,3L HLS with only 4 gears and same-ish price! NVH, mpg, space and boot were far superior in these than the Metro. Superminis had become polyvalent small family cars rather than just city runabouts.

  11. The problem is this car was probably part of AD074 as per Keith’s article. If that was the case this would have launched prior to the Metro, when it the size would not have mattered. Chris comments about pressing I think are none valid, as there was both the Ford Taunus and Transt with similar swage line.

    The Metros problem was the gestation. BL started the project under AD074, couldn’t decide if they needed a Mini replacement or something larger, which killed it to come back to life as the AD088. By this time Cash was non existent, so they took what they had and come up with what at the time was very competitive against the competition. Take a Mk1 Fiesta and it was not refined or any better than the Metro. However the competition moved on, while BL went down a foxole with the AR6. The basic and quite rough Mk1 Fiesta was transformed into a lot more refined car in Mk2 form, while Peugeot moved the game on with the 205, that most 90s supermini’s were still deferring to it years later.

    • @daveh, the Metro was designed to take on the Fiesta, which was by far the best selling supermini in Britain. This was a very nasty and sluggish buzzbox in 957cc form, struggling to reach 80 mph and being useless on hills, while the 1 litre Metro was a far better car to drive and on a par with a 1.1 Fiesta. Also the MG Metro could easily keep up with an XR2 and had a far better interior and lower running costs.
      The Mark 2 Fiesta, 957 version aside, was a much better and more refined car. There was the option of a five speed transmission on bigger engined cars, which reduced engine noise and improved economy, and the diesel, while not the fastest car you could buy, was acceptable on a long journey and capable of 65 mpg if driven carefully.

  12. What the sketch has along with the Innocenti Mini and original Mini is that they are “funky”. They look fun and whilst the Metro was a worthy enough design it just did not make you think that driving it would be fun when you looked at it.

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