The early 1980s continued to be turbulent times for British Leyland. Much needed financial backing from the government was not proving easy to obtain, whilst most of the workforce were virtually being employed to go on strike and steal things (or so it seemed). During the reign of Michael Edwardes as chairman the company appeared to be trading under a different name every few weeks, and as the number of Marques under BL was reduced and the company split Austin Rover came into being, with the appointment of Austin ex-apprentice Harold Musgrove as Chairman and Managing Director.
The appaling state of the company was also reflected in the design side of the operation which was vastly underfunded and consisting of demoralised staff. One of the first things Musgrove did was to back a full reorganisation of styling within the Austin Rover Group and a new design studio at Canley (near Coventry) was invested in. Unfortunately this was too late for LM10 the Maestro, the most immediate project on the horizon at the time. The Maestro launch was delayed by BL’s first collaboration with Honda, the Triumph Acclaim, a version of the Honda Ballade (nee Civic), which was introduced in late 1981, and as such the design essentially came from the late 1970s, but despite being a three year old design by the time it was launched the Maestro still managed to maintain an attractive and purposeful appearance in the eyes of many.
The styling of the car was largely credited to Leyland’s then director of styling David Bache, who had been involved in the Range Rover and the SD1 (note the trademark belt line groove both Maestro and SD1 have in common), although the basic Maestro design was the work of Ian Beech. The Bache/Beech proposal had been chosen in preference to another proposal by Harris Mann (who designed the Allegro). Final approval for the aerodynamically developed ultimate proposal had been given in 1979.
Unfortunately the development story of the Maestro was far from trouble free. The decision to develop Ian Beech’s proposal instead of Harris Mann’s was criticised by many who felt that Mann’s design had a more solid and better quality look to it. With other projects getting in the way the development of the Maestro suffered and the crisp design, fashionable in the late 1970s, quickly dated by the time it eventually got into production. During this period BL’s chief stylist David Bache was replaced by Roy Axe (ex-Rootes and Chrysler). Bache’s view of what LM10 should be clashed with Harold Musgrove’s views and in the end, he lost his job.
When Roy Axe was first shown the Maestro his reaction was rather less than favourable. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. The whole car’s stance and proportion was wrong. To find a car that was two decades out in its thinking was just mind boggling.” His attempts to have the car stopped were too late, with it being just four months from production. At this stage going back to the government and asking for more money was not an option; it would almost certainly have been the end for BL. Even now it is interesting to listen to the range of opinions on the styling of these cars with some considering the Maestro as ‘dated’ or ‘ugly’ and others who feel it still looks fresh today.
It was at the beginning of March 1983 that Austin Rover announced the long-awaited replacement for the Maxi & Allegro ranges, a car like so many others on which the company’s future depended. The seven model front wheel drive range was set to take on a highly competitive market sector against well established cars such as the VW Golf and the Ford Escort, although it soon became known as an ‘also ran’ despite its many better qualities. The design brief had been a simple, straight-forward, compact front wheel drive car, easy and cheap to run and to buy. At the same time Maestro was to establish a new reputation of advanced technology and innovation for ARG, although on the surface this isn’t immediately obvious with most of the car’s basic engineering making use of surprisingly conventional technology. The hydragas suspension used on the Allegro and Metro were gone in favour of more conventional Macpherson struts at the front and trailing arms at the rear with coil springs all round. Initially there were only two engines available; the 1.3 litre (1275cc) A+ series (a development of the A series as used in the Mini) from the Metro, and the 1598cc R series which was basically a development of the E series engine previously used in the Maxi and Allegro. Both had an end-mounted Volkswagen gearbox. Where the styling of Maestro had perhaps not worked out as well as it might, the simple engineering of the cars was always a strong point and resulted in a vehicle that was generally very pleasant to drive.
