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Gavin Green drives a Metro 6R4 (CAR, Feb 1986)

By Gavin Green

15 November 2012 12:15

The first run in the MG Metro 6R4 lasts only 200 yards. Jan Churchill, one-time rally driving professional and now rally school instructor, fastens his frame into the buttock-hugging seat and briefly acclimatises himself to the strange driving position before that brief, initial outing. His arms and legs are offset towards the centre-line of the car. You fasten yourself into the passenger’s seat, a foot or so in front of the left bank of 250bhp 3.0-litre V6 engine, visible through the flimsy sheet of Perspex that separates the repository for the people from that of the motor. The view out of the rear of Austin Rover’s new rally tool may be extraordinary, but the view out of the front is surprisingly normal: there’s a standard grey plastic Metro dash (only the instruments in the facia are different) and the familiar stubby little nose, which seems to finish only an arm’s length in front of the screen. Only the two humps – for the strut towers – and the securing pins for the bonnet catches could confuse a normal Metro motorist.

When Churchill first engages the engine – using a standard Metro key – any sign of normality quickly disappears amid the urgent Ferrari-like wail of the V6, and the thrash of the transmission, with its straight cut gears, three differentials, rear quill shaft, forward prop shaft and driveshafts. Churchill gives the engine a rev, and the monster bellows louder from behind its Perspex cage and, from under the white metal floorpan (carpets are not standard ware in a £40,000 MG Metro 6R4) the transmission thrashes with even more anger. Even from behind the cushioning of an open face helmet, your ears are assaulted.

The revs rise, Churchill drops the clutch, and the ugly little white 4wd box – complete with wings, wheel arch extensions, bulges, slats and almost a foot of ground clearance – grips the pebble infested Welsh track, and spears forward. Off to work Jan Churchill goes, but there’s not much hi ho-ing from the passenger’s seat. If you’re unused to the sheer speed of modern rally weapons, the first couple of hundred yards will be the most terrifying few seconds of your life.

The Metro powers forward, absorbing holes and ruts, and heading through the narrowing tunnel of conifer trees that line the route of the Welsh forest road. First and second gears have come and gone, and the mad little white box is still racing forward, absorbing – and even enjoying – the punishment like some masochistic barbarian. But suddenly, after a space of time almost too brief to measure, you hear a mad frenetic scream, punctuate by the machine gun-like bursts of the rev limiter, followed by total silence. The beast is dead.

Competition drivers usually react quickly after a mechanical disaster or crash, and Churchill is no exception. While you’re still seated in the passenger’s chair, wondering what’s happened, Churchill has unbuckled the full racing harness, yanked off his ageing driving gloves, and is crouched forward, examining the throttle pedal. ‘That’s a good start,’ he says, the irony just as clear as the words. ‘The throttle has jammed open.’ Sure enough, the little pedal – not much bigger than the ones they fit to minis – rest on the floorpan, inert. The rubber mat – the only cover for the white metal floor – is hard up against it. ‘That’s what’s wrong,’ says Churchill. ‘The mat has somehow jammed down the throttle pedal.’ He pulls away the mat, and the pedal pops back up, like a catapult releases its hot. He hands the offending mat to an Austin Rover mechanic, breathless after running after the stranded car, then buckles himself into the seat, revs the engine and spears forward again.

The ugly white box, returned to health, races through the first three gears so quickly that driver Churchill hardly has time to put his left hand back on the steering wheel. He holds fourth cog for longer, and soon races down the single lane track at what must be about 85mph. It’s a quick track, with a few fast kinks thrown in to test the mettle of car, driver and the passenger’s constitution. The kinks, though, are just insignificant nuisances, that require only a slight flick of the arms to negotiate: there’s no sign of any backing off or braking.
After the first mile or so, your fear vanishes. Churchill clearly knows what he’s doing: the deftness with which he works the standard MG Metro steering wheel, snaps from cog to cog and the smoothness with which he negotiates this Welsh forestry track – a route he knows well for, after all, this is where he conducts his own rally driving school – soon quell any fears about his own ability. And the way that ugly little white box, so absurd to look at when stationary with all its bodywork excrescences, performs through the forests, with its amazing traction, precision and suspension dexterity, leaves you in no doubt about this machine’s ability.

