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Metro must make it

25 August 1979

Metro Must Make It
Mark Snowdon, Director of Product Development at Austin-Morris talks to Jeremy Sinek about current and future model plans.

'Our product planning has been aimed at a scene in which the real price of petrol will steadily increase. We're going to have pressure for more miles per gallon, yet at the same time more comfort, just as much space as at present, as much or more performance, and a lot of emphasis will be placed on refinement and equipment levels. We've got to be in a position to supply those kind of gains, and it is trying to solve that kind of dichotomy that has been the emphasis in much of our product planning and engineering.

The conventional car size class divisions are beginning to breakdown more and more as cars become more difficult to classify. What's not breaking down is that customers will continue to demand choice, so what we have to do is produce relatively fewer basic models, but which cross class barriers, so that effectively you end up the customer more choice.

You could, for example, develop a model which starts off at the bottom end of the lower medium class, but by developing derivatives off the basic set of components and floorpan, provided you've set high enough standards for the basic model, you can then offer sporting derivatives and models which take you right up the range into the upper-medium and even into the executive class; we could, for example, see replacing the Princess with a derivative of a model which took us right down almost to Allegro size.

There are lots of other factors in the background as well, such as emissions and safety. We have been safety pacesetters with things like Triplex Ten Twenty glass, Denovo etc, and we expect to retain that as part of our character.

With the Metro, for example, we have put a lot of emphasis on crash impact characteristics, which are really extremely good. We think the new baby is going to be a very safe car indeed, better than the other cars in the class. That's not necessarily the biggest thing we'll emphasise at launch, because safety isn't box office. But economy is box office, and so to is refinement.
I think our products have got to achieve both those things relative to our competitors. I think we're going to be producing fewer cars than our competitors, so we must not take them head on, but sell slightly upmarket products with saleable advantages and a distinctive character.

We expect to cover the market from the bottom end of the small class to around the middle of the executive class, then hand over to Jaguar Rover Triumph, which is broadly similar to the present situation. We would undoubtedly do this with no more than three basic models, and it could even be two, depending which way the markets going.'

MOTOR - I asked if he had yet driven the Metro?

Mark Snowdon -We've been driving engineering prototypes for about two years, and now we're taking delivery from manufacturing of pre-production Metro's, even though we're not planning to launch the car until the autumn of 1980. For most companies that would be an unacceptable position, but for Austin Morris we feel we've got to accept it because, perhaps unjustifiably, we haven't the highest of reputations. Some people expect us to launch products which are not very good, on the basis that some of our past launches have not been as good as they ought. We can't afford this again, so we're taking the new philosophy of saying: 'lets not launch the car as early as we could in terms of normal development'. Having gone through the engineering prototype stage, we've said to manufacturing: 'you build a number of cars which will help you get through the inevitable pre-production manufacturing problems, then hand them over to us and we'll get through all the further engineering problems that are inevitable on pre-production, as opposed to prototype, cars.' And we'll do all that now instead of in 8-12 months time, so that when we launch the vehicle we'll virtually be launching a MK2 product, rather than a MK1.'

MOTOR - Will the Metro be, as has been suggested, as advanced in 1980 as the Mini was in 1959?

Mark Snowdon -' Not literally, for I doubt if ever again a product will be announced which will have the kind of revolutionary effect on the world industry that the Mini had. But it's going to be revolutionary in terms of competitiveness, for it will fulfil what I have already described as our future emphasis; of reconciling apparently opposing forces, of economy versus comfort and refinement.
The competitiveness starts out from basic design parameters like making the car bigger inside, yet smaller outside, than all its competitors. Despite the fact that it's shorter overall, the Metro's got a smaller frontal area, as well as a lower drag coefficient. It will take advantage of new materials and new technologies that are coming along. But perhaps the single most revolutionary aspect is the manufacturing, rather than the product itself. There will be a very high level of automation and a production technique that simply won't tolerate cars that are of inadequate quality; in effect a system that could turn into an extremely expensive scrap bailer, so the number of checks to ensure that does not happen are enormous. This is something that couldn’t have been done a few years ago without the growth of robotics and micro-processing technology.'

MOTOR - Will there be a high performance sporting version of the Metro?

Mark Snowdon -'Yes, we've got a lot of work going on down at Special Tuning on race/rally versions, and we'll relate the Sport version to them; it won't be a version simply called the Sport because it's got a stripe on the side. The term will be wholly appropiate.'

MOTOR - Engine rationalisation came into the conversation and I asked why the all new O-series engine should be produced when there already are two relatively modern overhead cam engines in BL, the E-series and the Dolomite slant-four?

Mark Snowdon -'We had to consider various questions. There was the relative cost of expanding production of an existing engine to achieve the necessary volume, compared to the cost of developing an all new one. And then the cost and difficulty of actually manufacturing the existing designs, which was high on the slant four, for example, and in product terms we wanted an engine that would go from 1.6 to 2 litres which disqualified the E-series as it could not be stretched that far. Of the compromises left, to design an all new engine that would cover the whole range looked to be the best alternative. With hindsight, I think it was an even better decision than it seemed at the time, as the 2 litre engine size in particular is going to get more and more important. The O-series engine could be increased in size, but we don’t see the need for that. The way we have developed the 2 litre in performance and economy terms, that'll be as big as we need to go, because we are trying to make the products lighter and more weight effective. At the other extreme it could go smaller still, down to 1.3, and still be reasonably cost effective, but I doubt very much if we'd ever want to do that.'

