Octagon’s Renaissance. Triple-M register. These MGs are better than you think. These once-derided MGs are undergoing a revival, enthuses Simon Charlesworth as he compares #MG-Metro
at the Cowley factory where two of them were built. Photography Tony Baker.
As the present forever trundles forth, giving an ever-changing perspective of yesteryear, British Leyland and Austin Rover Group cars now conjure a great deal of enthusiasm and nostalgia. So, dear cynics and peddlers of doubt, please pause your scepticism.
Previously, these MGs have been widely mocked and scorned, but now this view is only held sacrosanct by the low of brow. Glimpse their vivid detailing – those alloy wheels, red octagons and striping, lower door graphics, digital instruments, black spoilers and seatbelts brighter than a Yuppie’s braces – and you’re transported back to the early ’80s. It was a time when BL/ARG finally got around to serving up one last new home-grown range, before Honda’s influence would become prevalent.
It is understandable why some enthusiasts, in the wake of BL’s neglect of MG, would be highly dismissive of the #MG-Metro-1300
. Hostile Leyland management had starved Abingdon of much meaningful investment since #1968
, before opting to close a strike-free plant that had persistently topped the company’s quality tables in #1980
. Only after the furore and closure protests did the firm decide to preserve the MG name. At the eleventh hour, it realised just what it had done: aborted a marque that people held in great affection and which, crucially, they still wanted to buy. Cue the old #BMC
reflex – badge-engineering – until a new sports car could be launched.
Today’s location is where the Maestro and Montego were made – if not our Longbridge alumnus, the Metro. Established by Morris, the Cowley plant is now the home of our kind host, MINI. Tanya Field from the MG Car Club’s Front Wheel Drive Register acts as our knowledgeable guide, pointing out what would have gone where and when. There’s the car park that we’re standing on, formerly V Building (post-1992 Maestro/Montego paint and assembly) with T Building (press and tooling) dating from pre-ARG being used as our backdrop.
When the first ARG MG – the Metro 1300 – hit the road in May 1982 there were still some new MGBs haunting dealerships. Before the #MG-Metro
appeared, though, a blast from the past turned up at Longbridge with his idea of a go-faster version of BL’s supermini. John Cooper had based his prototype on a #1982 #Austin-Mini-Metro-1.3HLS
. It ran twin carbs, a 997 Cooper cam, free-flowing exhaust and oil-cooler, a n d w a s capable of Cooper ‘S’ performance. The car looked understatedly sporty, only wearing decals along its its lower flanks and sitting on Wolfrace Sonic ‘pepperpot’ alloys.
Developed in tandem with the Vanden Plas version, the MG Metro was up and running by late #1981
. It did draw from Cooper’s prototype, but the factory car was more powerful and more sophisticated. It was the first Metro capable of exceeding the ton – 0-60mph in 10.9 secs with a top speed of 103mph – courtesy of a low-drag, rear-spoiler-cum-screen-surround and a tuned 1275cc A-plus engine. Output was raised 12bhp to 72bhp at 6000rpm with 73lb ft at 4000rpm in part via a new cam profile (more severe and with greater overlap than that of the ‘S’) and compression raised from 9.4 to 10.5:1. A performance exhaust was specified, and an SU HIF44 carb bolted to a water-heated inlet manifold stabilised the temperature of the ingoing mixture.
Slipping behind the chunky wheel of Nick Hunter’s fantastically original Cinnabar Red 1983 MG Metro, you need a minute. The interior space utilisation is most impressive and must come second only to the impact left by that wheeled bungalow, the #Austin-1800
. Then there’s the jazzy trim, that minimalist David Bache pod-on-a-shelf dashboard adorned with instruments sporting graphics that border on New Romantic, and is that a suggestion or a genuine hint of #Austin-Rover
new car smell?
“When they brought these out, I was 20-21 and it was ‘wow!’” enthuses Mini Cooper Register stalwart Hunter. “I’d always had a soft spot for them, had never owned one and they were as cheap as chips, so I thought ‘why not?’ It’s the natural successor to the Cooper S!”
After my recent go-faster Mini refresher course, it isn’t a surprise that so much is familiar. The ride is less frenetic than a Mini, but still a touch firm and not as refined as Moulton’s fully interconnected Hydragas that graced the 1990 Rover Metro. The lack of a fifth gear could be tiresome on the motorway – it’s a shame that ARG didn’t buy Laycock’s Mini Metro overdrive – but these are the only niggles.
The Metro still feels brisk. At 50mph pulling a mere 2500rpm over snaking B-roads, the light, direct steering – bordering on the Mini’s electric responses – is sharp, full of feel and in-synch with the front-end’s quick wits. The driving position is a touch Mini-esque, but the bolstered sports seats and the lack of any detectable body roll or steering load-up make wriggly roads an utter G-force-loaded joy. It may have been fashionable to criticise the old campaigner engine, but right here and now, zinging through the swift gearbox – the four-speeder shames all of its Issigonistransmission ancestors – the A-plus is far more capable than some newer overhead-cam units.
