Opinion : Debunking the ‘unsafe’ Metro urban myth

Austin Metro 1980

The Rover Metro/100 Series (R6) was about the most brilliant low-budget revamp of an existing model in automotive history – it really was extraordinary how the wide-track wishbone front end and the proper interconnection of the Hydragas transformed it.

Regarding the Euro NCAP safety scare which effectively caused the car to go out of production in 1997, I think it should be pointed out that the basic Austin Metro (above) of 1980 was actually ahead of the safety game by the standards of the day – it did get the Don Safety Trophy at launch because of its many safety features, such as the high sills interlocking with the doors and H-I split brakes.

Of course, 17 years later, things had moved along, though not always in a good way. Yes, an NCAP Five-Star car might be better in a 40mph shunt, but you are that much more likely to have a shunt because of the awful effect on vision of the tree-trunk A-pillars. And while you might survive a 40mph shunt, you wouldn’t necessarily survive a 45mph prang with 20% more kinetic energy to handle. These things are all relative…

You can thank the Safety Research Vehicle programme

British Leyland SRV5

You’ll see much of this work was a result of the Safety Research Vehicle programme. One of the key Engineers on the BL contribution was Jack Daniels, the guy who made Sir Alec Issigonis’s ideas work. It should perhaps be pointed out that the ‘pedestrian catcher’ (seriously, click the earlier link to understand what I mean) BMC 1100/1300 was built at the request of TRRL, and was really only intended as a ‘first approximation’ to see if the idea might work when tested with dummies. Had it been pursued, it would have been considerably refined!

Regarding the programme’s sill/door interlock, BL did in fact follow up the basic idea, but at much lower cost – if you look at the Metro (and 100 Series later) you will see that the deep sill and door base have a a ‘double step’ interlock profile which considerably increased the side impact strength without having to add any extra components or weight.

The idea carried across to Maestro and Montego. The Rover SD1 originally had compression struts in the doors just below the waistline, not for side impact protection but to provide a load path down the side of the car to help preserve the integrity of the cabin under front or rear impact. This is why the earlier cars had little metal buttons welded inside the door shuts, called ‘proximity pads’ which were positioned so that they contacted quickly during the initial impact crush to link the struts together. When the car had been in production for a while, and the bodyshell construction standards had been fully proven, it was found in impact tests that the struts weren’t needed, and they were deleted.

Rover 100

31 Comments

  1. I think that the Metro was no worse than any other car of this size of the era – problem was the market had moved on by 97 and the Metro had not – if you sat in it, it felt like a car from the previous generation even though the facelift was smart. My missus had an N plate model and although it drove brilliantly, it always felt old hat to sit in compared to my old Mk3 fiesta.

  2. There’s precious little evidence here to qualify dismissing the results of Euroncap as a “Myth”. I was well aware of the interlocking sills when the car was originally launched, but the Euroncap test completely blew any pretence that this car was offset crash worthy.

    Typically, Rover had kept a car in production for far too long and got properly and deservedly caught out this time.

  3. The answer to this can be found in your O-level physics books. Its good old F=1/2mv squared, the formula for kinetic energy.
    Plus the way the crash test were carried out.
    When Metro was crash tested in 1980 it went into a solid block at 30mph (51km/h) using it’s whole frontal structure to absorb the kinetic energy. When the Rover 100 was Euro NCAP’ed in 1997 the speed was 40mph (64km/h) into an offset block so the car was expected to absorb the increased energy using only the drivers side of its frontal structure.
    Assuming the mass (m) of the two cars was the same it’s the increase in velocity squared (v squared) that does the damage. The kinetic energy (F) at 40mph is 1.55 x the energy at 30mph. Add the offset crash and its hardly surprising the poor old Rover 100 collapsed like a paper bag.
    Of course the 100 was not the only car to suffer like this. Other old designs suffered the same fate.
    As would the other pre-Euro NCAP ‘classics’ from these pages that we know and love.

    So there’s no myth to debunk really. Sure, Metro had some good safety features and passed the old test on launch but Euro-NCAP showed just how far it had fallen behind the times.
    The real question is why was the same basic vehicle still in production after 17 years…

  4. I often wondered what the nobbly bits on the B pillars are on my SD1. I thought they were there to carry the body round the factory. Now I know!

    I recall the old Cinquecento scored as well at the Rover 100. I wonder if the potential rebody (was is 9X? I forget now) would have fared better.

  5. What other 1980 launched cars were still on sale in 1997? – I cant think of one. No matter how effective the Metros design was in 1980 its hardly surprising that when benchmarked against the latest super-mini designs it failed badly. The issue here is not that the Metro/100 failed the NCAP test, but what the hell it was still doing on sale in 1997 in such a competitive market, especially when Rover had already been under BMW’s wing for 3 years by then.

