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Austin Metro (1980 - 1991)

Last updated 3 April 2013

 
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Model Timeline

November 1974
Project ADO88 was started

The ADO88 was to use the A-Series engine and gearbox-in sump: the classic Mini arrangement, but variance was made on the suspension. Out went the Mini’s rubber cone springing medium and in came Hydragas, recently developed by Dr Alex Moulton for the Austin Allegro. Hydragas had distinct packaging advantages over the industry standard arrangement adopted by all the Metro’s rival manufacturers (and the 9X and ADO74 predecessors), lending more interior and under-bonnet space to the Metro.

This gave designers more freedom and resulted in a remarkably spacious and airy interior, for a car of such short length – Something that was inherited from the Mini and demanded above all else by Griffin. Unlike the Allegro, Metro’s Hydragas was interconnected side-to-side, not front to rear, which resulted in a compromised final product that although did the job, didn’t show off the system’s advantages as well as front-rear interconnection would have done. Speaking in 1987, Dr Alex Moulton, the father of Hydragas stated that Spen King wanted a more conventional suspension system on the Metro and so, Moulton was unable to develop the system thoroughly for the Metro, being constrained by cost and time. He was vindicated in 1990 when the world’s press saw just how capable the R6 (Rover) Metro was on front/rear interconnected Hydragas.

To be fair to Spen King though, BL’s market share was falling so rapidly, that everyone in the company must have felt compelled to rush the development of the car – and just get it into production – such was the sense of urgency.Work had been undertaken on the venerable A-Series engine, which had been in service powering various British Leyland cars since the 1940s. Round the time of the formation of British Leyland, a low-cost overhaul of the A-Series incorporating an Overhead Camshaft cylinder head (dubbed, unoriginally A-OHC) was being planned with a view to giving the smaller-engined cars in the group a badly needed fillip. What the engineers were up against hough, was a very thermally-efficient long-stroke, overhead valve engine which delivered impressive torque and most importantly, class-leading fuel economy.

Because the engineers could not develop the new engine to produce significantly better numbers, A-OHC was dropped. It was now clear that the government would not be giving the company unlimited cash reserves and so, the existing engine was left to soldier on for a while longer. Lessons learned from the A-OHC programme were, however, pressed into an even lower-cost and higher value project: A-Plus. This would prove to be the Metro’s sole power unit from 1980 through to its demise in 1991, but would still produce more than effective performance and economy figures when used in the car. Total cost of development: £30million.

Now the package was all-but finalized, David Bache, fresh from the successes of his World-beating SD-1 was brought in to oversee the final styling and production engineering of ADO88: the Metro was now entering the latter and drastically vital stages of development.

ADO88

ADO88 undergoing testing at Gaydon – this was a style that was never going to win the car any admirers…

January 1978
ADO88 becomes LC8

When Sir Michael Edwardes and the new Austin-Morris chief, Ray Horrocks looked at the ADO88 for the first time in January 1978, both realised immediately that it needed re-evaluation. It was too late in the development cycle to drastically change the car – luckily the basic concept was good – but disastrous customer clinic results were backing-up Edwardes and Horrocks own feelings that the concept of the ADO88 was too utilitarian when compared with sophisticated rivals like the Volkswagen Polo and the new Ford Fiesta. What potential customers in Paris and the UK were telling the marketing department in no uncertain terms was that the car looked too unsophisticated. Main points of contention were that the almost-vertical tailgate made it look too much like a small van and the flat sides of the car sadly backed-up this impression.

Thankfully, the Arrival of the new management and the very poor showing in Customer clinics were the catalyst needed to get the required changes made – and made quickly. Harris Mann along with Roger Tucker and Gordon Sked, overseen by David Bache were charged with giving the ADO88 an emergency re-style, which they managed successfully in Five weeks. At this point, the ADO88 project was renamed LC8 (for Leyland Cars), in order to tie the car in with the upcoming LC10 and LC11, but also to reflect the car’s changed focus.

That is not to underplay the significance of the metamorphosis from ADO88 to LC8. This was more than a simple panic-induced pre-launch facelift. What had been seen by potential customers at the Paris customer clinic as the prototype’s uncompromising shape led to every external panel being revised. This resulted in a more stylised and aerodynamic car – something more sophisticated had emerged. More definite and upmarket features were added, making it less of a Renault 4 rival and more of a ‘Supermini’ in line with the best of the continental rivals. A new nose and more aggressive front spoiler was added, chiselled sides echoing the SD1′s side swage lines were also incorporated and the tailgate angle was altered, being less upright – less van-like. The interior was upgraded and safety lessons from the ESV prototypes were incorporated. The LC8 was considered by Product planners to be different enough from the ADO88, that testing and development was practically re-started.

