The cars : Maestro/Montego development story
The Metro started BL on its road to recovery, but if it was going to be a long term thing, then it needed to be followed up by equally popular mid-sized counterparts.
However, the Maestro and Montego failed to capitalise on the lead pulled out by the impressive new supermini.
Back from the brink?
IN short order of becoming the BL Chairman at the end of 1977, Michael Edwardes formulated a plan that would hopefully bring the company’s range of cars kicking and screaming into the 1980s. He had already turned his attention to the Metro and now he needed to get a plan of action in place for the mid range cars.
Spen King and Gordon Bashford in Solihull had instigated initial work on a mid-sized hatchback programme back in the summer of 1975, but in the climate of uncertainty prevalent in the Ryder years at Leyland Cars, it was slow going. King and Bashford had devised a classic front wheel drive layout, as LC10 Project Director Malcolm Harbour described it, with a transverse engine, end-on gearbox and conventional suspension layout.
Spen King also saw it that way, designing the LC10 in a pragmatic way: ‘I guess it was me that decided that it should have that very simple layout – the utterly conventional one actually. We had no good reason for doing anything anymore complicated in fact. It is a Golf layout: simply a take off, that’s all.’ It may have been somewhat different to the front wheel drive designs that had thus far been produced by the corporation, but it was a very realistic view of how that type of car would evolve. This intended replacement for the Maxi and Allegro enjoyed a leisurely development programme, until the point that the TM1 was axed, when it suddenly became rather more important to the company’s future plans.
A new midliner planned
Funding was always a worry – and because of the stop-go nature of industrial relations at the time, the Government was reticent about giving the ailing company any more handouts. Edwardes and Ray Horrocks thoroughly evaluated this programme and viewed it as a viable car on which to base their future corporate strategy. Because the ADO99 programme had been given full managerial backing, the newly invigorated programme was renamed LC10. With this change in project number, a door had finally been closed on the past – the long-running ADO model numbering system, that had been around since the mid-1950s was no more.
Within double-quick time, Edwardes approached the Government to lay out his plans: There would be the LC8 small car (the Metro), and the LC10 (hatchback and notchback versions), the mid-sized cars to replace Allegro, Marina and Maxi. There would also be the LC12 and LC14, the larger car and sports model; whether these cars would appear in the fullness of time would depend on how successful the LC10 was.
Now, Edwardes was well and truly at the helm of the company and was in a favourable position with the Government, he quickly secured this funding in order to finance this essential new model programme. As explained previously, he cancelled projects where necessary, in order to focus resources on the new cars, killing the development of anything else that was considered superfluous to these plans. And there were some interesting cars that did not see the light of the day in order to make way for the Maestro and Montego:
- Allegro Four with two-tone paint
- Rover SD1 Estate: Michael Edwardes used to run one, but we could not.
- Princess Estate: Potential to be a useful load-lugger.
- Triumph Lynx: Speke closure and a questionable sales potential were responsible for this one’s early demise.
The choice to the Government had been an easy one: they could continue to invest in the beleaguered company, knowing that industry in the Midlands would be decimated by any decision that involved closure. Labour had a lot of MPs in the Midlands at the time in marginal seats. Going into the 1979 Election was going to be tough enough without having alienated the electorate in the Midlands by potentially pulling their jobs from beneath their feet. It was a very logical new-model plan and once Edwardes had secured finances from the Jim Callaghan government in 1978, the parallel development programmes of the saloon and hatchback versions of the LC10 progressed, full steam ahead.
Government was also acutely aware of the fact that Edwardes had laid out plans to close several factories in the Midlands and although, they knew that these painful cuts would be needed to save the car company, it cannot have made knowledge of this any less painful for the men in Westminster. Edwardes also would not start closing these factories until after the General election in 1979, so in the run-up, it would make good press to accede to the wishes of Michael Edwards and give him the finances he needed.
So although the Politicians had been appeased, what exactly were the LC10 models and how would they fit into the market?
The British Golf
The first decision made was to push ahead with the hatchback car. There was a universal love for the saloon in the UK market, but as it was important for BL to re-establish themselves in the important export market of Europe where the hatchback was king, the LC10 would be the first of the two cars to be launched. The LC10 notchback would follow rapidly after, within the space of a year in fact, but as the two cars shared a great deal of their underpinnings, the development of both cars would be run together.
In terms of European volume sales, the LC10 would be the major seller, so plans were rapidly drawn up rapidly for a Two-box hatchback in the mould of the Volkswagen Golf and upcoming Ford Escort Mk3. The B-class of cars in the European market was rapidly growing and since the arrival of the Volkswagen Golf in 1974, the template for the cars in this class was set: Front wheel drive, engines in the range of 1100cc and 1600cc, a 94-96in wheelbase and importantly, a hatchback rear door.
