Harris Mann was in control of the felt-tips at BL during it’s most turbulent time and, to be fair to the poor chap, he could have designed a bucket of piss and the assembly line would have struggled to produce anything more than wet shoes. He worked on designs like the Metro, Maestro and the 416. These cars were the mainstay of family motoring in the ‘80s and ‘90s and did have some nice touches, yet, if you believe the entire motoring media today, were thoroughly wretched things.

I had successfully avoided owning anything BLish in my entire life until very recently when I decided to see if Rover’s reputation for rubbishness was deserved and found myself collecting a Metro 1.1 Quest from a back street garage in Nottingham. I was greeted with “you do know these are shit, don’t you?”, paid £300 and hid it in the yard at work while I devised an experiment to find out for myself.

metro go faster mod

Manufacturers use rallying to test the reliability of their products and Formula 1 is considered the technical pinnacle of motorsport. But where can we try that, for a budget of peanuts, and where the law won’t disturb our automotive experiment? A meeting with some like-minded motoring masochists in the pub, armed with a primary school world map and too much booze, and we hatched a plan – Harris Mann(k) to Casablanca. A one-way roadtrip to the dark continent, rallying across northern Morocco and then a few laps of the 1958 Casablanca Grand Prix circuit before disposing of the cars and flying back to blighty.

Our Metro was joined by a Rover 416, the fruit of Rover’s brief fling with Honda, and a four-wheeled freak of a thing called a Ledbury Maestro. Each car would have two drivers, we’d cross Europe and North Africa and finish in Rick’s Café in Casablanca to analyse the results. What better way to test Harris Mann’s creations?

formation on highway (2)

Setting off at “half past bastard o’clock” in the morning Darryl and I ragged down to Portsmouth in the Metro to meet Baz and Jimbo in their Maestro and Ben and Chas in their 416, boarded the ferry to Spain, and spent 24 hours clinging to the bar, playing Bingo and feeling smug because we hadn’t had to cross any Fr*nch speaking parts of the continent.

The nautical shortcut across Bay of Biscay was stormy yet I wasn’t bothered that I hadn’t put the handbrake on the Metro – these cars were not coming back. I have an almost religious approach to prepping cars for trips like this – if you replace just one rusty washer, you have to replace the nut, and then whatever it’s holding, ad infinitum until you’ve done a full resto job. Changing one scabby connector upsets old wires and creaking circuits, setting off an endless chain of catastrophic maladies on a worthless car. I call it mechanical karma. Leave it all alone. They’ve managed 20 years and only need last a thousand miles more. We spent the maintenance budget on stickers because stickers = rallycar.

rally spec metro (= standard metro + stickers)

metro brake warning

Spain was the easy part of the trip. 24 hours of motorway to get down to the port in Algeciras for the crossing to Africa, a steady drive for the cars with a healthy supply of crisps and brandy to get us there. Yet at the first hill coming out of Santander the Maestro overheated and broke down. It was the first time I had chance to look at the thing. When Rover stopped making the Maestro they sold unused parts to a company in Bulgaria who bodged a few together. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t make as many as planned and sold leftover bits back to a company in Ledbury who assembled the car and sold it buyers in the UK who wanted an ancient design with a KPH speedo, wrong-way wipers, Ox-cart comfort and an ancient 1275cc A-series engine. They are, supposedly, rare and collectable now.

The overheating was traced to coolant that had never been changed so we emptied the slurry from the rad, topped it up and went on our way. Driver Baz normally enjoys a Merc C63 so when he screamed over the radio “slow down! It’s knackered! It has no power!” no-one had any sympathy, not even startled Spanish traffic cops on the same frequency as our walkie talkies. ¡Hola, amigos!

We arrived very late for the departure of the ferry to Morocco. Fortunately the ferry was very very late and we made it in the nick of time. We waved goodbye to Europe and crossed the strait of Gibraltar, arriving in Tangier, a few miles from Europe geographically but as far removed from civilisation as an overheating Maestro is from being acceptable intercontinental transport. Angry men in ill-fitting uniforms with guns shouted at us in Fr*nch while locals grabbed, hassled and got in the way. To get into Morocco you have to complete a form to import yourself, another form to import your car, buy insurance for the car, then buy local currency which we called “stinkies”, Moroccan currency cannot be bought outside the country.

Much of the paperwork is in foreign (Arabic, anyone?) it’s hot, late, and there’s a jostling scrum of aggressively friendly locals clawing at your passport and wallet. Still, we’d made it to Morocco and headed south for an overnight stay in what the internet had assured us was a clean, safe and friendly place just south of Tangier called Asilah. The internet was wrong.

