Metro at Forty


After almost five years without announcing a brand new vehicle, the release of the Austin Metro was highly anticipated. Designed to be a replacement for the Mini, the Metro didn’t quite surpass its little brother during its run. Whilst many companies had already begun to investigate the super-mini market, British Leyland and the Metro entered late into the race. After a last minute redesign, the revised Metro made its grand entrance to the public in 1980.

Despite being the butt of many jokes over its lifetime, the ‘everyday’ looking Metro remains one of the top ten best selling cars in the UK. It remained popular with the British public throughout its production life, despite becoming a relatively old design by that time. Forty years on we now want to celebrate the little car that had such a big impact…

Before the Metro

In 1975 Sir Don Ryder complied a report as the head of the UK National Enterprise Board. “British Leyland: The Next Decade” listed his recommendations to secure the future of the company. This list included merging all the manufacturers, including those of commercial vehicles as well as cars, to limit the number of competing vehicles and factory locations. It highlighted significant overlap in vehicles ranges and suggested limits to the number of vehicles produced as well as development for efficient future vehicles.

Organisational restructures as laid out by the report meant that the company almost came under national control by the end of the 70s – with the government owning the majority of the shares. Whilst the company remained public, this Government support provided much needed financial help and prevented the company going into bankruptcy. Despite this, by the 1980’s, the newly named British Leyland Motor Corporation was once again struggling. 

In a time that saw active Union action and workforce walkouts, coupled with a fuel crisis that was demanding more cost efficient cars, the company was in need of a fresh approach but had limited finances for development.

1975 ADO 88 full-size model in the Design Studio in the former Commercial Vehicle Showroom at Longbridge.

1977 Sir Michael Edwardes in his office at Longbridge with a copy of the Leyland Mirror

Before the Metro

In 1977 Michael Edwardes became Chairman of British Leyland, and was key to pushing through the Metro project. He pushed to upgrade the available technology and in turn improved productivity in the factories. His approaches to dealing with the Unions and workforce allowed the Metro to develop and provided a much needed turnaround for the company – at least for the time being.

As ADO88 was being prepared for production, poor feedback from focus groups Indicated that the car looked too ‘utilitarian’ and ‘van-like’. This brought David Bache into the picture. Previously one of Rover’s first car ‘stylists’ who was involved in the design of the Range Rover and the Rover SD1, Bache led a last minute overhaul of ADO88. This redesign ended up altering every exterior panel of what would then become the more appealing LC8 – the Metro.  

Automated Assembly

As part of a large scale expansion of the British Leyland factory at Longbridge, planning for the new Metro line began in 1975. Time was short to get it ready in time for the Metro’s launch in October 1980.

New West Works was a first for British Leyland.      £15.5 million was invested in the  highly automated and advance production line, which used extensive robot input. 

 1981 advertisement for the European export market with a humorous take on the advanced robot technology used to build the car.


Marketing the Metro

Following Britain’s entrance into the common market, the Metro was designed to rival the Ford Fiesta, Renault 5, Fiat 127 and Volkswagen Polo. The hatchback’s newly designed body shell was the most spacious of all its competitors, with the addition of a split 60/40 rear seat; and was key to its overall success

With the commissioning of an advertising campaign led by The Leo Burnett advertising agency the strapline for Metro “A British car to beat the world” was presented. Much of the marketing revolved around patriotism and supporting the British brand over “foreign invaders”. This was an attempt to combat increasing bad press regarding job losses and factory closures. By 1981 Metro had become one of the bestselling mini cars in the UK. Its successful ad campaign complemented the nautical theme of the dealer and fleet launch on, held on cruise liner MS Vistafjord.

1980 Austin Metro colour and trim guide. Colours ranged from Applejack to Emberglow as well as metallic options such as Peridot and Silver Birch. The interior trim options included vinyl, marle fabric or even velour. These options were only available in certain colour combinations, helpfully explained by the chart on the back of the guide.  

Quality Control

With changes to the A-Series engine, the Metro embodied good fuel economy and reduced service needs. More space, folding seats and quality interiors would allow people to downsize their vehicle whilst still having some benefits of larger cars. Prices ranged from £3,095 – £4,296 dependent on the model specifications.

From the outset, quality was central to the development of the Metro with engineers being involved right from the start. They were able to make changes to the design and manufacture throughout the process. This was true for each fault even when this meant substantial changes to the design.

