METRO — THE LAST GREAT AUSTIN?
What made Donn name a small, innocuous British hatchback as Car of the Year 25 years ago?
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.
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.
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.
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.