When the last Mini Metro rolled off the Longbridge production line, the knocking sound you heard was not the piston rods, but a hammer driving yet another nail into the coffin of Middle England.
You could spot a Metro driver a mile away. Not that he ever was a mile away: he was always right in front of you, driving down the middle of the road at about 20 miles an hour. He wore a flat cap and smoked a pipe and was invariably accompanied by his lady wife, who would give directions which she instantly countermanded. That explained why the Metro driver signalled right before turning left.
The manoeuvre, however, was rendered innocuous by being executed at three miles an hour, after which the car accelerated smoothly over the next two miles back to its regulation cruising speed of 20 mph. It sometimes seemed that a lifetime of driving hearses for a living had equipped thousands of undertakers’ assistants for a contented retirement behind the wheel of a Metro.
In truth, however, Metro drivers came from the heart of Middle England. They had names like George and Arthur and wives called Mary and Joan. Their careers had been in traditional retailing, perhaps running a butcher’s shop, or the service industries, particularly insurance, or the safer backwaters of middle management. They were Rotarians, churchgoers, members of the bowls club, and keen gardeners. Above all, they were British and, yes, proud of it. They ate British food, spent their holidays in British resorts, and bought British goods. That’s why they drove a Metro.
Not for them a German car. (Who started the war?) Nor a Japanese one. (Not after what the Nips did to our boys.) And certainly not a French one. (Wouldn’t trust them an inch, and they burn our lambs in the streets.) Fords may be made in Britain, but everyone knows they’re really American and there are quite enough American things over here already.
When the Metro was launched, 18 years ago, Mrs Thatcher was barely into her stride and the unions were as yet untamed. The rabble-rousing shop steward Red Robbo was running rings round the management at British Leyland, and the company was a State pensioner on the verge of bankruptcy. The Metro was hailed as its salvation. When dealers saw the new compact car, it is said that some of them wept. Not because, as was usual with BL products, the doors fell off and the exhaust was missing, but with relief because they recognised a sure-fire winner with the British public.
They were right. And so were the marketing brains behind the launch, who played shamelessly on the jingoistic appeal of the new car. TV commercials showed plucky little Metros gathering on the white cliffs of Dover while on the grey seas below an armada of D-day vessels steamed in the direction of the coasts of Normandy. The message was plain: stuff your Boche and Froggy imports, we shall never surrender.
But surrender we did. The last Metro that came off the line was a silver metallic Rover 100 GSi, and Rover is a subsidiary of BMW. But we didn’t go down without a fight. For almost 15 years we drove slowly down the middle of our roads, defiant on our home-made wheels. Porsches and Mercedes might steam up behind us, flashing their lights and roaring their guttural fury, but we would never give way. A glance in the rear-view mirror would alert us to the presence of bandits at 6 o’clock. It was then merely a matter of pulling our George Alfred Dunn cap over our eyes, gritting our dentures, and slowly lifting our Hush Puppy from the accelerator, all this skilfully accomplished while the white line down the road bisected the bonnet with unerring precision.
Lord knows how many Quislings behind were seen off by strokes and heart attacks, but it must have been quite a few, and many was the Metro that glided into Sainsbury’s car park, a trail of blind rage in its wake, its mission accomplished.
But now, alas, those days are gone. And with them, the heartland of Middle England. What passes for today’s middle classes, enfeebled descendants of a noble island heritage, drive around in Japanese off-road vehicles, in the back seats of which are seated children with names such as Tamsin and Orlando. It is the ultimate betrayal.
Old Middle England, however, is not dead yet. Remnants of its tattered army continue to fight a rearguard action, guerrilla-style. The retired pork butcher may no longer have his Metro, but he has his pride, and he has his bike. Not, you understand, a black Raleigh Roadster with a basket at the front and a saddlebag at the back, but a proper racing bike.
Take a drive out on the roads of Hertfordshire, particularly at the weekends, and you will see these yeoman cyclists in action. Attired in knee-length black lycra and yellow jerseys, tufts of grey hair sticking out from beneath sleek skid-lids, they peddle along, gnarled legs going like pistons, giant calloused backsides proclaiming vintage defiance.
The tactics are unchanged. The chosen course is the middle of the road, the chosen enemy anyone driving anything bigger or more pretentious than a wheel barrow. They shall not pass.