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Ford Escort & Metro

Published: 11th Jul 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Ford Escort & Metro
Ford Escort & Metro
Ford Escort & Metro
Ford Escort & Metro
Ford Escort & Metro
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Two brand new cars from the top UK car makers but guess which one went on to cement the outfit’s future?

Autocar’s test metro came with one tinted window!

Before essex jokes, xr3 was a real rival to the Golf GTI

1980 – the year when people still boasted about owning a Sony C7 Betamax video recorder (the tapes were originally seen as much better quality than those hefty Video Home System ones introduced by the Japanese Victor Company – VHS from JVC), and when kids loved to ‘Get busy with the fi zzy’ Soda Stream machine. It was also a bumper year for new cars, from the Fiat Panda to the Audi quattro (see elsewhere in this issue), not to mention the real stars of the 1980 NEC Motor Show, the two family cars that would defi ne family motoring for an entire decade – the Austin Mini Metro and the Ford Escort MkIII. At the beginning of the 1980s, most Austin- Morris dealers needed cheering up and their hopes for the new supermini were only reinforced by the amazing press reception when the Metro was offi - cially launched in October of that year; “At last a British Car that no-one needs apologise for”, raved the never easy to please Car magazine. Flash forward 15 years and we have the more demented than usual Alan Partridge repeatedly raving that he’s “Not driving a Mini Metro!”. It is an opinion apparently shared by too many classic car enthusiasts but just why has the Metro’s reputation sunk so low? There was a brief but very real period in time, 1980 – 1982 to be precise, when a Metro really was seen as a desirable and even ground-breaking supermini, which affl uent middle class families could happily show off to the neighbours.

The Metro’s familiar coachwork dates from 1978, when Harris Mann (he of Allegro and TR7 styling fame) and his colleagues had to re-develop an earlier prototype in less than two months. The results of a marketing clinic were that the original design, ADO74, looked too much like a van, in comparison with its intended rivals. So, exit ADO74 and enter LC8, the eventual Metro, with barrelled sides that gave it a slightly unbalanced appearance – its wheels always seemed too small for its coachwork – but the interior was incredibly airy and spacious compared to its many rivals. As BL were proud to announce, the boot was 33 per cent bigger than that of the Ford Fiesta and the upmarket Metros even boasted a 60/40 split rear seat, a development that was almost unique for an early ’80s small hatchback. Power was from a redeveloped A-Series unit, the logically named A-Plus engine, which produced incredible fuel economy and was the fi rst BL power plant not to require a six-month service. BL’s opportunities for the Metro were helped by the fact that many of its rivals were now quite elderly; the Fiesta and the VW Polo may have only dated from the mid-1970s, but the Fiat 127, Renault 5 and Peugeot 104 were all approaching their tenth birthday. With such a promising car which, as the publicity noted, had cost £275 million to develop, what could possibly go wrong? The obvious answer was high warranty claims, carburettor problems and other build quality issues that should never have occurred in a car whose tried and tested running gear essentially dated back to the 1950s.

