The history of the Austin Metro


The Metro is a supermini car that was produced by the Austin Rover Group division of British Leyland and its successors. It was launched in 1980 as the Austin mini Metro. It was intended to complement the Mini, and was developed under the codename LC8.
During its 18-year lifespan, the Metro wore many names: Austin Metro, MG Metro and Rover Metro. It was re-badged as the Rover 100 series in 1994. There were also van versions known as the Morris Metro and later, Metrovan.
At the time of its launch, the Metro was sold as an Austin. From 1982, MG versions became available. From 1990 until its demise in 1994, the Metro was sold only as a Rover.
Although the new Rover 200 (introduced in 1995 and smaller than previous 200 models) had originally been designed as a replacement for the Metro, it was not marketed as such after its launch. A direct replacement in the supermini class did not arrive until 2004 with the CityRover. The Rover 100 was finally cancelled in 1998, ironically being out-lived (by two years) by the original Mini it was meant to replace.
On 8 October 1980, BL introduced the Austin mini Metro. It was intended as a big brother, rather than as a replacement, for the Mini, the earlier Mini replacement project, ADO88, having been replaced in late 1977 by a new project, LC8, for the development of a larger car which could compete more effectively with the successful superminis, such as the Ford Fiesta. Some of the Mini's underpinnings were carried over into the Metro, namely the 998 cc and 1275 cc A-Series engines, much of the front-wheel drivetrain and four-speed manual gearbox, and suspension subframes. The Metro used the Hydragas suspension system found on the Allegro but without front to rear interconnection. The hatchback body shell was one of the most spacious of its time and this was a significant factor in its popularity. Initially, the Metro was sold as a three-door hatchback.
The name was chosen through a ballot of BL employees. They were offered a choice of three names, Match, Maestro or Metro. Once the result was announced, the manufacturer of trains and buses, Metro Cammell, objected to the use of the Metro name by BL. The issue was resolved by BL promising to advertise the car only as the miniMetro.
At the time of its launch, the Metro was hailed as British Leyland's saviour, as the company was facing a serious financial crisis and there were fears that it could go out of business. British Leyland's troubles were largely attributed to out-of-date technology and design of most of its model range. The Mini, for example, had been in production for 21 years by the time of the Metro's launch. The Austin Allegro was seven years old and the Morris Ital was also launched in 1980 but was effectively a reworked version of the nine-year-old Morris Marina, and BL's latest all-new car was the 1976 Rover SD1.
One of the consequences was that there was enormous public interest in the car from well before its launch. The company chose to stage the launch presentations for dealers and major company car buyers on board a cruise ship, the MS Vistafjord. The news broke in the national newspapers a full year ahead of the public launch with The Sun, among others, carrying the story. It was finally revealed to the public on the press day of the British Motor Show with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher in attendance.
The Metro quickly proved popular with buyers, and during the early part of its production life it was the best selling mini-car in the UK, before being eclipsed by the updated Ford Fiesta. Its clever interior design made it spacious considering its dimensions, and Hydragas compensation gave surprisingly good ride and handling. Its updated A+ series 1.0 and 1.3L OHV engines hardly represented the cutting edge in performance, but they were strong on economy.
The Metro range was expanded in 1982 to include the Vanden Plas and MG versions. The Vanden Plas featured higher levels of luxury and equipment, while the slightly more powerful MG Metro 1.3 sold as a sports model (0-60 mph in 10.1 seconds, top speed 105 mph). The Vanden Plas variant received the same MG engine from 1984 onwards (with the exception of the VP Automatic, which retained the 63 bhp (47 kW) 1275 cc unit). The luxury fittings marking out the Metro Vanden Plas took the form of a radio-cassette player, electric front windows, an improved instrument panel with tachometer, and a variety of optional extras such as trip computer, leather trim, remote boot release, and front fog lamps.
The changes between the MG engine and the standard 1.3 were relatively minor, with modified cylinder head and altered cam profile being the major contributors to a modest increase in BHP. Soon afterwards, the MG Metro Turbo variant was released with a quoted bhp of 93, 0-60 mph in 8.9 seconds, and top speed of 115 mph (185 km/h). This model had a great many modifications over the normally aspirated MG model. Aside from the turbocharger and exhaust system itself, and what was (at the time) a relatively sophisticated boost delivery and control system, the MG Turbo variant incorporated stiffer suspension (purportedly with engineering input from Lotus), including a rear anti-rollbar plus uprated crankshaft and uprated gearbox.
Both MG variants were given a "sporty" interior with red seat belts, red carpets and a sports-style steering wheel. The later MG variants were emblazoned with the MG logo both inside and out, which only served to fuel claims of badge engineering from some of the more steadfast MG enthusiasts. Others believed that this sentiment was unfounded, particularly in the case of the turbo variant, due to the undeniably increased performance and handling when compared to the non-MG models. Indeed, at the time of its release, the MG Metro was the first in a succession of modern cars which heralded a spirited return of the MG marque after several years' absence of new MGs.