What was revolutionary about the Maestro range was its compliance with BL’s new adherence to CADCAM, or Computer Aided Design and Manufacture. Cowley’s computer car was designed by clever machines, and built by robots. Computer tests decided everything from seatbelt mountings and body panel thicknesses to the homofocal headlamps. The Maestro captured the imagination most with it’s voice synthesizer system on the early MG and VdP models and programmed in 15 different languages. It was more a means of promoting the car as being more technologically advanced than the competition, although, unfortunately, Renault had come up with a similar feature on the Renault 11 two months earlier. The voice was that of Nicolette McKenzie who appeared on TV’s General Hospital, Van Der Valk and Churchill’s People. The voice formed merely part of a 32 word voice synthesis system operating through the driver’s side radio speaker. Many customers found the system to be rather gimmicky and irritating. It is interesting to note that the electronic dashboards, together with their voice-synthesized warning announcement system were very short lived, returning quickly conventional analogue instruments by the latter end of 1984.
The press first got their hands on the Maestro at the launch in southern Spain where there was plenty of opportunity for driving through the tortuous mountain terrain. Reactions were mixed but in general the car’s spaciousness and practicality, economy, good visibility, ease of driving, handling, performance and level of comfort all came out favourably. In fact there weren’t many points on which the Maestro could be criticised initially. Some liked it’s styling whilst others found it to be ugly or dated. The Maestro was launched about six months after the “jelly mould” Sierra, so was not seen to be that ground breaking. At the time Ford were spending tens of millions on advertising to get the Sierra styling accepted, but this was proving difficult and they did lose many sales as a result to the more conservatively styled Austins. However the speaking computer and digital instruments, noise levels and occasional build quality problems, all attracted much criticism. Further problems soon began to materialise; the electronic carburettor setup gave problems in service (poor idling, starting, acceleration etc.), the robot bonded windscreens leaked, the bumpers did not take 5mph parking knocks – these were added to modernise the late 1970’s design and the Bayer ‘Pokan’ plastic was chosen for its ability to be painted with the car – unfortunately the heat treatment seemed to make the plastic brittle, as did cold weather!
Rumour had it that the MG version of the Maestro was an afterthought, introduced in an attempt to mirror the success of the MG Metro. Unlike the MG Metro the MG version of the Maestro was available straight away on the car’s launch, hence the theory that it was rushed together to meet the launch date, which is true to an extent as it was a laste addition to the programme. It differed very little from the standard Maestro using the same 1.6 litre R series engine altered with revised porting and twin Weber 40DCNF carburetters on an eight-port manifold, raising horsepower from 81 to 103 which actually gave the car a very reasonable performance (each cylinder effectively had its own carburettor). Cosmetically the MG Maestro was made to look far more attractive than the standard saloon with it’s front and rear spoilers, red bumper inserts, 14 inch alloy wheels and sensible use of MG badging. Unfortunately the MG 1600 suffered badly as a result of it’s achilles heel, the built-in carburation problems. During the developoment period Austin Rover had experienced some difficulty in meeting their power, torque and economy targets and had to call in Weber with the launch deadline fast approaching. The system was never thought out properly and plumbing and positioning of the system combined with engine heat caused fuel to heat up and pressurise. This in turn led to the hot starting problems so commonly experienced on these cars, very few of which now survive.
1984 saw the first of the major changes to the Maestro range. In July the S series engine replaced the R series, the changes consisting of a lighter and thinner walled cylinder block, a better balanced crankshaft, improved distributor drive, a new oil pump and water pump, and a toothed belt drive for the camshaft. After only 2762 ‘R’ series engined MG Maestro 1600s had been produced the model was replaced in the October of that year by the MG Maestro EFi. Externally the MG Maestro EFi was not far removed from it’s MG 1600 predecessor, but this time gained a colour coded front grille, door mirrors and door handles. The big fuel-injected O-series engine gave the Maestro 115bhp and the capability for 115mph and 0-60 in just 8.5 seconds. Apart from the engine the rest of the car remained virtually unchanged apart from rear anti roll bars and 9.5 inch ventilated disc brakes. The gearbox used with the 2.0 EFi was a Honda unit eliminating the reputation the MG Maestro had for having a notchy gearchange with the VW box used on the 1600s.