Moving up a class: notoriously and typically BL, it took the Maestro seven years to get into production and replace the Maxi, Marina and Allegro – which explains its slightly last-season Ian Beech/David Bache styling. “I’m sure that in around 1979, when we built the first Maestros, the #MG
was not on the development programme,” says former ARG technician Paul Bott (see panel). That view is reinforced by ARG’s decision to axe the Maestro three-door and maybe why there were issues extracting competitive performance from the MG’s stopgap engine.
Masterminded under BL’s engineering chief Spen King using CADCAM, the Maestro would be the first conventional steel-sprung Austin car – MacPherson struts leading VW Polo-derived rear torsion beam – since the last A60s in 1969. Alec Moulton’s Hydragas system was discounted on grounds of costs and complexity. In another break with the past, the Maestro abandoned the Issigonis (gearbox-in-sump) transmission for the more popular Dante Giacosa-favoured end-on configuration. And, to save costs, ARG bought in a Volkswagen five-speed manual gearbox.
S-series engine development was running behind schedule, so it was decided to use the R-series. In effect a halfway house between the overhead-cam E- and S-series units, it is a fettled 1598cc ‘E’ that accepted the VW 020 gearbox. To realise competitive outputs of 103bhp at 6000rpm and 100lb ft at 4000rpm, twin Weber 40DCNF carbs were installed atop a short eightport manifold. This led to hot-starting problems due to the engine’s non-crossflow cylinder head – and that wasn’t all. Carburettor icing was an annoyance: the R-series was mounted 180º around from the E-series, placing induction at the front. Plus, by removing the in-sump gearbox, crankshaft failure became an issue due to the loss of block rigidity. The S-series delay – it wouldn’t be ready for 17 months – was something that cash-strapped BL/ARG’s tarnished reputation really could have done without.
Yet, as you sit behind the grey two-spoke wheel in the glassy cabin and observe the dash, it is beguiling. There’s the solid-state instruments with digital speedo and vacuum-fluorescent ancillary displays – plus a trip computer – to study as you cycle through the voice synthesis info and warning system. None of the quality and reliability ‘BLunders’ seem pertinent when faced with such a futuristic piece of theatre, which is part War Games prop, part ZX Spectrum 48k, and which can actually talk. Actress Nicolette Mackenzie’s voice is full of authority – sounding as if The Good Life’s Margo Leadbetter is being channelled by a Speak & Spell – beaming yours truly right back to his childhood.
Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, the Maestro. Norman Dawson’s Opaline Green 1983 MG 1600 has performance air filters fitted that amplify the Webers’ bubbly gargling duet as we leave our location. The next surprise is the R-series engine’s eagerness to rev and fill the cabin with an Italianate four-stroke song that is more spicy Fiat than Cowley hatchback. Past 2500rpm, then 3000rpm, and beyond 4000rpm it croons with a sporty rasp. It really does shift, before mechanical sympathy calls time.
“It was a wreck when I bought it in 2011,” says Dawson, before recounting all the Maestros he’s had and still owns. “I burnt lots of pullovers learning to weld and sourced a lot of parts... I’m only just beginning to forget the horrors of doing it! It develops into an illness, doesn’t it?” The driving position is straightforward and comfortable, as are the hip-hugging bolstered seats. The VW gearchange is fluid, average of throw and engages easily. The rack-and-pinion steering, even at parking speeds, is by no means heavy and has you questioning the point of power assistance. At higher speeds over twisty roads, the 111mph Maestro is a laugh, with brilliant manners. The steering is nicely connected, precisely geared and pleasingly weighted, while confidently relating feedback.
Combined with crisp body control, swift turnin – not compromised by the Maestro’s comfortable, long-travel ride – and eager frontend grip, this car is vastly better than any go-faster, first-generation, front-drive Volkswagen that I’ve driven. Really.
Before such impressions grow stale, I swiftly transfer into the Maestro’s big brother – Jeff Patterson’s Zircon Blue #1984 #MG-Montego-EFi
The two share suspension and floorpan, but the 101in-wheelbase Montego is heavier than the shorter (98.7in) Maestro. In MG form, it packs a completely different engine, the 1994cc O-series (also subsequently fitted to the 1984 Maestro EFi). The driving position is again spot-on, the seats less hip-huggerish and more comfortable, while the talking digital dashboard is a later development from ARG’s new design boss Roy Axe, who was Bache’s successor.
“People always ask if it has the talking dash or they’ll come over and give the thumbs up,” says Patterson. “It’s the only talking dash on the road – we know of just four in existence. I think they made them for nine months because it’s a gimmick. It’s not a good one. When the sun’s out, you can’t see the digital readout!”