NCP safe parking in morocco

The Hotel owner spoke English so Daz and I got a large 4 bed, 2 roomed apartment for just £30. He was quite friendly until it came to being seen with us in public. He poked his head out the door to first ensure it was safe before directing us to a nearby cat-infested restaurant for tagines, chips and olives. The cars were locked in a compound, next to a dead Renault 5 and a British registered Merc G-wagon that looked utterly kaput and the rain came down.

Leaving Asilah in the morning after having been rudely awoken by the call to prayer we aimed to avoid the coastal motorway and give the cars a ragging on the old road that ran parallel to it. These roads are potholed, have crazy subsidence in places and the rain teemed down. We got lost. The Maestro conked out in an open sewer and as Baz was attempting to google “Rover specialist near الشارعالقرف  أصيلة” it thankfully sprang back to life.

Traffic is sparse on the open road but there is an incredible jumble of transport to be avoided in the towns. Motorbikes converted to pick-up trucks seemed popular, as well as Renault 4s and 5s, Peugeot 205s which also serve as taxis and smoky old Merc saloons with up to half a dozen people rammed in the back, all spewing pollution you could collect in a jar and sell as Moroccan marmite. Our cars, though, were holding up surprisingly well.

garage in morocco

I’m not sure what I liked most about the Metro. It’s incredible fuel economy, the boingy handling or the fact that we could drive it across Africa without worrying about the inevitable scrapes and scuffs suffered along the way. The hydragas was saggy and the brake warning light was on, but “they all do that, Sir”. Owning a worthless Rover is fun. Ramming another worthless Rover at every opportunity in heavy traffic more so. The 416’s back bumper took a dozen shunts to dislodge, but it isn’t a Rover in the darkest, Longbridgist, Leylandist sense of the word. It’s a boggo Honda with wood cappings, velour seats and an automatic gearbox, first owned by a Doctor who paid more for the Nightfire Red paint option when new than Ben and Chas paid for the complete car. £180 gets you a reliable and comfortable car that, apart from vandalism by our fellow experimentalists and the word ‘TWAT’ inexplicably embroidered on a headrest by the previous owner, worked perfectly. Aside from the overheating A-series in the Maestro all the cars were fine, if a bit battered, by the time we reached Casablanca.

tw4t

Stirling Moss won the Casablanca grand prix in 1958, a race organised by the King of Morocco to showcase his country; it’s a blast down the coast road south of the city centre then a rough left, left, left, left square back to the start. No faded Reims-style beauty here nor Monaguesque opulence, the site of the original pit lane is now a KFC. The city is overcrowded and chaotic. Traffic is horrific. Think Paris rush hour on crack with a blinkered population of 5 million, driving carts pulled by emaciated mules, overloaded lorries, smokey Mercs, mopeds and old Fr*nch hatchbacks. Weirdly we also saw a Rover 820 and a 618 but this is no place for a race.

We dumped the cars and took a taxi to dinner, whereupon our driver ran over a couple attempting to cross the road, backed up to get them from under his front wheels, then eventually dropped us at Rick’s Café. Of all the gin joints in all the world, why did we walk into this one? Rick’s is brilliant. It’s a bar and restaurant carbon-copied from the film Casablanca, run by an American ex-diplomat who serves the most fantastic food, cold beer and obligatory G&Ts. The décor is colonial splendor with Arab touches and a Sam on piano. It’s beautiful and a complete contrast to the hell-hole just outside the door.  I was hoping for the company of Ingrid Bergmann but got half a dozen Rover owning Brits in flat caps and pith helmets arguing the toss about their cars.

Time to rate our rides. The most BL of the lot was the Maestro. I know that some readers will be unhappy that Darryl stoved in it’s doors, roof, boot and bonnet with a golf club when it overheated for the 6th time but these cars, as rare as they now are, are worthless. If it was so special why could we pick one up for the price of a few drinks at Rick’s? We could only blame it’s unreliability on poor maintenance and the fact that Baz had tried to V max it at every opportunity. I think Jimbo had bonded with it but like a holiday romance it had to end. Ben and Chas had played a kind of BL Buckaroo with their 416 by removing as many parts as possible as they went along, arriving in Casa without most of it’s trim and superfluous components, but it got there, no fuss.

