John Davenport was the man who convinced Austin Rover’s top Brass their ‘Old Man’s’ Metro could be developed into a world-class rally car. In the first of a two-part story, he recalls the early trials and tribulations – and getting a bloke called Patrick Head to design it.
This is a story boasting several heroes, a few dragons and a dearth of fair maidens even the biggest fan of the MG Metro 6R4 could hardly call her attractive. But the old girl still goes about her weekend. business, winning every.
Back in the late 1970s, the motorsport activity within what had been known as Leyland Cars had become a bit of a political football. Michael Edwardes had joined the company at the beginning of 1978 and given it a good shake. I was the Product Planning Director at the time, but as the various companies were divided up, motorsport began its peregrinations around the company. By ‘79,1 was reporting to the Marketing Director ofJaguar Rover Triumph Ltd, and he was the first recipient of my suggestion that we should develop the Mini Metro (known then by its prototype designation LC8) into a rallywinner in time for the ’81 season. But no one was really interested. At that time, remember, the Group B regulations were only a twinkle in FISA’s eye.
A year later I was working for the Director of the Service Division. The TR7 V8 rally programme was at an end, its swansong coming on the 1980 RAC Rally, and all that was on offer for the season ahead was in the racing world the Rover 3500 (TVVR) and MG Metro (Richard Longman). We also had to close the Special Tuning shop, axe 17 jobs and move out of Abingdon to a new site at Cowley. But I did manage to persuade the company that we should develop and design a Metro-based homologation special to comply with the production requirements and rules pertaining to Group B of the 1982 Appendix J. It all sounded fine, but I didn’t have the faintest idea how we were going to do it or how we could find the money.
The first of these problems did appear to have a solution. For a week at the end of November we’d taken a racing Rover down to Paul Ricard for an extended test session. The circuit had been booked for the week by Williams Grand Prix Engineering, who at that time were sponsored by Leyland Vehicles, and they let us share it. We spent many a freezing day and congenial evening in the company of Patrick Head, and it was then that I suggested a Metro development project was the sort of thing that would suit Williams and provide them with a bit of diversification. Somehow the idea appealed to Patrick and, in mid-January ‘81,1 arrived at their old Didcot works to discuss the idea with Frank Williams and George Koopman.
What I needed first was a working prototype good enough to convince the company to go the whole hog and build 200 of them. Williams agreed on that basis. Little did they know that they would wind up making the pre-production prototypes as well.
Financing the project was a task resolved at about the same time. There were two very keen gentlemen whose job it was to promote and sell Metros: Tony Cummings and Ray Underwood. Their job was difficult for, unlike the Mini-Minor, market research showed the Metro was more likely to be the last car you bought rather than the first. Seeing motorsport as a way to change this image, they persuaded ‘The Man who Launched the Metro’, Tony Ball, to find £50,000 from his promotions budget to give to those innovative chaps down at Oxford. The project was to be called the Metro VHPD Very High Performance Derivative. It also helped that in moving from Abingdon to Cowley we sold off nearly all the contents of the stores. We had spent over £90,000 by the end of the year. But what had we spent it on? What car were we going to build? The only thing that was certain, given the provenance of the funds, was that it should be a Metro.
The first ideas discussed as we sat round the table at Didcot in early ’81 were based very firmly on what I would call the Ford RS 1700T concept: engine in the front, gearbox at the rear, short shaft between the two. But what engine should we use? With all the experience of V8s in TR7s and Rovers, it was hardly surprising we were soon considering an all-alloy V6 based on the V8.
But that turned out to be the season the Audi quattro changed rallying. It changed our thinking in the long run too, but it wasn’t certain, initially, that four-wheel drive would be universally adopted. So we ploughed on. But struck a problem when we put Tony Pond in the mocked-up shell. With the engine in the front, he had to sit on the back seat; either that or we put the engine there… Discussion about gearbox location for this now-mid-engined Metro was then brought to a Head when Patrick said simply: “If we are going to all this trouble, why don’t we make it four-wheel drive?”
Having looked at a quattro, I just couldn’t see how it could be managed. But there was no doubting the confidence of the Williams team. Patrick and John Piper got stuck in and were soon informally consulting with Xtrac’s Mike Endean on the transmission design. It was not long before the layout was pretty much agreed. The engine faced backwards, the gearbox in front of it, with a central `stepoff’ incorporating the torque split and centre differential. The rear differential was mounted on the engine and a short shaft took the drive across to the left rear wheel through the sump.
The problem of the engine still remained. David Wood, my ace Engineering Manager came up with an interim solution: take a Rover V8, carve out a brace of adjacent cylinders, weld the remains together, et voila! – a V6. In the long term, we had it in mind to use the Honda V6 destined for the XX,
the big car collaboration between Honda and Austin Rover, as the company was now called. For the time being, though, the plan was to use David’s engine (the V62V V6, two valves per cylinder) and press Honda shortly to become Williams’ engine suppliers in Fl for more information.
This search produced a bizarre occasion in the summer of ’82. On a visit to Williams, Honda engineers saw the Metro shell. Having evinced an interest in what engine was going in it, they were sent to Cowley where we had a V62V on the dynamometer. These immaculately dressed gentlemen got excited when Cliff Humphries explained how the engines had been made from a Rover V8.
Almost without waiting for him to switch it off, they leapt into the cell and, with no fear of burnt fingers or oily suits, traced the weld right round the block, over two cylinder heads and the sump. Sadly, their enthusiasm for our ingenuity did not immediately produce a Honda V6. In January 1983, we did establish formal contact but still received no detailed specification of the XX engine.
