DTW recalls BL’s last stand: the 1980 Austin Metro.
Friday, 8th October 1980 was the day. The car: most commonly referred to as Metro, others ADO88 (Amalgamated Drawing Office – from when Austin and Morris tied the knot in ‘52) with only those in the know as LC8. Forty years have now passed since the car hailed as Blighty’s answer to the inflow of foreign imports was launched. We deal here with the Metro’s tentative first twelve months (amidst some background) of being.
Any story concerning British Leyland inevitably must invoke the company’s changes of name and ownership, not to mention the impossibility of not mentioning crippling strikes, poor workmanship and the demise of the domestic car industry. Peeling back (most) of the bad apple nevertheless reveals a passion for this new project to succeed.
With experienced hands Spen King and Charlie Griffin at the helm, the Metro plan got off to a better start than most. Perennially cash strapped yet astute at finding talent, Griffin stipulated strict guidelines: larger than the original Mini, smaller than the competition, do not encroach on the (only eighteen month old) Allegro.
Griffin reported to higher management the car would be production ready for 1977, using Mini-aping aspects such as front wheel drive, gearbox in sump and the A-Series engine, a throwback of nearly forty years itself. Changes from the Mini included a simplified version of Dr. Alex Moulton’s Hydragas suspension system, allowing for better packaging along with more internal room, though it became increasingly clear that whilst providing excellent roadholding, Hydragas development should have continued.
As to that mill, the venerable A, an old side project to update the engine with an overhead camshaft stalled due to inconclusive results. A spending pot containing £30 million brought about the much improved A-Plus which would later power the Metro.
Mechanically resolved, the 88’s looks came under very close scrutiny. When head honchos Edwardes and Horrocks first clapped eyes on the model in January 1978, both realised changes needed not only to be swift but scathing. Backed up by frankly terrible reports from European held customer clinics, where comments such as bread van, slab sided and plain odd precipitated an emergency re-style. Under David Bache’s leadership, Harris Mann, Roger Tucker and Gordon Sked took thirty five days to sculpt the Metro proper, lending some coherency to proceedings.
The Metro was no Fiesta, nor Polo but then again it was never meant to be. At this juncture the code name changed to that of LC8 along with a whole new raft of testing and proving at goodness only knows what cost. A new nose, bumpers and chiselled sides, an echo to the SD1, encompassed an aerodynamic, handsome (enough) wee bolide. As a youngster of around ten, I remember the adverts though the jingoistic rhetoric was lost of this pre-teen.
The British Leyland company of 1980 was in truly dire straits. The Marina, Maxi and (barely alive) Allegro were plainly, beyond hope in more than just sales terms. The Mini still sold well, both home and abroad, but brought in little revenue whereas the all new (bill footed by the U.K. tax payer tuned to approaching £300M) Austin miniMetro (it’s very short lived first moniker) was more than a shot in the arm – the car gave real hope.
Built by an admittedly smaller workforce than before, commitment and standards raised the productivity bar – early days witnessed 2,500 per week. If the Allegro could be ditched, plans were afoot to ramp that figure to (with hyperopia) 8,000. An insatiable British public could not order a Metro fast enough.
Of course we now reach that point of the story where industrial action’s blue touch paper was ignited. Just six weeks into Metro production, a walk out over making (and unloading) seats and differences in shift production figures caused a violent reaction, with far more than tempers flying. Sympathetic colleagues downed tools; some were sent home. The strike lasted two days equating to six thousand Metro’s sans des places. Eight men were dismissed.
Early December saw plans to increase the workforce by an extra thousand souls to meet demand, with a push into European territories. Build figures were impressive – 3,500 per week. The Allegro somehow limping along with just 600, the Mini almost 1,200. These figures remained fairly constant, even with the unrest. Sadly, poor build quality leading to reliability problems increased warranty costs and bad publicity in the press, gaining only ill feeling and the wrong kind of momentum.
A week before Christmas saw another ugly standoff due to those eight seat men not being re-instated; 1,300 men walked out, effectively halting production until January 5th 1981. Production lost approximately 5,000. An uneasy truce was called.
The settled period did not last. Managerial hopes for upping production rates from 25 to 28.5 Metro’s per hour went down like the lead balloon. Nearly two thousand workers downed tools once more leading to over two thousand more being laid off, the strike lasting days. Longbridge was once more stock still. Yet actual production numbers remained high. Harold Musgrove defended the Longbridge plant and its workforce, especially since the plant’s weekly output of 6,000 cars (combined) was equalling if not bettering their rival European efforts, doubling the beleaguered plant’s numbers in recent times.
A performance Metro (MG badged) was news for Summer 1981, but those first twelve months ended in yet more industrial misery. A November pay dispute lasted but two days, swiftly followed by a full four week walk out named the Tea-Break strike, crippling those figures with around 24,000 cars lost, mainly Metro’s.
The title refers to Queen’s rousing music single, placed at number one in the charts the week after Metro’s launch. One possible reference could allude to Allegro, now all but itself moribund. Or maybe the decline in power of those trade unions once Red Robbo had himself succumbed to Michael Edwardes’ resolve. Finally (from me), a reference to the power of the Metro, seeing off those imports (initial sales were far greater than expected), a machine gun to those Johnny Foreigners, so to speak. I leave you, dear reader to form your own opinions.
A first anniversary should not end on a sad note but one more mellifluous. Road tests read positively – the engine, though based on something approaching antiquity assuaged decent economy with (in 1.3 variants, at least) performance that contemporaries baulked at. The exterior will forever remain a moot point though that interior was light, airy, offering excellent visibility with a modern style and quality designed features. And it sold like the proverbial hot cakes. Clinging steadfastly to these latter points, Metro was the final British winner. Surely that alone is worth celebrating?