The car would employ almost completely conventional engineering unlike the Metro, as dictated by engineering chief, Spen King – Hydragas suspension was not considered, the Maestro would be suspended by the VW formula of front MacPherson struts up front and trailing arm rear suspension. This was no doubt, a political decision made by King, who was a man who always preferred a conventional engineering solution. He believed that the extra weight and cost of Moulton’s suspension system was no worth the benefits that it offered. In reality, by the time the Austin Ambassador appeared in 1982, the benefits of the system had been demonstrated in the best possible way.
The question of what engines were to be used in the LC10 was an easily resolved dilemma. The early ADO99 prototypes used the standard A-Series engine in 1.0 and 1.3-litre form, with transmission-in-sump layout – common with the Allegro and Metro. The larger engined version was tried out 1.7-litre version of the O-Series engine with an end-on gearbox, but was quickly ruled out because of the size of the gearbox. Next, the E-Series unit was tried out, using a bought in VW gearbox (because it matched the size of the new gearbox under development in BL) – and the packaging was perfect for this car. Quickly, the development of this car focused on this package and just as quickly, the A-Series engine was also adapted to make use of the same gearbox.
Engines and Politics
The R-Series engine came about as a development of the E-Series – a logical resizing to 1598cc, because the market demanded a 1600cc engined version (not 1.5 or 1.75-litres). This would suffice until a thoroughly revised version, called the S-Series could be developed and pressed into service. The S-Series would prove to be a useful improvement in terms of refinement and efficiency over the R-Series, but it was not going to be ready in time to be a part of the initial launch (scheduled for the Geneva motor show, 1983).
The R-Series engine received some of the developments planned for the upcoming S-Series engine; the ones that required little modification to the E-Series engine, such as its modified water pump and the addition of a clever electronically controlled SU carburettor. These add-ons would add little time to the development of the R-Series engine, but were considered enough (along with a change in displacement) to warrant a new name. In reality, it was nothing more than a stopgap. In 1598cc form, the R-Series with its siamesed bores and lack of water jackets between the cylinders (a carry-over from the E-Series), proved to be more efficient than the former 1485cc and 1748cc versions, because in this displacement, the inlet and exhaust valves, which were considered too small for the 1.7-litre engine and too large for the 1.5-litre engine, were perfectly-sized in this interim engine size.
The S-Series engine would have to wait for the launch of the Montego in 1984. This delay would prove to be a disappointment for Austin-Rover because the new engine would prove to be a genuine and quantifiable improvement over its predecessor. The new unit, which incorporated a belt-driven overhead camshaft, fully ECU controlled timing and a more compact induction system genuinely deserved the new designation. It was a shame that the resources were not available in the company at the time to design the Maestro around the new engine, because the modifications incorporated in the S-Series unit allowed for a lower bonnet line on the LM11 saloon than it did on the LM10 hatchback.
However there was some reason behind this outwardly illogical decision: ‘As always, this business was a lot more complicated than it appears from outside. Shall we say that a game of chess was played with the Government over the funding of the revised engines, and that the two-stage process was a way of winning that game,’ was how an insider put it – and the result was the R-Series engine’s launch – an inferior engine to the S-Series, and shown to be in the company’s newest product. Further planning was forthcoming on the evidence of this performance, and how ever illogical it may have looked to outside observers, there was a reason why the Maestro was released with an engine that would last less than two years!
The A-Plus engine in 1300cc guise was still a very efficient engine, thermally, and with addition of electronic control for its SU carburettor, it would improve on its remarkable potential for economy. There was no question that the old Mini and Metro arrangement of a gearbox-in-sump being used, as it would not be good enough for the market it was intended for: four gears in your ‘box would not do. Also, the lack of refinement in this arrangement might suffice in the Mini and Metro, but for the LC10 and its middle-market pretensions, nothing less than an end-on gearbox with a five-speed option would do. King and Bashford had seen this clearly way back in 1975, and development engineers honoured this original plan.
Regarding the gearbox question, BL’s in-house LT80 design was abandoned following successful early trials in LC10 mules with VW gearboxes. Ray Horrocks made the decision that the cost of putting their own new unit into production would have been too much and so, made a deal with VW to buy-in the boxes. This would erode into the profitability of the LC10, but the compromise was considered to be worthwhile. There were also further talks with Volkswagen to co-develop a diesel engine for future use, but these amounted to nothing.
Both engines would need to be mounted the opposite way round (turned around 180 degrees) in the Maestro engine bay than they would in their predecessors. The reason for this was so that the VW gearbox could be mounted on the end of the engine – a happy side effect of this was that the electrical ancillaries on the A-Plus series would be at the back of the engine, against the bulkhead, not at the front of the engine, exposed to the elements, as they were in the Mini and Allegro, to the disdain of their owners.
