Matters of Moment, November 1980
THE AUSTIN MINI METRO
“You shouldn’t say it is not good. You should say you do not like it; and then, you know, you’re perfectly safe” — James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the American painter (1834-1903).
But we do like it, this much-publicised Austin “Big Min”, made in the staggeringly complicated £275-million Longbridge robot factory, the new British small-car which went on sale on the eve of the Motor Show and the success or failure of which will, we are constantly told, decide the fate of British Leyland and even the economic future of this country, via its Motor Industry.
Critics will no doubt point to the fact that the Metro’s engine is the old-fashioned A-Series power unit dating back some 30 years, with push-rods instead of an overhead-camshaft and of the old long-stroke concept (64.58 x 76.2 mm. = 998 c.c. or 70.61 x 81.28 mm. = 1.275 c.c.). Against that, this is a considerably revised engine of proven design, retaining the Weslake combustion-chambers and siamesed ports and with a three-bearing crankshaft (which Ford is tending to turn to, in this class). Moreover, the Metro, while continuing with the Mini’s gearbox-in-sump transmission, is a sophisticated car in respect of such things as Hydragas suspension front and back, an ingenious part-throttle mixture-weakening device in its SU HIF carburetter, and most certainly in respect of how its three-door Hatchback body is assembled by the most advanced computorised welding-plant in the World.
If there is anything that may offset the complete success of the Mini Metro from Longbridge it is a fact of history. By which we mean that, whereas there have been periods in the development and the marketing of motor-cars when one design was unique in its time, and therefore unassailable salewise, this is unlikely ever to happen again. The Model-T Ford, the original Austin 7, the Volkswagen Beetle, to a certain extent the Jowett Javelin, and most certainly the Issigonis Mini Minor were completely individual cars which thus stood out on their own, whereas the Austin Mini Metro has to take its place among many other small economy cars of similar layout. It belongs in a tough market sector. So it is to British Leyland’s immense credit that the Metro looks like ploughing into the opposition, especially under such important headings as price, internal space in relation to car size, fuel economy, long servicing intervals, and a genuine attempt to obtain durability and low servicing costs. Added to which, Leyland claim the highest quality checks they have ever instituted.
Before we discuss the new Metro in more detail, let us express the warmest possible respect for Sir Alec Issigonis, FRS, whose original Mini Minor concept of a very compact yet very spacious car, using front-wheel-drive from a transverse engine, has been so widely copied the World over that it is now the accepted layout for almost all the smaller cars. Sir Alec must be feeling extremely proud just now, and with full justification, when he sees in the new Metro that is so vital to the future of British Leyland his old techniques being used again, along with the nitrogen suspension system conceived by him in conjunction with his friend Alex Moulton. The Metro represents a fresh monument to the two engineers. Alec and Alex. . . .
What Leyland is offering is a modern small car which possesses seemingly impossible roominess inside considering its modest 88.6″ wheelbase, which comes up to the standards of quietness. good ride, and performance averaged by its rivals, with the bonus of good fuel economy and 12,000 mile servicing intervals. What is more, the Metro has more than a touch of the Mini about it, such as that safety factor of “dodgeability” allied to remarkably unobstructed vision because of the very generous area of window-glass and short drooping bonnet. It is this front-end treatment that assists in giving a noticeably low air-drag factor (or “slipperiness”) of 0.41, which should be remembered if, as we do, you prefer the appearance of the higher bonnet line of cars like the Ford Fiesta.
Just before the Motor Show opened we were able to look at the new Longbridge factory in which Austin Metros are now being made at the rate of 2,000 a week, to lunch with Jim Donaghy who is responsible for this extraordinary computerised welding plant, and with Bob Jones, the engineer responsible for the Metro — both unexpectedly modest and obviously very competent men — and to drive the top-model Metro 1.3 HLS for some 500 miles. Right from our emergence in the dusk and rain onto the M6 the little car felt extremely reassuring, and we were soon overtaking other vehicles, the engine noise at 70 m.p.h. subdued for a car of this size, and wind-roar entirely absent.
