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A British Car to Beat the World: 40 years of the Metro

by Craig Cheetham
30 July 2020 6 min read
A British Car to Beat the World: 40 years of the Metro
Photos: Craig Cheetham / BL Ltd

In 1980, a young 19-year old woman stepped out of her flat in London’s Earls Court and, like millions of other drivers that morning, walked towards her car. Parked at the side of the road, the Austin Metro was the car of the moment and still a rare sight. It put a skip in its driver’s step, with burgundy-red paint finished with a pair of white coachstripes, and although its L specification wasn’t the top-of-the-range trim, the driver wasn’t fussed. After all, the Metro had been gifted to her by her boyfriend, the Prince of Wales.

Diana Spencer put the key in the lock, opened the door, climbed in, pulled out the choke lever and started the engine. Photographers surrounded the little Metro, catching her every move, smile and hand gesture. Then she dipped the clutch, selected first gear and promptly stalled.

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The paparazzi loved it. She flashed another winning smile, then set off for work at the Young England kindergarten, in London’s upmarket Pimlico.

That particular Metro became known as the courting car. And its association with Diana and Charles was quite possibly the greatest PR coup Leyland Cars had ever scored. That’s probably why it feels like only yesterday – yet it was forty years ago that the successor to the Mini first took to Britain’s roads.

Lady Diana Spencer with Austin mini Metro_Hagerty
A 19-year old Lady Diana Spencer gets into her new Austin miniMetro, in late 1980

Born to fend off an increasingly strong European threat to the British Car Industry and to drag Leyland Cars into the modern age, the humble Austin miniMetro (to give it it’s official name) enjoyed a production run of 18 years, during which it underwent three name changes and four facelifts to remain a constant best-seller in the UK’s sales charts.

It was eventually killed off – by now known as the Rover 100 – following a high profile and alarming performance in Euro NCAP crash-safety tests, but not before it had wormed its way into the affections of millions of British owners. Here, on its 40th birthday, Hagerty raises a glass to what was once BL’s Great White Hope.

During its development in the late ’70s, the Metro was known as ‘Leyland Cars 8’ or LC8 project. At the time, the company was in public ownership and the new supermini was considered critical as a way return the company to private ownership.

That goal partly explains why Leyland Cars never went ahead and developed other models including the Rover SD1 estate, Metro saloon and a properly facelifted Allegro. Such projects were cancelled to divert resources into ensuring the Metro hatchback would be a success.

Austin advertising for the new Metro_Hagerty

The first spy shots of the Metro appeared in CAR Magazine in 1976, but following a number of customer clinics and some negative feedback from the spy shots, a hugely expensive and very hasty restyle was called for, wiping out funds for other projects.

Fresh faces were brought into the styling team under the leadership of David Bache, who styled the Rover SD1, though much of the Metro’s final appearance was the work of Allegro designer Harris Mann. The new look was more balanced, with a modern slanted nose, compact yet smart dimensions and distinctive swage lines and a styling ‘scallop’ in the bonnet. The latter, depending on who you believe, was added after Bache dictated that the car be made 1.5 inches wider, as it was the easiest way to accommodate the additional breadth into tooling that had already been partly commissioned.

At its debut in October 1980, the Metro was a breath of fresh air. Remember, this was a time when drivers could still buy a new Maxi. The Mini we’ll forgive for its cuteness, but the larger hatchback was uncompromisingly outdated when you consider that – towards the end – it was a rival to the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk 2.

The Metro, though, was a bright new dawn. It retained BL’s trademark Hydragas suspension, front-wheel-drive and bus-like steering wheel but the cabin was spacious and well laid-out. With money being tight, many of the controls were pulled from the BL parts bin, but it still managed to be fresh and modern. There were also some neat design touches such as a parcel shelf that stowed away into the seat back when not required. It also had class-leading boot space and surprisingly nippy performance, especially if you pushed the boat out for the 1,275cc 1.3 ’S’, later accompanied by the MG Metro. The MG, introduced in 1983, was much of the same, but with added red seatbelts and side graphics. If you wanted to terrify yourself properly there was even a turbo version. This was the ’80s, after all…

In 1981, the Metro won a Design Council award and was billed as Car of the Year by all of the major British automotive media, making it probably the most successful British car launch to date. It was flying out of dealerships like toilet roll ahead of a national lockdown.

Austin Metro interior and dashboard_40 years of the Metro_Hagerty

At the same time, with the mainstream Metro (the ‘mini’ badging disappeared soon after launch) going great guns and the dealer network thanking BL for finally giving them something they didn’t have to apologise for selling, we got the Metro Vanden Plas – a poshed-up Metro with walnut door cappings and sumptuous velour (or optional leather) trim. The Holy Grail of Metro ownership is the all-black Metro Vanden Plas 500, which was super-posh and even came with a bottle of champagne and, in the days before GDPR regulation was on anyone’s mind, a press release to the local newspapers and radio stations to tell them you’d bought one.

