What is it about the Austin Maestro? Why is it perpetually the subject of ridicule and derision? On a strictly rational basis, it is always possible to make the case for a comfortable, spacious, thoroughly un-flashy, practical, economical car that gives good value for the money, and the Maestro was exactly that. So why does the Maestro take such a beating?
The Maestro, initially known as the LC10 project, was planned by BLMC to replace the Austin Allegro and Austin Maxi. It was conceived, under a team led by Spen King, the ex-Rover engineering director who was recognised as the father of the 1963 Rover 2000 P6, 1970 Range-Rover and the 1976 Rover 3500SD1, as a conventional car built with an emphasis on space and convenience. The days of BLMC doing adventurous engineering with inadequate execution were over.
The car was to be part of a two-car family, with a saloon version to replace the Morris Marina and Princess, and to compete with the Ford Cortina, also planned and which actually came in 1984 as the Austin Montego. However, BL determined early (but not at the beginning of) the development programme that the business priority lay in getting the shorter hatchback to the market ahead of the saloon, to compete on a more even footing against the VW Golf, Vauxhall Astra/Opel Kadett and Ford Escort.
King determined to keep to conventional solutions, with the intention of getting better value, in terms of final product performance, for the development money. Therefore the Maestro had McPherson strut front suspension, just like a Golf, a torsion beam rear suspension, just like a Golf, and instead of the Issigonis in-sump gearbox, it even had an actual VW gearbox from a Golf. This preliminary development was being completed within three years of the launch of the Golf, and it is interesting to note just how quickly the Golf had become influential. Indeed, it is rumoured that the first prototypes actually used VW rear axles, bought by BL from UK spares distributors.
BL had made a decision to buy in gearboxes from VW, rather than develop their own, following trials with the VW unit and a prototype BL unit. It ate into the (hoped-for) profit, but helped to ease the development time and ensure quality.
The timing of the development of this car is also crucial to the story. Initial planning started in 1975 and formal Board go-ahead was given in May 1976. Indeed, the car was being crashed tested in 1977.
In 1977, the government appointed a new executive Chairman to BL – Michael Edwardes – with a clear brief to get the company back on its feet, and approval to take what the politicians might have called “hard decisions”, including culling underperforming models, brands and factories.
Edwardes also identified two other key points – the company needed not only new, mainstream products and needed these new products as quickly as possible; and also that the company did not have the capacity, financial or technical, to develop the Maestro in parallel with the also commercially vital supermini. The smaller car, launched as the Austin miniMetro, was ahead in the chain, and by focussing resources could be completed for 1980. The Maestro was about 2 years behind, so the miniMetro took precedence and was launched in September 1980. The Maestro took second place, and was launched in March 1983.
The downside of this was that the Maestro was benchmarked against such cars as the VW Golf Mk 1, Fiat Strada/Ritmo, Renault 14 and Chrysler Horizon, which were obsolete (or close to it) before the Maestro was launched, rather than the 1980 FWD Ford Escort, 1981 Renault 9/11 (Alliance/Encore) or 1979 Vauxhall Astra/Opel Kadett.
The other significant factor is that the LC10 started as a Cortina – Cavalier competitor and Marina replacement, not a Golf and Escort beater. Consequently, the original layout was for a 101-inch wheelbase saloon (sedan), ideally sized to compete with the Cortina. But in view of the decision that the more pressing need was to compete lower down the market and with a hatchback, this car was too big. The competitors were all 94- to 96-inch wheelbase hatchbacks, not over 100-inch wheelbase saloons.
So, the wheelbase of the LC10 was trimmed by 2.4 inches to create the LM10 to be the Masestro, and the LC10 continued as the LM11 to become the Montego. This was consistent with many other manufacturers, who let front-wheel drive move up the model range rather than down it. VW, Ford and GM all introduced front-wheel drive hatchbacks to the lower part of the market first, before replacing rear-drive larger saloons, as did the Japanese.
Hence, BL had a competitor for the Golf and Escort which was actually substantially larger (the Golf and Escort were both on 94-inch wheelbases, Maestro 98.5 inch), which meant it was more spacious or more expensive to build, depending which way you looked at it. To help make the car shorter, to differentiate it from the Montego and to match the competitors, it had a very short rear overhang, which when added to the long front overhang and the placing of the front wheels almost under the front pillars, gave the car an unusual stance and proportions.
