Opinion : 21 years ago today – death of the Metro

Okay, so by 23 December 1997, the Metro name had long since died, and the car that had been launched with such a fanfare in October 1980 had mutated into the Rover 100. We’ve postulated many times about how the Austin Metro saved BL when it was launched, and even aged 10, once it had received a K-Series engine and suspension updates, it was a class-leading steer. But 21 years ago today, the Rover 100 died. Did EuroNCAP kill it?

In 1995, the Metro was past its prime. It needed a meaningful update, but instead, it received the lightest of facelifts to become the Rover 100 (the name it had since 1990 in Europe). Despite feeling superannuated, the Rover 100 still sold well, and the dealers loved how loyal its customers were – they knew that the upcoming Rover 200 was never going to have enough small-car appeal to lure the loyal Metro clientele.

However, Rover’s management thought it knew better. Under BMW, work on the MINI was underway, and all that the 100 needed to do was keep in business long enough to maintain a place at the base of the range that could be reserved for the upcoming R50. Forget developing the 100, the dealers could shuffle potential buyers into a shiny new 200 if they wanted something newer. Like it or lump it…

Bad news for the Rover 100

This plan was, in the event, scuppered at the hands of EuroNCAP (The European New Car Assessment Programme) – which reported in its crash test that the Rover 100 fell a long way behind what was considered a minimum standard in passive safety. In fact, it was given a one-star front and side impact rating, which was, essentially, a disastrous showing.

Thing is, it wasn’t alone in having such a bad showing. The Fiat Seicento, Peugeot 106 and Renault Twingo also performed pretty shockingly, too. Remember, that this offset-front method of crash testing was brutal – and any car not specifically designed to pass the test would fail dismally. As it was, the Renault was heavily re-engineered, while the other two ended up soldiering on as they were. And since then, all new cars have been designed to do better at this form of crash testing.

Unfortunately for Rover, the story became a lot more widespread than the specialist press and it transcended the usual car magazines into the daily newspapers. Worse, the Rover 100’s performance made it to the early evening news on the BBC. Needless to say, this was disastrous for Rover and, within days, orders for the car dried up. Rover was given no choice other than to withdraw the 100 from sale with production ending on 23 December 1997.

The question is – was the car killed before its time by this EuroNCAP crash test? Or had it outlived its usefulness to Rover (and not its dealers) by 1997 anyway, and the company was happy to euthanise it?

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

21 Comments

  1. In New Zealand, where the 100 sold in tiny numbers, the only news we got of this was via Top Gear, where it was singled out for condemnation. News of the withdrawal in the UK line-up came very rapidly after. I don’t recall any mention of the others.
       Interestingly, back then Top Gear was a programme that aired in the middle of the night, recorded only by car enthusiasts like myself—think it came on around 2.30 a.m. one night.

    • Middle of the night was still too good for an irresponsible and pointless program operated by a loud mouthed bigoted lout. In my humble opinion.

  2. The dear old Rover 100 was still selling reasonably well until NCAP decided to make a name for itself. Admittedly, sales were slowing in the face of more modern and significantly larger opposition, but the lines at Longbridge were turning a profit.

    From the days when AROnline could afford a star blogger.

    https://www.aronline.co.uk/ar-cars/essays-the-slightly-premature-euthanasia-of-the-final-bmc-saloon/

    And lets not forget NCAP celebrated its victory in killing small car production in the West Midlands. With the ceasing of the Micra and then Note in Nissan’s Washington plant, the UK no longer makes a small, affordable car. The Jazz in this photo comes from the far east, not Swindon as they previously did.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7IuBT7zUnA

    But its not like NCAP are inconsistent. Well unless you’re after a FIAT Panda.

  3. Odd that the deadly little Fiats and Renaults, with their state subsidies, could be kept going, while Rover had to stop making the 100, which actually looked a lot stronger and was still selling in reasonable numbers in 1997. Also I’d say the Citroen AX looked about as strong as a cardboard box.

