In the final part of his Metro 6R4 story, John Davenport explains how he had to fight to keep the project’s momentum going, how inter-company rivalries and red tape conspired against it, and how the team’s efforts were rewarded by a euphoric World Championship debut
Just as George Orwell gloomily predicted, 1984 started badly with Austin Rover Group endlessly embroiled in the pointless spat between TVVR and the RACMSA over the legality of the Rover Vitesse. Fortunately, this did not impact too much on the progress of the Metro 6R4. Personally, it would have been helpful not to have been in the High Court for large parts of March since, by the end of that month, we were ready to launch the 6R4 on a suspecting public.
In the meantime, two more essential characters had made their appearance. Towards the end of ’83, Bernie Marcus joined us from ARG Aerodynamics. His first involvement with the 6R4 was in his old job when Williams Grand Prix Engineering took the car to the wind tunnel at MIRA in the middle of ’83. Bernie joined us in September. One of his discoveries was that the scoops in the rear wheel arches were actually emitting air rather than admitting it. This called for a front wheel arch redesign to make them work properly.
Then, early on in 1984, Mike Barnett arrived; he might be regarded as the knight errant of the 6R4. He was a production engineer at Longbridge and, I suspect, was too slow to step back when a volunteer was called for to build 200 of them. Whatever, he got the job and did it brilliantly. By August ’84, he had a prototype shell at Longbridge and was building it into a complete car on an improvised production line left behind by some long-forgotten model. He also suggested we should fit an aluminium roof by glueing it to the steel shell. Mike did it on his car and we adopted it for the rest.
The launch was at the Excelsior Hotel, London Airport, on 24 February, as part of the ARG Motorsport press conference. The ‘reveal’ of a new car can often be an anticlimax but I had the idea of having Barrie Hinchliffe produce a film ‘reveal’ of the 6R4 from behind a Rover rally car. The Rover was pure white and the 6R4 was painted red with a white roof in order to evoke the works Mini Coopers. The film showed the 6R4 at work, culminating in a head-on shot gradually filling the screen. At that moment the actual car, containing Tony Pond and Rob Arthur, was released down a ramp, through the screen and into the laps of the European press. The rest of the presentation was listened to in reverential silence. The shot made the evening TV news on all channels and the coverage for ARG was valued at £3.5m. Not bad.
At that conference, I promised the 6R4 would make its rally debut within six weeks. The chosen event was the York National, and Pond did his stuff by setting fastest time on the first eight stages. Then a cam lobe picked up in the V62V engine — on which there had been no development since the engine team started work on the V64V — and the car posted its first retirement.
At its launch, the 6R4 was wingless. The first external aerodynamic device to be tried was an enormous rear wing with a 16-inch chord discovered lurking in Williams’ stores. This was in May ’83 and, once Bernie Marcus was on strength, something of more appropriate size was tried. Even the earliest efforts produced 300Ibs of down force so, in the interests of balance and keeping the front wheels on the ground, a front wing was also tried. The early ones were from a Williams FW06 and, by the time we had finished, the downforce at three-figure speeds was up to 1200 lbs, more than half the all-up weight of the car.
The first time the wings were seen in public was on the Mewla Stages in late August 1984. On the all-tarmac event round Epynt, we tried the first lap with no wings, then a rear wing, and finally with both wings. It was the fastest thing around by a good margin — in all its guises.
Colin Malkin stood in for Tony Pond on the Lindisfarne Rally, and again we had the wings on and off to see if they had the same effect on gravel roads. They did.
Pond was back for the Cumbria Rally at the end of September to try with just a rear wing and set seven fastest times before a broken driveshaft caused him to roll.
There were problems back at the ranch as well. At their 23 October meeting, the ARG Board confirmed the company would build the 200 cars needed for Group B, and two days later they issued the magic Product Development Letter M/21/84. They also asked for an evaluation of the V64V engine for use in the forthcoming XX model.
All this was great, but the engine prototype programme was grinding to a halt as Purchasing would not issue the order cover to Lucas Micos for the engine management system. And the same area had their heads stuck in the sand when it came to setting up for actual production. Whatever was coming out from the ARG Board, sections of the company seemed certain the MG Metro 6R4 would never happen.
This was not the case within the 6R4 Programme Control Committee set up in July and chaired by Nick Stephenson, currently Deputy Chairman of the new MG Rover Group. From here radiated all the enthusiasm that was to make it happen. Gordon Sked’s styling people got us fixed up with IAD down in Worthing to make a proper styling buck. IAD created the information needed to produce all the fibre-glass and Kevlar panels.
But even then there always seemed to be a new spanner dropping into the works. Not the least of these came when Pierre Dupasquier and Maurice Guaslard at Michelin, with whom we had been working closely since Day One, suggested that perhaps we could move up from 13-inch wheels to 390mm and thus benefit from all the work they had been doing for Peugeot What they meant was that we had to do it or be stuck on non-development rubber. It
meant that engineer Wynne Mitchell could incorporate bigger brakes, but the original arch profile had to go as he and Richard Hurdwell lifted the suspension turret tops and lengthened the wheelbase by two inches.
Looking back, it seems almost a miracle that, over the winter of 1984/85, everything came together. The V64V ran after just 11 months and delivered on its promises. The changes to the suspension and bodywork to accommodate the big Michelins were handed over to IAD, while the final form of the outrageous front and rear wings was agreed. The Longbridge line was geared for action and the Radford plant identified as the best location for engine and gearbox assembly.
My task was to put together the final presentation to the ARG Board in the middle of January. Their approval would set everything in motion, and with help from Fred Coultas, the paperwork was done, the figures added up and the methods detailed. To my immense satisfaction, it was agreed: our target was the 1985 RAC Rally.