‘Patrick Head said simply: “If we are going to all this trouble, why don’t we make it four-wheel drive?”‘
By the end of 1981, we knew basically what we wanted to do but not how to do it. That October, during the grand prix in a Las Vegas car park, Patrick Head interviewed a young engineer within the halls of Caesar’s Palace; he impressed and got the job of designing composite monocoques. His name was Brian O’Rourke, and he’d been working on the F-18 Hornet at Northrop. But once installed at Didcot in January ’82, he learnt his first job was to design the all-steel Metro. It is to his everlasting credit that he did not catch a plane back to California and that the 6R4 has enjoyed such an enduring and successful career. Working with the established team of Piper, Ian Anderson, John West and Derek Jones, the first prototype was soon under way.
The most significant development of 1982 came in June when Harold Musgrove, the Chairman of ARG, decided to bring the Motorsport Department back into the centre of things. Now I was to report to Peter Woods in Product Planning — back full circle — and have a direct link to the new Board.
The Rover race programme was going well and, after several presentations to the marketing boys, we got a chunk more money. Just as well: the total Metro bill for 1982 was over £260,000.
With ARG now far more committed to motorsport, and the Metro in particular, the debate became more serious about where the 200 cars were going to be built I had done the rounds of outside firms but the feeling was strong that any Metro should be built in Longbridge — and that was the decision.
The next thing to be decided was how to get type approval for 200 road cars. This was tricky — and became trickier still when we added all the wings and other aerodynamics. Even in its early stages, the DoE guys who had come to Didcot to assess the car were having difficulty lifting their chins off the floor.
I persisted with this line of thought until January 1983. The problem was simply that we needed mainstream engineering resource to get type approval and, with all the other models coming on stream at the time, there was just no way the company could make room for us in those areas. And there always remained in the company that tribal feeling in the engineering departments about their Austin, Morris, Triumph and Rover ancestry. The Metro was seen as a Longbridge car, thus three-quarters of the company could always find something more important to do when asked. Also, we calculated that by choosing the kit car route, we could make all 200 into rally cars that would need minimum alteration to enter an event, and we could save the company £2.25m in production costs.
Meanwhile, down in Didcot, the first prototype was nearing completion. On 3 February 1983, Brian and John became the first people to drive it. Two days later it was outside again having been weighed on the public scales in Didcot Patrick Head decided to have a go and drove round the corner, where he discovered to his dismay that Frank Demie had assembled the entire collection of Williams Fl cars to be photographed with the staff Everyone seemed to be wielding a camera; somehow no shot of P Head, rally driver, ever reached the press.
The first serious steps of our new toddler were taken on Chalgrove Airfield on 11 February with Tony Pond at the wheel. It behaved impeccably. The straight cut stepoff gears made it sound like a turbine as it came towards you.
A week later, my blood pressure flicked off the scale when a driveshaft broke trying standing starts on slicks. Two months later it went into orbit when Steve Soper, standing in for an absent Pond, had the first Metro 6R4 accident, overturning the £500,000 toy into a field at Chalgrove.
Gradually, though, we made progress and felt confident enough to give senior management rides in the car during the latter part of May and June. They still needed to commit to making 200 of them. It was also payback time for the marketing boys as we did a deal with Yorkshire TV to give the Metro 6R4 a starring role in their tale of ordinary garage folk going rallying, The Winning Streak. As this was to be filmed in early 1984, the timing was just right and it was going to be a big thing for us. I remember a meeting between ARG and Yorkshire TV where our corporate guys were suggesting all kinds of innovative things — like ARG logos on the underwear of both sexes for the bedroom scenes!
The engine problem became truly thorny in September when ARG’s senior engine man, Ron McIntosh, returned from Japan having viewed the XX engine. It was rather different from Honda’s V6 F2 engine. There were double hydraulic lifters for one thing and it was immediately clear that this was never going to become the 400 bhp-plus screamer we had hoped. The only alternative was to design and build our own V6 engine. David Wood aged 10 years when this sunk in — and promptly lost 15 when he realised this was a chance to build a real racing engine.
I was due to present our 1984 budget to the ARG Board on 21 September and, literally in a week, the figures were assembled on what we would need for the new engine and what the timing plan was to be. It had to be up and running less than 12 months from the first drawing. Fortunately, Steve Soper — with — a little help from Rene Metge — came to our aid. Driving the Hepolite Rover Vitesse, they won the TT at Silverstone defeating an armada of BMWs, Jaguars, Alfas and Volvos, and doing so in front of a sizeable section of ARG’s Board. Suffice to say that the atmosphere in which the budget was discussed was upbeat and the engine got the immediate go-ahead. David Wood promptly set up an additional design office in the Midlands with Bob Farley and Mike Bradbury.
By July, two more bodyshells had been delivered from Williams to Cowley and our motorsport workshop got to grips with building them into rally cars. This was done under the guidance of John West and Dave Hart, who until then had been working almost full-time at Williams. By the beginning of October, it was felt that the project had reached the point where it could be handed over from the design team. A very private event was staged at our new home in Cowley where Messrs Williams and Head, plus the design team, turned up and 001 was driven round the yard in front of the entire staff. It was not the end of the Williams involvement by any means, but it was a watershed.
It was now our problem to develop the MG Metro 6R4 into a rally car, design its powerplant, and detail the entire vehicle so that it could be replicated — 200 times.
It doesn’t even sound easy.
‘Seen as a Longbridge car, three quarters of ARG could always find something more important to do’