The Metro’s controls and instrumention are excellent, although tt was a surprise to discover that on this British car the r.h. stalk controls the wipers and screen-washer, the I.h. stalk the direction indicators, whereas on the Editorial Rover 3500 from the same manufacturer the opposite applies! But no-one can complain of the very clear black-dialled instruments in a binnacle before the driver, with coloured-dial steady-reading fuel gauge and thermometer between the big speedometer and tachometer and nine warning lights grouped neatly below. Here it must he said that these warning lights indude those for brake-pad wear and low brake-fluid level, normally found only in more expensive cars. There Is a digital clock incorporated in the tachometer, which has a rev-limit band from 5,500 r. p.m. Another good aspect is the neat line of large press-down switches just below the facia on the right, for rear-window de-mister, hazard-warning lights, rear fog lamps, and the rear-window wipe wash. The driver’s hand falls naturally to these convenient switches. There is a manual choke, and the lamps switch is on the left of the steering column.
The Austin Metro has front-door bins reminiscent of those of a Mini, but less obvious and far more substantial. In fact, the interior stowages are plentiful, with a good well-lipped facia shelf, having a useful continuation tor the driver and a nonslip mat to retain any oddments placed upon it, a lockable drop-bin which (to answer a query) will take a Rolleiflex camera and more besides, and side bins in the rear compartment. On the subject of stowage, the hatchback is easy to load, and the back seat folds down either in one piece or over a third, or two thirds, of its width, giving a useful combination of load and passenger carrying combinations. The seat folding is easy, with catches that feel to be of good quality, and there is a shell that covers the luggage compartment as the Hatchback panel is lowered. When up, it is high enough to stand under. The key is required to unlock the Hatchback and we were a trifle surprised to find that it is held up automatically on this new British car by “Lift-O-Mat” gas struts made in Koblenz.
Although the Metro has something of the air of an enlarged and enormously spacious Mini about it, the resemblance has not been extended too far, except that, like the Mini and Mini Coopers before it, it is likely to be rallied and raced. The gear change is smooth, with reverse very easily selected by lifting the lever, the noise level is decently low, the Hydragas all-independent suspension gives a comfortable ride, and although there is some gear whine in the lower speeds, this is very faint. Likewise. torque reaction when the throttle is opened and closed abruptly is now less obvious – to reduce it further by using restraints between the engine and body-shell would, we gather, cause unacceptable vibration and noise, but a throttle-damper is incorporated to help quell these FWD reactions. The Metro’s seats are very comfortable, although a shade more leg support and somewhat more contoured squabs would be an improvement. The squab angle is easily adjustable by using knobs beside the seats, after taking one’s weight off the squabs. The very wide doors give easy access to the notably wide back seat, which can be folded in two sections when it is not wanted, as mentioned above
The Metro dodges much like a Mini when called upon to do so, but one is conscious of a lower-geared feel to the steering (just over three turns, lock-to-lock) and of some softness from the rear suspension. The Hydragas suspension units are interconnected across the car, incidentally not along it, as in other applications. The clutch is hydraulically-operated and the brakes, disc drum with split circuits for safety, are efficient. The rack-and-pinion steering has castor-return action and is light and accurate, nor is one particularly conscious of the Metro’s rather upnght steering-column rake.
The pedals are not unduly off-set to the left, but are rather high off the floor and some drivers have complained that the radio gets in the way of their left foot. The doors have useful “keeps”. On the test car the tachometer appeared to read slow and if one believed the computer the fuel consumption would have been around a 100 m.p.g., which of course is ridiculous. The engine always started promply but could with advantage be fractionally quieter at high speeds.
