Like a bad celebrity impersonator – if you squint you can kind of see the resemblance – the 6R4 was quite the departure from the modest Metro upon which it was based. An economical city car originally built by British Leyland, the Metro was marketed as ‘a British car to beat the world’ and while it may not quite have lived up to that rather bold claim in standard guise, the beefed-up 6R4 certainly had a good go when it came to the crazy world of Group B rallying.
The original Austin Mini Metro (later the Rover Metro) was unveiled in 1980 as an eventual Mini replacement as well as Britain’s answer to the ever-growing influx of small, foreign cars to the market. It was released to a wave of typical British pomp and circumstance but underneath all the reverie the car actually sold incredibly well, going so far as to claim the coveted Car of the Year title from What Car? in 1983. With a bunch of parts nicked from the Mini, including drivetrain and suspension components, along with the 1-litre and 1.3-litre A-Series engines, the Metro was available as either a 3 or 5-door hatchback or as a panel van. It was popular with the public and Princess Diana even famously bought one, before she was a princess, and could pootle about in whatever Princesses pootle about in. In any case they were cheap, economical and drove surprisingly well.
An MG-badged performance version was produced in 1982 which benefited from a host of upgrades to the standard 1.3-litre lump, including a ported cylinder head and a new camshaft profile along with a larger carburettor, all of which bumped its power output to 72bhp. A forced induction version was also introduced that featured a Garrett T3 turbo, new exhaust system, a tweaked crankshaft and stiffer suspension. This allowed the little Metro to get to 60mph from parked in under ten seconds. Just. It was the beginnings of the hot hatch wars and the MG Metro Turbo was welcomed with open arms. This wasn’t a case of the emperor’s new clothes, however – although the car did, in fact, get new threads in the form of a body kit, trim upgrades and sporty decals – it genuinely was a great car.
On to the 6R4 then. Austin Rover based the car off of the Metro turbo, obviously, right? Well, no. You could be forgiven for thinking that the most powerful and capable road-going version of the Metro would be the clear choice as the basis for their rally-spec weapon, especially considering forced induction was the norm for everyone else competing in Group B rallying at the time, but aside from one or two body panels they decided to bin everything else and venture down the bigger is better route, equipping the car with a monstrous 3.0-litre, V6, normally aspirated engine. The name says it all really: 6 for six-cylinders, R for rally and 4 for four-wheel-drive. Their reasons for the additional capacity and lack of spooly boy were two-fold; no turbo lag and lower operating temperatures. A decision that would later come back to bite the Metro in its flared behind.
The car was developed and built by Austin Rover’s head of motorsport John Davenport in conjunction with Williams Grand Prix Engineering (who you may have heard of…) purely for competition, and with the sole intention of winning rallies. No ulterior motives here. It just so happened that in the early 80s Austin Rover was sponsoring the Williams Formula One team so it was only natural that they would join forces to produce this Group B weapon and Davenport recognised the importance of international rallying and its associated media coverage stating that ‘Austin Rover really can’t afford to be out of it‘.
Development of the engine was left in the more than capable hands of David Wood of Cosworth fame and boy did he deliver. With quad cams, four valves per cylinder and a rev limit of 9000rpm it was quick. Staggeringly so. Wood’s 400bhp plus V6 could propel the fibreglass bodied, tubular, space frame chassis MG Metro 6R4 to 60mph in around 3 seconds. That’s faster than a McLaren F1. In a Metro. The engine was positioned behind the driver, more for necessity than by design as mounting it in the front of the car would require the driver to practically sit in the boot. And then they went racing.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows however and despite moustachioed maestro Tony Pond taking a win at the Welsh Rally in Gwynedd in 1985 as well as placing third overall in the Lombard RAC Rally that same year the MG Metro 6R4 was plagued with engine issues from the outset and the car struggled to even finish races, let alone see another podium. Following the infamous banning of Group B in 1986 the party was over for Austin Rover and the 6R4 before it had even begun – they didn’t even get a slice of cake. Given more time to develop the car in situ who knows what it could have achieved but despite this relatively short-lived career its legend had already been firmly established and David Wood’s extraordinary engine would live on, with the addition of twin turbos, in the Jaguar XJ220. Yes, it was that good.
The 200 cars required for homologation were built at Longbridge in 1985, just in time for the full fat, ‘International’ spec cars to be allowed to compete in the aforementioned Lombard Rally. Most of these road-going versions were designated as ‘Clubman’ spec which meant a less performance-focussed setup and a reduced power output of 250bhp but that was still a pretty astonishing figure for the time. With a price tag of over £40,000 they weren’t cheap but after Austin Rover retired from motorsport in 1987 this figure dropped to less than half the initial cost. Nowadays prices are in the hundreds of thousands, if one even comes up for sale at all. 20 ‘Evolution’ models was also made available (for additional cost) which basically consisted of a selection of modifications and bolt-on upgrades for the Clubman to bring the car more in-line with the rally-bred version.
The 6R4 started strong, hurtling out of the gates like a bat out of hell. A 400 brake horsepower bat, flying sideways, with flames coming out of it, and whilst it was initially competitive, the lack of forced induction would be its Achilles heel. The Metro was built for acceleration at the expense of outright, top end speed but as developments in the sport would severely reduce that pesky turbo lag, as well as increase overall achievable top speeds, combined with reliability issues for the V6, the balance inevitably tipped in favour of its turbocharged competitors. If you look closely you can still see those teeth marks we mentioned earlier. Despite this the MG Metro 6R4 is supremely capable in either guise and has certainly earned its place among the icons of the Group B era. Austin Rover’s foresight and commitment to produce such an impressive machine has to be commended also. Perhaps not the most popular of all the classic MGs out there but it’s certainly the most lairy and perhaps the most infamous and that makes it alright in our eyes.