Again, BL had built a car that was a slightly different size than everyone else’s, just as had happened with the Landcrab, the Marina and the Princess. And, to add to the mix, the Metro was smaller than its main competitors, making the size gap in the Austin range wider than the comparable gap between the Fiesta and Escort, or Polo and Golf, or Renault 5 and 9, Vauxhall Nova and Astra, or Nissan Cherry and Sunny…
Engine wise, the car was planned to have either a 1.3-litre OHV A series, with the modifications developed for the Metro that permitted BLMC to call it the A+, or an extensive development of the E series used in the 1968 Austin Maxi, and known as the S series. However, the first Maestros had a version known as the R series, a halfway house from the E to the S series.
The R-Series was mainly a stop gap, and had a very short production run that lasted less than two years. BL had been working on the more substantially-different S series engine, but this was not ready for production in time for the Maestro, partly because the company had been unable to make a full business case for it to the UK government.
The company was instead forced into launching the Maestro with the half-developed power unit which cost BL dearly – the R-Series equipped Maestros soon gained a reputation for hot starting problems, cylinder head gasket failures, and premature crankshaft failure. As installed in the Maestro, the R-Series had the carburettor facing the front of the car, which also led to a reputation for carburettor icing in cold weather. The S series was fitted in 1984.
And then there was the styling. This was fixed in 1977, a staggering six years before the car was launched. The kindest thing you can say about it was that it had big windows and good visibility, but really it was a panache-free zone, and by the time the car was on sale it was quite dated, especially compared with something like the 1984 Astra Mk 2 or even the 1980 Mk3 Escort.
It was actually styled by a team led by David Bache, BL’s director of design and the designer of the Rover 3500 SD1, who recommended it over a design by Harris Mann which was significantly more contemporary, if less glassy and obviously spacious. Some reports state that the Harris Mann concept scored better in market research and clinics than the Bache proposal. Remember, this choice was made in 1976-1967, when David Bache was right at the top of his game with the market response to the Rover SD1, and when Harris Mann was associated with the less critically acclaimed Austin Allegro, Triumph TR7 and Princess.
The Bache concept for the Maestro looked what it was – a rational design that would meet all the logical reasons for buying a car, but touched none of the (necessary) emotional buttons, and had very limited showroom appeal. The interior followed the same tone. But by 1983 its sharp edges were looking dated, compared with cars like the Ford Sierra, Astra Mk 2 and Renault 9 and 11. It was a contemporary of the Chrysler Horizon and looked it.
Late in the development process and realising that the car potentially lacked that showroom appeal and was visually dated, BL opted to include three features in an attempt to add some newsworthiness – body coloured painted plastic bumper–valence panels, an electronic carburettor to try to control fuel consumption more closely and one of the first digital, talking dashboard displays in Europe on the top models.
Somehow – you just know it – all three gave trouble: the bumpers cracked very easily, in impact or even when just very cold, and because they were painted were more expensive to replace, the electronics in the carburettors played up and the talking dashboard, intended to say “fasten seat belt, low fuel level” and the like said the most unusual things. There was a newspaper cartoon of the day Austin-Rover (as BL’s volume car business was now known) Chairman Harold Musgrove took a Maestro into Downing Street to meet Margaret Thatcher, who was drawn saying “It won’t tell me what to do!” Apparently, it didn’t!
The car was launched in March 1983, to a mixed reception. The expectations after the successful Austin miniMetro were quite high but the Maestro was disappointing, mainly for the reasons discussed above. Road tests were favorable, usually ending by saying “this car is quite good, comfortable, spacious, economical and reasonable to drive” but with “dull looks and a dated interior which was unlikely to have the novelty dashboard”, unless you spent a larger amount of money on an MG or Vanden Plas wood and leather special, but it really only got 7 out of 10.
The car was built at the Cowley, Oxford plant, which, being Cowley, celebrated the new car by going on strike. At least the Maestro allowed the Allegro to die quietly, following the Maxi which went in 1981.