The pace of progress in the Eighties was rapid in the car industry, though. By 1984, the Metro was already getting a facelift, with a new five-door option, plastic body-coloured bumpers on higher spec models, different ‘metric’ wheels (which would go on to become a headache for tyre suppliers and owners everywhere) and a revised cabin, ensuring that the little car would remain competitive for the rest of the decade. The new dashboard was especially welcome as it did away with the Seventies parts-bin bits that were a criticism of the original. It also formed the dashboard for the MCW MetroCab, the new taxi for the 1980s that was related to the Metro in nothing but name and shared switchgear.

Millionth Metro to be built
Austin publicity stunt with Terry Wogan and Sue Cook in 1986 marking the millionth Metro

Metro continued to sell well but by the late Eighties it was losing its grip. Newcomers such as the Fiat Uno and Renault 5 Supercinq, not to mention the wonderful Peugeot 205, did things the Metro did that little bit better. It was enough to make the Metro cry – quite literally, as tear-shaped rust stripes started to adorn the front wings of almost every example thanks to an inherent rot trap.

Then there were the politics. Leyland became Austin-Rover, and by 1988 was ready to be sold into private ownership once again. The lucky benefactor was British Aerospace, whose masterplan was to ditch the Austin brand altogether and relaunch ‘Rover Group’ as a premium brand – something it believed it had the capacity to do thanks to the soon-to-come (and utterly brilliant) 200 ‘R8’.

For two years, Metro sat awkwardly with no brand behind it. You could go into your local Rover dealership and buy one, but it was badged simply as ‘Metro’ as it wasn’t considered posh enough to be a Rover. Nothing like giving customers confidence in your product.

The Rover 100 updated from the Austin Metro_40 years of the Metro_Hagerty

All that changed, though, when the ‘new’ Rover Metro came along in 1990. It was billed as an all-new car, with much made of its K-Series engine (which powered many a Caterham Seven, although not the record-breaking JPE) and its shift upmarket, but in reality the Metro still used the same bodyshell as the very first model, which had appeared 10 years earlier. The glass and door frames were the same, too, as was the roof panel and inner tailgate structure.

The suspension was basically the same, but there was a crucial improvement. The Hydragas units were finally interconnected front to rear, as had been originally planned a decade before but dropped on cost grounds. This actually made the Metro class-competitive in terms of ride and handling once again.

Interior and dashboard of the Rover 100_40 years of the Metro_Hagerty

Amid this, there were some gems. The GTA and GTi models were great fun, especially the 16-valve GTi, which surprised many a hot hatch driver with its peppy performance. Yet again, the Metro won awards, though it was arguable that by 1990 this had as much to do with the car’s abilities as it did the generous marketing budget and PR department’s expense account. Despite its improvements it was still inferior to modern contemporaries such as the Renault Clio.

By 1993 there was a revolution in the supermini market which gave motorists the Fiat Punto, the Vauxhall Corsa, a new British-built Micra and a posh new Polo. The Metro’s resurgence was short-lived, and no amount of special editions such as the ‘Rio’, ‘Tahiti’, ‘Nightfire’ and ‘Quest’ were enough to bring buyers to showrooms.

The final revisions came in 1995, when the Metro name was dropped and the car became known as the Rover 100 to fall in-line with the rest of the company’s naming strategy. But by then it was both an anachronism and a bit of a joke. Who can forget Alan Partridge’s riposte when asked why he was driving a miniMetro: “They rebadged it, you fool!”

Rover tried its hardest, capitalising on its more traditional customers who were loyal to the brand or perhaps downsizing from bigger Rovers to match their new pension-pot income. Posh ‘special editions’ that were essentially part of the range, such as the Knightsbridge and Kensington, gave it sufficient showroom appeal to keep the Daily Mail heartland happy.

However, the writing was already on the wall when the Rover 100 was slammed into it at 30mph. The resultant carnage gave Rover the worst ever Euro NCAP crash-safety rating and put the willies up customers, including some who’d laid down a deposit.

It was 1998 and the Metro story came to an abrupt end after Rover Group agreed to stop production – an ignominious end for what was once arguably the best British car ever made.

Today, though, the Metro enjoys a cult following, especially among younger car enthusiasts. Many members of the Metro Owners Club are considerably younger than their cars and the model enjoys a great social scene and a strong presence on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – something that the car’s creators could never have foretold, but ought to be proud of.

For despite its shortfalls in later life, the Metro really was a British car to beat the world – one that came with the Royal seal of approval.

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  • Colin Corke says:

    LC10 was the Maestro not the Metro that was LC8 MG Metro launched May 1982 not 1983, Maxi out of production and old stock by the time J Car Cavalier was launched, MG Metro did not replace 1.3S the two models ran alongside each other and the 1.3S became 1.3HL, metric wheels for 84 model year not 1985…..well written with some dodgy facts!

    • James Mills says:

      Well spotted, Colin. And thank you for pointing it out. A slip of the mind in amongst Austin’s internal codenames. Glad you enjoyed the story, though, and always good to see the Metro celebrated.

  • Peter Palmer says:

    As you rightly say, the Metro was intended as a replacement for the Mini range. It speaks volumes that Mini production carried on for a couple of years or so after Metro production ceased.

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