Once again, though, approval was one thing, action in certain areas was another. Unbeknown to me at the time, Mike Barnett, our Longbridge ‘knight’, had already done a deal with the Pressed Steel plant in Swindon to produce all steelwork other than the roll cage. So when Purchasing got around to ordering it in April, we told them (smugly) that it was already on the shelf. But questions like, “Where can we get hold of three independent quotes for Bilstein dampers, Michelin tyres, Dymag wheels, Cosworth castings?” persisted into the middle of the year.
The last appearance of the V62V-engined car was on the Gwynedd Rally at the beginning of March. Pond did his best and won 12 of the 14 stages, coming home first, ahead of David Llewellin’s quattro A2 by just under two minutes. It nearly wasn’t so. A valve guide had leaked all day and, away from ‘ the last stage, a backfire set the oil accumulated in the air cleaners on fire. It was a rather asthmatic and singed 6R4 that hit the finish ramp.
The launch of the final version of the 6R4, at Knebworth House on 16 May 1985, was less spectacular than the original. This time the car chauffeured the press round an impromptu special stage. And two days later, a 6R4 with Pond and Arthur won the Argyll Stages.
These were glory days, and while the engineers developed the car and its engine, I was frying to decide who would be Pond’s team-mate the following year. The problem was that Peugeot and Audi were in full swing, Lancia had announced their Delta S4 and were, like us, scheduling an appearance at the RAC Rally, while Ford were hot on our heels. The obvious thing was to recruit a Scandinavian. We had several private test sessions with prospective drivers, of whom the best known was Hannu Mikkola, but the majority of these were either too expensive, signed up with someone else, or both. The man I settled on was Malcolm Wilson. I was able to better his offer from Ford without going beyond our budget. And that was after he won the Lindisfarne Rally in an RS200, where the 6R4 finished sixth. I’m sure everyone thought I had received instructions to sign an all-British line-up, but in fact it was done on merit and budget. In any case, we already had deals in the pipeline for Per Eklund and Marc Duez (SMS), Llewellin, Didier Auriol and Harri Toivonen (RED) and Jimmy McRae (Prodrive) for ’86.
As autumn approached, the stockade at Longbridge was filling up with white 6R4s, but the rally programme started to have some engine failures. The original V64Vs that had done the hard grind on the dynamometer and in testing never gave a moment’s trouble. But the combination of half an inch of valve lift in what was effectively two three-cylinder engines created very high stab torques in the camshaft belts. Chris Walters modified the cam design to reduce these, but later we discovered there was also a harmonic interaction with the torsional vibration of the crankshaft The boss to mount an idler to help the belt survive had been cast into the original engine casting, but we were continually assured it was unnecessary. The first time an idler was used on a V64V was in the engine built for the Ecosse of Ray Mallock at Le Mans in 1986. Engine problems occurred in Donegal, where Pond led for six stages before, as he put it, “I changed into top at maximum revs and there was a tinkle and loss of power. I looked in the mirror to see bright bits of engine tumbling down the road.”
These engine problems were exacerbated by the non-appearance of the second dynamo-meter. Early in 1985 we had negotiated a cheap deal with Heenan & Froude for a second dyno. But then Purchasing intervened to get us a ‘better’ deal and ‘save’ us money. They would get it installed by Cowley’s own experts. But there was no one to spare: they were flat out installing new production lines. We needed that dyno for development as the other one was fully occupied running rally engines. It was finally installed and running in late 1986 by which time Group B had been banned. Cheers.
There was better news on another front. FISA, in the person of Ludovico Caneschi, came to inspect the production cars, and on his second trip, on 30 October, we were also able to show him 20 evolution cars with the full-house engine. These cars had been assembled in a marquee erected between our workshop and my office in Cowley. I am eternally grateful that Sig. Caneschi did not wish to select one at random and go to the shops in it Most would have started on the key, but not all, since many of the engine goodies were literally just bolted on. The homologation of the Metro 6R4 and its first evolution was valid from 1 November 1985, four years and 10 months after the project started.
I don’t think any of us had the faintest idea how much support there would be on the 1985 RAC Rally for the team, the 6R4s and their drivers. It was dubbed Metromania and was fearsome to behold. Group B had been attracting larger crowds to rallies over the last three years, but this was something else. The crowds were everywhere; in Barnard Castle, the town was a seething mass. I don’t exaggerate when I say they were scaling rooftops to get a look at the cars.
Malcolm Wilson was fastest out of the blocks, shadowing the Lancia Deltas of Henri Toivonen and Markku Alen and Timo Salonen’s Peugeot 205 through the Sunday stages. Tony Pond was suffering badly from ‘flu and was in eighth, sandwiched between the Audis of Milckola and Röhrl.
Then Malcolm had transmission problems in the Forest of Dean, to be followed by retirement in central Wales when, just as he was starting to take time back off leaders, Mikkola and Toivonen, the rear transmission broke and wrecked the engine’s oil supply. Tony was more fortunate and roared through Wales and the crowds to lie second to Alen at the night halt back in Nottingham.
That RAC Rally was the Dave Whittock marathon that went twice through Kielder. It was bitterly cold and snowy and what it came down to in the end was endurance. Who knows whether we could have done better than third overall if Tony had not been snuffling his way round the Borders. What is sure is that if Toyota driver Juha Kankkunen hadn’t pulled Alen out of a Kielder ditch in the spirit of ‘all Finns together’, a Metro would have been second. But in the ecstasy of a podium finish on the Metro 6R4’s first WRC event, such questions seemed irrelevant.
Even better things lay ahead, we thought Little did we know that Group B only had another year to run.
‘We needed that dyno. It was finally installed in late 1986 – by which time Group B had been banned’