Throughout the history of the car we have frequently witnessed the birth of cars whose arduous task was to replace models which, during the course of their existence, had taken on cult status. The result was that, faced with the immense image of the progenitor, the model originally destined to be its replacement was often not up to the job and, in some cases, even went out of production before the car it was meant to replace: such is the case with the Austin Metro, the production of which lasted until 1997 and achieved moderate success in its home country, which was unable to properly replace the iconic Mini, which was in production from 1959 to 2000.
To look at it chronologically, in the mid-1970s British Leyland, amid various financial difficulties, was looking to replace the then 20-year old Mini with a more modern and spacious utilitarian vehicle which would be able to compete with rival offerings. The ADO 88 project was thus approved, although there were rumours that the opinion of Alec Issigonis, who had already produced his ideas for a new Mini in the 1960s, was not in favour of it, as he did not seem to welcome a replacement for his masterpiece.
The Longbridge plant was expanded, with a highly robotised area called New West Works, to prepare the workforce for the assembly of what was presented at the plants on 8. October 1980 as the Austin Mini Metro, but which became the Metro only two years later. Mechanically the car was equipped with old engines that were already fitted to other cars in the group, including the Mini, but they were reliable and very economical on fuel; the braking system was of a mixed type with discs at the front and drums at the rear. The Cx was good, around 0.41, a result achieved by many aerodynamic features, including the rounded body with large glass area and a standard spoiler for all versions.
The launch of the car was distinguished by the patriotic advertising campaign under the slogan “A British Car to beat the world”, arousing strong interest among the British clientele, who were, throughout the car’s life, the basis of its commercial success. In 1982 British Leyland introduced the sports version of the car, with an MG badge, which was very successful, enough for the manufacturer to add a faster Turbo version the following year.
In 1984 the 5-door version was introduced and, at the same time, the styling was facelifted, mainly at the front, which had a smoother bonnet, different grille and new bumpers. The interior was also up-dated with a new dashboard and upholstery.
Also in the same year design started on a new rally car for the Group B championship, with the name MG Metro 6R4 (6-cylinder Rally Car with 4-wheel drive). To keep the weight down the body was made of plastic (apart from the doors) and it had a powerful twin-cam V6 engine with 24 valves and 2996 cc, mid-mounted and producing 250 bhp in the “standard” version and 410 bhp in the racer. Despite this, the car achieved few milestones during the championship and the main cause of its demise was the reliability problems that forced the car to retire frequently and only to finish in irrelevant places. It was also the decision by the FIA to ban the Metro from rallying in 1986 when cancelling the Group B championship following a succession of fatal accidents, in one of which Henri Toivonen and his co-driver Sergio Crest were killed driving a Lancia Delta S4.
1987 was the final year of the Austin brand’s existence within the Austin-Rover Group, which was renamed the Rover Group that same year, and new Metros bore the emblem including the model name instead of the marque on the front (Click HERE for more information). After the launch of the new Group the project to replace the Metro was approved and, after many changes it appeared in 1990: but that is another story.
Text by Tommaso Lai
Translation by Norman Hawkes
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