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Austin Metro – Full Story

It’s 1975 and the newly created British Leyland Motor Corporation faces an enormous challenge.

Petrol prices are skyrocketing, and customers are rushing to buy fuel-economical small hatchbacks like the Fiat 127 and Renault 5.

British Leyland’s Mini which created this category way back in 1959, is showing its age. It’s too small and is much less practical.

Britain had just entered the Common Market, a forerunner to the European Union, and what British Leyland needs is a class-leading “supermini” of its own to take on the rest of Europe.

What it doesn’t have is the money to develop it.

It’s not like British Leyland hadn’t thought of updating the Mini before. Alec Issigonis, the creator of the original Mini had started the development of the 9X in 1967.

This was a car designed not only to be more practical with its hatchback tailgate but also simpler to manufacture, having less than half the individual parts of the original Mini.

It died under political decisions in the newly created British Leyland but showed there was plenty of room to improve on the original Mini.

British Leyland took another look at updating the Mini in 1972 with the ADO 74 concept.

This was to be a clean sheet replacement, using an all-new body, engine, and suspension.

Both marketing and management got behind this new project as they expected this new bigger car would deliver bigger profits.

But in the end, the project to make an all-new car was just too costly. British Leyland was hurtling towards bankruptcy and the £130M cost was just too much.

It was ironically killed off on the eve of the October 1973 oil crisis.

And so to the 1975 decision to green-light the supermini project once more. British Leyland took the lessons learned from ADO74 and applied them to the new clean-sheet design, ADO88.

This time the whole company was united in making sure the cost of the project didn’t spiral out of control. It was quickly decided to make do with the existing “A” series engine from the Mini.

Although an aging design from the 1940s, the A series showed it was still suitable for a modern supermini.

To improve it for the Metro, £30M was spent taking modifications from existing Mini MG and Cooper variants, while doing further improvements such as making it more rigid.

This made the engine more fuel economical and meant the engine could go longer before needing a service.

Another problem with the previous ADO74 project had been “feature creep”, each department adding their own requirements to the project until the car became a Frankenstein creation that didn’t satisfy anyone.

The team was committed to making sure the car didn’t grow in size, so it could hit the price point they were aiming for.

However, with the increasingly lengthening development period, it meant the car had to be constantly updated as competitors introduced newer and better superminis of their own.

ADO88 took an innovative approach to suspension, using the Hydragas system from the Austin Allegro.

Instead of conventional springs and dampers, the Metro used a ball of nitrogen gas and fluid to iron out the bumps in the road.

It was a great design, and at the Metro’s launch it gave the best suspension of all cars in its class, but it could have been so much better.

The Hydragas system was always designed the link the fluid from the front and rear suspension, giving a smoother ride, but this was removed due to cost-cutting.

The Metro would have to wait until 1990 until its suspension reached its true potential.

The original brief had been to create a smaller car than the competition with the same interior space.

With the innovative new suspension creating an open, airy interior, designers and management felt they were onto a winning vehicle.

But with British Leyland’s market share dropping, there was a sense of urgency to get ADO88 into production as soon as possible.

By 1978 the car was getting ready for production, but focus groups hated the design.

With British Leyland’s success riding on the new Mini is a hit, management brought in David Bache, who had recently styled the Rover SD1, to do a last-minute styling job.

In just 5 weeks he transformed a van-like design with straight sides and an almost vertical tailgate into the shape that launched.

The team also worked on upgrading the interior comforts to make it compete with the competition.

With so many changes, the codename changed to LC8, or Leyland Cars 8. Production geared up at a new £200M robotic assembly line at a new dedicated factory at Longbridge near Birmingham, and the car was rushed through another set of exhaustive tests to ensure it was ready for the public.

British Leyland employees were asked to choose the name and decided on “Metro”.

However, once the name was announced Metro Cammell, makers of trains and buses objected, meaning early Metro’s were badged as “Mini Metro”.

It was launched with much patriotic fanfare, promising “a British car to beat the world”.

The car was an immediate hit with the public.

It quickly became the best-selling supermini, with famous owners like the future Princess Diana being widely photographed in it.

By 1983 production hit a peak of 130,000 vehicles with only the Ford Escort and Sierra outselling it.

Fast forward to the mid-’80s and a replacement Metro was in the works.

Austin Rover, as British Leyland was now called, had been working on highly fuel-efficient cars using the ECV3 test program, and these ideas were used in the Metro replacement codenamed AR6.

The car was larger and would use the new K-series engine that was in development for the new Rover 200 series.

It was to have an all-aluminum shell to save weight and would have a much lower drag coefficient, helping produce a car with excellent fuel efficiency.

It failed to make it to market for the same reasons ADO74 failed, lack of money.

This was a complete redesign rumored in the order of £500M, and the Government didn’t want to give money to develop an all-new model when the recently released Maestro and Montego had been such a sales disappointment.

They were eyeing to sell Austin Rover, and investment in new vehicles wasn’t on their mind.

The Metro had received a minor facelift in 1984, but by the mid, to late 1980’s it was looking dated.

The steep angle of the steering column meant the car drove like a bus, and competitors like the Peugeot 205, Vauxhall Nova, and Ford Fiesta were roomier and drove better.

The gearbox couldn’t accommodate the 5th gear that was starting to appear in other superminis.

With only limited funds available the R6 program was started, which was an update to the car while keeping the same body.

It received the much-needed new K-series engine and a 5th gear, plus the Hydragas suspension was finally connected front to rear, producing much better handling.

Finally, the front of the car was lengthened to make the driving position more conventional.

And so, the marketers were given the job of selling the updated model. Since 1987 the Austin name had been dropped and the Metro was known simply as “Metro”.

For the 1990 R6 launch the marketers wanted something clearer, so went with the Rover Metro in the UK, and Rover 100 on the continent.

This cheapened the Rover brand somewhat but helped give the Metro a boost in prestige in the competitive supermini category.

The new model was well received by the press, heaping praise and awards on the diminutive car, and going on to win “What Car’s” “Car of the year” in 1991.

Despite being one of the smallest superminis on the market sales were strong, indeed stronger than Austin Rover had been expecting, and remained strong into the mid-’90s.

There were to be no more major updates to the Metro.

Management was eyeing the new Mini replacement which was to hit the roads in 1998 and felt the car could die a natural death.

In 1995 the Metro got another minor facelift, and another rebadging to make it the Rover 100 in line with the rest of Europe, but this update marked the beginning of the end.

The Metro had been lauded as having a high safety rating when it was launched in 1980, but despite gaining additional side protection and airbags cars had become much, much safer.

In 1997 the Metro received a disastrous 1-star rating in the Euro NCAP safety testing report, and this report made headlines in all the papers, calling the little car a death trap.

Sales dried up and the Metro production ended at the end of 1997, after 17 years.

Although it was designed as a replacement for the venerable Mini, the Mini ended up outlasting it by 3 years before being reborn by BMW.

However, the Metro can be seen as a great success.

Almost 1½M cars were sold, making it the 10th most popular car sold in the UK according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers.

It was likely the first car many people drove and will be fondly remembered for years to come.

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