You know, I honestly refuse to accept the fact that our dear friend the Austin Metro is 40 years young. It’s only yesterday since the TV commercials depicted the likes of the Polo, Fiesta, Renault 5 and Fiat 127 being bullied back across the English Channel under the watchful eyes of a myriad of angry Metros. I first saw the Metro as an eager eight-year-old being launched at the 1980 Birmingham Motor Show – oddly enough, the same event and time as the vehicle at the bigger end of the BLARG scale, the Leyland C40 Roadtrain – aka the T45. Those really were heady times for anyone who can recall them: had BL really turned the corner in terms of their fortunes? It looked that way…
When it comes to Metro memories, I have many that come to the fore, some good, some not so. We never had any in the family at the start, it was Itals, Montegos and other Rovers for us and when it came to running my own early bangers, my diet existed of Marina and Cortina – indeed, I went on to own seven of the latter. That said, my first foray into legal driving started with a peppy transverse A-Plus 1275, with its whining gearbox and that famous sit-up-and-beg driving position. Lend me your ear, pour a coffee and let me take you back to a star-date almost 35 years ago.
Compared to many teenagers, I had a head start when it came to driving tuition. When I was 16 on quiet Sundays, my late father would take me up to a local industrial estate much to my glee and excitement for a drive. Also, around the same time, a mate at school called Ian Bell had a rusty rear-engined, sky-blue Fiat 126 in his back yard which his father had bought him to tinker about with. When his mum and dad went out to their working men’s club on a Friday night, we would steal a steer up and down the back lanes of the terraced streets where he lived.
Looking back, I admit it was wrong to do that, but boy was it was huge fun. Another chum called Nigel would join us with his younger sister’s borrowed battery operated kiddie-gram record player. Armed with a stack of singles, we would hop and bounce along the cobbles. The needle of the record player would skip, slide and jump in sympathy to every jolt or missing stone. After this first motoring experience, we realised that what we were doing was wrong and a lesson learnt – on our next outing, we placed a lump of Plasticine on the arm of the stylus to weigh it down.
Anyway, after moving to the South Midlands, I was all set to book some lessons come my 17th birthday with a chap who resided near my parent’s house. That was, until the young lady I was holding hands with at the time mentioned her Uncle was the Branch Manager of the local office of BSM – the British School of Motoring. A few strings were pulled, an assessment drive in a brand new 1.3-litre Austin Metro ensued, and five block lessons were paid for, all at a favourable family discount fee.
Pulling into a bus stop, selecting neutral, applying the handbrake and switching off, I turned to the examiner and told him there was a problem
Test day came and, of course, I was nervous, but equally so, I just wanted to get out, get it done and buy a car. Everything went well enough or so I thought until we were about three quarters of the way through the test. Rolling along a main trunk road that was perilously close to my place of work, I noticed the charge warning light glowing red, also, the heater started blowing out cold air. Pulling into a bus stop, selecting neutral, applying the handbrake and switching off, I turned to the examiner and told him there was a problem.
My early diagnosis was that the alternator belt had snapped. The bonnet was lifted, and this turned out to be correct, the examiner glumly told me that the test was unfortunately terminated. He clicked his stainless Parker Jotter G2 (the preferred writing implement of the officious) into life but, before the parchment felt the ball of his point, I dug deep into my book of ballsy statements. Here goes: ‘There is another option you know,’ said I, a slight quiet pause with a blank look followed. The examiner retorted, ‘I’m not sure I am with you.’
I pointed ahead some half a mile into the cold murky distance and asked him if he could see the large red, white and blue totem sign of the Ford dealer where I worked, ‘go on?’ he inquisitively replied. So, I then told him that if we went in, I could get a replacement belt found and fitted thus giving him just enough time to for him enjoy a vending machine coffee and a cigarette. He looked at me without emotion and I threw in one last thing, ‘just give me 15 minutes, please’. Another pause followed and he gestured as if to say ‘okay, let’s do it.’
The parts man relived me of a few quid and after ten minutes of spannering the Metro was backed out of the cavernous gloom of the workshop with gusto…
Slewing into the workshops to the jeers and cheers of my fellow fitters, I ran into the workshop operations office and breathlessly explained my plight. The go ahead was given and I jabbed 754461 into the phone – Henlys Rover parts department. A Unipart number was sourced, which I can still remember – GCB10813 – and that was cross-referenced into a Ford Motorcraft number. The parts man relived me of a few quid and, after ten minutes of spannering, the Metro was backed out of the cavernous gloom of the workshop with gusto.
The examiner was browsing a row of used Sierras by now and had to be awoken from his gaze by a toot of the horn. He snapped back into a stance befitting his job and got back into the car. At the edge of the forecourt give way point I awaited his command. He placed his chipboard clipboard by his feet, gently placed his G2 inside his raincoat pocket and, with almost a wry smirk asked me to drive us both back to the Testing Centre. Not a word was spoken as he just looked out of the passenger window.
The two-mile drive seemed to take hours and I wondered what he was thinking. Arriving back at the Testing Centre the clipboard was picked up, the Parker clicked into mode and a handful of questions about the Highway Code were asked. And then came those immortal words, ‘That’s the end of your driving test Mr Humble. I’m pleased to tell you that you have met the required standard.’ He shook my hand with the grip of a long-lost friend, gave me the paperwork and was gone. Our paths did cross some years later when he examined me on my PSV driving test, but the old bugger failed me that time.
Looking back, its fair to say the Metro did spectacularly well all considering. At its original 1980 launch, it was ahead of the game, a class leader and loved by many thanks to its typically British Dunkirk spirit. However, other rivals soon became quite superior in almost all the key areas such as durability, technical features and image. The Metro was always a gas to drive thanks to tidy handling, good sharp brakes, superb visibility and, in the case of the 1.3-litre, gutsy power delivery. Sadly, they soon showed their true BL roots as early 1.0-litre cars required a complete re-design of the clutch, the suspension was nothing more than an over-engineered luxury that wasn’t needed and the front-end rot was nothing short of shocking.
There was no denying the Fiat Uno, Peugeot 205 or Renault 5 were superior cars in terms of comfort. The Polo was almost crafted from a billet of solid iron it was that tough, while the crossflow engines and drivelines of the Fiesta were capable of triple the mileage of your average Metro. Once the 1984 facelift and five-door models were introduced all other revisions were pretty much nothing more than styling tweaks. Gearboxes failed at sub-50,000 mileages and, if left to fail completely, the gunk and swarf in the oil would tear the crankshaft bearing faces to destruction.
And yet despite the dreadful record of driveline fragility, the rampant rust and those bloody rear radius arm bearings that rarely saw a grease gun, the Metro never fails to make me smile. The sound of that gearbox in first and second cogs, the sit-up-and-beg driving position that I personally liked and the laugh out loud fun I’ve had in the past going around roundabouts at breakneck speed like a total moron are making me smirk as I’m typing this out. They had character and soul – just like the Mini only a bit more grown up this time. I have to say, for all their faults, of which there are lots, I utterly love them.
A certain motoring man who says you aren’t a petrolhead unless you’ve owned an Alfa is so very wrong. If you haven’t spent a Saturday putting an A-Series back together and tinkered the tappets by the rule of nine – you just haven’t lived!
Happy 40th birthday, Austin Metro!