What made Donn name a small, in­nocu­ous Bri­tish hatch­back as Car of the Year 25 years ago?

New Zealand Classic Car - - Motorman -

Some lo­cal mo­tor-in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives must have thought I’d taken leave of my senses in 1990 when I reck­oned the Rover 100 was the best new model of the year. At a time when the pop­u­lar­ity of Bri­tish cars was wan­ing and Ja­panese makes were hog­ging the lo­cal mar­ket, the prospect of a low-vol­ume su­per­mini be­ing some sort of star seemed un­likely.

Be­sides, Bri­tish Ley­land–bash­ing was in vogue, and not with­out rea­son. Af­ter a string of dis­as­ters, what made such a mod­est-look­ing Rover-badged baby so spe­cial? Was it that dif­fer­ent from its pre­de­ces­sor or sim­ply a re­hash of the 10-year-old Austin Metro?

Well, yes, the 100 se­ries might not have looked a whole lot dif­fer­ent, but here was a new breed of an­i­mal that set a ’90s bench­mark for small cars. The 100 was al­most to­tally re-en­gi­neered into a re­mark­able compact hatch­back that re­de­fined class stan­dards, com­bin­ing lev­els of ex­cel­lence in ride, han­dling, com­fort, and per­for­mance that made it the car to beat in the sub-1.4-litre cat­e­gory.

First gen­er­a­tion

New Zealan­ders had been able to buy the first-gen­er­a­tion Metro for five years, but the car was late in com­ing here. Launched to great fan­fare in Bri­tain in Oc­to­ber 1980, the Austin Mini Metro, as it was called ini­tially be­fore the Mini nomen­cla­ture was dropped, was ap­plauded as a Bri­tish car to beat the world.

His­tory would prove oth­er­wise, and while it was a best­seller on home turf dur­ing the early years — with sales peak­ing in 1983 — it strug­gled in ex­port mar­kets, apart from France where the clas­sic Mini was also a favourite, and by 1994 reached a cu­mu­la­tive pro­duc­tion to­tal of 1,370,000.

A fur­ther 120,000 Rover R6 100s were made un­til the last one was built in 1997, yet the orig­i­nal Mini that pre­dated the Metro’s in­tro­duc­tion by 21 years sol­diered on un­til 2000.

Bri­tish Ley­land had once been a big show in New Zealand, with a deal­er­ship in vir­tu­ally ev­ery mod­er­ately sized town, but, by the ’80s, things were dif­fer­ent. The first new Met­ros did not ar­rive here un­til 1986, when 61 units were re­tailed, and then the Austin name was dropped from the car in 1987. That year was the best for our mar­ket, with 310 units sold; sales dropped to 178 in 1988, 116 in 1989, and 122 in 1990, be­fore the ar­rival of the newer Rover 100 the same year. In 1987, the Austin/rover/mg brands sold a bullish 817 cars, but this had slipped to a mere 272 by 1992 as Kiwi buy­ers looked else­where.

While the first ship­ment of 100s sold quickly, the model re­mained a mod­est seller, un­able to match the 787 Met­ros sold since 1986. The five-door 1.3-litre Metro May­fair at­tracted most buy­ers, with 354 sales, and the se­cond most pop­u­lar variant was the three-door MG Metro, with a to­tal of 248 from a world­wide to­tal of 120,197. Just 36 MG Metro Tur­bos (world pro­duc­tion 21,968) also found New Zealand homes, and about 100 five-door Metro GS hatches were sold dur­ing six years of lo­cal sales.

Dis­ap­pear­ing act

How­ever, just be­cause the car failed to break lo­cal sales records doesn’t im­ply it is not a col­lectable propo­si­tion. While the Metro may lack the mana and colour­ful his­tory of the clas­sic Mini, it re­mains a unique car, one which calls on the Bri­tish her­itage that has been such a solid part of the New Zealand mo­tor­ing scene. As such, it has a cer­tain amount of ap­peal, with the most de­sir­able ver­sions be­ing the MG Metro and Turbo and the rare Rover Metro GTI 16-valve twin-cam — the lat­ter never of­fi­cially sold here.