October 1980
Launch of the Austin Metro

Back in 1980, it seemed the whole of Britain was behind the Metro...

Back in 1980, it seemed the whole of Britain was behind the Metro…

Seen in this light, a development period of less than Three years from the inception of the LC8 to the launch of the Metro was remarkable indeed!

Cast your minds back, if you will, to 1980. A new decade had started, British Leyland was struggling with a range of elderly and, arguably, incompetent models, such as the Marina, Maxi and most unforgivably, the Allegro. A dearth of new cars had been the result of the lean years – nothing new had come from British Leyland since the Rover SD1 in 1976.

All press about British Leyland had been doom and gloom: factories had closed, jobs had been lost, Michael Edwardes was doing all he could to convince the new incumbent at Number Ten Downing Street not to close down the Operation for good. Imports were running at the highest ever level and against this backdrop was the open secret that a new and exciting car was on its way from British Leyland. The press had made great play about just how much Taxpayers’ money (£275 million) had gone into the development of this car and the overhaul of Longbridge, the factory the Metro was to be built in.

Unfortunately BL would still have to fight a running battle with the Combined BL Shop Stewards Committee, the unofficial body that claimed to represent the BL work force. This organisation was still smarting over the dismissal of its former leader, Derek Robinson and its defeat in August 1980 over the imposition of new working practices which included the acceptance of mobility of labour.

On 2 October 1980, 500 workers walked out when a rectifier refused to be moved to the assembly line. The dispute arose out of moves to increase production from the existing 1500 Metros a week to more than 2000. A second trim and rectification line had just been started, necessitating the movement of some workers. The dispute was quickly resolved, but it showed how fragile industrial relations were at the time.

Sir Michael Edwardes with the new Austin MiniMetro at the launch in October 1980.

Sir Michael Edwardes with the new Austin MiniMetro at the launch in October 1980.

Friday 8 October 1980 was the day that the Austin MiniMetro (to give the car its full but short-lived title) was launched amidst scenes of flag-waving and a swelling of National Pride. Much was already known about the upcoming car and it was possibly the worst kept secret ever that a new, small BL car was on its way. People finally had a modern and efficient British Car that they could buy – and not feel they needed to justify buying on grounds of patriotism. As CAR Magazine was oft quoted as saying: ‘At last a British Car that no-one needs apologise for’. Adverts ran on National Television showing the Metro scaring off freighter-loads of foreign Superminis – and sending them away whence they came.

Shown to the Public for the first time at the NEC Motor show in Birmingham, the Metro was available in 998cc and 1275cc versions of the A-Plus engine. Metro was initially available in a plethora of trim variations, ranging from 1.0 Basic model to the 1.3HLS model. Most attention was drawn to the High Economy 1.0HLE model, which was claimed to be the most economical car Europe in flag-waving adverts. Much play was made of the 83MPG fuel consumption figure that the AA had achieved in steady-speed tests on the HLE – read the small print and this amazing figure was achieved at a steady 30mph, not really related to real life driving.

BL was understandably proud of the interior packaging of the Metro and the practicality is evident when looking at the seat fold permutations of the hatchback. The sectioned Metro shows interior room in a favourable light and it should be noted that in this shot, the front seats have not been pulled fully forwards to create the impression of rear room!

BL was understandably proud of the interior packaging of the Metro and the practicality is evident when looking at the seat fold permutations of the hatchback. The sectioned Metro shows interior room in a favourable light and it should be noted that in this shot, the front seats have not been pulled fully forwards to create the impression of rear room!

There were lots of clever design features in the Metro, competitive interior space, good use of what space available, well-designed interior features, good quality textures, and a quirky, but contemporary exterior. What this all meant was that British Leyland had produced, probably the best and optimum package with the base materials to hand.

