1981 Austin Mini Metro HLE

1981 Austin MiniMetro HLE

As you can probably tell from this page, over the years, I've owned quite a number of cars over the years.  I'm a terribly centimental creature, and tend to become very attached to all of them - however, few I have truly enjoyed owning, driving and maintaining as much as this one. 

In the 1980s, this was what Austin hoped to replace the then aging Mini with.  While it never achieved quite the same phenomenal level of success, it did prove to be a very popular car, and remained in various forms a very common sight on the roads for quite a long period of time.  It's only in the last couple of years that the last incarnation of the Metro, the Rover 100, has really started to become a rare sight on the UK roads.  I was never much of a fan of the Rover 100 to be honest after having driven the car you see here.  Compared to what I considered to be a "real" Metro, it just felt, for want of a better word, "soft."  While the K-Series engine gave it a good deal more horsepower, it somehow never felt as quick, the handling never felt as sharp, and it just felt much more like any other small car.  This thing however is very basic motoring...You get an engine, four wheels, a steering wheel, a heater...and that's about it.

One thing which still astonishes me about this car was the incredible fuel economy it managed to return; even bearing in mind that I seldom drove it at the optimum 56mph, tended to have a fair bit of fun with it on a B-Road, and remember it doesn't have a 5th gear - I REGULARLY averaged between 55 and 60mpg in this car, and the Metro before it.  The Peugeot 107 I own now, built a full 28 years later struggles to match those figures even when I'm consciously trying to be economical - and while I've heard from a few people with "eco-cars" which claim figures like 70mpg, the 40-50mpg mark seems often to be what actually comes out of the woodwork when they actually start running real-life calculations (irrespective of what their trip computers may claim!!!).  I'd really be curious to know what I'd have got out of my Metros if I'd actually tried to deliberately drive them economically.

It's not all that surprising really though, when you take into account that this was one of the first cars of its type where serious thought (and some serious computing power for the time) went into making sure that every drop of fuel was used to the greatest potential.  Previously, things like proper aerodynamic design had really been reserved for sports cars and aircraft, but a lot of thought along those lines, and where possible reducing weight and such measures were done.  It paid off, obviously.

Power was provided by a slightly refined version of the A-Series engine which had given such faithful service in the Mini for many a year before-hand.  Imaginatively, they named this the A+ Series of engines.  Not a massive change to be honest...but for good reason I say, because the A-Series was already a fantastic little power plant to start with.  The basic versions of the Metro had a low-compression engine producing 44bhp, the HLE and HLS models had a higher compression unit producing a few bhp more.  I've never had a chance to do a direct comparison of these two power units, as the example in my first Metro had well over 100K on the clock, and was a very tired and neglected example...so I don't think it would be fair to compare to it...The fact that it was running at all is a huge testament to the durability of the power plant I think!

1981 Austin Mini Metro HLE Engine Bay

While 40-50bhp doesn't sound like a great deal these days, when you compare it to other small cars around in the closing years of the 1970s and the early part of the 1980s, it actually stacked up very well.  It was only really towards the mid 80s when the likes of the Vauxhall Nova started to appear with very modern engine designs with substantially higher power ratings, when the stock power output of the A+ engine started to look a little on the weak side.  Even so - the Metro was still a small and light car, so for day-to-day use, it really didn't NEED any more power, even in completely standard trim, the little A+ would quite happily scoot you around at the legal speed limit, both on and off the motorway.  This of course doesn't negate the fact that it's a very, very tunable engine.  Its similarity to the A-Series from the Mini, and its massive popularity in the kit-car circles (due to its compact dimensions and the fact that the engine and gearbox are one unit - the gearbox lives in the sump) means that there is a truly massive array of performance upgrades available for it.  Not something I've ever played around with to any extent whatsoever...aside from regular maintenance, the engine bay you see above was left alone for the most part.

While it was initially not very fond of rain (a new set of HT leads soon sorted that), I found it to be a very reliable engine, with no mechanical problems in the two years I ran this car.  I only ever had one breakdown, caused by a knackered condenser on the distributor...took all of about ten minutes to replace.  Servicing was so simple that it was laughable, just watch your knuckles on the radiator when getting the distributor cap off - the fins are sharp!  Think about the only awkward thing to get to in the engine bay that you might ever really need to get to would be the exhaust should you ever need to replace the downpipe yourself...it's buried nicely down the back of the engine, with the braking system in the way one one side (moreso on later cars which had a brake servo, unlike the one picture above which had fully manual brakes), and the heater on the other.