MOTOR- So are there plans for a sub-1.5 litre engine?

Mark Snowdon -'Yes, and they really start next year, with an engine closely related to the A-series, in 1.0 and 1.3 litre forms.'

MOTOR- Presumably with an overhead-cam cylinder head?

Mark Snowdon- 'No, it won't be overhead cam. We looked at a whole range of options, including a new engine, and various developments of the existing one. But you have to remember that although it's an old design, the ˜A' is actually better than a lot of the new engines on specific fuel consumption and torque at moderate rpm, which allows higher gearing. In some ways, high revving OHC small engines with good specifics at high revs but less good at low, are less relevant than when they were introduced a few years ago. We'll never get the absolute power out of the 'A' that we could with a new purpose designed engine, but it's difficult to see how we could get, by whatever route, an engine with better specifics throughout the rev range and better torque in the 1500-2500 rpm ranges, so we've concentrated on making those things even better, and on improving the refinement of the engine and gearbox. We've ended up with an engine that's substantially new but which has very much the same design philosophy as the A-series, with virtually complete interchangeability of parts. To achieve improved refinement a lot of emphasis has gone into installation, but there are a lot of noise sources, particularly in the gearbox, which we've been able to eliminate.'

MOTOR - Talking of gearboxes, why was the O-series engine designed to use the existing Princess four-speed, rather than going for the greater economy of the E-series five-speed box?

Mark Snowdon - 'The E-series gearbox isn't strong enough for a 2 litre engine or a heavier car, and in shift quality terms, it's not the gearbox on which we'd want to base our future strategy. It's a bit like the O-series engine question. In the past, given the choice between a compromise on existing units, or something radically new, BMC used to favour the first route, i.e making the best of what they had got and not spending to much money. We, however, tend to ask what we need to be fully competitive, and how we can get there, and if we can get there by developing existing units then that's fine, otherwise we've got to be prepared to face up to new approaches. We cannot expect to be a fully competitive car company in the eighties if we keep to the philosophies that were dominant in BMC in the late sixties and early seventies.

MOTOR - 'What is the future of a car like the Maxi, which is a superb concept but poorly executed by modern standards?

Mark Snowdon - 'We will always have cars of similar concept to the Maxi. The concept is a very good one, and we've got to execute it better, and we will, in two phases; one which is all new, and one which is.'

MOTOR - In the latter case will you, as do VW and GM, offer hatchback and notchback alternatives on the same basic body design?

Mark Snowdon 'We've got to rationalise our model range, yet still give people choice, and a hatchback is a very sensible choice to provide. You can do it with two separate cars in the market sector, or you can do it the way VW has with the Polo, offer the same car in hatch and notchback forms.'

MOTOR - Will all your models in the longer term be front wheel drive, or will there remain a place for a simple rear wheel drive design like the Marina?

Mark Snowdon - ' As far as Austin Morris is concerned there won't be a place for any rear wheel drive models. To make cars that are weight effective and package effective there's really no alternative to front wheel drive.'

MOTOR -' Is it true, as has been suggested, that the Mini still does not make a profit?

Mark Snowdon 'Working out model line profitability is not a straightforward question. It depends how you allocate a proportion of the company’s overheads to that model. If you just look at the direct costs of producing the vehicle, compared to its selling price, then the Mini is substantially profitable, making several hundred pounds per unit. By any normal commercial method of working it out, the Mini is profitable, but if you penalise it with a proportion of overheads related to its volume, then the profitability is very low. If you work out what the profitability of the company would be with and without the Mini, allowing for the facilities you could get rid of by not having it, then on that basis the Mini is profitable.'

MOTOR - Would you agree that the Mini is, in terms of the complexity of some of its components, an expensive way to build such a small car?

Mark Snowdon -'Yes, that is undoubtedly true. I think what's important is that despite its complexity, the Mini's refinement and ride are not better than those rivals with cheaper MacPherson strut suspension. But there'ss no doubt that using a subframe approach on a small car you can get better insulation than with a simple suspension, and if you're able to offer something more then it may well be worth paying the extra cost. In the case of the Mini that doesn't happen, but in the case of the Metro there are a number of design aspects where it is more sophisticated than other cars in its class. It is our very firm belief that this results in genuine advantages to the customer and people will want the Metro as a result.'

MOTOR - Do you see the Mini going on indefinitely, or can you forsee a time when tightening safety regulations, for example, might kill it off?

Mark Snowdon - 'In practice we've got a number of options. These include getting rid of it when it doesn't make a profit anymore, letting it carry on with only the changes necessary to meet legislation, or developing it further in concept to address what could be a new market sector. This could be a sub-Metro class, for cars which are very light and very economical. I think the way things are going, that is a realistic alternative.'

MOTOR - Is part of that dilemma the question of whether the Mini gets the engine/gearbox refinements developed for the Metro, or will that happen anyway?

Mark Snowdon -'That is being done anyway. The improved engine will be applicable to all the products that currently use the A-series engine. In fact it's quite likely we'll launch that engine in another product ahead of the Metro launch.'

MOTOR - Are you satisfied with the sales performance of the Marina and Allegro, which are usually both in the top five, if rarely right on top?

Mark Snowdon - 'We're not satisfied. They're in key areas of the market and a lot of peoples car buying patterns are heavily conditioned by the image they have of a company and its products. As Michael Edwardes once said: 'you have to see yourself as a rugby team; you're not just playing against the opposition, but against the whole grandstand.' Our image is improving but it can't happen overnight. As it grows, so will interest in the cars.'

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