Memories : An unconventional Metro-shaped driving test

Driving Test, Stoke Newington, 1980s, britishculturearchive.co.uk. Photo © Rio Cinema Archive.
Driving Test, Stoke Newington, 1980s, britishculturearchive.co.uk. Photo © Rio Cinema Archive.

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.

Austin Metro
Austin Metro: 40 years old in 2020

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!

Carole Ashby / Nicholas Parsons and Karen Loughlin pose with the Star Prize. Sale Of The Century was in fact the first UK game show to offer a car as a top prize. Towards the end of the show they tended to be Minis or Mini Metros supplied from the local Mann Egerton dealer that was 100 yards down the road from the studio. (Pic: ITV Anglia)

18 Comments

  1. My Grandad bought an X Reg 1.0HLE from Hebdens in Burnley (it’s now a plumbers merchants).
    My Dad once drove it and said that he shuddered to think how nippy the 1.3 was given the 1.0 seemed quite quick.
    It’s just a shame that a five speed gearbox of some sort was never put in.

  2. Drove one of the hand-built HLE’s from International House to Spaghetti Junction as fast as I could (80-ish?) notwithstanding lots of vibration. Then discovered nut and bolt under my feet and took car to Press Garage. Fixings from the bottom of the steering column it transpired! Later experiences with MG Metro were always great, at the time it seemed a great sporty car.

  3. The best I can come up with about my (successful) driving test is my stalling in the Anglia (it was 1965) coming uphill to a crossroads with a Give Way sign. I hit the clutch and footbrake, “selected neutral, applied the handbrake and switched off” before going through the approved start and move off sequence. Not until the end of the test was I aware that ‘Eastbourne’s strictist examiner’ had thought my actions on stalling correct. Telling my ex Royal Canadian Air Force instructor of it afterwards (he was always saying to me “more gears, more gears”), he said the important thing was that I did not roll back.

  4. Great Story Mike, in our family we had three Metro’s over the years. When putting a new engine in my MG Metro, the third by the way, I’d left my mam’s almost Mint Xreg with 10,000 miles on the clock in the car park near our house whilst I used the garage. It was only nicked. Never saw it again. Replaced with a 70,000 mile C reg Fiesta, superior car but not as much fun!

    The MG went a similar way a few months later, they would have been surprised if they had done a bank job with it. I’d spent so much on the bug*er I had to put a Mini City engine it it. Very disappointing after a 1380 blew up after only 500 miles. My last BL/ARG/Rover car, just cost too much to repair!

  5. I had an MG Metro Turbo for around 9 months.
    Crazy thing is that it was my first company car. I don’t know how anybody at the company had ever been able to order such a car (it was hardly your average company car at the time) but it had previously belonged to the Quality Manager, who had since left the company, and had become surplus to requirements.
    The long face which I had upon being given the car soon turned to smiles as other small, hot hatches, were blown away around the lanes of Warwickshire (the company wouldn’t have been best impressed with what I was doing with their car, I’m sure), and my friends loved the red seat belts and piped edges to the seats.
    The almost double decker bus like driving position was awful, the tiny rev counter was useless, as was the heater, and the plastic exterior door handle on the passenger door frequently got stuck in the open mode, so it bounced back open again when being closed (just to prove it was a British Leyland car after all) but hours of fun were had in the car.
    The choice list for new company cars was solely BL, and the Metro was replaced by a brand new, gleaming, Maestro HL, which really was boring as could be

  6. I drove from the Midlands to Lincolnshire to spend my birthday at my Uncle’s in March. My Freelander died just as I arrived & wasn’t worth repairing. Lockdown happened & no where was open to buy another car so I bought my Uncle’s Metro, a 1992 1.4 GSi. Love driving it & it get loads of attention. Reselling it now as I’ve purchased a more suitable everyday car, sadly i have nowhere to store it so it must go

  7. The picture caption says that Sale Of The Century was the first UK game show to offer a car as a top prize. As a car-mad youngster I remember Bob Monkhouse on the Golden Shot giving away a Mark 2 Cortina in the late 60s (or 1970).

    • Then the IBA put a limit of £ 3000 on prizes and prize money on ITV game shows in 1978 that limited which sort of cars could be given away as prizes as inflation bit. However, British Leyland must have been pleased as Minis and Metros frequently became prizes.

        • Bullseye would offer a Metro City, but by about 1983, the choice of cars for under £ 3000 was very limited and few people would want to win an FSO.

          • I am sure the TV programme managers would have negotiated a bargain price for the prize car of a Metro, and BL would be happy for the cut price TV publicity to meet the £3000 limit.
            The viewer count of game shows back then was measured in millions

  8. Mike, I think the ‘Alfa’ quote is usually referring to the driving experience and brilliant though the Metro was, in terms of the dynamics of driving, the feel and the connectivity – an Alfa it ain’t!
    Whole heartedly agree with you about everything else though…,,

    • A real story for the Grandchildren that. You never imagine Driving School cars breaking down but common sense dictates that it is always a possibility. Quite a cool head to be able to spot the warning light and pull in safely and shut her down, especially with the added nerves of the driving test.
      He would have been a real twat to have failed you after avoiding damage and actually diagnosing the fault, sourcing the part and repairing it. Of course, once you are in possession of a full driving licence any car no matter how old, rusty or in need of love becomes an Alfa or a Rolls because they all bring the freedom of motoring.

    • “A certain motoring man says you aren’t a petrol head 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!”

      Ive always worried abut this because not having owned an Alfa, was I a proper “petrol head”?
      I am now much reassured as having rocked many Minis back and forwards in gear to set the valve clearances, I am therfore suitable qualified, result!

  9. My Dad taught me to drive in my Mum’s 1.0 G-reg metro Clubman 4-speed. After mastering the basics I signed up for driving lessons and instructor had a Rover 100. Could not believe how much improved that car was, the A series metro was like a bag of nails in comparison and so unforgiving to drive. Instructor then changed to a facelift Mk3 Fiesta which I never liked as much – steering far too light.

  10. When we first had ITV in the late 1950’s the upper prize limit for game shows was £1000, in those days enough to buy a decent sized car. Sometimes the Star Prize on ‘Take Your Pick’ was a car, I particularly remember a Mark 1 Vauxhall Victor, over twenty yeras before Sale of the Century.

  11. My wife’s first car when I met her was a 1.1 Metro and it was quite endearing and rather fun to drive. However, my first car had been a 1.2 Nova and the Nova was massively better then it in most areas.

    It seems I wasn’t the only one who thought this as I remember on the last day of school, we sixth formers all brought our cars in and parked them up on the college playground and then took turns at driving each other’s pride and joy round the grounds. One of my friends had an MG Metro which I quite liked but he didn’t say much when thrashing my Nova along. I subsequently found out that barely a few weeks later he’d sold the Metro and bought a Nova GTE!

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