There's plenty of life in the old Metro yet...

Bargains abound when buying a used Metro, but watch out for driving- school cast-offs, says James Ruppert

Easy to park, easy to drive, economical and cheap to repair. That's the profile of the perfect driving-school car. It is also a pretty convincing list of reasons to invest in a secondhand Metro. Just don't combine the two and get lumbered with an ex L-plate model that is close to collapse. Yet anyone who learnt to drive in a Metro will know just how friendly these little cars are.

That puts the Metro at the top of the shopping list for first-time owners and second car buyers who need no-thrills, cost-effective transport. With mpg in the forties, insurance premiums at laughably low levels and a plentiful supply of parts it is difficult to go wrong with this car.

Launched with a patriotic fanfare in 1980, the Metro was essentially the old Mini sporting a bigger overcoat. The hatchback body made all the difference in terms of practicality, but it could never, as was intended, replace the lovable Mini. These early versions now seem quite crude, but are useful and the engines unburstable.

Although the ancient running gear is noisy, for A to B excursions an early Metro for only a few hundred pounds won't disappoint. Go for the larger 1.3 engine in HLE/Mayfair trim that is comfy and well equipped. From 1985 five doors made the Metro even more practical and proper family runaround. An important date, however, is 1988 when the range was revamped and build quality improved. Expect to pay around £2,000 for a tidy 1.3 Clubman.

The best Metros are rebadged Rover models from 1990 onward. Out went the old engines, replaced by more flexible units with five-speed gearboxes. At last the Metro could comfortably leave the confines of town with confidence. The fit and finish of these cars is very good, combined with a big car feel and sophistication you won't get with the usual Euro hatches. The 1.4 engine in S trim offers the best combination and prices start at £3,500. When it comes to performance steer clear of the old MG versions, especially the Turbo. Opt for the later GTa. But bear in mind that all Metros are fun to drive and the big insurance premium for a GTi 16-valve is seldom worth the bother.

The twin enemies of the older Metros have been rust and British Leyland build quality. Look for rust on the sills, inside the engine bay on the wings, and lift carpets to examine the floors. Mechanically the old Metros are tough, with slight oil leaks and noisy gearboxes being common, but hardly fatal, faults. Blue smoke from the exhaust and thumping from the lower part of the engine indicates serious wear and neglect. The Hydragas suspension can leak, causing the car to list. Listen out for clicks from the front wheels when on full lock pointing to shot CV joints. Remember, everything can be cheaply replaced, so use faults as a bargaining tool and get estimates for repairs.

By contrast, recent Rover Metros are virtually flawless, but ensure that the car has a full service history. I dipped my toes in the water at the murkiest Metro level with the sole intention of finding the cheapest example possible. That meant investing in the local Loot free-ads paper. In a village just outside Cambridge was a 1.0 litre W-registered car for only £100.

Amazingly there was three months' MOT and one month's tax. It was legal, although the seller admitted it needed some work. Serious prodding revealed a fairly rotten rear subframe that would need replacing; several other areas needed attention. The front seats were well worn which indicated a hard and possibly professional former life involving L plates. However, the seller was prepared to drop to double figures, £75, to clear it off his drive.

I then telephoned the legions of Metro specialists to track down parts. Metro Mania in Dagenham, Essex, had just about everything that was needed, while Specialised Automotive Services had a new subframe for £49 that it would fit at my home. I calculated that this Metro could be legally mobile for around £200. Alternatively, there were some other Metros in the paper that promised a year's MOT and trouble-free motoring for around £500. That's the great thing about Metros, there are always plenty to choose from in the bargain basement.

Hike your buying budget up a little further and the Bucks Mini Centre has a number of enticing propositions. What it will do is build you a brand new Metro to your own specification. It had three old Metros in stock, the most recent being an A-reg example which Doug said he could "make into something really special for about £1,500". I could pick the colour, interior, engine size and Bucks Minis would do all the hard work. I was very tempted.

If I did not fancy concocting a Metro of my own then there was always the standard sporty Metro GTa. The Octagon used car centre in Aldershot had a 1989 example that had been slashed from £3,795 to £2,995 in new- year promotion. A smart car, the centre bent over backwards to make it even more attractive at a financed £63.39 per month.

But, money aside, the safest Metro buy will be at a Rover dealer. SMC, with three large sites in west London, also had a sale on. A low-miles (6,000) '93 Si automatic, the ultimate town car, tipped the scales at £6,995. Cheapest of the Rover Metros on offer were some '93 1.1 s at £4,995. All immaculate, warranted and ready to drive home. Mind you, I was still considering the miser's Metro back in Cambridge, until I found out how chequered its earlier career had been. Guess what its original owner had been. That's right, driving instructor.

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