The car was sold as an Austin in a typical range of trims, ranging from a 69 bhp 1.3 litre and with a high economy version as well, a 1.6-litre, 86 bhp R series option and with a sports-oriented MG Maestro as the glamour top of the range version. In 1983 and 1984, this came with the 1.6-litre R series engine, with twin Weber carburettors, which raised the output to 103 bhp, aimed at the VW Golf GTi, Ford Escort XR3 and the like. The Webers were included by a late decision and were a bit of a novelty for a British car, and soon gained a reputation for going out of tune, fuel vaporisation and the associated hot starting issues.
The trim and interior of the MG was worked up well, though with a distinctive and mostly tasteful application of red and grey in a very 1980s way. One thing Austin-Rover started to get right in the 1980s was interiors, and the first may have been the MG Maestro. The MG and Vanden Plas versions had the digital dash, which was an option on the some other versions, and market reaction to this feature was very mixed. It was not something potential buyers could be ambivalent about.
The Maestro failed to make the anticipated impact on the market that Austin-Rover had hoped for. It was not that the public disliked the Maestro; it was just that they were not particularly excited by it and so, in the crucial first few months of its production, it did not make a huge impact on the sales charts. The industrial action at Cowley did not help.
The Maestro was designed to compete with the Escort, Astra and Golf. The engine range was reasonably comparable, even if the A series was now 30 years old, and it was class competitive for economy. By being a bit bigger, it had a bit more space. It had a good ride and handled reasonably well. Compared to the Allegro and Marina, it was revelation and on a purely objective basis was so much more competitive in the class than the previous cars. But its predecessors were not the competition.
But, subjectively, the Maestro just couldn’t, and didn’t, light any fires. As a follow up to the Metro, it was a disappointment – it was good but not necessarily any better all round than any of its contemporaries and it did not thoroughly out point the Ford Escort and Vauxhall Astra in the way the Metro did the Ford Fiesta and Vauxhall Chevette three years earlier. The root cause reason for is that the Maestro as sold in 1983 was always an older design than the cars it was competing against.
Add to this the fact BL just seemed unable to add any of what we now call “bling”. This was the mid 1980s, Britain was perhaps feeling a little more confident than it had in the 1970s and we were being told that there was no need to be modest about affluence, which was something the Maestro and the Austin brand just did not have. Indeed, within four years, the Maestro and the Montego would lose their Austin badges and within six years the (effective) replacement, the 1989 Rover 214 and 216, would come under a different, and maybe even aspirational, brand.
In October 1984, the MG Maestro 1600 was replaced by the Maestro 2.0EFi. With 115 bhp, 114 mph and 8.4 seconds to 60, it was significantly more on the pace of its competitors, and the digital dashboard was soon dropped. The green example, in a colour Austin-Rover called British Racing Green and which was the colour to have in 1988, is a 1989 car and was seen by SwissTea.
To top that, and to be the last car from BL without a Honda connection, in 1988 we got the MG Maestro Turbo, with a 2.0-litre turbo charged engine. Despite a body kit, 152bhp 60 mph in under 7 seconds and around 130 mph and “Turbo” picked out in script familiar to a manufacturer from Stuttgart, it arguably still looked most at home in front of a caravan.
There was a diesel Maestro in 1990, with a Perkins engine originally used in the Maestro van, though now with a turbocharger. Maestro and Montego production ramped down quickly once the 1989 Rover 214 and 216 were on stream – production dropped by 75% in 2 years from 1989, the MG and other premium versions were dropped in 1990 and it all finally petered out in late 1994. The last cars (this is a 1991) were the badged as Clubman, and had pressed steel bumpers, as used on the basic cars in 1893.
In many ways, the Maestro was like the Maxi – a reasonable idea whose execution was not up to the mark. In 1983, Austin-Rover said publicly “Metro was the key to our survival. Maestro is the key to our prosperity.’’ The British public, and more importantly the Thatcher government, could not and would not accept any excuses. If the Maxi was the last BMC car, then maybe the Maestro, with the Montego, was BL’s last car, and last real chance of an independent profitable future.
And like the Maxi, it failed.