Churchill sums it up well: ‘The car is fantastic. So much better than my Escort RS 2000, - a fully competitive rally car not so long ago. The Metro’s just in a different class.’  And, as if to prove it, Churchill does a timed run through his Welsh forest track – 1.65 miles long – in the Escort and then repeats it in the Metro. The Metro is a miraculous 23sec quicker.

The Metro may be the world’s ugliest rally car, but the signs are it could also be the world’s best. The result of some four year’s development, and the product of engineering skills as diverse as those of Williams’ Formula One team (their chief designer Patrick head has been heavily involved in the 6R4’s evolution) and Michelin, the 6R4 finished third on it5s international debut on the RAC Rally in November. Two hundred identical cars have been manufactured, and are now for sale through Austin Rover’s Motorsport department at £40,000 each. These machines, known as the Clubman cars, must the world’s ultimate off-the-shelf rally weapons. A small number of customer machines are also likely to be upgraded to full International specification – which will make them identical to the machine Tony Pond used to score third on the RAC. The International cars, which cost another £10,000 (plus the labour necessary for the conversion) have 400bhp instead of 250, and Kevlar bodywork (instead of the mixture of glassfibre and steel).

Clubman car, chassis number 190, awaits you. Its once virginal white paintwork is now sullied by mud flicked up from Churchill’s earlier run, but the car still looks as incongruous and silly as ever. A vast front wing is mounted forward of the grille and a similarly sized rear wing rises above the rear roof. Vast pods hang from the standard Metro doors (the only standard panels on the car), and help feed air to the rear engine compartment. The pods integrate with the front and rear wheel arch extensions. The end result looks like a cross between a Formula One car, a packing crate and a bi-plane.

Climb in, slam the door and you’ll note that the standard Metro door trim is very close to your elbow. There’s no room to flail the elbows, pre-war racing car style. You’re sitting further to the right than normal, owing to the thick centre tunnel that runs down the middle of the car – complete with a middle differential and shafts. The pedals, close together and quite small, are offset noticeably to the left. Even with the driver’s seat as far back as possible – the range of adjustment is restricted greatly by the big fuel tank between you and the engine – you’re sitting well forward, close to both the leather bound steering wheel and the fascia.

The instrumentation Austin Rover give as standard is surprisingly sparse. There’s the big VDU tachometer, which runs out of numbers at 10,000rpm (there’s no redline, but there is a cut-out at 7400rpm) and a similarly sized speedo next to it (it’s very inaccurate, warns the Austin Rover man). Standard Metro switchgear surrounds the main binnacle. In a separate cluster, in the centre of the dash near a big red electrical master switch and a fuse box, are fuel level and water temperature gauges. There is no oil pressure gauge; only a warning light on the main binnacle.
Jan Churchill climbs into the passenger seat, looking surprisingly at ease for a man about to place his life in the hands of a rallying novice. The faces of the Austin Rover men say ‘please be careful, the car’s worth a fortune’ even if their mouths – through politeness – don’t. Later, with the car back in one piece, they tell me that one of the 6R4s has already been written off – by no less a hand than John Watson!

Secure the four straps of the Willans harness into the central buckle, pull the adjusters tight, so that your torso just starts to pinch into the padded seat, turn the key to send the bank of warning lights in the main binnacle into multi-colour action and, after the fuel pump finishes its electrical chatter, turn the key one step further. The monster screams from behind the Perspex, , and the gears thrash from below the floorpan. The open face helmet softs much of the cacophony, but the noise soon gets tiresome. The gearlever pokes from the middle of the centre tunnel, complete with standard Metro knob. There’s nothing standard about the gearshift though. First, is off the dogleg, opposite reverse. To engage first – as with all the other gears – you have to be positive with the lever, and firm. The action is incredibly short throw – at first, you won’t think you’re in gear – with a small lateral movement as well. It’s a notchy action, too. The clutch is very firm: big left leg muscles are needed.