The staff at Longbridge did make valiant efforts to improve the Metro’s quality but, for all of the positive road tests, the Austin’s sales rarely exceeded that of the market leader – the Ford Fiesta. The Metro may have been more spacious, and offered better handling, but it was still dogged by BL’s reputation for appalling industrial relations. If the company did have an image in the very early 1980s, it was of news footage of angry strikers stood around a burning brazier somewhere in the Midlands. However, in 1981, the Metro did have a Sloane Ranger cachet that was entirely lacking from your average Ford Fiesta. The car with registration plate MPB 900 W may have looked like an innocuous Austin Mini Metro L (reclining front seats and nylon trim as standard) but from autumn 1980 until July 1981 it was the property of one Lady Diana Spencer!
In the early ‘80s British Leyland continued with its Metro development programme, resurrecting the octagon badge (which had died in 1980 with the closure of Abingdon) with the 1982 MG Metro 1300 (which had no more real performance than the rangetopping Metro Vanden Plas but did have some exiting red seat belts!). The bouncy but entertaining MG Metro Turbo launched in the following year and a rather well-balanced fi ve-door model arrived in 1984, when the Metro was Britain’s best-selling car. There was also the 1985 MG Metro 6R4, which was merely your humble everyday rally car fi tted with a four-cam 24-valve 3-litre V6 engine! 1984 was arguably the last time when the Metro was a market leader, for by this point it was rivalled by new generations of the Fiesta, VW Polo and the Renault 5 – plus the Peugeot 205 and the Fiat Uno. BL instigated project AR6, an advanced Metro replacement, but this was cancelled on cost grounds in 1987. Instead, there was the 1990 badged Metro powered by a K-series engine; a car that was well received by the motoring press but looked utterly dated in comparison with its peers.By the time the ‘Rover 100’, as the post 1995 models were known, ceased production in 1997 they looked about as current as a vinyl LP record.

That the Metro lived beyond the grave is one reason for its lack of favour, but the Mini prefi x of the early models highlights its real problem – that it was launched with a weight of expectations that could never be fulfi lled. The Metro was never a new Mini as it was simply not as ground breaking. Also, twenty-one years after the launch of the Morris Mini-Minor, the traditional Commonwealth export markets were now largely lost to the Japanese. Plus, there remains the sad fact that in 1980 BL was desperate, a fact very well illustrated by the infamous Metro TV commercial – featuring fl otillas of Polos and 127s being forced back into the Channel by a phalanx of Metros, to the accompaniment of Union Flag waving, marital music and a modest slogan – “A British Car To Beat The World”. For the salesmen at the NEC, there were genuine hopes that it would prove to be just that.

Meanwhile, in another corner of the Motor Show, Ford’s salesmen were girding their loins and quaking in their Harry Fenton suits at the thought of convincing die-hard Escort enthusiasts that FWD represented the future. For over 12 years the very name of ‘Escort’ had stood for a small RWD Ford, a car seen every Saturday on ITV’s World of Sport battling against Opel Mantas. On every Friday night at 9 o’clock, it starred alongside Martin “this programme is beneath me” Shaw and Lewis Collins (The thinking woman’s Roger Moore!). Collins frequently indulged in all manner of RWD RS2000 MkII shenanigans in pursuit of KGB agents in their Victor FD 1600 De Luxes. A FWD Escort – had all sanity been lost? But project Erika, initiated in 1974, was a pan European design aimed squarely at the VW Golf, the Talbot Horizon and the recent Opel Kadett/Vauxhall Astra. It remains one of the most radical designs to ever sport the blue oval badge. The new Escort was Ford’s second FWD car – the Fiesta was the fi rst - and Detroit invested a stunning US$3000 million into the project. The result was a small car with an old name, but a body and chassis that was 100 per cent new –- or “Simple is Effi cient” as Dagenham’s ever slick advertising department would have it. Powering the MkIII were all-new overhead camshaft 1.3 litre and 1.6 litre CVH (Compound Valve Angle Hemispherical Chamber) engines with yet another fi rst for a mass-market Ford, a light-alloy cylinder head (although the entry-level models had the 1.1 litre Kent engine from the Ford Fiesta – itself based on the old Anglia unit).