The only alternative bodystyle available for the Maestro was the Van variant, as introduced at the 1984 Motor Show. The van became a very popular contender in the small commercial vehicles sector, and became the first Maestro to feature a diesel engine in 1986. The diesel used was a 2.0 litre unit based around the O series and developed with Perkins, a very important development for Rover which at the time was considerably behind other manufacturers with the use of diesel engines. This engine later spread to the hatchback version of the Maestro. The vans were better known as 500 or 700 vans, the difference between the two being that the 700 had uprated suspension to take a 700kg load rather than 500kg. There were two petrol engine options for the vans initially (1.3 or 1.6 litre), although the 1.6 was only offered for a short time and not at launch. Vans always used the metal bumpers as used on the Austin Maestro City rather than the one piece mouldings. The Maestro Van proved a highly successful varient not only selling to builders but in huge fleets to many large and well known companies, notably British Telecom.
1985 heralded changes for the base model end of the Maestro range with the introduction of the City and City X models in the August of that year, with the City being the more basic of the two (equivalent to the previous base model). There were several changes to the range throughout the 1980s, including the introduction of the 1.6 Mayfair in 1986 (with its generous level of equipment), and the re-trimming of the MG (now known as the MG 2.0i) in late 1988. New cross-spoke alloys and extra colour coding improved its looks significantly, as did the disappearance of the rather loud scarlet carpets. 1986 saw the replacement of the uncompromisingly square facia with the one piece moulding from the Montego. The original facia was a bit of a disaster – the design dates to 1977 and it was criticised even then. In service many parts would rattle and squeak adding to the build quality problems. After the Montego one-piece facia was introduced it was decided to adopt that rather than tool up another Maestro facia. There were numerous other changes in equipment levels and options throughout the decade. Most significantly the Austin badge disappeared from both Maestros and Montegos in 1988 marking the end of the Austin marque.
Turbocharging was one thing the MG Maestro had lacked right from the start, unlike it’s Metro and Montego stablemates. When the subject was raised with then ARG chairman Harold Musgrove in 1985 he seemed less than enthusiastic about the idea and concerned about the amount of work that would be involved. Three years later and the Maestro Turbo made it’s first appearance at the 1988 motor show, but it wasn’t until the following January that production of the 505 cars began. Outside input and late introduction meant that it was better developed than the Montego Turbo, and what emerged was one of the fastest, best looking and most underated hot hatches ever conceived. With 152bhp at 5100rpm, a claimed top speed of 128mph and the capability to reach 60mph from standstill in 6.7 seconds (out-accelerating the occasional ‘supercar’ of the time) the MG Maestro Turbo left the competition in the rear view mirror. Each of the cars went to Tickford’s Specialist Vehicle Production Centre at Bedworth for finishing – Tickford assisted with the engine development and the suspension tuning. They were also responsible for the bodykit which completely transformed the car, comprising a deep chin spoiler & driving lamps, an aerodynamically encased rear window and turbo graphics. Only four body colours, (Flame Red, British Racing Green, White Diamond and Factory Black) were available with black being the rarist, with only 49 examples being finished in that colour.