The roads which make up Jan Churchill’s rally driving school wind up the side of a Welsh mountain. There are two major tracks: one winds up the mountain, with a hairpin in the middle, the other races across the bottom of the mountain, with a high speed kink – it coincides with the crest of a small hill – which, in the 6R4 is taken at 80mph. It’s the bottom track you tackle first.
Give the engine about 4000rpm, let out the firm clutch, and the four Michelin TRX rally tyres grip the dirt – which is just starting to burn to turn to mud, owing to the recent rain – without any revolutionary hysteria, and send the ugly box bolting forward. Keep the car flat out and the V6 engine will be ready for its change into second gear only a few second later. Then it’s time for third. Then fourth. The car accelerates down a dirt road, like a Porsche 911 turbo would down a B-road. And now, with the little machine holding the road safely, despite the holes in the road and the rocks, you’ll be in the upper rev band in fourth gear: and doing over 80mph.

The grip is so extraordinary, and the security so reassuring, that it doesn’t require great skill to reach such velocities on dirt roads with minor kinks – despite the closeness of the pine trees, which blend into a fuzzy collage of brown and green as the Metro screams down the dirt road. Stay on the worn tyre tracks, which cut through the dirt road like train rails, and you may as well be driving on tarmac, so great is the traction. But you will be bouncing around the cockpit rather more than you would on tarmac – for although the Metro’s ride is excellent by rally car standards, no suspension system could totally tame the Welsh track to which you’re subjecting this machine – and there is the odd loss of stability when you hit a particularly muddy patch, or when you drift off the wheel tracks. Hit the mud and the car will perform a little twitch, as the TRXs manfully try to regain their composure, and your heart is likely to miss a beat or three as one of the pine trees appears unscheduled in the windscreen. Sometimes, those pine tree as get close. Your tendency is to back off when the trees threaten to assault. By backing off, the car slows dramatically – the engine braking is quite enormous – and also tends to straighten. Then it’s simply a matter of steering the car back towards the tracks in the middle of the road, where the grip is much better. ‘You’ve got to be careful not to stray wide,’ warns Churchill, still quite composed after your first run. ‘It gets slippery out on the mud – even in this car. Once you get used to the mud, though, you’ll find there’s no real need to back off. If you keep the power hard on, the car will tend to straighten its line anyway. That way, you don’t lose any time, either. Forget the trees.’

The high speed kink, over the brow of the hill, is particularly challenging. The Metro screams up to it in fourth gear, very near the rev limiter which sets off the machine gun-like stutter. Branches go flying by the windows, outstretched like the arms of soccer fans trying to touch their heroes as they stride out of the tunnel. You come around a fast left-hand sweeper and see trees straight in front of you – about 200 yards away. The track, you soon see, goes slightly left, with a right kind straight after. No need to brake. Back off sharply, as the trees get close, flick the steering to the left – it’s a very sharp system – then turn right straight after, the car goes light as it crests the hill with the Michelins trying, in vain, to keep in conjunction with the dirt, and you’ll land – over on the left hand side of the track – with your right foot burying the throttle pedal hard into the steel footwell. Get the series of corners right, and the exhilaration will stay with you long after you’ve turned off the engine and jumped out of the driver’s seat. Get the corners wrong, and the Metro and you are likely to have brief but spectacular careers as lumberjacks before coming to a very ignominious and expensive end.

