The little black tumbler with the white numbers reads 002467. Frozen in time. Just a handful of miles have passed under this car’s wheels since it emerged from the Austin Rover factory back in 1986. It’s never even had a cambelt change (which is a bit worrying as that’s what scuppered so many of its ilk while flat-out in deep forests where you couldn’t see the wood for the spectators). And yet, in a few seconds’ time, the numbers are going to start rolling over once more. Because I’m going to realise a dream and drive a Metro 6R4.
And this is no ordinary 6R4 either. This is quite probably the most original one in the world. Just 200 of these ‘road cars’ were built to satisfy Group B homologation rules, along with another 20 rally cars in full International spec to take on the mad Lancias, Peugeots and Audis on the stages. But most of the 200 were also turned into rally or rallycross cars to tackle various amateur championships. There are stories from Austin Rover employees, which may or may not be apocryphal, that the full quota was never even built. When the FIA visited to inspect the batch of 200, cars were allegedly wheeled into one end of the building at Longbridge, inspected, then wheeled out the other end – at which point their hastily applied numbers would be changed and the cars wheeled round the outside of the building and put back in the queue.
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According to a small plate behind the front offside turret, this is 6R4 number 179. It belongs to Malcolm Leggate, who is a farmer in Lincolnshire, a former tin-top racer and also father of former BTCC racer Fiona Leggate. He has owned the car since 2000, when he bought it for £23,500 (some £26,500 less than they were advertised at when new, although the price then was definitely negotiable), and he’s done just 500 miles in it since. It hasn’t been driven for seven months prior to our arrival. Normally I’d think this lack of use was sacrilegious, but this car is so low-mileage and such a piece of history that it’s somehow almost acceptable.
When we turned up at the farm this morning, we had a cup of coffee with Malcolm while he showed us various bits of paperwork for the car (he even changed its registration from A6 RAU – which read A 6R4 U – back to the original one you see here) before he took us a few miles to where he keeps it. Even hidden under its cloth cover it looked incredible, with the material propped over the rear wing like a tent and creating the most bizarre silhouette. Taking the material off was more tantalising than any unveil at a motor show, first revealing the mustard yellow front valance, then the shiny bare metal snow shovel of a front wing, and so on until the whole crazy caricature was standing in front of us.
It looks as wide as it is long as it is tall – as though it was hewn from a cube. Photographer Dean Smith says he thinks it’s ugly. I disagree. Film-maker Sam Riley says it resembles a Transformer (robot in disguise). The three of us agree that it is the most purposeful car any of us has ever seen.
We wheel it out into the sunlight, being careful to push only on the metal and not on any of the glassfibre bodywork. It feels surprisingly heavy for a car that only weighs around 1000kg, but that’s mostly because it wears such wide rubber. Then Malcolm disappears to a meeting and we’re left alone to photograph the details, with strict instructions not to start it. Unclipping the bonnet, I find a glorious lack of anything in the front of the car other than a couple of driveshafts and a large diff. The swappable plates on the top of the suspension struts read ‘Middle Castor’, highlighting that these cars really were sold as ‘ready to rally’.
Moving round the car I notice the sharp fins on the outside of the front arches (you don’t see them in profile) and can just about make out the Metro door hiding behind all the additional scoops and boxes. It’s more or less the only large piece of a standard Metro that was retained. At the back you can’t help but wonder at the height of that wing, but lower down it looks almost as though there is a valance missing just below the rear number plate where the subframe is exposed, like the car’s wandered out with its skirt tucked into its knickers.
Lift up the rear hatch on its struts and you’re presented with the 3-litre V6, which is basically a naturally aspirated XJ220 engine. What you actually see is the front of the engine, because the gearbox end is in the middle of the car with a prop running forward to the viscous centre diff (produced by Ferguson Fabrications, the company that made the only four-wheel-drive F1 car). The engine is set slightly to the left, with a jackshaft running down the right-hand side of the sump to the rear diff, so that the two rear driveshafts are of equal length.
In testing, Austin Rover used a Rover V8 with two cylinders hacked off it, but the final double overhead cam-per-bank V6 was designed by David Wood (formerly of Cosworth) and was claimed to be the first engine designed specifically for a rally car. At the time it was the naturally aspirated loner in a field of forced-induction motors, but the thinking had been that an NA engine would give a broader, more useable spread of torque and also wouldn’t suffer from the overheating problems that were the bane of early turbo motors.
Sadly, all that thinking was done in 1981, when British Leyland Motorsport first started working with Patrick Head at Williams GP Engineering. By 1985, when a 6R4 first hit the international stages, the rival turbo cars’ cooling and lag problems had been largely solved and the power they were producing far outstripped any flexibility advantages the Metro had. But that’s another story.
Many 6R4 engines have been tweaked, but this one is un-molested, right down to its standard air filter. Also evident in the back of the car is the roll-cage, which extends discreetly forward along the sides of the aluminium roof and down the A-pillars. Another slow walk around reveals that although the car is wonderfully crazy, it isn’t perfect. I hesitate to conjoin the words ‘slap’ and ‘dash’ but one of the front lights is very wonky, and although there’s reportedly an impressive 137ft of welding (compared to four in the standard Metro), it’s not the neatest I’ve ever seen – it’s as if they were in a rush to get it finished…
After a couple of hours, Malcolm returns, and once Dean’s got his last couple of static photos, we’re ready to go out on the road. Amazingly, the Metro fires first time… then dies… then fires again. After a minute of gently blipping the throttle it can be left warming up on its own, with the revs flaring and dying to an inconsistent beat. Several minutes later, a steady idle indicates that all the temperatures are up and things are running smoothly inside the V64V engine (the name stands for V6 with four valves per cylinder).
Malcolm drives first for a few of the photos and then it’s my turn. It’s been mercifully dry all day (Malcolm wasn’t keen to take the car out in the wet) but there’s a wickedly cold wind gusting across the vast open fields of Lincolnshire, and it threatens to snatch the door from my grasp as I open it and take a big stride across the wide side skirt. I’m in. It’s a tight fit and I appear to be considerably angled towards the centre of the car, while the incongruous grey leather steering wheel feels like it’s sitting in my lap, but to my great relief I know I’ll be able to drive it.
The seat is squashily padded and rather comfy, although it is a typical old bucket (that sounds derogatory but isn’t meant to be) in that it securely grips your hips but not much else. As I look around there are bizarre juxtapositions such as the standard little Metro gearknob with a new dogleg five-speed shift pattern glued onto the top. There’s also a phalanx of fuses next to a cigarette lighter and the dials look terribly suburban… except for the fact that the rev counter goes all the way round to 10,000.
As you glance out of the windscreen while you’re getting comfy, all you notice are the two bulging bumps on the bonnet. Look in the door mirrors and your eyes are instantly drawn to the enormous side scoops. You feel like you’re sitting in one big cartoon. Insert and twist the electrical cut-out, turn the ordinary Rover key a couple of clicks, pump the throttle once, then turn the key all the way to spin the engine behind you into raucous life. With an exploratory prod of the clutch pedal you discover that it’s got a short travel and requires quite a bit of leg muscle. Left and back for first, revs, clutch slowly up to its surprisingly high biting point and we’re away. I’m driving a 6R4.