    • How about a 1938 design that was endorsed and funded by one of the worst figures in history, yet until 1978 was still on sale at your local Volkswagen dealer alongside the vastly better Golf and Polo? The dear old Beetle, with its extremely outdated design, lack of crash safety, performance and desirabillty could be yours until January 1978, when this sad old heap was pensioned off to Mexico. At least the Rover 100 was pleasant to drive and didn’t look like something the Gestapo would use.

      • Ironically the VW Type 2 van became a counterculture item, & even the Beetle has a “hippymobile” status. Don’t forget it was the Royal Engineers who really got the ball rolling.

        Another long runner, the Citroen 2CV was being dropped from sale in many countries during the 1980s because of it’s lack of crash protection.

      • Yes but that failure to invest almost killed VW. They were saved by revamping their range and basing it on the Golf, with a brand new water cooled engine. The rest is history.

        A car company won’t survive unless it invests and keeps up with the competition.

      • A different era though, when customers cared less about safety, and safety rules were far less stringent (and far more people died on the roads as a result)

        For years it was only the Swedes cared about safety, but when Vauxhall Cavalier adverts started promoting its safety features it was a sign of how much the marker had moved

      • Yes, there were plenty of 1950’s, 60’s and earlier designed cars that limped on for decades, but by the 90s customer demands and ever tighter legislative requirements limited vehicle life to 6/7 years with extensive facelifts in between. Also the Beetle ended up as a curio selling in a very specialist niche market (just like the original Mini – There I have remembered an old design still on sale in 1997!) and not a mainstream product selling in developed markets like the UK and mainland Europe.

    • In terms of platforms the Vauxhall Nova/Corsa (GM4200/GM4300 – plus other variants) and mk1-mk4 Fiesta (Ford B platform – plus Ka and Puma, etc) come to mind, though to be fair both Vauxhall and Ford were in a better position to thoroughly update both platforms (making them safer amongst other things) and then claim they were “clean-sheet” designs.

      Perhaps the R6X prototype could have been the company’s equivalent of the mk1 Vauxhall Corsa and mk3/mk4 Ford Fiesta in terms of contemporary NCAP safety had the money been available for the company to adopt a similar approach in thoroughly updating the LC8/R6 Metro platform?

      A closer equivalent that ceased production in 1994 would be the mk1/mk2 Volkswagen Polo, especially since the Metro itself was developed during the 1970s as well as the Citroen AX/Citroen Saxo and related Peugeot 106. Meanwhile both the Fiat Panda and Fiat Uno ceased production in 1995, while production of the Peugeot 205 stopped in 1996 before finally ceasing altogether in 1998.

      • The difference in the Fiesta and Metro was the structure above the platform. The Metro used the same substructure and just added new outer parts – the Mk3/4 was a new structure that was designed to take more vigorous crash testing. Although a platform may stay the same, the design of the structure attached to it can be redesigned to be lighter, stronger and also more crash resistant by adding crumble zones in the right places – the Metro was just a small rebody with new suspension and engine so it was no surprise it failed in 1997.

        • Indeed, which is why the company would have probably been better off choosing R6X over the lightly rebodied R6 in retrospect.

          It is interesting to note how the Fiesta/Ka from 1997-2000 achieved 3 stars for Adult occupant safety and 1 star for pedestrian safety (with the Metro/100 having a 2 star pedestrian rating – one star better than its Adult occupant rating), while the Corsa over 1997/2000/2002 went from 2 stars to 4 stars for Adult occupant safety yet achieving only 1 star for pedestrian safety.

          Another interesting aspect would be that while both the mk3 Volkswagen Polo and Volkswagen Lupo were derived from the 1983 mk2 Volkswagen Golf, the Polo in 1997 managed to achieve 3 stars in Adult occupant safety and 2 stars in pedestrian safety yet the Lupo in 2000 achieved 4 stars and 2 stars respectively. The Citroen Saxo in 2000 meanwhile only achieved 2 stars for both Adult occupant and Pedestrian safety.

        • Seem to recall the odd article or so highlighting the original Panda’s lack of safety even in markets where they were still a common sight.

  6. I was expecting this article to reveal some conspiracy against the Metro, instead it tells us nothing new.The reality is the Metro was a dated design by the mid-90’s and was found out by cash testing. It may have been a safe car by early 80’s standards but a decade later things had move on.

    The claim about thinner pillars being more important for safety than having a strong structure is frankly laughable. Visibility is worse with many modern cars but I would still trade a slight loss of visibility for a car than could survive an offset crash.

    As for the Metro facelift, it was a bodge, a brilliant bodge but still a bodge. The suspension was a massive improvement because the team behind the original Metro didn’t understand how hydrogas should work and ruined it through penny pinching. The facelift simply restored it to how it should have been in the first place. Updating the engine was the obvious thing to do, as was a five speed box.