The man in charge of Austin Morris engineering was ex-Triumph man Ray Bates. He and his team worked themselves worked themselves into the ground to get the Metro launched on time in October 1980. Bates complained to managing director Harold Musgrove about his lack of design manpower. Musgrove’s response was to merge Austin Morris and Rover Triumph engineering. Instead of putting Ray Bates in charge of this enlarged organisation, the man who had masterminded the successful Metro, Musgrove promoted Rover Triumph’s Joe Farnham, an ex-Chrysler man in charge. Farnham allegedly had no experience of front wheel drive. According to Ray Bates, development of LM10/11 was conducted in an atmosphere of ‘general turmoil and bitterness’.
Styling: a two horse race
The question of styling was never an issue, as it had been during the development of the Metro. David Bache, as overall chief of styling and design at British Leyland had ensured that the Solihull design office had taken full control of Maestro styling from the point of its go ahead when the LC10 was presented to the BL board in May 1976. Ian Beech, under the direction of Bache had quickly devised a glassy, five-door design that had echoes (but not unpleasant ones) of the Maxi and Allegro, but with some styling cues from the Rover SD1 thrown in for good measure.
Initially, there had been five full-size clay models (two Solihull, two Longbridge and one, perhaps, by Pininfarina), but following early customer clinics, these were whittled down to two – the now familiar Bache/Beech design and one by Harris Mann. Malcolm Harbour and Spen King both believed that the decision to ditch the Harris Mann effort was a little premature because it evolved nicely into a very handsome design. In fact, customer clinic results showed that the Mann design was by then ahead of the Beech’s effort, but by this time LC10 was committed to the Solihull scheme.
Now that the Solihull Office had been entrusted with finishing the development of the LC10 styling, the engineering for the car followed a predictable path. The marketing department within BL renamed the hatchback version of the car: LM10 – and the notchback version received its own development code for the first time: LM11 (for Light-Medium, reflecting the post-Leyland management). The marketing department ensured that the styling clicked with targeted buyers, running countless customer clinics to ensure the detailing of the car was just right. Not much tweaking of the neat and tidy 1975 vintage Bache concept was required, but significantly, the cars that the LM10 was pitched against were generally first generation family hold-alls such as the Mk1 Golf and Renault 14. The most fearsome opposition to the car was still in development, such as the MK2 versions of the Volkswagen Golf and Opel Kadett/Vauxhall Astra.
Production engineers worked on the Maestro, developing it so that it would have all the features that would be required in a car of this class. The underpinnings of the LM10 ensured that it had a long wheelbase of 98in, as it would need to share many parts with the LM11 saloon, a larger car. The development of the Maestro was governed somewhat by the need for it to sit on a shared floorplan with the larger LM11 – the Montego, as it emerged, needed to be a larger car than the traditional booted hatches, such as the Volkswagen Jetta, being pitched at competing directly with the larger fleet car competition such as the Vauxhall Cavalier.
The development of the LM10 and LM11 centred on tuning the ride and handling to be as competitive as possible, so Spen King and his team aimed for a compromise of taut handling and an accommodating ride. With the basic components of McPherson struts up front and trailing arms at the rear having been decided right at the beginning of the programme, the ride was never going to offer the compliancy of the Hydragas suspended models, but with long wheel travel and variable rate springs, a class leading ride/handling compromise was reached.
The design of the interior followed corporate thinking, with a low-line dash and well-shaped seats. Like the Metro, BL wanted to make the interior of the LM10 as practical and adaptable as possible. Like the Rover SD1, Austin Metro and its predecessors, the Maestro had a low-line fascia, incorporating a dash-top shelf and voluminous stowage areas. Whereas the functionality of the fascia could not be faulted, its design certainly could; the architecture of the fascia dated back to 1977 and had been subject to considerable internal criticism during the LM10’s development.
The problem was that it presented a rather stark vista to the driver and adding insult to injury, it was made up of several components that conspired to rub against each other whenever the car was driven, resulting in countless rattles and squeaks – Axe described the Maestro interior thus: ‘The interior was very poor with a fascia/instrument panel that, out of the car, had the structural integrity of something from a fishmonger’s slab!’ The decision was made by Roy Axe during the development of the LM11 to drop this design completely, going with a more homogenous single-piece design, but because this was instigated late into the LM10 development programme, it was decided to go ahead with the original item, so not to delay the launch any further.
Towards the end of the development programme, the strategists knew that the Maestro was already quite dated and very conventional in its execution, they wanted to give the range something of a fillip by launching it with a couple of firsts.
The first involved the usage of body-coloured bumpers – something that Porsche had done beforehand with the 928, but was still a novelty in the family car class. Unlike the coloured plastic used on the Citroën BX bumpers, the Maestro’s were made from a new type of Bokan plastic which was treated specially so that they could be painted at the same time as the rest of the body. The first few Maestros suffered because the treatment had not been perfected at the time of launch and so, were prone to cracking at the slightest impact, especially in the cold weather.