  4. The end of knock on lock ? – it struck me the other day that Metros were the first BL front wheel drive that did not suffer drive shaft failure . In the 60″s and 70″s anyone who owned a mini or 1100 could experience “knock on lock ” followed by driveshaft failure . This is something we never here of these days . Why don”t driveshafts fail – has the design or materials used changed to eliminate this ?

    • I just suffered CV joint failure on a VW Polo. At 150000 miles, it didn’t owe me much. It also had the manners to fail at a location where I could push it downhill to my favourite service garage!

      • My approx eleven year old Escort became not worth repairing – because of the labour costs – along with the likelihood of other future problems – when a drive shaft oil seal started leaking. It had around 80,000 on the clock and good bodywork. My Golf – with relatively low mileage – was an economic write-off when another Golf came out of a side road and hit it. It was bought off the insurer, repaired and sold on. My 2007 Fox has 63xxx miles on the clock, and may well survive me.

  5. With so many front wheel drive models around now, I recall Honest John saying decades ago: if you have power steering – regardless of front or rear drive – never hold the steering wheel hard against left or right lock. Presumably because it could harm both the power steering drive and because it meant having the wheels hard over when not needed. After a Ford Escort, a VW Golf and now a VW Fox I have yet to have any steering or drive problems. The minis I drove in the 1960s have long since gone, but I do not recall knocks from them – nor from all the Series Land Rovers I drove, often in four-wheel-drive, in Africa and Australia.

    • Most PAS pumps have a valve that operates when a certain pressure is achieved, this is set to prevent it loading the steering system up at full-lock.
      At this pressure the pump starts recirculating the fluid within the pump rather than feeding it out into the steering system.
      This can’t be done for very long without the pump overheating and damaging its seals, hence the advice not to hold on full lock.

      MC&aHNY!

  6. To be fair a meaningful update would have probably made it closer to R6X, in other words the car it should have been to begin with (which would have probably lent itself much better to a meaningful update).

    Somewhat of a shame the Metro/100 was not built in other countries beyond stillborn plans in Indonesia (or Malaysia?), where up to a few years ago a number of its contemporary rivals were still being produced in South America, India, etc.

  7. It is easy to blame NCAP but I am afraid this is a very British failure. We have some of the lowest levels of R&D spending and investment in general, in the developed world. British owners don’t want to spend for the future, they sweat dated products and ancient tooling to squeeze out more profits this year, at the expense of years to come.

    The Metro is a classic example. The update at the beginning of the 90’s was a brilliant piece of shoestring engineering. Though some of the that was to do with them bodging the suspension with penny pinching when the Metro was launched in the early 80’s and merely putting that right.

    However by that time the Metro was already a generation behind. Rover needed a new small car on an updated platform. They didn’t get that. The reality is BAE systems ownership was a disaster that killed Rover.

    The K-series came from government money and the company became completely reliant on Honda tech. With each new car Rover contributed less and less than Honda to the design. Penny pinching and short termist ownership that eventually killed the company.

    • And today we have JLR phasing out the Land Rover Defender without an immediate replacement, despite knowing when its last production date was. And thus to lose the whole true utility market while producing fancier and fancier Range Rovers and Discoveries.

    • @bartbelbe:

      You make some good points about the reliance on Honda tech, etc.

      Linked to that, I often wonder whether for the MG Rover Group business a partial short term salvation to their limited (and ageing) product portfolio might have been obtained through a potential licensing agreement with their old sparring partner Honda to ‘Roverise’ the Honda Logo as a successor to the Rover Metro/100. After all, its sales were hardly meeting the expectations of Honda and it wasn’t a bad little car, even if it was rather bland and lacked a thorough engine line-up. For Rover Cars the supermini market was a sector they had previously excelled in.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if MG Rover Group’s directors had given this idea some thought back in 2000 when they first approached Honda with exploratory enquiries about extending the licensing agreement for the HHR 400/45 to include the recently discontinued estate bodystyle (Honda Civic Aerodeck). However, this route would have only further fueled a heavy reliance on their former partner.

      In reality, as history shows, Honda had no interest in offering any form of olive branch to their former partner, so the idea of a ‘Roverised’ Honda Logo on my part is only hypothetical at best.

      However, it remains an interesting ‘what if…” thought.