The 1.3-litre engine sends the Metro along very easily at 70 m.p.h.. when it is turning at just over 4,000 r.p.m. and at the 60 m.p.h cruising speed permitted on ordinary British roads, it runs quite reasonably quietly, at under 3,500 r.p.m. Road holding is excellent and even with two grown up passengers occupying the right-hand side of the back seat, with the other one-third folded for carrying luggage, it does not deteriorate. There is an understeer tendency in sharp cornering. Although at times the car felt undergeared in top, in fact mild hills reveal that the output of 63 b.h.p. at 5,650 r.p.m. and torque of 72lb/ft. at 3,100 r.p.m. do not give much top-gear performance, a drop to the lower gears being frequently needed, which is not in the best interests of fuel economy. Nevertheless, in very varied running, lightly and fully laden, the Metro gave 41.4 m.p.g. of four-star fuel. It will just run at 30 m.p.h. in top gear but needs to rev. to 2,500 or 3,000 r.p.m. for brisk get-away. That sets the standards for the Metro, after a comparatively short test with the top model, which at £4,296 undercuts the Ford Fiesta 1.3 Ghia by £162. Leyland claim for this model of the Metro a top speed of 97 m.p.h. and 0-60 m.p.h. acceleration in 12.3 sec. Such figures do not reflect other Metro attributes, such as high grade finish, the sense of plenty of elbow-room within, the superb forward and sideways vision, and the distinctive styling. The Metro’s grille takes on the shape associated with Volvo, Renault, Ford, Vauxhall, Mazda etc., but has its own contribution to make to the car’s exceptionally low drag. The wipers, which have two-speed and flick action, wipe right over to the driver’s side of the big laminated screen and the easy-to-use bonnet release lever on the correct side, inspite of the aforesaid Continental arrangement of the control-stalks. The 1.3 HLS Metro has a sunroof as an optional extra that can be replaced by a glass panel, velour upholstery, Lucas halogen headlamps, etc. The heater controls are easy to understand and heating and ventilation are very effective, as is the demisting. The two-speed fan functions quietly too. Tubeless Dunlop radial 155-70SR 12″ tyres were fitted to the test car, and it had the lockable fuel filler beneath a flap on the o/s, extra mirror, head restraints etc., of the HLS model. The fuel tank holds seven gallons, and the low-set-tank means easy brimming.
So how do we feel about this very important British economy car? it is certainly as good as, but not necessarily better than, the opposition in all major areas, and superior in some. While it is a great pity that talk of more than 60 and 80 m.p.g. cannot do the Austin Metro much good, we should expect 45 or more m.p.g. as a regular thing from the 998 c.c. versions, in which the engine is said to be smoother than it is in 1,275 c.c. form.*
Some time ago MOTOR SPORT predicted a sort of snobbish purchasing of the top small cars by those executives who feel the need to own a compact car that is sparing on fuel, but who crave individuality and character from such transport. The Austin Mini Metro meets this call admirably, especially as some very sophisticated extras, normally associated only with big luxury cars, right up to Denovo tyres. Smiths Computer and air-conditioning, are in the Longbridge pipe-line. The Metro comes in five variants, as follows: There is the “base” 998 c.c. Metro costing £3,095, which undercuts the price of a similar Fiat 127 and VW Polo. Next there is the 998 c.c. L-model. at £3,495, underpricing the equivalent Ford Fiesta and VW Polo. Next comes the smaller-engined HLE economy model Metro, at £3,695, less than for a similar Fiat Palios and VW Polo. And, as we have said, the top-of-the-range Metro 1.3 HLS (£4,296) costs less than a 1.3 Ford Ghia.
Never has it made more sense to “Buy British’ than now, if only because the fine new factory at Longbridge (which has a capacity of 6,500 cars a week with about 3,500 a profitable number) has cost £275-millions of our money and the modifications that have turned the aged A-series engine into Metro’s A-plus and enabled BL to make it, some £30-million. It would be nice to think that the Metro will soon be paying all this back and will help to stem the flow of Japanese small cars into this country, a wish sadly distilled by the thought that BL is associating itself with Honda for its next new cars. But this is typical of today – has not Ford become linked to Mazda? However, if interest is anything to go by the Metro will be a great success. Never before, when driving pre-release cars, have we known such interest, which is a measure of the publicity won for the Metro by BL’s publicity boys, under David Boole. Even if we were confused by ITV’s programme “A Car Is Born” about the Metro – was it quite apparent that it was protecting Britain, on the cliffs of Dover, from invasion and who decided which invaders — German, Italian or Japanese — should be repelled first? This we believe, was the subject of much politically motivated pre-filming discussion!
To conclude, if you contemplate the immensity of the clean new factory at Longbridge which robot-welds-up Metro body shells so efficiently, with instant electronic location of any faults in plant or car, know of the enthusiasm of everyone there, from gatekeepers to engineers, for the new car, and appreciate that Sir Alec Issigonis, Fellow of the Royal Society, started it all, for Britain in the days of the BMC Mini Minor, you must surely realise that it is only good sense to go by Metro.
* (Official m.p.g. figures for the Metro that uses 2-star petrol are: urban cycle, 37.2 m.p.g. at 56 m.p.h., 51.5 m.p.g. at 75 m.p.h., 39.9 m.p.g. – Ed)