The new bumpers did cause a few last minute delays though. According to Dick Law, the Director of Purchasing at Austin Rover at the time, they were responsible for a large number of Maestros being stockpiled. He explained: ‘We had major nightmares in getting the bumpers tooled up and into production. Cowley was producing Maestros without bumpers [and storing the cars over at Abingdon] for a good few weeks. My memory tells me over 3500 cars were produced minus the bumpers in the pre launch days! We, in Purchasing did finally get things sorted, but it took a long time.’
The more controversial of the firsts for the Maestro was definitely the adoption of a solid-state all electronic dashboard display. The reasoning for this was simple: the marketing strategists wanted to portray a high technology image for the Maestro and do so in a highly visible way. Drivers would not see the electronic carburettor control or the high technology wiring that the Maestro contained, but they would see a digital dashboard and so, late into the LM10 development programme, Lucas & Smiths were commissioned to produce such an item.
In March 1983, when the Maestro was launched, the digital dashboard came as standard on the top-of-the-range MG and Vanden Plas models and as an optional extra on the 1.6HLS – a deliberate marketing ploy. But it did not end there; not only was the instrument display digital, with LED readouts for all the car’s vital functions and its trip computer, but the electronic package also included a voice synthesizer. The synthesiser, which ran to a 32-word vocabulary recorded in fifteen languages, would warn the driver when the fuel level was low or when you needed to fasten-up your seatbelts, for example.
Noted motoring journalist and ex-Austin-Rover graduate trainee, Richard Bremner, related his own involvement in the adoption of this device for the Maestro: ‘This last item enabled me to play one of my tiny roles in the development of the car, for it was me and my boss Evan Mackenzie who were given the task of selecting the voice for the talking Maestros. We were sent samples from voice-over agencies, which we played back on Mackenzie’s portable cassette player in the office. No research, no science was used in the selection – we simply went for the voice whose timbre we liked the most.
‘Our most controversial decision was to go with a lady’s voice rather than a man’s, and we picked Nicolette McKenzie (no relation to my boss) because she sounded warm, intelligible and not so authoritative that she would come over as admonishing. Then again, we weren’t to know how often her verbal interventions would pipe up in the early, troublesome cars.’
Interestingly, the actress, who starred in the BBC saga, Triangle was born in New Zealand – fitting for this most British of cars. When Autocar magazine contacted the Austin-Rover press office, questioning the nationality of Miss McKenzie they received this response: ‘…well, New Zealand is part of the Commonwealth!’
As the LM10 neared production, the design and implementation of the LM11 went ahead. Whereas the Maestro was pretty much the product of one man, the LM11 Montego was not. David Bache left BL after being fired by Harold Musgrove in 1981 following protracted disagreements (‘the last straw was at a (Montego) styling review where Bache ignored several instructions to shut up from Musgrove – his last interruption was just that’) – and when he left, the Maestro was a mere four months from production and therefore, its styling was fixed. The Montego, however, was well advanced in its development and production engineering was also well under way, but the styling had yet to be finally signed off.
Meanwhile, the LM11 endures growing pains
The Montego had been taking shape at the Longbridge design office behind the Maestro as the larger saloon car it was designed to be – the wheelbase was longer than the Maestro’s, but was to the original LC10 dimension (the Maestro’s was shorter because it had 2.4in taken out of it), but due to the fitment of the more compact S-Series engine, the Montego was given a slightly lower bonnet line and longer, more tapered nose. The major changes were to the front and rear of the car, where the styling from Roger Tucker’s saloon proposal was grafted onto the centre section of Ian Beech’s design. It looked different to the Maestro, but at the same time because it was the product of two different designers, it was an unhappy mixture of ideas. Malcolm Harbour reiterated the danger of adopting Ian Beech’s design for the LC10: the side doors with their pronounced scallops would influence very heavily the way that the saloon looked – and so it was thus.
Because the doors from the Maestro were used, there was the need to add a sixth-light to accommodate the extra length. The problem was that the extra rear side windows were incorporated to look like an extension to the rear screen, like a huge wrap around swathe of glass. The end result could not be happily integrated into the styling and this rear aspect no doubt spoiled what could have been a tidily styled Eurobox.
When Bache’s successor, Roy Axe, took the reins at the head of the Austin Rover design department, he looked at the Montego and, quite simply put, could not believe what he saw. In the eyes of this designer, new to the company, viewing the car as he was, with a fresh pair of eyes, Axe found the styling of the car fundamentally wrong – and pleaded for time to restyle the entire car. He was hamstrung because the company’s need to get the car into production was so great, that Harold Musgrove would not allow him the time or money to modify the styling of the car in anything other than a superficial way.
