12 September 2016

Stupid fast: The rise and fall of Group B’s MG Metro 6R4

“Britain has been invaded,” the warnings sounded, dire and unwavering. “By the Eye-talians, the Germans, the Japanese and the French.” The landing crafts sailed in, low-ered their steel doors and unloaded tidy Renaults and Datsuns.

The means were the Austin Metro. It was the British car to beat the world, according to British Leyland – which had floundered through the 1970s facing strikes, cutbacks and bailouts. And so it launched across Great Britain on October 8, 1980, buoyed by jingoistic beckonings: “Now we have the means to fight back.”

And fight it did: the Austin and its sporting MG equivalent became one of the UK’s bestselling cars, commanding sales of over 100,000 cars per year for well over a decade. “15 years ago,” said Austin Rover Online, “you couldn’t move from one end of town to the other without tripping over the damned things.”

But it was the 385-horsepower, rear-engined, all-wheel drive 6R4 rally car that took the fight to the courses of the World Rally Championship’s hallowed Group B class, against the world.

Austin sponsored the Williams F1 team, and Williams designed a car that upon appearances resembled the unholy union between an MG Metro and a snowplow, whose box flares went lengthways across its tiny wheelbase. Underneath, a semi-monocoque tube frame chassis enveloped a longitudinal three-liter V-6, mounted centrally and the five-speed transmission lay towards the front. Designed by an ex-Cosworth team, the bespoke engine shared nothing with a production car – a first for international competition. In “international” tune, it could make over 400 horsepower.

While nearly every other competitor had switched to small, turbocharged four-cylinders, the MG stuck defiantly to natural aspiration—that way, they thought, there would be no reliability issues.

By February of 1983 a prototype was ready for testing. A year later, at the Excelsior Hotel in London, factory driver Tony Pond drove the rally car through a film screen in front of an astonished media brigade. The example on display was red and white, reminiscent of the Mini Coopers that had won Monte Carlo two decades earlier.

Here, finally, was the MG Metro 6R4: six-cylinder, Rear-engine, four-wheel drive. Simple enough. A month and a half later, the 6R4 entered its first rally. The prototype 6R4 swept eight stages and was leading by nearly three minutes before an alternator fire put the engine out of contention. It would be something that plagued the program until the end.

When that incredible four-valve V-6 reached 10,000 RPM, it howled. It was torquey and quick – at one point, Pond nailed a 0-60 sprint in just 2.8 seconds, he reminisced in Motorsport Magazine, “and something equally phenomenal when we tried the 100-stop time.”

There were issues though, for example, the 6R4 had a cam-belt issue. And when some drivers complained that there was nothing in the powerband until a lofty 5,000 RPM, engineers dismissed their concerns. “Ours had all the problems of a turbocharged en-gine without the grunt,” said Pond.

In March 1985, the 6R4 scored its first victory in Wales. The 6R4 would excel at shorter, less grueling national events. That October, Austin completed its 200 homologation models: the 6R4 Clubman was detuned to 250 horsepower, sold as a kit to be further assembled by the owner, and cost £45,000. One customer took delivery of his 6R4 on a Thursday and won a rally on Saturday, six days before the FIA finished the homologation proceedings.

And in November, Pond finished third at the Lombard RAC Rally, behind a pair of Lancia Delta S4s in their first ever outing. In the World Rally Championship, it would be the 6R4’s best finish.

The following year, 1986, the 6R4 was supposed to shine. But the car never won a single race. Sure, it had some decent finishes: 4th at the San Remo Rally, for example, and 7th, 8th and 10th at the Rally of 1000 Lakes.

But by that year, turbo lag ceased being a problem. The Peugeot 205 T16s and the Audi Quattros of the world simply ran away from the 6R4. Then, halfway through the season, the FIA shuttered Group B, and that was that. Pond’s sole 1985 victory gave more points than the entire 1986 season combined. The foreign invasion resumed.

In 1987, Austin Rover cancelled the program. It unloaded its remaining examples by bumping Clubman tune to 300 horsepower and simultaneously slashing the price to £16,000. The V-6 engine, however, was too good to abandon: TWR bought the design. They bolstered output by adding by twin turbochargers, and then used it to underpin one of the greatest supercars of the ‘90s, the Jaguar XJ220.

Recently, a 6R4 belonging to no less than Colin McRae went up for sale. At over a quarter-million pounds, it costs considerably more than it did in 1987. McRae, whose WRC career started in 1987, obviously never competed in Group B – oh, imagine the rally highlights that would have ensued. But that didn’t stop him from using a 6R4 to run through a course as recently as 1998, sans notes, and drive the unholy hell out of it.

“You haven’t seen a Metro driven like that for a very long time,” the announcer breathlessly intoned, and he was right.

The 6R4 was a fire-breathing example of that well-trod lament, common with post-70s British machinery: If only they had more time! More time for development, more time to sort out that unique engine. The 6R4 would have been a beast to reckon with. On the national stage, that much was evident. But against the world? We’ll never know how much potential it truly had.

In hindsight, “There is absolutely nothing filtering the senses,” said Kris Meeke, a factory driver for Citroën and the winner of the 2009 Irish Rally Championship. “It’s pure 500-600 horsepower straight through to your right foot. The car would just laugh at you if you drove it slowly.

“The sensation of driving that car with the noise and the pleasure of being able to man-handle it and for it to start to work when you wrestle it into submission... It’s brilliant.”

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