    The failure to replace the Metro helped kill the company. It is no good blaming NCAP, the blame lies with Rover’s penny pinching owners, who sweated the assets and failed to invest. You can’t keep making dated cars forever, without getting caught out.

    • Driver vision past pillars etc, is subject to required legal standards on modern cars. You can’t cheat it. The skinny A posts on a Metro were simply a reflection of the standards required when it was homologated in the early 80s.

  7. Well, well, well ! It’s been a long, long time since I was here! But, I felt I had to comment on this –
    “The Rover Metro/100 Series (R6) was about the most brilliant low-budget revamp of an existing model in automotive history….”
    I suppose even in 1990, at launch of R6, the basic shell was already behind the times in terms of crash protection. However, I still very much agree with Ian’s comment. The mechanical changes were very significant, the refinement, the quality feel much, much greater. The styling changes were pretty much “top ‘n’ tail” but pleasing, effective. The fact it was still obviously a Metro, but a vastly improved one, added to it’s appeal I think. Ditto the interior – the basic dash structure obviously dated back to 1984, but the improvements were vast, clever. The seats were big car!
    Eventually the basic Metro structure became very apparent, certainly once it became the 100, but 1990 to, say, 1994 it was a great little car!

    • I would agree with that. The1990 reworking did rejuvenate the car on a budget – But these are the sort of “life-cycle impulses” that manufacturers do to keep something competitive for 2-3 years, not 7 and counting!

  8. This site is dangerously close to falling into the fanboy trap of thinking that The Company could do no wrong and that it was the fault of the rest of the universe that it failed time after time after time.

    Just about acceptable as it was in the early 80s, the Metro was hopelessly uncompetitive by ’97 and the crash performance was reprehensible; nothing of value was lost to the new car market when it finally went out of production. If people didn’t care about crash performance they were free to keep buying the things after the NCAP results became public of course.

    With the Rover 100 it’s tempting to fall into the trap of thinking it was good when in reality it was merely better than you’d expect given the starting point and budget. It would have been a fantastic product for 1988 – 1991 to keep sales going until a real replacement could be launched.

  9. ….and talking of things being around for years – the Citroen C15 van (based on Visa of the early/mid 80’s) appears to be in perpaturity – I know of at least four running around this part of Wlitshire, not as ‘classics’ but as everyday workhorses. With regards to the Metro – poor old BL – we do like to kick seven colours of poo out if it don’t we. Obviously, some of you were ‘there’, or involved or had access/contact with what was going on at the time – and those comments shine through the somewhat irrational and less knowledgable ones – and that’s what makes this such a great site! Merry Christmas to you all!

  10. its a late 70’ies design crash tested in the mid 90’ies. I would not have expected any other result. and I don’t care about the crash test, for me its a very good car.

  11. I think it also has to be appreciated that while the 100 generated volume it did not really generate profit. An upgrade to make it crash safe while technically possible (I’m told) was not financially viable. and the car was coming to the end of it’s competitive life (if not already past it)/ If it had been replaced by the bubble 200 then every one would have thought that the logical and sensible step and no one would have thought twice about it.

    Sub superminis were not really a viable market, and that is where the 100 was positioned. It was now too old, too small and too unsafe.

    The ideal time to let it go. The original design had served it’s purpose and the niche was no longer really there to be filled. Like the mini, keeping it in production and upgrading it didn’t really make sense as there was no great monies being generated.

    • Raedvdr’s point that the 100 would not have generated profit is very unlikely to be correct. About 50% of the overall cost of a car lies in its development costs and in the tooling . The material and labour costs of production are small in comparison, possibly 20% of the total, and marketing , selling etc probably accounts for another 20% . Thus the overall profit is perhaps 10% initially, but once the development costs are written off , the profit rises to 60% of revenue. This was the truth recognised almost from the outset by William Lyons at Jaguar, and its model longevity was what made it so profitable

      • OK perhaps I should have said profit margin. But the overall contribution it made to the ARG coffers was less than might be supposed from the raw sales numbers

  12. I drove an Avis rental 5 door hatch 100 in late 1996 in England and to me it was a much better riding and handling car than a 3 door hatch rental Corsa I drove in Ireland the year before. The 100 was less bouncy on B roads, felt comfortable on the M-1.

    • The first generation Corsa was one of the poorest cars I’ve ever driven. In 1 litre form, it was so underpowered the car struggled on the slightest hill, the interior was cheap and nasty, it was very noisy and had one of the tinniest and cheapest radio/cassettes I’ve ever heard. Also in three door form, it looked drab and miserable.

  13. My little 100 is brilliant to drive, even if the drivers side rear arm is a bit worse for wear… the hydragas system offers a brilliant ride and its peppy little 1100cc engine makes driving it a dream

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