It’s interesting comparing what we think now with contemporary consensus. I like to think that, in my historic writing, I tend to err on the side of reporting the contemporary view, rather than taking a retrospective perspective. Take, for instance, the Austin Metro – today’s mainstream view is that it’s funny little hatchback that was loved by old people, rusted away too quickly and tended to break down too much. ‘Fanny in a Metro,’ was how someone described Metro drivers to me recently…
However, step back to 1980 and its launch, and the Metro was seen as the second coming. The excitement in the build up to its launch was palpable and, all over the media, there was continued speculation about how it was going to look, what it would do to the gallon and, most importantly, how it was going to save British Leyland. This clipping sent to me by Julian Marsh, the brains behind the excellent Citroënët website, shows just where the weekly magazine Autocar was in its thinking.
The image of the ADO74 prototype will have been like a bolt from the blue – and it was there to help promote Rob Golding’s upcoming book about the Mini to celebrate its 20th birthday. Little was known about the ADO74 project at the time – the book opened it up, to be extended when the Metro was launched later on – so this would have been news to most readers back in July 1979. The point Autocar made at the time was this smooth-looking hatchback with overtones of the Colt 1400 (what the Mitsubishi Mirage was called in the UK back then) was far more individual looking than the ‘mighty Mini’ was, based on scoop photography at the time.
Reading between the lines, one gets the sense that, although Autocar had some inside knowledge of the Metro, referring to it by its correct ‘Mini Metro’ moniker, it might not have been as excited by it as the rest of us were. It was almost looking back wistfully at the ADO74, hinting that it was a missed opportunity. Interestingly, that has always been my take on this project and, although we’ll never know what the definitive styling was going to be, there’s no doubt that this technically orthodox, but interestingly-styled supermini was sized and pitched correctly to fight the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo on equal terms.
Without too many delays (and further funding from the Government), it should have hit the market in around 1977, which would have seen it meet the Fiesta head-on. As it was, the Metro’s launch – some three and-a-half years later cost the company some impetus, even though it was a huge sales success in the UK at least from the moment it was launched. So, the question this poses is a simple one – was Autocar’s view that the non-appearance of the ADO74 was a missed opportunity, a vital stumble, that helped seal the company’s fate? Or was it a great white elephant that was put into perspective by the Metro’s later success?
Today’s commentator might say it was right not to go forward with it, but looking at it from the contemporary standpoint, I’m not so sure.