A mild facelift during 1985 saw some minor styling modifications to the Metro's front end, wider suspension subframes, along with a new dashboard design and the long-awaited 5-door version. This gave it a competitive edge over three-door only rivals like the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo, while guiding the Metro in the directions of the Peugeot 205, Fiat Uno, Seat Ibiza and Opel Corsa/Vauxhall Nova, all of which were available with five doors by this time.
A rear spoiler reduced drag coefficient to increase the Metro's already good fuel economy, and the hydraulic clutch (often berated as the cause of the Metro's particularly harsh gearchange) was replaced by a cable-operated mechanism. The lack of a 5-speed transmission would become a major handicap as time went on; the BMC sump-mounted gearbox was never developed to accommodate an extra gear ratio, which was a severe handicap against the opposition. The Hydragas suspension also gave the car a harsh, bouncy ride despite pleas from the system's inventor, Dr. Alex Moulton, that it should be interconnected front-to-rear as opposed to side-to-side at the rear only as was found on the production version.
While the Metro was a huge seller in the UK, it gained a reputation for unreliability and lacklustre build quality early in its career which dented its appeal in foreign markets, where the likes of the Volkswagen Polo, Fiat Uno and Peugeot 205 were firmly established favourites.
At the end of 1987, the Austin marque was shelved. The Austin badge was removed from the cars, which continued to be manufactured with no marque badge, just a model name badge. Rover management never allowed Rover badges on the Montego or the Maestro in their home market, although they were sometimes referred to as "Rovers" in the press and elsewhere. They wore badges that were the same shape as the Rover longship badge, but which did not say "Rover". The Metro did too until May 1990, when it was officially relaunched as the Rover Metro, heavily revised and fitted with a new range of engines.
The ageing 998 cc and 1275 cc A-Series engines - which had been in use since the late 1950s - gave way to the K-Series 8 valve engines and a 16 valve engine in the GTi (early variants were 95 bhp (71 kW) Spi & later Mpi version 103 bhp) and the early GTa. All models used bought in end-on Peugeot gearboxes. In 1993, a 1.4 PSA TUD diesel from the Citroen AX / Peugeot 106 was launched. The Hydragas suspension was finally modified to accept front to rear interconnection in the way that Alex Moulton so desperately wanted to bring the car back up to standard in terms of handling and ride quality.
A new bodyshell was designed, but cancelled by Chairman Graham Day, because British Aerospace (the then new owners) refused to fund it. A mockup could be seen at the Canley, Coventry design centre in the 1990s during open days. The basic bodyshell was retained, but was improved with the addition of new plastic front and rear bumpers, new front wings, new rear lights and bootlid, new front headlamps and bonnet. The interior was altered with a new rounded instrument binaccle and instruments, new steering wheel, new seats (from the successful Rover 200 series), new door casings and other detail improvements. General build quality, fit and finish was improved enormously from the old Metro.
Now badged as a Rover, the Metro's build quality, driving manners and reliability were so much improved that it was brought to the top of the supermini class, winning What Car "Car of The Year" in 1991. Throughout the early 1990s it competed quite effectively with more recent designs such as the Vauxhall Corsa, Peugeot 106 and Ford Fiesta. Sales were conceivably helped by the then fading perception of Rover as a 'premium' marque, and the fact that other premium manfacturers had not yet entered the supermini segment. This though was undermined by the all too obviously re-used 1970s designed bodyshell.
Latterly this car has attracted an enthusiastic following including use as a low-cost entry to motor racing. The basic just-over-100 bhp (70 kW) engine for the GTI can be boosted to over 130 hp (97 kW) at the flywheel. For ultimate performance the 1.8 K-series engine, with standard cams or VVC (Variable Valve Control) system can be fitted (these engines are found in the MGF and Lotus Elise sports cars, as well as various Rovers and MGs). The Metro currently holds the unusual title of eastern Europe's quickest front wheel drive drag car (Zastec tuning in Poland).
In the autumn of 1994, Rover scrapped the Metro nameplate, replacing it with a new name, Rover 100, which had been adopted on continental Europe on the Rover Metro's launch in 1990, due to the weakness of the Austin marque in Europe.
The mechanics of the car remained much the same with 1.1 and 1.4 petrol engines and Hydragas suspension, but there was now the option of a Peugeot-sourced 1.5 diesel. The exterior was altered to disguise the car's age, meet the increased cooling requirements of the Peugeot motor and offer a reduced-format Rover family grille. This was achieved through fitment of new front and rear bumpers, sill covers, rear boot handle and lamps headlamps, bonnet and grille.
