Back in 2010, Autocar met with the Austin Metro’s designer and took a trip back to the early 80s – and even spotted a Metro with a boot…
In 1980, the UK nation was in the grip of Metro mania. That’s Austin miniMetro mania, the fevered desire to see, touch, talk about and even own this small, slightly apologetic-looking hatchback. No post-war car before or since - not the Mini, nor the Jaguar E-Type - has preoccupied this country quite like the Longbridge-built supermini.
Virtually every newspaper competition for the next couple of years offered Metros as prizes.
Lady Diana would drive one and tuners produced ever more extreme versions, the most impressive of which came from Aston Martin-linked Tickford. Forget the Cygnet.
Yet today, it’s damn hard to understand why when you inspect an early miniMetro such as you see here.
Apart from appearing miserably under-wheeled, bulbous of nose and suspiciously wimpish, it looks so ordinary. Many were sold in exactly the form you see here, as a modest 1.0 litre L, painted in Champagne Beige (a lot more beige than champagne) with a rather startling Paprika interior.
Confession: this car is mine. I bought it in 2008 from the Sussex verge where it sat with a £250 notice in its windows, paying £220.
With 26,000 miles, almost a year’s MoT and a frilliness of wing that was light for this corrosion-prone breed, it momentarily proved brain-fusingly irresistible. Nostalgia was poisoning my grip on reason, the sudden realisation that there aren’t many early Metros left (wonder why?) and happy memories of working for the company that made it prompting a foolish lunge for the cheque-book.
And today it has a mission. I’m going to drive it to meet its makers.
Not at Longbridge but at Gaydon, a former British Leyland proving ground once frequented by LC8 prototypes, as they were known. When we get there – if we get there - the Metro will be inspected by Harris Mann, former Austin-Morris chief designer and his colleague Roger Tucker, the pair key shapers of its British Steel bodywork. Gaydon’s Heritage Centre is also home to a little-seen prototype Metro-with-a-boot, though you’re likely to conclude that its minimal exposure has been a good thing.
Step into this Austin after a modern, and you’re struck by its unrelenting paprika-ness, which I rather like, and the incredible airiness of its cabin.
The slim-pillars are what do it, along with the absence of head restraints and an airbagless dashboard whose wide shelf presents a satisfyingly crisp, if sparse instrument set. But it’s also the Metro’s packaging that makes it feel spacious – this was the son of the Mini, its creators anxious that the ratio of interior space to exterior footprint was exceptional.
What strikes next is the effort of manoeuvring it.
No power steering here (nor clock, radio or rev counter), and swivelling the soft-feel rim (such luxury) takes grunt, especially as the column is at a Mini-like bus-drive angle. The 44bhp 1.0 litre A-Series engine, straight from the-then 21-year old Mini with updates, needs a thing called a choke to get it started, though it fires instantly.
You move off to a symphony of gears-in-the-sump whine, the Hydragas suspension less absorbent than you might hope for from a system of such theoretical sophistication, to enjoy the friendly urgings of the A series.
But it is not fast. Still, neither were its rivals, which were suddenly faced with a hot-seller. From the October 1980 launch Metro sales achieved a rate of climb BL hadn’t enjoyed since it launched 1976’s fabulous-but-flawed Rover SD1. But rather than knocking its competitors flat, the Metro boosted sales of all of them.
But why all the interest?
Well, if you or your parents are more than 52 years old, you or they paid for this car with tax. British Leyland was nationalised back then, a big, troubled employer riven with Red Robbo industrial relations strife while struggling to find the investment cash and engineering capability to produce a competitive car. So the whole country had an interest. More than that – though it seems hard to believe today – the Metro was eventually supposed to replace the Mini, which was a legend even in the ‘70s, rough ride, poor finish, noisiness or not.
Its successor would be the obsession of spy photographers across the land, who would chase any Longbridge-based, disguise-clad prototype for miles.
And we manage our miles to Gaydon, where on a table in the bowels of the Heritage Centre Harris Mann spills the contents of his sizeable portfolio.
We see an original, much better sketch for the Allegro. Photographs of the full-size clay for the Princess, renderings for the Triumph TR7 and a decidedly more appealing Maestro proposal. And many black-and-white images of the car that could have been the new Mini.
ADO88 was one of many attempts to replace it, and was philosophically true to the Issigonis car “so there was a wheel at each corner and minimum overhang", says Mann (pictured on the right).
“It was all about packaging. But it didn’t clinic [focus group] well, so it was modified to give the body more form.” The then cabal of endlessly changing BL management decided that the market research demanded this redesign but, explains Mann, some of the tooling had already been commissioned, “so we could only play around with sides and tailgate”.
As is the way with these things there was an internal competition to decide on the winning style, explains Roger Tucker.
He won the internal competition with his new sides for the car. “I cheated!” he says, explaining that although the redesign required that they stick to the exterior dimensions of ADO88, he added just over an inch to the car’s tail to allow the rear window more of a fastback rake, and added width to its waist to allow for some form in the sides.
“It gave the car a fuller, less flat-sided look, which is why it looked over-bodied,” says Mann.
The too-narrow track doubtless what lead US magazine Car and Driver to describe it as a “sorry little reconnaissance vehicle”. Mann remembers “saying something about the track - it looked awful. But engineering said we had to get it out”, the project already late because of the redesign. In fact, says Tucker, pointing to the unchanged, ADO88 sills, “it was nothing to do with extra width; it already had the problem”.
The delays were caused both by the redesign and production engineering director Harold Musgrove.
He “stopped it for six months to get quality right”, says Mann. “He could use the f-word in capitals. But he went for it – he hammered all departments to get the quality up to scratch.”
There’s no doubt that the Metro was a better built Austin.
Partly because of Musgrove and the monumental efforts of his colleagues, but also because the Metro’s shell was built on what was then one of the most advanced body shops in Europe. More than half the UK’s industrial robots lived at Longbridge when the Metro was launched, a fact much celebrated at the time.
Today, while venerated by diehards, the Metro risks becoming forgotten, in part because it’s so ordinary, now, and because the company that made it has largely disappeared. Yet without it BL and its descendants wouldn’t have survived another 25 years, and BMW (and Rover) probably wouldn’t have developed 2001’s replacement for the Mini.
The booted Metro
Codenamed AM1, this Metro “was not exactly serious”, says Harris Mann. “It was more of a look-see. David Browne [now of Coventry University’s industrial design course] and Anders Clausager [now at Jaguar Heritage] did one. There was never a model – a tape drawing was given to the prototype shop and they bashed something out.”
‘Bashed’ is the word.
This two-door, three-box Metro looked as unsexy as the VW Derby of the same period, its look suffering “for not enough curvature in the rear screen”, says Mann, adding that “they would have had to tool a new bodyside - hugely expensive”.
But new bodysides were developed for the Metro, including the five-door and the now-rare Cabriolet.
More exciting than either of these was the Group B Metro 6R4, a spectacularly ugly device that proved more successful in rallycross than the WRC.
Scroll through to see more pictures of the Metro, its origins, and offshoots.