By on November 1, 2010

No story should ever start, as this one does, with “my First Rover Metro.” The implication that there are more Metros to come is all too obvious, and could probably be best categorized as a “cry for help.” In any case, my first Rover Metro was a teal 1995 1.1L Kensington edition, purchased for £60 from a friend in Bishop-Stortford. The Kensington edition meant I got shards of carpet over the door panels, and the kind of pizzazz that only an engineer from Coventry would be able to come up with. The Metro lasted only 19 hours in my hands before a brake failure led to its demise into the back of a yellow Hyundai. My second Rover Metro was a 1997 Tahiti Blue 1.1L Ascot edition*, which meant I got full wheel covers and blue piping in the velour. This only accelerated my descent into the world of English motoring, where I found joy and fulfillment in the death rattle of a Rover K-series engine.

*astute readers will recall that both vehicles are technically Rover 100’s, but are always remembered in pop culture as the Metro.

The Austin miniMetro debuted in 1980 as a vehicle “to take on the world” as explained in the television adverts which swelled with British national pride. With an A-series engine from the original Mini, a hydrogas suspension, Applejack Green paint, the miniMetro stood poised for superstardom. Britishconsumers seemed to agree initially, as the first couple years saw records sales. Yet like most things emerging from the behemoth that was British Leyland, the miniMetro ultimately suffered from the “ambitious, but rubbish” mantra pervading everything from Morris to Triumph.

The rust monster ate the front wings, head gaskets failed, and the hydrogas suspensions left miniMetros leaning to one side like a drunken Austin Princesses. Sales fell at alarming rates, and Metros became rolling jokes relegated to the retiree and poor student population. Grafting a Rover badge onto the front, dropping in the new K-series motor, and the “After all, it’s a Rover” campaign failed to bolster the tarnished image. Yet for 17 years, the British kept buying the things. I wish I could fail to understand this pattern of behavior, but I know it all too well, as being American, we bought the equally ambitious but rubbish Cavalier for far longer.

My Metro odyssey really began as my brother and I were left stranded in East Anglia during the ides of fall with a smashed Metro Kensington. We were on our way to a dinner party (or drinking fest, whichever) at the Coach and Horses Pub in Sheffield. Several phone calls to friends and a tow truck ride later, we were on the British Rail system headed north. The next two days in Sheffield became a whirlwind of surreal as me and my British mates decided purchasing a vehicle for less than £500 (or the cost of an airplane ticket to Frankfurt) was really the only solution to my predicament. We surveyed a white Rover 420d, but the blowing exhaust, knackered CV joints, and dodgy Hungarian owner put us off. We quickly ruled out a Proton, really shady BMW 318i, and a really nice Mercedes-Benz E300 owned by Ivy Tyldesly of Coronation Street. The Merc proved doomed when the heater failed to work, a requirement with the European winter approaching.

I nearly gave up hope, until a quick search in the classifieds turned up a 1997 Rover 100 Ascot, for £400, one-owner, 30K miles, and a long MOT and tax. The dealer was even driving it into Sheffield from Doncaster. Knowing when fate slaps you in the face, I couldn’t resist.

As I discovered, the Metro proved much better than my English friends had led me to believe. Acceleration was perfectly adequate, the ride was smooth, the transmission was fine, and the brakes were beyond scary. Hard plastics abounded, gaps were everywhere, yet the plush velour seats were very comfortable, which helped given the most awkward driving position this side of a double decker bus.

Yet shod with Pirelli P-Zero Corsa tires, the blue “Metro of Win” became a permanent fixture in the parking lot below the castle of Nurburg, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting Porsches and BMWs, pulling in a very frightening Bridge to Gantry time of around 11 minutes. The Metro took untold dozens of passengers around the Nurburgring at insane speeds of 110mph down hill, and at full suspension compression in nearly every turn, demonstrating the fact that knowledge, not horsepower, wins the day in the Green Hell.

The residents of Nurburg held a moment of silence when rust and electrical gremlins finally claimed its little life. Yet, it lives on, as the engine parts were salvaged to save a stricken mk1 Lotus Elise that broke down.

The Metros are hateful little cars, full of bad design, yet, they come together as whole that so rarely comes to light in the modern era. The Metro is a true metaphor of the culture that built it. Ambitious, but rubbish, but oh what cheap, joyful fun to be had.

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15 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1997 Rover Metro...”

  • avatar

    You didn’t mentioned how utterly abysmal they are in crash tests. A friend of mine nearly lost her legs after being involved in only a minor shunt.
    Before the horrid little shitcan got crushed I had the dubious honour of getting to drive it around for a week. I’m sorry but it was a hateful little crapbox. I could barely fit inside the thing (I’m tall, not fat), you could barely hear the radio over the noise of the road, and I’m sure that the focus group for styling the thing was made up entirely of the over 60’s. It made my 1.25 Ford Fiesta feel positively space age by comparison.

    • 0 avatar

      I know all too well the deathly crash ratings of it. A minor shunt killed the first one. Glad your friend survived!

    • 0 avatar

      Gee, and here the TTAC party line had me thinking that air bags and structural rigidity are useless and single-handedly responsible for vehicles’ weight gain – and, for good measure, that skillful driving prevents -all accidents-. And that being even a little concerned for safety makes you a paranoid girly man who never has fun.