After a number of special editions in the previous year (the 1.3 ‘Surf’, 1.3 ‘Clubman’ and 1.6 ‘Advantage’) the range was completely revised in 1990, and most significantly the Vanden Plas model was dropped around the same time. The new range was simplified and comprised a 1.3 Clubman, 2.0 Clubman Diesel, 1.3 LX, 1.6 LX Auto, 2.0 DLX, MG 2.0i and MG Turbo. The end for the MG Maestro came in 1992, but by that time plans were already underway for the continuation of the marque’s revival in the form of the super quick MGR V8 and the MGF. If nothing else, at least the Maestro had kept the MG Marque alive and well through the 1980s. By this stage the weaknesses of the earlier models (a tendancy towards corrosion and build quality problems) had had plenty of time to show themselves up and contributed greatly to the Maestro’s unpopularity, not helped by the media and their insistance on slating the car at every opportunity. Although the Maestro was a fundamentally good car, its reputation was soiled in the early years by suspect build quality, rain leaks and breakdowns caused by the advanced electronic engine management system. And then there was the fact that it replaced the Allegro, and any car that replaced the Allegro (still viewed today by many Britons as the worst car of all time, and surrounded by many an urban myth) was doomed to receive unfair criticism from the anti-BL biased public, especially at a time when anything associated with BL seemed like a bad joke.
By the early 1990s the Maestro had become a bit of an automotive dinosaur, the design effectively being 12 years old already. But despite all the bad publicity the Maestro had also gained a loyal following among the many who had found it to be a practical, reliable and fun car to own and it managed to soldier on until late 1994, latterly in the form of Clubman Diesels. Some might argue that when the final Maestro left Cowley in December 1994 this marked the passing of one of the last truly British mass produced cars as the strong influence of Honda and then BMW began to play a large part in successive Rover Group cars. With the “Roverisation” process of the early 1990s there was no direct replacement for the Maestro and the nearest alternative was the Rover 200 series. The last Maestro was a Nightfire Red Clubman Diesel, which passed into private ownership in 2003 after a long spell in the BMIHT collection at Gaydon.
On the Maestro front all was quiet for a further three years, until the late 1990s when the Maestro experienced a brief renaissance. After Maestro production was discontinued in 1994, a deal emerged whereby a number of bodyshells would be exported to Bulgaria for construction there, to enable small scale local assembly based on supply of CKD kits from the UK. Unfortunately the project collapsed because of market changes – the flood of used (stolen?) cars from the west, Skoda reducing prices on the Felicia to undercut the Maestro as it was launched, and Daewoo setting up a factory there to build cheaper Astra-based Nexias. About 2000 cars were made until production ceased in April 1996, and about 1700 were exported around the world – over 1000 went to South America (550 to Uruguay and 400 to Argentina), plus 200 to Macedonia, and others to Jordan and Syria. The remaining Maestro kits that had not been exported became surplus to requirement… until Trans European Trading stepped in and bought up 621 of them (saloons and vans) which were then assembled on the premises of a small service station in Ledbury, Herefordshire. This was to be the first time since 1994 that the Maestro was available new in the UK. At just £4995 each, the new cars had a very basic specification not far removed from the Clubman models and used the old 1.3 litre A+ engine. They appealed to many due to their low price and simplicity, being in high demand all the time they were being offered. Apparently the last “Ledbury” Maestro registered was a 51 reg.
In yet another twist to the story, the tooling for the Maestro made its way to China after production rights were acquired by Etsong in 1998. By the end of 2000 examples of a “QE6400” hatchback and “QE6440” van had emerged from the purpose built factory. Another Chinese automotive giant, First Auto Works, later acquired production rights to both the Maestro and Montego and developed a strange looking hybrid of the two (Montego front end, Maestro from the A post backwards) which they called the FAW Lubao QE6400. Production of cars based on the Maestro & Montego platforms in China continued in 2008 under the “Yema” brand.
Numbers are for Cowley-built cars only.
Austin Rover Web Resource – Maestro & Montego pages. If it’s detail you want, look here.
Men and Motors of ‘The Austin’ – Barney Sharratt 2000 (ISBN 1-85960-671-7)
Making Cars at Cowley – Gillian Bardsley 2006 (ISBN 0752439022)
MG By McComb – F Wilson McComb 1998 (ISBN 0-85045-598-7)
Michael Edwardes: Back from the Brink – Michael Edwardes 1983 (ISBN 0-00-217074-4)
Complete Catalogue of Austin Cars – Anders Ditlev Clausager 1992 (ISBN 1870979265)