The Metro had just 41k on the clock and had been well maintained by a Nottingham pensioner, but watching a wing burst open like a bit of wet cardboard after a little collision with [removed in case their insurer is reading this] we decided that it needs about 200 Kg of strengthening to make it safe, which would cripple the lightweight, chuckable feel that made it so much fun in the first place. These cars might be a bit crap but we loved them and I’d like to think that Harris Mann would approve of our fun and games.

After mistaking a mosque for a disco (I thought the music was rather peculiar) we retreated to the safety of the 14th floor of the Ibis, watched the chaos on the roads below and planned our retreat. Cars cannot be left in Morocco. Their import is tied to your own entry paperwork and passport so they have to be exported and disposed of elsewhere. We trundled 250 miles to Tangier, past fields of miserable camels and gawping locals and caught a late ferry back to Spain which was overloaded and listed at a good 20 degrees when backing out into open water, a last bit of excitement from Africa. We had a flight the following day but how to dispose of the cars, vaguely legally? They were worth less than a ferry ticket before we left; in their battered state they’re not worth the time or money to repatriate. We had tried to donate them to Oxfam. Oxfam didn’t want them.

The Maestro was left outside the gates of a Spanish scrapyard with the keys in it* and the chaps piled into the other two cars. “I don’t trust this fuel gauge, I’ve got loads left” said Ben, before immediately running out of fuel. We crossed into Gib where we fed the car’s logbooks to the apes on the rock. We had tea and cake at a Café and paid the elated waiter with a Metro and 416 before jumping aboard a budget flight back home to cold, wet Brum. Africa had been insane, we had only dipped our toe into the dark continent and left two stone lighter with empty wallets and frayed nerves after just a few exciting days. I can think of no better destination for a Rover.

metros new owner

So, the result of our experiment: There’re all winners, these cars. They did a trip that was considered beyond them by so many, stood up to the worst abuse we could chuck at them with zero maintenance or preparation and made us laugh. They have a battered, buggered and faded appeal that only we Brits can appreciate and were fun for all the wrong reasons. If only we’d appreciated them more when new perhaps we’d still have a volume British car manufacturer of note. Would I want to make the same trip again in a modern Chinese built “MG”, or anything else, for that matter? No. We Brits appreciate heroic failure; Scott of the Antarctic, General Gordon at Khartoum, Mallory up Everest and Harris Mann(k) to Casablanca. We had a great adventure. Thanks Mann.

africa conquered (2)

Rich Duisberg.

Words and pics mostly by Rich Duisberg. Huge thanks to fellow automotive adventures; Dr Octane, I presume, also Ben ‘water aid’ Wardle, Chas ‘218’ Drury, Jimbo the scourge of Ledbury and the walking diplomatic incident known as Baz. Imshi! Imshi!

*honest.

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15 Responses

    • Rich Duisberg
      Rich Duisberg

      Thanks, glad you liked it. The calendar is stacking up nicely, our trackday for modern classics is going to be on May 1st, then lots of abroad stuff!

      Reply
  1. Tim

    Brilliant adventure. Could only be bettered by including something wedge-shaped in your convoy – next time?

    Reply
  2. Matthew

    Good choice of cars. I have two of the three you picked on my drive, although my Rover 416 is a GTi (manual) and the Maestro is an A-reg MG version. We don’t have a Metro though 🙁

    Reply
    • Rich Duisberg
      Rich Duisberg

      Thanks Matthew. You could have had our Metro, although I’m not sure it would have withstood the return journey from Gib after the battering it took. Hope you liked the feature and thanks for commenting!

      Reply
      • Matthew

        Cheers, I loved the article. Best road trip I have read about for a long time.

        I am thinking of driving to Bucharest in the summer. It is nearly 2000 miles so was considering a 1990s Honda Accord or a (ever-so-similar) Rover 600. Low mileage examples cost about £500 and look like they will go on for ever.

        I note that the Rover 416 was the most trouble-free. After fitting a new alternator to my 416 GTi, I have only opened the bonnet once to top up the washer bottle. Even that didn’t need doing!

      • Rich Duisberg
        Rich Duisberg

        Sounds like a good trip. I once owned a Honda Accord, perfectly reliable, but the heart says get a Rover 600…. or be brave for pick up an 800! Bin voyage.

  3. Ned

    I took my test in an A-reg Maestro.
    I remember the gearbox was surprisingly springy. Other than that, it was entirely forgettable.

    Reply
    • Rich Duisberg
      Rich Duisberg

      Springy gearbox? Ours was fine. The rest of it, though….

      Reply
      • Ned

        Yes.. hard to explain. I think I mean: it jumped out of gear easily.
        It was a great relief to ‘inherit’ (ie steal) my grandma’s Mini City

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