A variety of bolder paint colours and the use of chrome trim helped give a more upmarket appearance. The interior trim was revised to give a greater impression of quality and luxury, but as there were no changes to the basic architecture it was considered by many as being short on space and outdated in comparison to its most modern rivals (most of which had been replaced with all-new models since the launch of the Rover Metro) It was criticised by the press for its lack of equipment, with front electric windows only available on the range topping 114 GSi. Rear electric windows were never an option on the 100. Neither were Anti-Lock Brakes, Power Steering or a rev counter (except the GTa and later manual 114 GSi models). One saving grace for the 100 was the option of full leather trim, a rarity in a small car and coupled with the standard wood veneer dashboard inserts, a tinted glass sunroof and the optional wood veneer door cappings, the 114 GSi made for traditional luxury motoring; an image Rover was trying to retain. The only safety efforts came in the form of an optional drivers airbag, an alarm, a passive engine imobiliser, a removable radio keypad, central locking and side intrusion beams. Overall, the 100 series was considered a rather typical facelift of a car which had been a class leader on launch but had now been overtaken by events.
A 'hot' version of the 100 called the 114 GTa was available from launch. The main differences over the 114 SLi 3 door was sports seats, red seatbelts, a rev counter, sports suspension, a slightly higher top speed, faster acceleration, GSi alloy wheels and GTa badging. It was only available as a 3-door.
Facing a complete collapse of sales, Rover withdrew the 100 from production in 1998. It marked the end of nearly 18 years of production, during which time the Metro had proved itself to be one of the most important British cars of all time.
There was no direct replacement for the Metro/100, although the 1995 Rover 200 had been developed inside Rover Cars to serve as a replacement for the 100 as well as the previous 200 model, which was slightly larger. The 100 and 200 were sold concurrently until 1998, when the former was cancelled. When the Rover 200 was facelifted in late 1999 and rebadged as the Rover 25, Rover marketed this as a supermini reflecting the continued, steady, growth of all car classes. The plan was for the both the 100 and the 25 to be on the market until the launch of the true replacement for the Metro in the shape of the MINI. However, BMW's sale of Rover put an end to those plans. BMW kept the MINI design and MG Rover's notional successor to the Metro was the Rover 25 and its MG ZR badge-engineered relative.
The gap left by the Metro as a true Rover supermini was not filled even in late 2003, when the CityRover was launched it was a 1.4 engined supermini built in India alongside the Tata Indica. This model was nowhere near as popular as the Metro or even the Rover 100, and was not included in the revived product range by Nanjing Automobile following MG Rover's bankruptcy in 2005.
Created for the short lived Group B race category, the 4WD mid engined MG 6R4 (6-cylinder, rally car, four-wheel-drive) Metro of 1984 was a world away from the best selling supermini to which it bore only a superficial cosmetic resemblance. The competition car effectively only shared the name of the production Metro as it featured a mid-mounted engine with four wheel drive transmission enclosed within a seam-welded tubular chassis. The development of this vehicle had been entrusted to Williams Grand Prix Engineering.
The resulting car was shown to the world in May 1985. It was powered by a David Wood designed bespoke 3-litre V6 powerplant which used some of the engine architecture of the Cosworth DFV. It featured twin overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder. The engine was a break from the norm, as it wasn't turbocharged as the majority of its competitors were. The engine was mounted back to front in the car, with the forward end of the engine facing the hatchback and the gearbox attached conventionally behind it and, therefore, in the middle of the vehicle. The four-wheel-drive was permanently engaged, and drove separate propshafts to the front and rear differentials. The rear differential was mounted on the side of the engine sump with one driveshaft running through the sump to the nearside rear wheel. Much of the outer bodywork was made of GRP, with the only exception being the roof panels (which were aluminium) and the steel doors. These were, however, concealed by plastic airboxes. Indeed, models now on show generally have stickers demonstrating where it is safe to push from when moving the vehicle, so as not to damage the bodywork.
The 6R4 appeared in two guises. There was a so-called Clubman model which was the road going version which developed in the region of 250 bhp (186 kW), of which around 200 were made and sold to the public for £40,000 (the homologation version). A further 20 were taken and built to International specifications which had a recorded output of over 410 bhp (306 kW; 416 PS)
The Metro remained one of Britain's most popular cars throughout its production life, even during its final year when it was among the oldest designs on sale in the country. During its early years the Austin Metro was Britain's most popular supermini, often outselling the Ford Fiesta. 1,370,000 Austin examples were sold in the first decade of production, over 100,000 a year.
This popularity endured in spite of the Metro failing to match the durability of key rivals, notably the Nissan Micra and Volkswagen Polo. This is illustrated well by the findings of Auto Express's 2006 survey which named the Metro as Britain's seventh most scrapped car. Just 21,468 were still in working order at the time of the survey, approximately 1.5% of all those registered.
Many Metros (particularly the pre-1990 Austin models) have been scrapped as a result of rust and corrosion. An equally large number of Metros were scrapped as a result of theft: Early Metros were notoriously easy to steal. Later Rover badged models however had better anti-theft equipment (including an engine immobiliser) which addressed this weakness.
Including the post-1994 Rover 100 Series models, a total of just under 1,500,000 Metros were sold in Britain in less than 20 years, making it the seventh most popular ever sold there.

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