Road testers soon heaped praise on the car, rating it as good, if not better than the current state of the small car art, the Ford Fiesta. There were comments that maybe the Metro wasn’t the huge leap forward in car evolution the original Mini was, but no-one, least of all British Leyland themselves would have been able to serve up such a car at that time. Small car development was still very much in its infancy, buyers were still only reluctantly downsizing, as a result of the Second Fuel crisis of 1979. What was good news for British Leyland was that the Metro was an instant sales success (unlike the Mini), fighting tooth and nail with the Ford Fiesta on the British Market Place and winning new sales for the British company. All was looking good as market share started to make signs of recovery after the decline of the 1970s.

By the end of October 1980, BL was looking at turning the Longbridge plant entirely over to Mini and Metro production. The decision was made to produce the forthcoming LC10 at Cowley, and by axing the Allegro, which was produced in CAB 2 at a disappointing rate 1200 cars per week; this would free up capacity to produce 8000 Metros a week. At launch, demand for the Metro was insatiable and with weekly production now at 2500 and still working up, this was not enough.

Memorable Metro advert from 1980 - this warm glow wasn't to last, sadly... (Picture: BMIHT)

Memorable Metro advert from 1980 – this warm glow wasn’t to last, sadly… (Picture: BMIHT)

Initial unease with the Metro started immediately after the ‘Honeymoon Period’ of late 1980 and early 1981. Problems centred on poor build quality, resulting in reliability issues, all too familiar to owners of other products of the British Leyland stable. The Metro suffered from carburettor maladies, poor starting, dealer apathy and it was not long before these stories started getting into the press.

Although warranty claims were running at high levels, the sheen of the new car was only slightly dented. What differentiated the Metro from its poorly built predecessors, assembly workers as well as management wanted the new car to succeed and, so along with ongoing development, build quality improved rapidly and as a result, the reliability of the car improved, accordingly.

Production under way at Longbridge: A great deal of the Metro's £275 million pound development costs were invested in Robotising the assembly line. Build quality was a step forward from Allegro, but sadly, still slightly behind some of the car's continental rivals

Production under way at Longbridge: A great deal of the Metro’s £275 million pound development costs were invested in Robotising the assembly line. Build quality was a step forward from Allegro, but sadly, still slightly behind some of the car’s continental rivals

July 1981
BL admitted it was developing a high performance Metro

On 26 July 1981, BL admitted it was developing a performance model of the Metro, but what form it would take was not revealed. The next disruption to Metro production did not come until the November 1981 BL pay dispute, when Longbridge was surrounded by 2000 pickets. However the strike collapsed after two days and production was soon back to normal. Unfortunately, this was rapidly followed by the ‘tea break’ strike which halted Mini and Metro production after 2200 men walked out and stayed out for four weeks which cost some 24,000 vehicles in lost production, most of them Metros.

May 1982
MG Metro was launched

Further Metro development was limited to running changes to the car, May 1982 brought the warmed-over MG 1300 model, harking back to the 1960s and 1970s practice of Badge Engineering. This theme was also extended to a Turbo version of the MG Metro in October 1982, the forced-aspiration installation being handled by Lotus, and both MG models did sell reasonably well, not so much hampered by the ‘Essex Boy’ image as Ford’s hot-rod XR range of cars.

In line with the rest of the Austin-Rover range (as it was called by now) a top-of-the-range Vanden Plas model was brought-in, resplendent with strips of wood, thick Wilton carpeting and luxurious velour (or optionally, leather) upholstery. This addition to the Metro range was a far cry from traditional Vanden Plas cars of pre-war years, but it was an effective answer to Ford’s range of Ghia-badged luxury versions.

1983 Proved to be the Metro’s best year of all with 180,763 emerging from the Longbridge plant. In February that year it was Britain’s best selling car and to mark this important news, on March 10th Metro production was halted by a walkout of 200 storemen in protest at works police searching the houses of two of their colleagues in a search for stolen parts. They were joined later by another 150 men.

Late 5-door model shows how detailing on the car's styling was tidied up. The picture also the effectiveness of the addition of two extra rear doors in the 1984 facelift – the look remained fairly well balanced, it certainly looked no worse than the 3-door model, not a bad achievement when you think that the 5-door model was not part of the original design programme.

Late 5-door model shows how detailing on the car’s styling was tidied up. The picture also the effectiveness of the addition of two extra rear doors in the 1984 facelift – the look remained fairly well balanced, it certainly looked no worse than the 3-door model, not a bad achievement when you think that the 5-door model was not part of the original design programme.