Inside, while it looks very basic by todays standards (the horrendous photograph aside...was a good five or six years ago I sold the car...so I can't really go and snap another one!), everything you really need is there.  You've seats, instrumentation which tells you all you need to (including a temperature gauge...something which seems to be disappearing on more and more cars these days...WHY?  I hate not having anything but a warning light for that...and a brake pad warning indicator, a sensible inclusion I think and a warning light for the front seat belts...something not commonly seen on cars over here during that period with the exception of Volvos.  Unlike the Volvos ones, at least the one in the Metro didn't tick annoyingly at you whenever you had the ignition turned on!).  The only real glaring omissions compared to a modern car are headrests and seat belts in the back (though these did of course appear in later models...they weren't needed on this one from 1981 though!), and of course less visibly, airbags.  The drivers seat in my car had been replaced at some point by one from a later car - quite why this was I never found out.  Nor did I ever find one to match the trim of the rest of the car - bugged me from day one that did!

1981 Austin MiniMetro HLE Interior (front)

The instrumentation, while basic was a picture of clarity - even if the fuel gauge in mine only worked reliably on a wet day.  I never did get to the bottom of that!  I was used to the cars economy however, so just used to fill it up every 300 miles or so, which gave me plenty of a buffer.  On the subject of controls and such, the indicators in the Mk I (Pre 1985 I think) Metros made a really odd pinging noise due to the thermal flasher unit which was employed - one of those little random memories from my childhood which I think has been firmly implanted into my memory for life as one of those silly little things which I could pick out instantly from anywhere!.  The switches for the accessories are truly unique too, never seen a design quite like this before in any other car...they actually worked very well however, even despite the lack of night time illumination (though the relevant symbols do light up to tell you what's on in the case of the hazards, rear fog lights and rear screen demister).

1981 Austin MiniMetro HLE Interior (instrument panel)

While rear seat space isn't exactly generous, given the diminutive dimensions of the car as a whole, really isn't bad to be honest.  The split folding rear seats were something not commonly seen on small cars back then either, and could actually be really handy if you needed to shift something big and still have seating for three people.

1981 Austin MiniMetro HLE Interior (rear)

It wasn't a bad looking car, either I think for the time.  While it looks quite dated now, if you go back to the early 80s and compare it to some others, I think the styling really looks very well considered.  Understated, but smart, and available in a wide selection of understated, refined, boring, or quite outlandish colours - like mine, in Snapdragon Yellow.  While I had reservations when someone told me the car was yellow before I'd gone to look at it, the moment I saw it, I decided it had to be one of the best colours for it ever. 

1981 Austin MiniMetro HLE Rear Three Quarter View

Cosmetically, this car had a few areas where it needed some attention, but at 21 years old I think that was allowed!  The alloys (actually from an MG Metro) could have done with reconditioning, it needed a darn good polish throughout (especially the bonnet - though the camera makes it look worse than it did in person), and I really needed to get the sills and wiper arms repainted.  ...Oh...and the well and truly knackered rear window sticker, which at some point probably had a dealers name on it before it yellowed to near-black.  It had gone so brittle however, that getting it off proved near impossible...so after a few millimetres of fighting with one corner, I gave up!  Oh...and a dent appeared on the offside rear bumper one day when parked in a supermarket car park...have to guess that somebody reversed into my car...never left a note or anything though.  Grrrr....

1981 Austin MiniMetro HLE Rear View

Of all the cars I've sold through the years, this is the one which I think I regret selling the most...either that or the Niva...between them it's a very close thing. 

Was just fantastic fun to drive, between the Hydragas suspension which gave both a very good ride for a small car, and gave astonishingly good road holding, and the low weight giving a surprisingly good power to weight ratio, it would never fail to put a smile on your face, especially on a good twisty road (which we have plenty of here!).  Not to mention the noise the gearbox made in 1st through to 3rd, which is one of the most distinctive things a lot of people remember from the Metro.  I do have a recording of that somewhere which I'll try to put up at some point.

It's definitely a classic car now I think - heck, this one, if she's still around, will be 28 years old now!  Not only is it a classic, I think this is a rare example of a truly practical classic car.  While you'd want to keep the miles off it obviously, if you had or wanted to, you really could still use one of these cars on a daily basis.  The only proviso for practical reasons would be that you spent a couple of hundred quid getting the cylinder head converted to deal with unleaded petrol...you only need to do that once though...and I imagine that a good percentage of Metros in the hands of enthusiasts will by now have had that done anyway.

Manufacturer: Austin/British Leyland.
Model: Mini Metro HLE.
Engine: 998cc in-line 4 cylinder petrol, 8 valve, OHV, SU Carburetor.
Gearbox: 4-speed manual.
Power output: 47bhp.


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