A British car to beat the world – Part 2

The project, named R6, successfully showed that it was possible to come up with a car which was much better than the one from which it was derived.

Discussing the history of the Austin Metro, we said that its successor was presented in 1990, branded a Rover. The group had already started working on the AR6 project in 1984 and ended in 1986 after several prototypes had been built and it was just one step away from launch. The decision to cancel the new model was made by Graham Day, Margaret Thatcher’s favoured man called in to restructure the Rover Group with an iron fist and numerous cuts in order to bring it back to a saleable proposition once more.

Hence the Rover designers had to start from scratch again with the only available starting point being the no-longer young Metro, which was modified with an almost complete lack of funding. The project, named R6, successfully showed that it was possible to come up with a car which was much better than the one from which it was derived. The wheelbase was lengthened and the new K-Series engines were introduced, their development only ending shortly before the car’s launch and being one of the few projects which escaped Day’s crazy cost-cuts. The transmission was of French origin, from PSA, and the plan to adopt MacPherson strut suspension was shelved in favour of a revised Hydragas suspension system already fitted to the Metro.

The finish of the body was improved, eliminating one of its ancestor’s problems, rust. The front-end was redesigned, resulting in a 12 cm increase in length over the old model, and the wheelbase was also increased to make room for the new engines. The rear-end was also up-dated with re-designed bumpers and lights, whilst the position of the registration plate was moved to the tailgate. The rest of the body was unchanged from the original 1980 model, worrying the Rover technicians because, despite being visibly quite substantially different from the Austin-branded Metro, it still had an undisputed stylistic similarity to its ancestor and might appear just a simple facelift to customers, consigning any mechanical improvements to oblivion. Even the dashboard and interior received changes but still remained substantially those from the Metro MkII.

As far as branding was concerned, since Austin had been dropped in 1987, the Rover name was chosen, immediately raising doubts as the marque of the Viking ship had always been associated with luxury saloons rather than a city car. Also that year the Rover Group was taken over by British Aerospace, the designers taking the opportunity to propose an alternative new product, the R6X, a more modern car, but unfortunately BAE declined to invest in a new product they considered too expensive.

The new small Rover entered production in 1990, adopting the moniker 100 and variations based on engine-size (111, 114) for all markets except at home, which stuck with the Metro name. In 1994 an unprecedented convertible version arrived, and in 1995 came face-lifted styling with new headlights, front bumper and bonnet, whilst in addition the 100 moniker was also adopted for the home market, consigning the Metro name to history once and for all. For safety reasons a side air-bag was introduced as an option along with anti-intrusion bars in the doors. Unfortunately these improvements were not enough for the 100 to avoid the disastrous EuroNcap crash test of 1997, which put the car amongst the least-safe cars on the market with a rating of 1 star out of a possible 5. The small Rover failed on all points, with the body completely giving in on impact, but of course the original project did date from the mid-70s and, although the 1980 Metro proved to be regarded as safe, standards had moved on substantially in the subsequent 17 years and the old design could no longer compete with its rivals.

The management of Rover, by then owned by BMW, hoped that news of the crash-test results would not leak out, but that proved a forlorn hope and the media soon began to report of the car’s catastrophic results, forcing the manufacturer to end its production on December 23, 1997. The management claimed that it had merely reached the end of its natural production cycle, but many observers are of the opinion that it was to avoid a complete sales meltdown.

So, after a million examples had been built over 20 twenty years, the Metro/100 withdrew from the scene along with the last vestige of Leyland and the disastrous management of the British automotive industry, brought to its knees by poor commercial and political decisions. Instead the Mini continued in production until 4. October 2000 when, after 41 years of production and more than 5 million cars built, it handed over the baton to the new BMW-made Mini.

The crash test of the Rover 100 was carried out again in 2017 on the occasion of 20 years of EuroNcap, and it performed on a par with a Honda Jazz. 

Text by Tommaso Lai

Translation by Norman Hawkes

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