The HLE, high economy model was further developed, Austin-Rover being locked in a battle with Renault and its 5GTL to produce ‘Europe’s Most Economical car’. The ’83 version of the HLE was to have and MG-style rear aerodynamic spoiler and engine/gearbox modifications. The optimum A-Plus engine was the 1275cc version, so unlike the original economy model, this engine was used with a higher final drive on the gearbox – obviously, a 5-speed gearbox would have been used if the company had an existing one that could fit in the A-Series sump (as there was no money to develop such an item).

October 1984
Five-door Metros and the first facelift were unveiled

Limited development in the face of the onslaught of ‘Second Generation’ small cars would sum up the Metro’s life. Newly-installed design chief Roy Axe tweaked the styling of Early Metro, widening the track, lowering the suspension slightly – ‘toughening’ the car’s stance.

1984 Brought the arrival of a tidied-up facelift version, further tweaked by Roy Axe, a Five-door model (on the same wheelbase) was introduced, but no significant mechanical changed were made. Metro remained obstinately A-Plus powered and no alternative five-speed gearbox was offered: Lack of cash in the company was to blame for this – Metro’s in-sump gearbox would have to remain – and remain it did until 1990.

In April 1984 the Metro was once again Britain’s best selling car, and in May Longbridge was once again at a standstill due to a ten day strike followed by another six day stoppage in early June. The Mk2 Metro referred to above appeared in October 1984, but production at Longbridge was once again halted for 16 days during the November 1984 pay dispute, the final big showdown with the combined BL shop stewards committee, which resulted in a decisive victory for Austin Rover chairman Harold Musgrove.

After this, the Metro was the recipient of a running programme of development. These unseen revisions never amounted to anything major, just small adjustments to the car. Such improvements made through the car’s life by the production engineers were not merely cosmetic; the suspension was developed, dropping the secondary dampers to improve ride consistency, early on in the car’s life.

The driveline was also tuned in order to alleviate some of the snatchiness and clutch judder that the Metro was notorious for – it was only partially successful. The build quality did improve year on year, as did the equipment level, but these changes kept the Metro at a merely competent level – and unavoidably it did fall behind class standards. In August 1985 Austin Rover announced it would be cutting back on production because of the vicious price cutting war then going on. In the case of the Metro, weekly production was cut back from 4100 to 3700, an admission that the car had lost its sales appeal.

Another fascinating could-have-been, this Metro pickup remained a one-off... (Picture: Reed Business Information)

Another fascinating could-have-been, this Metro pickup remained a one-off… (Picture: Reed Business Information)

Serious work on a replacement for the Metro centred on the radical new K-Series engine, which was under development, and a larger, more contemporary car was taking shape in the background. Various proposals were investigated, many lessons being learned by the project ECV3: Light weight, aerodynamic detailing such as flush glazing and an interesting and highly efficient Three Cylinder powerplant. As time progressed and with less and less cash being made available by the Government to Austin-Rover, the cost option began to favour a revision of one of Partner Honda’s small models, probably the Civic or City/Jazz – something that Honda was simply not keen on.

Engineering the new car took an interesting turn when Dr Alex Moulton, the former BMC suspension guru and working in retirement presented the Rover Group’s management his own ‘hacked’ Metro with front-rear suspension interconnection. The difference between this and the production version was marked and profound. The level of this car’s ride/handling excellence helped tip the balance in favour of a radically facelifted Metro, as opposed to a far more costly ‘wheels-up’ replacement, which frankly, Rover could not afford. By 1987, the die was cast: a further revision of Metro with a K-Series engine and re-developed Hydragas suspension. This project was dubbed R6, and eventually appeared in 1990 as the Rover Metro/100 series.

No further changes were made to the Metro after the 1984 facelift, apart from minor marketing-led ones. Sales started to slide; General Motors and Ford divided the company car cake between themselves in the small car market. Private buyers began to see the Metro as a product from a bygone era and sales slid year on year. By 1989, Metro’s market share was down to 4.31% from the high of 7.34% in 1983.

What people should never forget though, is that the Metro was a very popular car and it is no exaggeration to say that this car above all others of the 1980s was responsible for Austin-Rover staying in business, helping offset a wholesale collapse of market share in the face of the failure of the mid-market Maestro and Montego models.

November 1986, and the millionth Metro comes off the line at Longbridge. (Picture: Peter Melville)

November 1986, and the millionth Metro comes off the line at Longbridge. (Picture: Peter Melville)

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