Axe did change the rear windows in order to make them seem less massive and also tided up the front end, and added clever plastic caps to the base of the side windows in order to lessen the dropping waistline featured in the Maestro – but that was it. This situation may have made him unhappy, but he knew that there was nothing he could do: he knew that the car had odd proportions as a side-effect of being based on a smaller car, but worse than that, in Roy Axe‘s opinion, the Montego’s obvious ugliness was something else entirely.
Speaking in 2002, Axe made his feelings about the Montego abundantly clear, ‘I was stood in front of it and told that this model was over a year away and so I had a great opportunity to improve it if I felt it was needed! It is hard to know what to say in circumstances like this but my first remarks were that the design should be scrapped and the whole thing done again. This was not acceptable as the plan was well in place but there was room to tweak! The changes were really minimal as the doors had to stay as had the basic form dictated by the structure. I was able to improve the front and get rid of the Maestro look there, some improvements to the rear and by applying admittedly rather crude mounding to the waistline, I was able to minimise the falling look in this area. The result was far from anything I am proud of but was the best I could do plus the chance to replace the fascia panel with a new one which could then be applied to the Maestro at a later date.’
The reality is, of course, that when the design of the Montego lost its way in 1981/82, Axe should have been given the chance (by delaying the launch of the car) to take charge of the project and give it a wheels up face-lift. As it was, his hands were tied and the car styling was frozen weeks after he joined the company and the die was cast – Austin-Rover were hell bent on getting the car on to the market for spring 1984. To be fair, there was little choice as by this time the Morris Ital was hopelessly out of date and the Austin Ambassador was selling in less than large numbers, and to delay the Montego any further would have been catastrophic for the company.
During this time, the Maestro was nearing production at Cowley. The factory had been enlarged at a cost of £147million and the new production line was installed, fully robotized, like Longbridge but even more advanced. The modifications to Cowley now made it one of the most advanced and productive in Europe – and Harold Musgrove was very public in his pride at the new factory.
In November 1982 Austin Rover announced it was taking on 1100 more workers at Cowley to meet the expected demand for LM10. Mr Andy Barr, managing director for operations of Austin Rover, said the recruits would be the highest-paid car workers in Britain. A basic rate of £106 a week would be topped up by a night shift premium of nearly £30 a week and bonus earnings of up to £30 a week. Production of the LM10/Maestro had already begun. The company hoped to be making about 500 a day by March.
‘Virtually all of these 1100 people will be working on the LM10 which is the next important stage in our product programme. We have decided to recruit on this scale because we will be introducing two-shift production on LM10 to ensure that sales demand is met,’ he said. Barr described the LM10/Maestro as, ‘probably one of the most technically advanced cars in the world. Every car in our recovery programme is just as important as the last one. Metro was the first rung on the ladder and the LM10 is possibly even more vital now that we are winning our way back.’
What were BL’s sales expectations for the new car? The Times of 8 January 1983 commented: ‘For BL’s recovery programme, it is vital that the Maestro succeeds. In the early 1970s, BL took 40% of the British market; this year it has been struggling to hold even 18%. But for the Metro; which by itself has been getting around 7.5%. BL’s position would have been given up as hopeless. The task for the Maestro (and the LM11) is to get BL back to at least 25% of the market, without which it has little future as a volume car manufacturer. BL is reluctant to talk publicly about sales forecasts but it is planning to produce the Maestro initially at 120,000 a year, which suggests that it is looking for 6 to 7%. Nothing much less will do.’
Perhaps Austin Rover’s reluctance to issue sales forecasts to the media was because the last minute doubts about the cars styling created a sense of insecurity within the the company, despite the bullish bluster they displayed in the media. Roy Axe later commented: ‘The car was 20 years old when it came out. I ought to have stopped it, but Ray Horrocks would have had to go back to the government and tell them they had just screwed up in a big way and needed X more millions. He wasn’t in the mood to do that. But it was a car that should never have happened like that. It really shouldn’t. The company had invested millions in automated equipment to make this antiquated machine. It was tragic.’
Maestro breaks cover
When it appeared on 1 March 1983, the seven car Maestro range was greeted with huge enthusiasm; maybe more so by the dealers than the public, who after enduring some horrible years selling some horrible mid-range cars, had something new and competent to sell. The Maestro was immediately lauded by the motoring press, who after driving it in the South of Spain, commended it for its tidy styling, contemporary feel, excellent economy and practicality. It continued the good work that the Metro had done in winning new friends, but unlike its smaller brother, the Maestro was up against some very stiff opposition.
As Autocar magazine summed-up after a marathon 2700-mile circumnavigation of Spain at the time of the launch, ‘this very hard-worked car (a 1600HLS) returned a truly remarkable 29.2mpg over the whole trip. We left that dirty Maestro besides the neat lines of its shining, polished brothers, ourselves a bit tired, but distinctly sad at parting from a very pleasing British motor car that objectively we now thoroughly approved of, and which subjectively had become a reliable, very likeable companion.’
