Revisiting the Austin Metro

On this day in 1997, the Austin Metro and Rover 100-series production line fell silent. We commemorate 20 years with a look back

While you were wrapping your Christmas presents back in 1997, a British motoring institution died away largely unnoticed. After 17 years of manufacture, the Austin Metro and Rover 100-series production line shuddered to a grinding halt on the 23rd of December – there was no fanfare, no tributes and little media coverage. Journalists and brainwashed Rover bashers shed no tears, proclaiming the end of the humble Metro’s life to be a god send. The unreliable, badly built rust box responsible for so many cold morning non-starts and mechanical seizures was dead.

That’s the story you get on the front page, but delve behind the headlines and it’s a different opinion. When originally hitting the second-hand market, the Metro was genuinely considered a hugely sensible purchase; a shopping cart with an engine, ideal for pottering around the city, easy to park and capable of 50mpg even at motorway speeds.

Unintimidating, popular, cheap to insure and scooping design awards when launched, the boxy bingo hall favourite was far more than a wagon specialised for visits to the garden centre. Those of a Ferrari or Mercedes persuasion may not have given the Metro a second glance, but as a driver’s car even the pickiest of demanding petrolheads would grin inanely when hurling around a tight bend – especially when presented with the MG Turbo variant.

Then it all went wrong. British Leyland, the Government and the British people expected Austin’s Metro to take on the word – yet the Mini replacement stalled at the starting line. While the Metro took the home market by storm, very few made it across onto the continent, the main customer remaining young and cash-strapped Brits or older and patriotic retirees. With no middle ground, the Metro’s image was soon tarnished.

As the design world changed and manufacture quality improved, BL stuck to their out-dated guns. In comparison to Volkswagen’s Golf, the Ford Fiesta and Peugeot’s 205, the Metro appeared rough, temperamental, unrefined and under developed. On the used car market, values plummeted and car enthusiasts no longer took the vehicle seriously. Abused examples flooded the scene, offering all the charm and desirability of a crusty septic tank, cementing the lampooned supermini’s repute with those whom had never driven one before.

There were other reasons for the public consensus, too. Those in the industry when the Metro was new claimed that it could only do one thing competently: rust. Examples less than five years old could be found with front wings oxidised beyond redemption, front valances, bonnets and boot floors a hotbed for the tin worm. When still gleaming in the showroom, Austin-Rover did offer a rust warranty with an inspection every twelve months, yet few cars underwent such luxury – owners didn’t partake or endure the programme, leaving thousands of Metros to corrode quietly on the drive.

As time aged the mechanicals, flaws and shortcomings in the drivetrain became evermore apparent. Crankshafts failed as young as 30,000 miles, gearboxes on pre-1988 required replacement or rebuilt with every service and the suspension gave unwary custodians migraine fodder.

Rear radius arms required constant scrutiny to ensure the back wheels behaved themselves, whereas the Hydragas suspension units contained enough gremlins to leave any seasoned mechanic reaching for a sledgehammer. While uneven tyre wear was always a clue to an unhealthy Metro, if left unattended for long enough the body would lean to either side, turning most roundabouts into a sloshy exercise akin to salsa dancing with a hippo. Pre-1989 models didn’t even run on unleaded without costly modification. Owners cried and enthusiasts struggled to cope with alienation and humiliation down the pub.

As the mostly-new Rover Metro was unleashed upon the public in 1990, dozens of running issues were terminated – but image never recovered. Even with the Metro’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek advertising campaigns featuring the likes of Nigel Mansell, Eric Idle, Billy Connolly, Murray Walker and Joan Collins couldn’t spike sales. Then, for 1996, after yet another facelift, fate and dishonour came knocking at Rover’s door.

The freshly devised EuroNCap European car safety programme placed the final nail on the botoxed Metro shaped coffin. Publishing results on a semi-regular basis to assess a vehicle’s safety should a crash unfold, each model from the world over was tested at a set speed into a fixed structure. The Rover 100 was one of the first cars to be tested – achieving the lowest rating of the time. Rivals scored – at minimum – two times better.

In a head-on collision at only 30mph, the Rover 100 crumpled around inhabitants to a fatal degree, the structure collapsing and interior fittings slicing chunks out of EuroNCap’s test dummies. Upon findings reaching tabloid editors, the media was awash with declarations that the Rover 100 was a death trap with seats, destined to kill you, your family, your neighbour and your dog. Sales dried up as a direct result, with the 100-series withdrawn from manufacture – marking the end of nearly two decades in production. It’s little wonder that the structure, initially designed in the 1970s, didn’t hit 1990s safety standards – but the results spoke for themselves.

The Austin-Rover brainchild was executed behind closed doors, as the Mini – the exact car Austin’s Metro was t replace - plugged on as a fan and dealer favourite.

It’s easy therefore to banish the little Metro into obscurity, a mere automotive asterisk in Britain’s car culture history books. However, while fraught with a saga that appears like all vehicular faux-pas combined for a greatest hits album, the Metro and Rover 100-series makes for the ideal classic purchase in the modern world.

Besides all the attributes focused on by the media, there are slight niggles to Metro ownership – you will be forever justifying yourself to non-believers and theft has been a common problem in the past, but the sheer enjoyment of owning such an infamous model far outstrips the well documented negatives.

Firstly, you’ve got the handling. While acceleration is sluggish for base models and automatics, you can maintain almost any speed into a corner and escape out the other side wearing the largest smile your face muscles will allow. With front-wheel drive and little weight, the potential for hilarity with tyre squeal amid a sense of ‘this is so, so wrong’ would melt even the frozen heart of the most forthright critic.

Then there is the club scene, which thrives on pub laughter, show meets and an outstanding sense of humour. Unlike walking on egg shells with Ford and Porsche owner’s clubs, you’ll never witness a member of the Metro clan affirm their opinion that the Metro remains ‘the best car…in the world’. Rather, they will lament about its faults and joke over past experiences before partaking in a rally cross. Ignored by so many, the Metro is set to remain the underdog, meaning owners can do whatever the hell they like – embracing each other with the sort of camaraderie unseen anywhere outside of Land Rover circles.

They are unexpectedly practical, too. Fold the rear seats up and you’ve got a surprising amount of load room – space for a bike, a dog crate or even an upturned bathtub. I should know, as mine carried one from Edinburgh to Glasgow. There is space for four adults if you are willing to get cosy, with ample storage and cubby holes for your change, shopping and dignity when trying to keep up with modern traffic.

Running expense costs less than Ian Duncan-Smith’s breakfast tab, with cheap insurance and DIY-friendly running gear – you won’t shy away from changing a wheel bearing unlike other classics, and garage bills for the trickier jobs won’t drain you of savings. Your bank manager certainly won’t be holidaying abroad.

You’ve got a whole range to choose from – early examples employing Mini drivetrain with last of the line diesels utilising 1990s Peugeot technology. Whichever one you fancy trying, you’ll have a plucky Brit eager to please, minus the social-climbing rubber backbone offered by rivals of the time.

All too frequently seen in ‘worst car’ listicles online, denoted by those who have never owned one nor experienced the Metro’s delights. Ignore the brain-washed band wagon contemporaries, we would heartily endorse purchase of a Metro – save a bit of infamy before there are none left. The Austin Metro’s past may be shrouded with dishonour and scandal – but then, all the best cars are.

Images courtesy of MagicCarPics and Gillian Carmoodie

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