The automated body lines in the factories meant that two body shells could be completed in only 45 seconds! Not only did British Leyland become leaders in the use of new technologies for production, but they had breakthroughs in quietness as well as fuel consumption. The testing programme lasted five years and covered two million miles.

Metro reliability poster. One of a series that shows how the Metro City is both reliable and economic. 

Rover 100, 1997

More from the Archive

Smooth Sailing?

The Metro was considered to be such an important turning point for the company that well over £1 million was allocated to its dealer launch on a cruise liner. Planning for the Austin Metro press launch began in 1978, more than two years before the car was expected to make its public appearance.

With over 2000 sales outlets across the UK,  any new model launch involved bringing the representatives to a central location. A large venue was clearly required.

The MS Vistafjord was chartered, making a total of eight trips to the Isle of Man from Liverpool in September 1980. 

The theatrical reveal of the Metro on board the cruise liner overall hosted 3200 people, however, due to very heavy seas during one of the eight trips, some of the guests unfortunately succumbed to sea sickness during their short voyage. This combined with the weather meant they were unable to take part in a test drive whilst on the island!

Material donated by Ken Clayton

Metro Mania

The car became an icon in its own right. Despite it initially being designed to be a replacement for the Mini, the Metro instead ended up fitting snugly between the small Mini and the larger Allegro. Although never really considered to be quite as fashionable as the Mini it was supposed to replace, the Metro temporarily saved British Leyland with over 130,000 selling in the UK alone during 1983. 

The redesign and relaunch over its lifetime led to great success. In 1990 the Metro was voted Best Small Car in the World by Autocar and Motor, but in the end the Metro was unable to keep up with its competitors. By the late 1980s British Leyland were finding it increasingly difficult to compete within expanding foreign markets. Sales began to drop in favour of other vehicles such as the Ford Fiesta.

1985 BBC Children in Need. Terry Wogan and Sue Cook auctioning the one millionth Metro. This is a top range Vanden Plas five-door model.


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Metro & Me

During its 18 years in production, the Metro went on to become an everyday classic, with a special place in the memories of many.

Did you drive or own a Metro? Maybe you learnt to drive in one? We would love to hear and share your stories and picture of you and your Metro in our ‘Me & my Metro’ section. Get involved by emailing us at:

Gregg H: In 1995 I was working as an art director at an advertising agency in London called KMM, it was set up by the departing head of Rover marketing Kevin Morley. Myself and my copywriter partner were set the task to advertise the Kensington derivative of the Rover 100. It was at the height of the competition with Renault and their Clio, they had Nicole, and we had Nathalie. A previous spot had featured Nathalie shopping in the ultra snobbish Burlington arcade in Knightsbridge. In the Kensington spot we came up with the idea of Nathalie’s Rover 100 Kensington being ‘hijacked’ by the close protection motorcycle police officers who were supposed to follow a certain Princess of the time. We shot the commercial in and around Kensington over a few days in spring 1995, the weather wasn’t great but with a little film magic, fake petals and flowers we managed to give the impression of a spring day. Not everything went to plan though, our first star car fell off the back of the truck it arrived on and because of a mix up with shooting permits in Kensington park, we found ourselves, along with the whole crew, arrested for a short time by the park police.

More from the Museum


1986 MG Metro 9x 6 cylinder turbo prototype

Following his retirement in 1971, Sir Alec Issigonis continued to work for British Leyland as a consultant and this MG Metro is his last prototype...

1985 MG Metro 6R4 rally car

One most spectacular MG cars ever built, the 6R4 had only a superficial relationship with the standard MG Metro car. It was developed for Austin Rover by Williams Grand Prix Engineering. 6R4 stood for 6 cylinder, rear engine, four-wheel-drive...

1979 Austin Metro Notchback

A number of variants were always on the cards, although the three-door hatchback was the only available one at the 1980 unveiling – even the five-door supermini had to wait another four years after launch...
1985 MG 6R4 test car

1983 MG Metro 6R4 Prototype

The 6R4 Group B rally car was developed for Austin Rover by Williams Grand Prix Engineering. 6R4 stood for 6 cylinder, rear engine, 4 wheel drive...

Archive information

The archival footage used in this exhibition are extracts from “The Best of British Leyland”.

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