Add in a few pri­vate used im­ports and the cu­mu­la­tive to­tal of Met­ros here should be around 1000, yet most seem to have dis­ap­peared. In a re­cent search, I could find only one 1989 ex­am­ple — a five-door May­fair with 158,000 kilo­me­tres on the clock, and an ask­ing price of NZ$1850 or near­est of­fer.

In Bri­tain, a mint MG Metro can to­day reach NZ$10K, but the rav­ages of rust mean they are also be­com­ing scarce in their home­land — the Metro has been the sev­enth-most-scrapped car in the UK in the last 30 years. Early ones are the worst for cor­ro­sion, but at least the bolt-on front guards are easy to re­place.

The 1.3 May­fair re­tailed lo­cally for NZ$19,975 in 1986, but, two years later, the price had been trimmed back to NZ$17,700, a price that was main­tained un­til the last ex­am­ples were im­ported in 1990. The three­door MG ver­sion was NZ$21,840 ini­tially, which was re­duced to NZ$18,950 in the fi­nal two years of sale, while the MG Turbo went from NZ$27,900 down to NZ$24,990 for the last ex­am­ples just be­fore the ar­rival of the Rover 100. A lav­ishly trimmed Van­den Plas model ar­rived at the same time as the MG, but was not sold here. Later, New Zealand im­ported only the 114 SL ver­sion of the 100 se­ries in five-door form, which launched at NZ$23,500.


Metro pro­ject LC8 was al­ways in­tended to be su­per­mini, one class up from the Mini that it would not re­place. Sit­ting on a 2250mm wheel­base with an over­all body length of 3405mm, the first-gen­er­a­tion Metro of­fered ex­cel­lent in­te­rior space, al­though rear legroom suf­fered in the later Rover 100 with its re­vised and bulkier front seat­ing. De­sign­ers David Bache and Har­ris Mann fac­tored in a large glass area, af­ford­ing great all-round vis­i­bil­ity. Bache came with the cre­den­tials of hav­ing shaped the 1976 Rover 3500 SD1, while Mann’s ear­lier de­sign projects in­cluded the Austin Princess, Mor­ris Ma­rina, Tri­umph TR7, and the aw­ful Austin Al­le­gro.

In 1980, the Metro was quite ad­vanced, with its self-clean­ing, slid­ing con­tact points; long-life spark plugs that didn’t need clean­ing; a built-in brake warn­ing sys­tem that told the driver when to change brake pads; asym­met­ric split rear seats and child safe­ty­seat mount­ings. It only re­quired ser­vic­ing ev­ery 20,000 kilo­me­tres — ri­vals Ford Fi­esta, Re­nault 5, VW Polo, and Fiat 127 needed ser­vic­ing in half that time.

Like the Mini, the Metro had allinde­pen­dent sus­pen­sion, em­ploy­ing wish­bones up front and trail­ing arms rear, with Hy­dra­gas ni­tro­gen spring units. Un­like the Mor­ris 1100, how­ever, the Hy­dra­gas was not con­nected front to rear — that would come later on the 100 model.

The Metro was facelifted in 1984 with a dif­fer­ent grille, re­vamped in­te­rior, and the in­tro­duc­tion of a five-door op­tion, but was still mak­ing do with age­ing A-se­ries pushrod four-cylin­der mo­tors and ei­ther a four­speed gear­box or the less pop­u­lar four-stage Au­to­mo­tive Prod­ucts au­to­matic trans­mis­sion.

New Zealand did not take the 35kw 998cc en­gine, opt­ing for the 44kw, 98Nm 1275cc unit. Even bet­ter, the MG’S up­rated 1275cc A-se­ries was 20 per cent more pow­er­ful, of­fer­ing 54kw and 99Nm. This power unit had a higher com­pres­sion ra­tio and a live­lier camshaft, larger in­let valves, a mod­i­fied man­i­fold, and a larger sin­gle SU car­bu­ret­tor. In Turbo form, the MG pro­duced 69kw and 115Nm, pro­vid­ing 21 per cent more power than the old Mini Cooper 1275S. The Turbo had an ARG sealed car­bu­ret­tor and a small Gar­rett Aire­search T3 tur­bocharger. How­ever, the quick­est Metro was the 16-valve, 71kw twin-over­head-cam GTI, this ar­riv­ing late in the life of the first-gen­er­a­tion model and also of­fered in the se­cond gen­er­a­tion.

