Originally conceived by British Leyland, the Metro was built to similar principals as those of the Mini it was intended to replace, with a small, practical platform with as much use available to the passenger as was possible. The car came under various initial guises, including the Austin Metro, the Austin miniMetro, the Morris Metro van and the MG Metro, a version of the car with a 1.3L A-Series Turbo Engine.
Although the car was launched in 1980, development of a Mini replacement had dated back to the beginning of the 70’s. Dubbed ADO88 (Amalgamated Drawing Office project number 88), the Metro was eventually given the go ahead in 1977, but wanted to have the appeal of some of the larger ‘Supermini’ (what a contradiction in terms) cars on the market, including cars such as the Ford Fiesta and the Renault 5. Designed by Harris Mann (the same guy who gave us the Princess and the Allegro), the car was given a much more angular body for the time, but despite its futuristic looks did share many features of the earlier Mini, including the 675cc BMC-A Series engine that dated back to 1959, and the gearbox. Initial cars also included the Hydragas Suspension system originally used
on the Allegro and the Princess, though with no front/rear connection. The car was also built as a hatchback, which would eventually be a key part of its success as the Mini instead utilised only a small boot.
The Metro was originally meant for an earlier 1978 launch, but a lack of funds and near bankruptcy of British Leyland resulted in the car’s launch being pushed back. This delay however did allow the folks at Longbridge to construct a £200m robotic assembly plant for the new Metro line, with the hope of building 100,000 cars per year. Finally the car entered sales 3 years late and got off to quite promising initial sales, often being credited for being the saviour of British Leyland. The Metro was in fact the company’s first truly new model in nearly 5 years, with the 9 year old Allegro still in production, the 1980 Morris Ital being nothing more than a 7 year old Marina with a new face, and the 5 year old Princess not going anywhere!
As mentioned, an entire myriad of versions came with the Metro, including the luxury Vanden Plas version and the sporty MG with its top speed of 105mph and 0-60mph of 10.1 seconds. Eventually the original incarnation of the car, the Austin Metro, went on to sell 1 million units in it’s initial 10 year run, making it the second highest selling car of the decade behind the Ford Escort. However, like most other British Leyland products, earlier cars got a bad reputation for poor build quality and unreliability, combined with the lack of rustproofing that was notorious on many BL cars of the time.
The show was not over however, as in 1990 the car was given a facelift and dubbed the Rover Metro. The 1950’s A-Series engine was replaced by a 1.1L K-Series, and the angular bodyshell was rounded to similar principals as those by acclaimed styling house Ital to
create a more pleasing look for the 90’s. This facelift, combined with an improvement in reliability and build quality, meant that the car went on to win the ‘What Car?’ of the Year Award in 1991.
In 1994 the car was given yet another facelift, with once again a more rounded design and removal of the Metro name, the car being sold as the Rover 100. Engines were once again changed, this time to a 1.5L Peugeot engine and more audacious colour schemes were available for the even more rounded design of the new car. However, the car was very much starting to look and feel its age. Aside from the fact that the design dated back to 1977, the new car was not well equipped, lacking electric windows, anti-lock brakes, power steering, or even a rev counter! In terms of safety, it was very basic, with most features such as airbags, an alarm, an immobiliser and central locking being optional extras.
Eventually the curtain had to fall on the Metro, and in 1997, twenty years after the initial design left the drawing board, it was announced that the car would be discontinued. Spurred on by dwindling sales due to lack of safety and equipment, as well as losing out to comparative cars such as the ever popular Ford Fiesta, VW Polo and Vauxhall Corsa, with only fuel economy keeping the car afloat, Rover axed the Metro in 1998 with no direct replacement, although many cite the downsized Rover 200 a possible contender. Stumbling blindly on, the next car to fill the gap in Rover’s market was the 2003 CityRover, based on the TATA Indica, which flopped abysmally and pretty much totalled the company (but that’s another story).
In the end only 2,078,000 Metro’s were built in comparison to the 5.3 million examples of the Mini that it was meant to replace. The main failings of the Metro were down to the fact that the car was too big compared to the Mini, and the rounded old-world charm of the Coopers and Clubmans was replaced by the angular corners. Because of this the car simply didn’t have the novelty that the Mini continued to claim even 20 years after the first ones left the factory, and the Mini would even go on to outlive the Metro by another 2 years, ending production in 2000, then going on to have a revival in the form of BMW’s New Mini Cooper that’s still being built today. Unlike the Mini, the Metro also failed to conquer the international market in the same way, scoring its 2 million units pretty much in Britain alone, although some cars were sold in France and Spain, but only to the total of a few hundred.
The Metro however survived only on fuel economy and its spacious interior, but by the early 1990’s, whilst other car manufacturers had moved on leaps and bounds, Rover continued to be stuck in the past with not the money or the enthusiasm to change what was a terribly outdated and extremely basic car. Towards the end the Metro, which had only a few years earlier won awards for its practical nature, was ending up on lists for Worst car on the market.
Today however you can still see Metro’s, later editions are especially common on the roads of Britain. Earlier models built under British Leyland have mostly rusted away and are apparently only down to about a thousand nowadays, but the Rover 100’s and Rover Metros continue to ply their trade, a lonely reminder of how here in Britain, we can never ever seem to move on!