About the only part of the Churchill forest track on which the Metro proves slightly gauche is the sharp hairpin, halfway up the mountain. For-wheel-drive rally cars aren’t as easy to swing, pendulum-like, around tight corners, as rear-drive cars are. Watch rallying on the TV and you’ll see the likes of Mikkola’s Quattro and Salonen’s Peugeot understeering awkwardly around the tight stuff. It’s hard to do the reverse ‘flick’ – which is such a powerful tool in the rally driver’s arsenal – with the front wheels fighting for grip as well as the rear. Once or twice you manage it, but mostly you understeer wide when turning into the corner, slow the car right down, and then power out of the bend, with a hint of opposite lock. The Metro, with a 40 to 60 front to rear torque split does have noticeably more muscle being sent to the back (when you floor the throttle on a muddy road at slow speed  with the tail slightly out of line, the rear end does swing around quite neatly) but that doesn’t prevent it from being a difficult machine to in which to do aesthetically pleasing opposite lock turns. There’s no point in using the handbrake, the Austin Rover men say. ‘How many hairpins do you get in a forest stage?’ one of them points out. ‘Besides, with the car’s traction, it actually gets out of the slow corners very quickly, even if it often does go around the apex as fast or as spectacularly as some rear-drive cars.’

The car should also be quick into the hairpins, if the driver uses the braking strength properly. The ugly white box has tremendously good brakes with its big 12-inch diameter discs at each wheel. Its normally aspirated engine, with its high compression ratio and vast torque reversal, also helps braking. Austin Rover are very precious about the fact they don’t use a turbocharged power unit in the 6R4, rightly pointing to a whole host of advantages over blown motors. The most significant, fully borne out by the performance of the Metro 6R4 in the Welsh forests that day, is the enormous torque spread offered by the Austin Rover 3.0-litre unit, specially designed for the rally car. It pulls lustily from under 2000rpm in fifth gear. If you’d felt in a tame mood, during your day on Jan Churchill’s track, you could easily have loped along in fifth gear, with no sign of fuss or rancour. True to most rally cars, the gearing is also very low, which further helps tractability: 7400rpm in fifth gear equals only 110mph.

You do over 100 miles on those special stages. It is enough to prove the refinement of the 6R4, with its engine tractability and power, it’s wonderfully absorbent ride (courtesy of broad based lower wishbones and long stroke struts), its superb brakes and its compact dimensions, which increase the sense of manoeuvrability which so impresses you the moment you take up station behind the wheel.  The car feels just what it is: a Metro with the power of a Ferrari quattrovalvole V8, the traction of a Quattro and the strength of a Land Rover. After a long run, though, not all your body will be singing its praises. Your shoulders will be sore with the effort needed to wield the steering – which is very high geared, has to turn large Michelin tyres on wide Dymag magnesium wheels and is encumbered with the weight of a front radiator and differential. Your hands will be aching, too. Little wonder that Jan Churchill wears gloves throughout the driving exercise. The works Metro 6R4 have power steering. The gear change could also be better. Although the shortness of the throw is a boon, and so is the directness, the change is both too firm and too notchy. Even Churchill has trouble with it. Finally, the accelerator pedal is ridiculously light. Its feather touch can make it tricky to use, and it’s at variance with the muscle power needed to heave on the brakes, operate the clutch and turn the steering.

Your arms and legs are about to get a rest, though, for it’s time to head back to civilisation. The hills are no longer alive with the sound of Metro; instead the A-road which connects the rallying track with Jan Churchill’s head office in Carno, County Powys, is. There is no longer the bash and crash of rocks firing a fusillade against the undertray of the car, instead only the thrash of the transmission up to about 5000rpm, after which the bellow of the V6 takes over.

The revs drop momentarily between the gear changes, so close are the ratios. You are soon in fifth: no other ratio is suitable for fast open roads. In fact, even top gear is too noisy and low. People turn and stare at the incongruously ugly and conspicuously noisy machine, as it wails through the villages, doing its best to spoil the tranquillity of rural Wales. More important, though, the day has taught you that the Metro should also spoil the hopes of its opposition in club rallying. ‘It will thrash the best rear-drive cars,’ says Churchill, still effusive about the day’s drive. ‘Generally competent drivers should find themselves beating established names.’

If Austin Rover and Tony Pond get their way – and the omens, after the RAC Rally, are good – then the Metro 6R4 may well soon spoil the hopes of a brace of top flight rally stars, as well as the club drivers.