The Maestro may have won the heads of the road testers, but it certainly did not win their hearts, as this road test verdict of the 1.6HLS from Autocar testified, ‘As it is, the Maestro is sufficiently quick for the time being, and impressively efficient. Its handling and general cornering behaviour are excellent, but the ride could be improved further. Its road noise levels disappoint, as to a lesser degree does the extent to which one hears the engine. But overall, it proves to be a very likeable and professional piece of contemporary motor car engineering.’
Performance was excellent, given the vintage of the engines – the 1300 version being especially good, delivering brisk acceleration, backed up with excellent fuel economy – this showing that despite its vintage, the A Plus engine was still a remarkably efficient power unit. The 1600 version may not have been quite so efficient, but it delivered the goods and nothing more. This less than charismatic engine resulted in the 1.6-litre Maestros delivering good economy and adequate performance, but in a theme common with the A-Series powered versions, its refinement was not quite up to scratch. Thankfully, both engines had good torque characteristics and the sound insulation of the Maestro was excellent, so you did not need to extend the engine to make reasonable progress and the noise produced may have been of a gruff and uncultured nature, but at least it was reasonably quiet.
Handling and ride were competitive; the chassis being blessed with good ride quality and cornering balance, which was only limited by the mean width of the tyres that were specified with the Maestro at the beginning of its production run. It may not have been blessed with French car levels of ride subtlety, but a good ride/handling compromise was reached and it was far better than the Ford Escort and Volkswagen Golf. The range followed the conventional wisdom of the class and came in a logical ’’stepping stone’’ of models, starting at the 1.3 basic models, through the higher spec A-Plus engine models to the R-Series engine fleet sellers and right at the top; the Vanden Plas and MG Models.
The digital dashboard did indeed prove controversial, but for all the wrong reasons; Nicolette was soon found to be nagging drivers that they had left their doors open or that their engines were running low on oil pressure. All well and good had she been telling the truth, but the system had the disadvantage of being assembled by Britons and, therefore, suffered from variable build quality. I remember vividly running out of fuel in an early Vanden Plas version one evening and only being given the ‘Warning Low Fuel’ announcement, after the car had come to a halt, lifeless.
There was also the rather amusing trait of reporting low oil pressure, every time I drove over a bump in he road, but nothing was quite so funny as being told repeatedly to fasten my seatbelt, even though it had been fastened at the journey’s start. Thankfully, the voice synthesiser had a volume control/off switch – Most owners made use of it! Needless to say, this option proved to be short-lived not only because it proved to be troublesome – initially – but also drivers simply did not like it.
Adding insult to injury, this technical tour-de-force was not even a first for Austin-Rover. At the last moment, Renault stole Austin-Rover’s thunder by introducing their own version in the new Renault 11 TXE Electronique, a week before the Maestro was launched to the press. At launch. senior Austin Rover executives gave their views on the new Maestro and its prospects. Commercial Director, Mark Snowdon, told The Times, ‘We will have around 6000 cars in our dealer showrooms by 1st March, and production from Cowley will be running at around 2000 a week to give maximum back up.’ He then added, ‘Metro was the key to our survival. Maestro is the key to our prosperity.’
Snowdon also said that senior management. were called on to drive the car from the earliest stage to ensure that it not only met its quality and comparative targets but was a car with a personality. The result, Snowdon said, was that the Maestro was not a replacement for any past or present car in the company’s range. ‘We quite deliberately freed our thinking of any conventional perception of the market. And that is where the real importance of the Maestro lies: in its position in the market place.’
He continued: ‘Maestro’s unprecedented breadth of appeal will enable Austin-Rover to go out and win new business from other manufacturers. There is no definitive car right at the centre of the medium sector. We believe that Maestro has the credentials to become the definitive medium car.’ Only the day after launch, Austin Rover management was boasting the company had already received £50m of orders from fleet buyers. ARG Fleet Sales Manager Jeffrey Johnson was quoted as saying, ”We had the fleet user very much in mind when we were developing the Maestro. A combination of outstanding fuel economy, high specification, good load-carrying capacity, and extremely fine handling and ride comfort are built into the car. So far the response has been terrific. It is going to help the Austin Rover group to recover sales in the vital business sector of the market.’
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also tried the car and stated, ‘It is a very, very good car, and I hope people buy it.’ Good job, as the day before the Maestro’s launch, her government had agreed to inject another £100m into BL. Although Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative party had a record since 1975 of opposing the state injecting funds into British Leyland, the better than expected sales performance of the Metro had created a mindset where there seemed to be light at the end of the BL tunnel and the expectation was that both Maestro and the forthcoming Montego would emulate the smaller cars success.