Power plus

The A-se­ries power units were ban­ished from the 1990 Rover 100 and re­placed by the newer sin­gle-over­head-cam, two-valves-per-cylin­der K-se­ries en­gine in 45kw 1120cc and 57kw 1396cc forms. The K-se­ries had an al­loy block and cylin­der head, KIF car­bu­ret­tor, and elec­tronic ig­ni­tion. For the first time, a two-door con­vert­ible was avail­able, but it was not im­ported here, and all man­ual 100s came with a Peu­geot-de­rived five-speed gear­box rather than the ear­lier four-speed Mini trans­mis­sion that shared the same oil as the en­gine. The orig­i­nal three-drop-gear ar­range­ment be­tween en­gine crank­shaft and gear­box was em­ployed for the first-gen­er­a­tion Metro. Oil leak­ing from the clutch hous­ing area and clutch jud­der are reg­u­lar prob­lems on early ex­am­ples; other trou­ble spots in­clude fail­ing wa­ter pumps and the elec­tri­cally driven ra­di­a­tor cool­ing-fan sys­tems.

In Bri­tain, keen Metro re­stor­ers have found

The Rover 114 SL ar­rives in New Zealand — it was a bet­ter car than most peo­ple re­al­ized

the 1.8-litre ver­sion of the K-se­ries, as fit­ted to the MGF and early Lotus Elise, fits per­fectly. It pro­duces 107kw (143bhp) in vari­able-valve mode, pro­duc­ing spir­ited per­for­mance in a small hatch­back weigh­ing a mere 770kg.

But, for op­ti­mum urge, the ul­ti­mate Metro has to be the out­ra­geous lim­ited-pro­duc­tion 6R4 Group B rally car, a fi­bre­glass-bod­ied mid-en­gined fire­cracker pow­ered by a be­spoke 3.0-litre twin-over­head-cam V6. Ley­land built 200 of th­ese be­tween 1984 and 1987 with a retail price equiv­a­lent to NZ$80K. The 6R4 boasted 186kw (250bhp), but top-shelf ver­sions called upon a re­mark­able 306kw (410bhp). How­ever, just as the 6R4 was be­ing sorted, the Group B rally class was banned due to safety rea­sons.

At least one 6R4 found its way to New Zealand, only to be re-ex­ported back to the UK, where they are highly trea­sured. Two re­stored ex­am­ples were re­cently listed for sale there, one for the equiv­a­lent of NZ$150K, and the other for NZ$300K!

The long drive

In 1982, I spent a week with a nat­u­rally as­pi­rated MG Metro in Eng­land and found it em­bod­ied many of the old Mini Cooper traits, in­clud­ing a will­ing­ness to be driven en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. Un­like the Mini, how­ever, the MG cruised at 120kph in com­par­a­tive quiet­ness, al­though the ride be­came bouncy on poorly sur­faced roads. In Turbo form, the Metro had a top speed of 177kph and scam­pered to 100kph in 9.4 sec­onds, while the nat­u­rally as­pi­rated MG man­aged 160kph and han­dled the 100kph run in 12.2 sec­onds. The MG’S high-back front seats were more com­fort­able than those of the stan­dard Metro and looked good with their red pip­ing, which matched the red, nee­dle-punch car­pet­ing. The drilled al­loy wheels gave the car more char­ac­ter, as did the black polyurethane spoiler around the back win­dow that ef­fec­tively re­duced the drag co­ef­fi­cient from 0.41 to 0.39.

A four-speed man­ual Metro May­fair 1300 pic­tured on the Kapiti Coast in 1987

Eight years later, I was driv­ing one of the first Rover 114 SLS to ar­rive in New Zealand, com­plet­ing 1000 kilo­me­tres in two days to catch a mag­a­zine dead­line. We drove non­stop (apart from re­fu­elling) from Auck­land to Cape Reinga in the far north and back and were amazed at the level of re­fine­ment in such a mod­estly sized car. I re­mem­bered that the high and wide door sills were a touch awk­ward when en­ter­ing or leav­ing the car on early Met­ros — and they still were — yet the baby Rover felt strong and ro­bust, had bril­liant steer­ing, a strong en­gine, ex­cel­lent front seats, and low noise lev­els.