      *rolls eyes*

      It’s too bad that your friend had to pay the price for automakers’ conservatism. And it’s too bad that after all such history, nostalgic mens’ men still seem to think that a steel dashboard and a big bumper are a-ok…

    • 0 avatar

      “You didn’t mentioned how utterly abysmal they are in crash tests. A friend of mine nearly lost her legs after being involved in only a minor shunt.”
      They weren’t great in crash test that’s true. However it is interesting to note that Rover for a time had the best and worst performing EuroNCAP cars on their fleet. The Rover was a pretty abysmal 1Star performer, whilst the Rover 75 was the first 5 Star car on the market.
      A further tidbit is that the metro of course begat the MGF, being essentially two Metro front ends stitched together as it were. Amazingly that was a very safe car.

  • avatar

    Hang on I think it needs to be recognised that on launch the Metro was fairly competitive with other cars in it’s class. But it was never developed in the way the Fiesta was. The K series is a case in point, here was a light weight powerful engine let down by a woefully inadequate head gasket. Witness how many months it took the Chinese to redesign it and get it right… The front wing rust is fair but a lot of cars rusted in the early 80’s. Where Austin Rover got it wrong was in not developing a new model to replace it quick enough. This car was still in production until BMW could not hide the safety issues. Even they were reluctant to kill it because it was still a strong seller.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    “The Metro lasted only 19 hours in my hands before a brake failure led to its demise into the back of a yellow Hyundai.”Quote
    I had the dubious pleasure of spannering one once , a pre-Rover model. I was surprised to see dual circuit hydralics on the brakes. If a failure lead to a crash , they must have been half-failed before you started.
    I drove a rental Metro for a day , around 1980 , and it was clearly not a worthy successor to the Mini.

    • 0 avatar

      Brake fluid leak due to old lines. Hardly any fluid for stopping power unfortunately. One pump, and Atlas shrugged. For the 60 miles or so leaving Cambridgeshire, I just thought the really spongy and unresponsive brakes were just due to it being a little crapbox. Little did I know when I needed them the most, they weren’t there.

  • avatar

    I agree with tstag. It was a good, competitive car back in the 1980’s. I had a 1989 Metro (handed down from my Mum). It was perfectly reliable and functional for 4 years at university. It was my first car and I have a soft spot for it. You have to love the angular dash design!! Maybe that is where Chrysler got it’s design inspiration from!

  • avatar

    from the back it looks like a yugo

  • avatar

    The Metro is a nasty piece of work. On a business trip to the UK in the early 90s I was given the choice by my rental company of a beaten up Ford or a new 1.1 Metro. I foolishly chose the latter and the damn thing nearly fell apart over the next few days. A rear door stopped working, the crank on the sunroof fell off, the sunroof leaked, the brakes pedal vibrated at every stop and any speed over 40MPH gave you the sensation of imminent death.

  • avatar

    Did it take a metric crescent wrench to work on it?  That IS what the wacky Brits label a tool referred to as a “spanner wrench,” isn’t it?
    “…being American, we bought the equally ambitious but rubbish Cavalier for far longer.”
    Over the years, while residing in the oft-term “rust belt” of the upper mid-section of the often ill-defined mid-west I noticed that many Cavaliers were akin to the Timex brand wrist watches of old that supposedly “took a licking and kept on ticking.”
    One of the kinfolk who were akin to so many other denizens of “fly over country” who then and many who even still, buy only “Big Three” products (even if it is only a rebadged ferrin’ car such as the Chevy badged Toyota model based upon the Corolla I believe and many other examples (Chevy LUV pick-up, etc. etc.)………
    anyway………  their Cavalier, bought used, lasted until after 200,000 miles (convert to your kilometers, parsecs, angstroms, astronomical units, etc. on your own you unAmerican pervs).
    Many other local examples of relatively reliable with minimal breakdowns and general lengthy miles and time durations between what were often minor problems were noted by the Coot.
    My observances were not based upon scientifically replicable studies but merely on general observations.
    Duly noted is that many Cavalier owners did ten to be younger and apparently did not devote much in monetary sums to maintenance and were often a hard-driving bu7nch with devil-may-care driving habits.
    Considering the low-price of the vehicle and the demograph8cs of what may have been the typical owner/driver I am unsure if the Cavalier was/is worthy of the despisement heaped upon the conveyance.
    Then, again, perhaps I am merely a “champion of the under-dog” eagerly awaiting the nose-in-the-air mob to be forced to graze from the country’s dumpsters to fend of hunger as they steadily devolve down into the ranks of the seemingly-to-me ever-growing ranks of the working-poor and even those facing destitution.

  • avatar

    Folks, this was a car that was actually launched in the late 70’s and survived with light facelifts into the late 90’s…. It was about 20 years old when it went out of production. Blasting it on safety is deeply unfair because it was only designed for 70’s crash regs. It’s not the cars fault Rover group couldn’t afford to replace it.
    In many respects you should praise it for rescuing the British car industry. As a car it was a stupendous success.

  • avatar

    I never sampled the joys of the Rover 100 but my first experience of British driving was in rented Austin Metro in 1986. This was probably a better time for the Metro since it was still a relatively recent design and ours was almost brand new,plus we came to it after a day in a Hyundai Pony.  The flying turd (it was brown, very brown) was the then newish 4 door in near basic City X trim with a 1275 A series and managed to blast around around various back roads better than either of our regular rides ( Volvo 164 and US built VW Rabbit) could have so overall my impression was positive.

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