Some competition cars attain a kind of cult mythology all of their own, one largely separate from the motorsport success they may or may not have enjoyed. Examples include the Volvo 850 BTCC racer, the Tyrell six-wheeler (the P34 to its mates), and today’s Retropower Hero, the Metro 6R4. None of these cars exactly set their respective sporting disciplines alight, either through poor timing, poor design or, in the case of the P34, a design so out there that the powers that be banned it.
Yet all three, and the Metro especially, are beloved by petrolheads of all kinds. BL’s boxy, over-square creation was never a match for its force-fed rivals, suffered from patchy reliability and actually scored its best ever WRC result on its Works debut. But this doesn’t really matter, not now, and it hasn’t stopped the 6R4 from becoming among the most beloved of all the fire-belching creations birthed by the Group B regs three decades ago.
Most of you will already be more than aware of BMC/BL/Austin Rover’s long standing association with rallying, one that reached its apex with the all-conquering Mini Cooper of the 1960s. The Monte-taming, Porsche-bashing exploits of Paddy Hopkirk and co translated to forecourt sales success for BMC and helped secure the company’s short term success.
Come the early ’80s however, and things were rather less rosy. A decade of industrial strife, economic instability and a run of duff models (take a bow Princess, Maxi and Allegro) had left Austin Rover in dire need of a boost, and in a conversation repeated in the boardrooms of car makers across Europe, Group B rallying was thought to be just that.
A plan to build a Metro-based Group B car was thus sketched out, with Harold Musgrove and John Davenport the driving forces behind the project. They eventually convinced a financially precarious, naturally cautious car maker like Austin Rover to commit to such a high profile endeavor, and the project was eventually signed off in 1981.
As was the case with many of the Group B projects, timing really was everything. Had Austin Rover been able to get the 6R4 onto the stages and running well by 1983, then it might well have been a winner. As it was development was protracted and at times tortuous, and certainly not helped by the various industrial strike issues dogging the company at the time.
BL had at least made the solid decision to enlist the help and advice of Williams Grand Prix Engineering in their development of the mighty Metro, and Patrick Head and his crew of F1 engineering wizards took charge of transforming the hum-drum Metro into a stage smasher. The upside to this was that early 6R4s were exquisitely engineered beasts built to F1 standards. The downside, one only truly realised in the fullness of time, was that they were found to be mite fragile and sometimes ill suited to the rough and ready world of stage rallying.
The Group B regulations also imposed rigid rules governing engine capacity, a means of promoting parity and fostering close competition between different manufactures. These same rules severely restricted Austin Rover’s room for manoeuvre though, as with the forced induction multiplier applied, the Metro would have been placed within a category with a minimum weight of just 960kg. This figure was simply impossible to meet at the time, not with the added weight of the four-wheel drive system factored in, and meant that the naturally aspirated, large capacity route became all the more appealing.
Austin Rover’s initial thinking was certainly sound and made a great deal of sense from the perspective of 1983, when the early A1 and A2 Quattros were blighted by patchy reliability and obscene turbo lag. Wind forward two seasons however, and things were markedly different. Peugeot, Audi and Lancia had moved the game on: special, high octane fuel enabled stratospheric power figures, while the likes of anti-lag and supercharging went some way toward solving the gap in power caused by turbo lag.
Not only was the Metro’s V6 down on power (390bhp was the claimed figure), it wasn’t able to provide the smooth power delivery everyone at Austin Rover had been banking on. The cause of a marked drop in power between 4000 and 5000RPM was only finally identified when the team trialled a new dyno late in 1986. A redesigned exhaust manifold largely cured the problem, but by then it was simply a case of too little, too late. Group B had been banned in the face of a brace of shocking accidents, and the Metro’s Works career had been brought to a violently premature conclusion. This meant that BL’s baby was forever destined to lack the outright grunt enjoyed by its rivals, certainly until the rallycross boys got hold of it some years later.
Other areas of the project were more successful, its chassis and suspension being good examples. Damping was entrusted to Bilstein, the firm’s engineering nous proving invaluable in the fight to make the mid-engined Metro handle in a predictable, controllable fashion. Custom damper units were designed for the 6R4 project, with distinct hardware designed to account for both sealed and loose surface events, plus a staggering selection of custom poundage springs.
Then there were those wings, the Metro’s most distinguishing feature from an aesthetic point of view, and additions that were intended to set it apart from the Group B herd. Other Group B cars, indeed other rally cars, had employed wings and splitters previously of course, but the Metro was one of the first of its peers to sprout a dedicated aero package of fully optimised parts. The only downside was that Austin Rover was forced to develop the 6R4 in the public eye, meaning that by the time it made its competition debut on the 1985 RAC rally, the cat was well and truly out of the bag! Audi’s S1 E2, Peugeot’s 205T16 E2 and the Delta S4 all sprouted wings and splitters, and the battle was well and truly on. None of this should take away from the fact that the Metro 6R4 boasted a very sophisticated and well realised aero package, with Tony Pond being particularly impressed by the difference it made to car’s ability to corner:
“I tested a car with and without wings at Gaydon. Driving it in wingless form through a section we called the ‘bomb hole’, I had to brake and drop to fourth gear. Then I did the same with the wings bolted to the car – and stormed through in fifth without lifting. The speed difference must have been 120mph against 105mph – spectacular.”
Homologation was finally granted midway on 1st of November 1985 (the majority of the 200 cars required were built on an unassuming looking assembly line in Longbridge) and the Metro 6R4 made its competition debut mere days later on the RAC rally, the final event of the season. Lancia also chose this event to take the wraps of its 037 replacement, the mighty Delta S4. Turbocharged and supercharged, the S4 showed that there was another way to build a Group B rally car, and, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear to see that Turin had made the correct call.
Tony Pond and Malcolm Wilson were signed up to drive the new Metro, and both were on the pace from the beginning. BL’s charge was soon blunted though, Pond’s rally brought to a premature end thanks to transmission troubles and, in an ominous sign for the coming months, a snapped cam belt. Pond had a far more fruitful event though, taking to the car swiftly and using his exemplary local knowledge to take the fight to the dominant Lancias. His eventual 3rd place overall was a tremendous result for all associated with the project, though it would turn out be the 6R4’s best ever finish.
1986 was a mixed bag. The 6R4s were quick when they functioned correctly (eyebrow-raisingly quick on sealed surface events), but also found themselves severely outgunned by their turbocharged rivals. The drop in mid-range power was also a continual thorn in Austin Rover’s side and the issue robbed the Metro of one of its major strong points. It also had a nasty habit of eating cam belts for fun.
Patchy reliability conspired with poor timing to damn the 6R4 to a short, relatively unsuccessful career. The fiery demise of Henry Toivonen and Sergio Cresta in Corsica, and the shocking deaths of 3 spectators in Portugal ultimately forced the FIA’s hand, and Group B was canned for the following year. There were a number of decent points finishes before the curtain finally fell, including impressive runs for Per Eklund and Tony Pond in Finland and the RAC respectively, but no further trips to the podium.
There’s an interesting postscript to this tale though, and that’s that the Metro 6R4 enjoyed the longest career of all the Group B cars. The very traits that hampered its ability to win on the world stage meant that it was a far simpler proposition for privateers to keep running, and 6R4s could be found blatting their way through the British forests into the ‘90s and beyond. It’s doubtful whether the top brass at Austin Rover would agree, but you could make a strong case for the Metro 6R4 being one of the most important Group B cars of all, it’s just a shame that it only found its true place in the rallying world after the factory had thrown in the towel.