BL’s attempts to banish its strike-torn image to the history books took a knock on 28 March 1983; just four weeks after the Maestro had been launched. On that day, 5000 Cowley day shift workers walked out on strike, followed by 2000 nightshift colleagues. This was the start of the so-called ‘washing up’ dispute. Cowley always had a reputation for militancy – walkouts had followed the launch of both the Marina and 18-22 Series, although workers’ representatives claimed Austin Rover management had adopted heavy-handed management techniques, in an effort to boost production.
The Montreal Gazette reported at the time: ‘At the gate at lunch time and in dingy Johnson’s Cafe, a short walk away, the worker mood is bitter. No one is willing to be quoted by name. ‘There are repercussions for speaking out,’ said a 15 year employee. ‘The foremen treat us like dirt. They curse at us. The washing up time was the last straw. Enough was enough.’
‘But this man, said, as did virtually all the others, that in the end, they were certain to lose their protest. ‘I need a job. I’ve got a family. BL threatened to fire us. The tactics of the management were terrible. Look, we’re all human beings together.’ Finally, the workers over-ruled their own shop stewards, who had turned down the last company offer for a joint labour-management team to study the washing up problem and other grievances.
‘I was unemployed 18 months before this job’, said a 29 year old.’
‘Even a clergyman who worked at Cowley claimed employees were verbally abused. The dispute became a war of words between Austin Rover’s MD Harold Musgrove and Mr David Buckle, area secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Mr Buckle described Harold Musgrove as ‘one of the greatest dangers to industrial relations and the security of the company. He does not seem to have the slightest idea what motivates human beings on the production line.’
‘While Mr Musgrove said: ‘Many of the people behind these wild claims about ‘brutality’, and ‘slavery’ want a return to the days of the early 1970s when every decision could effectively be vetoed by a shop steward so inclined, when dogmatic insistence on the right to veto even the most minor shop floor change throttled our ability to compete with the rapidly improving industries of Japan, and western Europe. Unfortunately, there are some people who once wielded the power of veto, who resent the changes which have taken place despite the fact that employees have benefited. Some of these people are now cynically portraying their loss of influence as some sort of general movement by management to oppress the entire workforce.’
This kind of dire industrial relations, which had dogged the post war British motor industry, did not augur well for the future. The workforce wouldn’t return until 27th April; four weeks’ later. The dispute cost Austin Rover 19,000 cars in lost production, including 9000 Maestros, worth more than £100m at showroom prices.
The Times reported a postscript to the dispute: ‘Mr Tom Gray, who was appointed 16 months ago to improve productivity at Cowley, has left Austin Rover for personal reasons. Mr Gray avoided the public eye as Cowley’s director in charge of the body and assembly plants, but was quickly identified by the workers as the man behind the new style of management. Cowley car workers achieved their best production figures for five and a half years last week, two weeks after the end of a strike which threatened the plant’s future.’
Unfortunately the month-long dispute exposed Austin Rover as still having a rebellious and uncooperative workforce and sent the wrong message to prospective buyers. By mid-August 1983, the Maestro was now Britain’s sixth best-selling car, with total sales of 49,000. In fact, it had performed far better than the much-vaunted Mk2 Vauxhall Cavalier in its first six months, suggesting that a great future lay ahead for the Maestro. Indeed, during the first ten days of September 1983, the Maestro was Britain’s best selling car. However the honeymoon was not to last.
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, during the crucial first few months of its production, it failed to make the huge impact expected of it. But the reasons were deeper and why this is so demands further explanation.
By the Mid-1980s, car buyers were divided into two groups: Mister Private (who bought and ran his car with his own money) and Mister Fleet Manager (who did not). Mister Private become an exceptionally image conscious car-buyer and the car that he wanted was inevitably the Volkswagen Golf. The Golf had an enviable image for indestructibility, which the company had earned through decades by building reliable cars – it also looked good and did not lose value at the speed of a piano being dropped off a cliff. And waiting in the wings was Peugeot with such stylish new cars as the 205 and 309. Indeed some might argue that the 205 became the car of the decade.
Mister fleet manager, however, wanted a car that was reliable and he wanted it cheap. The Ford Escort had the might of the Ford marketing machine behind it, so Uncle Henry with all its money, therefore, had the UK fleet car market sewn-up. This situation was simple: the company could appear unchallenged in the fleet sector by being able to sell their cars as cheaply as they wished. Austin-Rover simply could not afford to ’’buy’’ their market share in order to compete with Ford (and to a lesser degree Vauxhall) on these terms – and so, were at an immediate cost-disadvantage. As a result, when the Maestro was launched it could boast neither Private or fleet appeal.