As a further break with the tradition of Escort leaf springs, the Mk.III had all-round independent suspension and, as if the idea of a FWD Escort was not suffi ciently radical, Ford devotees had to cope with the additional challenges of the MkIII being a hatchback. The latest Escort sported an “Aeroback” tail which both reduced its drag coeffi cient and gave it an extremely crisp and attractive profi le – anyone caught comparing the MkIII to the Volvo 343 was taken out and chained to an Austin Allegro 1500 Super as punishment! Naturally there was an extensive choice of trim levels, varying from the Popular (with a standard of equipment that equated with that of your average go-cart) through to the Ghia, which, by law, had to be finished in either metallic gold or metallic pale green. To satisfy potential boyracers there was also the XR3, still fi tted with a fourspeed gearbox until early 1982, but boasting a threedoor body decked out in air dams and spoilers. The 1.6 litre engine was augmented by a twin-choke Weber carburettor, uprated suspension, lots of auxiliary dials and, best of all, Pirelli P6 tyres on lightalloy wheels. Sales reps across the land instantly began scheming their way to obtain custody of such a magnifi cent car. The Escort MkIII was made ‘Car of the Year 1981’, and in the following year was the bestselling car in Britain. However, an initial early problem concerned the suspension set-up; a positive camber on the front wheels and negative camber at the rear resulted in the new Escort having a “knock-kneed” stance. Worse, on the bumpy B-roads that can make driving in the UK such a memorable experience, the MkIII displayed an extremely poor ride as disappointing a trade off for the admittedly ‘entertaining’ handling.

By 1983 these problems were ironed out and, besides, this was year when Ford launched the MkIII variant that came to defi ne a generation – the XR3i. Built at Ford of Germany’s Saarlouis plant, the XR3i boasted a Bosch K-Jetronic fuel injection system, a top speed of 120mph and a 0-60 time in a very credible 8.5secs. In many respects, the XR3i’s high profi le amongst sports enthusiasts, hooligans, minor league footballers, hooligans and budget-conscious getaway drivers (not to mention hooligans) has distorted the MkIII’s overall image. Certainly the likes of machinery such as the XR3i – not to mention the 1984 RS Turbo – inevitably enjoyed a high profi le, but for the vast majority of Britons their experiences of the Escort MkIII revolved around the standard hatchback or estate car; a world that was less Ashes to Ashes than Ever Decreasing Circles.

Any reader who grew up in Hampshire during the 1980s will recall the ubiquitous sight of threedoor Escort estate panda cars cruising through the mean streets of Titchfi eld Common, whilst others will have experienced the delights of the 1600L company car with its nylon upholstery. Ford’s generous trade discounts meant that the Escort enjoyed fleet sales that the larger Austin Maestro could only dream of. 1983 may have seen the debut of the XR3i, and the undeniably chic Karmann Convertible option for the top end of the Escort range, but it was also the year of the fi ve-door Mk.III Estate, the Escort 1.6 Diesel and, of course, the Orion. Basically a four-door three-box saloon version of the Escort, the Orion was evidently aimed at motorists who favoured de-mob suits, the happening sounds of Dickie Valentine and parking at the seafront in order to read The Daily Express and consuming oxtail soup from a Thermos fl ask. The MkIII was replaced in 1986 by the mildly face-lifted, and wholly logically named MkIV, having demonstrated, to Ford’s satisfaction, that its loyal fl eet and private customers could accept a FWD light-medium car that was genuinely cutting edge for its day. Over-familiarity with the Escort MkIII, especially the sporting variants, has masked both its impact and the fact that its numbers are now declining rapidly. And much the same could be claimed for the Austin Metro. That infamous launch advertisement may now give the subliminal impression that not immediately rushing out to buy a lime green Metro HLS invariably meant that you may be a Communist, but it was made at a time when Austin-Morris dealers were struggling to sell virtually unmarketable mid-range models in the face of factory closures and the real threat that the Government would remove all funding from BL. In that light, the Metro’s importance is obvious – regardless of the opinions of certain Norwich-based DJs.

When The Car Was The Star

The Metro’s main starring role was as a panda car in Juliet Bravo, a BBC Police drama series that seemed to run for approximately 256 years and whose car chases made those of Berjerac look thrilling by comparison. It also starred in The Bill and was Hyacinth Bouquet’s VDP in Keeping Up Appearances (but you remember the couple’s Rover 200 the most). As for the Ford Escort, any sighting of the MkIII Cabriolet in Dempsey & Makepiece is guaranteed to induce instant feelings of nostalgia – or perhaps utter horror, depending on your feelings for the ‘Greed is good’ 1980s.

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