Tem­per­ing th­ese at­tributes were mod­est rear-seat di­men­sions that were in­fe­rior to those of the pre­vi­ous Metro and below-av­er­age body-fin­ish stan­dards. Ac­tual trim fin­ish and fit of in­te­rior com­po­nents were fine, but the metal body fin­ish smacked more of the ’60s than the ’90s.

Yet, th­ese neg­a­tives were more than over­come by re­mark­able flu­id­ity in the way the car cov­ered the ground, with the Hy­dra­gas sus­pen­sion — now con­nected front and rear the way in­ven­tor Dr Alec Moul­ton al­ways in­tended it to be — soak­ing up bumps to give a near–big-car ride. Ride was soft and ab­sorbent, yet the car han­dled trimly and seemed vice-free.

At one stage on the North­land drive, we were hus­tling down a short, sharp in­cline on a thinly met­alled road when two large pot­holes loomed be­fore a nar­row bridge. They seemed big enough to swal­low the Rover, but the lit­tle car sim­ply pat­tered over the ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties and pounded on its way.

At all speeds, the steer­ing was per­fectly weighted. While not as di­rect as a clas­sic Mini or the ear­lier Metro, it re­mained a shin­ing ex­am­ple of how a car with unas­sisted steer­ing should be. At the time, I wrote that the 114’s sus­pen­sion and driv­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics were an ob­ject les­son to all other small-car mak­ers, par­tic­u­larly the Ja­panese. The drive to North

Rover 100 in­te­rior was rel­a­tively plush for a su­per­mini

Cape il­lus­trated how well the sus­pen­sion worked on both smooth seal and heavy shin­gle or cor­ru­gated sur­faces.

Swirling over twist­ing, un­du­lat­ing roads, the 114’s sus­pen­sion was rem­i­nis­cent of that a good Citroën’s. There was the odd shake and oc­ca­sional fas­cia rat­tle, but, gen­er­ally, the car was tight as a drum.

Sus­pen­sion en­gi­neers agree that pitch — rock­ing back and forth — is the sin­gle main cause of poor ride com­fort, but Moul­ton reck­oned in­ter­con­nected Hy­dra­gas min­i­mized this by main­tain­ing a level ride more ef­fec­tively than non-con­nected sys­tems. The set-up in­cluded anti-dive and anti-lift wish­bone ge­om­e­try at the front, ef­fec­tive cam­ber con­trol of bump-steer preven­tion dur­ing cor­ner­ing, and ex­cel­lent road noise in­su­la­tion via rub­ber­mounted front and rear sub-frames. The other rev­e­la­tion was the rel­a­tive si­lence of the lit­tle Rover at quite high cruis­ing speeds.

I laboured on the car’s sus­pen­sion sim­ply be­cause it worked so well in New Zealand con­di­tions, al­though, 25 years on, you might ques­tion whether that is a wor­thy enough rea­son to make the Rover 100 a col­lectable clas­sic car. On bal­ance, even though it is not as good a car, I would still favour an ear­lier­gen­er­a­tion MG Metro 1300 — par­tic­u­larly the rare Turbo — as the model to keep and en­joy be­cause of its dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter and smart in­te­rior trim. As a larger, bet­ter spec­i­fied, and more mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the orig­i­nal Mini, it re­ally worked.

Try­ing to find one, how­ever, will be the big­gest prob­lem, even if you opt for the new Rover ver­sion. Mo­tor­corp Hold­ings, the lo­cal dis­trib­u­tor, had just six deal­ers na­tion­wide in 1990, and few Rover 100s found New Zealand buy­ers. The car made lit­tle im­pres­sion on the mar­ket, and qui­etly dis­ap­peared from lo­cal show­rooms, leav­ing most con­sumers vir­tu­ally un­aware of the qual­i­ties of this su­per­mini. They’ll never know what they missed.

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