Stylistically, the Montego changed from being a rather unfortunate-looking booted Maestro to a car that would replace the Ital and Ambassador to compete in the Sierra/Cavalier class. Just as the Metro had experienced an 11th-hour restyle by Bache, Harris Mann, Roger Tucker and Gordon Sked, the Montego was transformed by Axe. Born a bluff-nosed droopy-bottomed mongrel blend of Beech’s Maestro and a Tucker notchback, despite time limitations it became a sleek saloon with a more cohesive aero-look. Fittingly enough, the 1994cc O-series – an alloy-head evolution of the overhead-cam B-series that had been introduced in #1978
– was developed by Abingdon to run on Lucas electronic fuel injection in both naturally aspirated and turbocharged forms. Originally envisaged as a new engine for the MGB, the honour of utilising this last chunk of MG engineering post closure would fall to the #MG-Montego-EFi
. In terms of transmission, instead of the Maestro’s VW 020 unit ARG’s new development partner Honda supplied its PG-1 five-speed gearbox.
Driving the Montego swiftly, the car feels more laid-back, more polished, less raucous and less chuckable than the Maestro. Indeed, I’m tempted to reach for the radio and hope for something catchy and electronic by The Human League or Tubeway Army – my local station was always behind the times – but fear instead that 2015 will burst the bubble.
Wielding 134lb ft of torque at just 2800rpm with 115bhp at 5500rpm, this fuel-injected engine’s output delivery is so linear that an obvious power-band eludes detection. Even though it has manual steering (PAS was an option), the only major differences between it and the Maestro are the shorter, better defined, marginally heavier Honda gearchange and a lower 3.875:1 final drive than the Maestro’s 3.65:1.
As with any of these MGs, sophisticates may pick on the interior trim quality, but to do so is to be blind to their Jean Michel Jarre charisma. With the photos all done, we finish at the same time the shifts change at Cowley. As the men and women head home, many stare and remark at our line-up of overlooked sports saloons. Some quip and wisecrack, while a few have memories from 30-plus years ago and many smile. Speaking as one who has been guilty of the former, after experiencing the cars and their owners’ enthusiasm, I cannot help but change my viewpoint to the latter.
Thanks to the owners, Paul Bott, Tanya Field of the MG Car Club’s FWD Register, Adam Sloman (MGCC) and Dinara Omarova at MINI Plant Oxford.
‘I’M TEMPTED TO TURN ON THE RADIO, HOPING FOR TUBEWAY ARMY OR THE HUMAN LEAGUE’
From top: subtle alloys; Patterson says the first thing people ask is if dash still talks; injected O-series gives performance on par with VW Golf/Jetta GTI.
From top: distinctive alloys; serial Maestro restorer Dawson; digital gauges; stopgap R-series is a rev-hungry revelation; sharp lines have aged well.
‘IT IS VASTLY BETTER THAN ANY GO-FASTER, FIRST-GENERATION, FRONT-DRIVE VW’
‘THE LACK OF ROLL OR STEERING LOAD-UP MAKES WRIGGLY ROADS AN UTTER DELIGHT’
From top: Wolfrace Sonic alloys; owner Hunter; neat David Bache dash pod; similar engine layout to Mini, but better access; lively Metro handles well.
Not quite 50 shades, but grey dominates the cabins, livened up by very 1980s red piping and carpets. Supportive sports seats feature in all three cars.
Wind of change
“The photo is of me at the Mercedes wind tunnel in about #1983
, doing the aerodynamic sign-off for the MG Maestro 1600,” says Paul Bott, who joined BL as an apprentice in #1974
and worked on both the MG Metro and Maestro as a technician within prototype build (body and trim).
“In the early days, there was no mention of a sporty Metro – the only one they did was the Austin Mini Metro 1.3S. Abingdon closed in #1980
, which was the year of the Metro launch, and I believe that’s what caused ARG to look into new MGs.
“I did a lot of the wind-tunnel testing for the MG Metro and Turbo. We used to work day and night shifts at MIRA doing different trim heights, getting the ride height right to see if it would affect the aerodynamics and reporting back to the styling studio about the proposed spoiler kits. Ironically, on the MG Metro Turbo the front spoiler actually increased aerodynamic drag. We went back to them, but they’d already signed it off as a styling feature because they were more interested in the aesthetics of the kit.”
Turning to the Maestro: “The original rigtesting for its rear suspension was based on a Polo, and we used VW top-mounting bushes on it – so it was pretty similar to the Golf set-up... VW gave or sold us 26 Jettas that we converted to run using our engines with their gearboxes. We altered the chassis, put a big power-bulge in the bonnet and we used them for mileage cars. I often wonder where they went... The Maestro was a good vehicle. I remember testing them at MIRA and we had a #VW-Golf-GTI
and an #Audi-80
as comparison vehicles. The Maestro was equal to them on ride and handling.”
Why were the drag figures obtained in Germany? “They chose Mercedes to release the Maestro’s drag co-efficient because its wind tunnel produced the lowest readings in Europe. We’d done the aero work at MIRA. Ford did all the development or signed off the Sierra at Mercedes, and when all the manufacturers found out that it gave a lower reading than anywhere else, many went there to sign off models! This was the early ’80s when drag co-efficient was God really.” Bott adds: “People slag off the Metro and Maestro, but they weren’t bad at all.”
Mercedes wind tunnel became favourite when it was found to produce the lowest drag readings.