  8. As a panel beater in the motor trade I can tell you that crash test sent a shiver down all our spines. Especially as a colleague of mine owned one and used to give me a lift acasonally.. I never got in that car again. Check the footage carefully and you will notice the door skin peeled off. Imagine what’s left of the door opening beneath. None existent. Add to that, these horrid little cars used rot like crazy, making them even more dangerous! I’ve seen some reel horror stories. And on a lighter note,happy new year to you all.

    • I disagree that the Rover Metro was a rustbucket, it was far better protected against rust than the Austin Metro and better made. However, a car designed in the seventies and still on sale in 1997 was bound to have poor crash protection as the design was so old. Yet the Ford Fiesta persisted with a similar sized body for 25 years, but maybe Ford crash protection was far better.

      • The 1989 Fiesta was all new, so that the 1995 heavy facelift was using a much newer base than the Rover Metro had, especially with the elongated development schedule for the original Metro.

        Safety standards had progressed a lot in the early 90s too, the Rover Metro I assume was developed when this was less of a concern

  9. The 100 series may have had a local following and maintained steady sales in the UK but it was selling in tiny numbers abroad. Small cars have to succeed across multiple markets to achieve any profitability.

  10. What is intriguing is how the contemporary Ford Fiesta was also a car with similar roots dating back to the 1970s yet managed to be properly updated, enlarged and had a very long production run (even spawning many variants from the Ka, Puma, Ikon, Bantam/Courier plus Barchetta roadster concept) to the point of achieving better Euro NCAP ratings compared to the Metro/100.

    Aside from the MGF/TF to some extent, the MPV-esque Metro Scout concept, the 4-inch increase in wheelbase given to R6X (from 88.6-inches to 92.6-inches) prior to being abandoned (presumably allowing R6X to feature a 138-inch length over the existing 134-inch length) and the fact ADO88 was originally conceived as a much smaller car compared to the LC8/Metro/100.

    Surely the Metro/100 possessed similar potential to form the basis of a larger significantly safer supermini to the Ford Fiesta had the money been available, which allowed the latter to receive an additional 6.3-6.5-inches in the wheelbase for the mk3/mk4 compared to the 90-inch wheelbase in the mk1/mk2 (not to mention the other variants)?

    It would have also allowed the R3 200/25/ZR to grow much larger (particularly in the wheelbase) to face off against its C-segment rivals instead of being compromised as a result of trying to indirectly replace the Metro/100, at minimum the latter could have featured a 138-inch length (e.g. Citroen AX) with a 92.6-inch wheelbase (e.g. Fiat Uno) via later R6X like 4-inch increased in wheelbase up to a length of slightly under 142-inches (e.g. Peugeot 106, mk2 Honda City) with a wheelbase of 94.9-inches (e.g. mk3 VW Polo, 3-door Renault Supercinq) via the Ford Fiesta’s growth from mk2 to mk3.

    • I beg to differ. The Fiesta 3 was an all new design, engines aside, in 1988/89. Side impact protection was added around 1992 (for the K registration), and I never felt unsafe in mine in the 70,000 miles I covered in it.

      • Am basing it on both the BE-1 (76-89) and BE-2 (89-03 or 89-08/11) platforms coming under the Ford B platform umbrella, along with the fact Ford’s habit of penning pinching at the time (e.g. mk5 Ford Escort) meant the Mk3 Fiesta was reputedly originally planned to be based on the previous floorplan and wheelbase size due to Ford’s accountants, until there was push back by the design and development team in Cologne that argued for it to instead be on a longer wheelbase.

        Obviously the mk3/mk4 Fiesta was a very thoroughly developed evolution compared to the previous model (despite the penning pinching by Ford) that could be defined as all new (similar to the Nova and the Corsa despite both being derived from the GM4200 platform or the Citroen AX to the Citroen Saxo / Peugeot 106), am merely saying the Metro/100 could have evolved along similar lines into a safer and slightly larger Supermini compared to the existing R6 had the money been available.

        https://www.aronline.co.uk/history/the-rover-triumph-story/1980-1986/#comment-876456

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