The other problem was, of course, the Austin-Rover marketing machine, which on the surface still did not appear to understand properly how to sell cars. The message banged out by Harold Musgrove’’s company was one of pushing the company forward without really marketing the individual cars. Messages such as, ‘Austin-Rover – now we’re motoring’ were typical. This may have been an attempt to curry favour with the patriotic vote, making it a duty to buy these cars, but people had become less willing to give the company yet another break. Not only that, but Austin-Rover did not really pitch the Maestro in the correct slot in the market place.
They were trying to sell it as a Sierra rival as well as an Escort rival, straddling two classes, but the result was that this ploy only managed to confuse potential customers, who saw the Maestro as neither fish nor fowl. To be fair to those in marketing, in this case, they were dictated to by upper management, and were given no choice in the matter. The company wanted to, ‘have their cake and eat it’, but in the end, it turned out to be a fundamental error, and one that the company was guilty of in the past – and would prove to be guilty of in the future.
The Maestro, unfortunately, was also saddled with the image of unreliability that had come part and parcel of being a car built by BL. The early Maestros lived up to this reputation magnificently, suffering from slack build quality, which led to repeated carburettor maladies, build niggles and high-profile electronic problems. The net result of this was that these teething problems managed to alienate fleet buyers, who had been stung in the past buying products of BL. If the fleet managers were jumpy, they would not buy the product and that would be a disastrous result in a market that two thirds of the cars sold were company cars.
Montego dutifully follows
Speaking of company cars, the Montego followed the Maestro onto the market 13 months later in April 1984. That a replacement for the ancient Ital was desperately needed was emphasised in February 1984 when the sales figures for January were revealed. Vauxhall, GM’s UK arm overhauled BL for the first time. With 18.68% of the domestic market, Vauxhall demonstrated that its Mk2 Cavalier, launched in August 1981, and others like the Astra were an unstoppable force at the time.
The Cavalier was the second best selling car in January with 13,720 registrations. Vauxhall’s popularity, particularly in the all-important fleet car sector, had been largely at the expense of Ford, whose market share dipped to 28.1%. The Cavalier and the Ford Sierra (11,932 sales) were the leading contenders in the fleet market. They were sandwiched in the best-sellers list by the Ford Escort, the country’s favourite car with January sales of 16,577 and the BL Metro (11,115).
Launched in the South of France, the pleasant surprise for the less speculative parts of the Motoring media was just how different the Montego was from the Maestro, when it did appear. Speaking in March 1984, Brian Mahony, Austin Rover’s UK sales director, said, ‘LM11 is probably the most vital ingredient in the company’s recovery plans. It is pitched directly at Cavalier and Sierra. More and more we are taking the views of fleet operators into our new product designs. Those who have seen pre-production models have been impressed.’ Austin Rover was very optimistic about the new cars chances in the market place. An unnamed executive stated, ‘Not having a Cortina or Cavalier in our line-up was like having one arm tied behind our back.’
The demise of the Ford Cortina, which had sold in bucketloads to the fleet market had created a sales opportunity for rival manufacturers to exploit. In no other country were two out of three cars sold to people who did not drive them. That meant 500,000 cars a year on the basis of 1983’s 1.79 million new car registrations. Their total value in 1984 was put at between £7000m and £8000m a year. The most attractive and, in normal times, most profitable sector of the fleet business was the medium or family saloon, generally reckoned to account for one in four of all cars sold in Britain.
Until 1982 it had been dominated for nearly 20 years by Ford’s Cortina. It became a legend in its lifetime and Ford’s fortunes in Britain were secure. It bestrode the car market like the cocksure winner it was achieving more than 30% penetration, 10% more than BL, its nearest rival. But behind the scenes at Ford’s Warley headquarters nerve ends were beginning to twang. Nothing drops down the charts faster than a car that has overstayed its welcome. The early warning signs were there for Cortina.
Ford had a shiny new model ready to replace it but king-making is a tricky business. Cortina had broken every sales record in the book and in the words of one of Ford’s Detroit bosses: ‘It will be one son of a bitch to follow.’
In September, 1982 the Sierra was unveiled to the delight of the motoring press but coos of surprise from the public. The smooth contours of its jelly-mould outline were certainly eye-catching but not everyone liked it. ‘Of course,’ said the Ford men, ‘it is so different from anything on the market that people will need time to adjust.’
But as days turned into weeks the queues at dealers’ showrooms did not materialize. So Ford resorted to an old but expensive ploy: offering substantial discounts to its dealers to enable them to sell the Sierra at cut prices, a not unheard of practice in the cut-throat conditions of the previous two years but never for a new model. And all the time the key fleet buyers, men disposing of millions of pounds worth of orders annually, were dragging their feet. The fleet men’s big worry was the effect of heavy discounting on the prices they would get when they disposed of their Sierras two years later. The solution for many was to turn to Vauxhall’s Cavalier, launched a year earlier and making a name for itself with a new high-performance but still economical engine in a modern front-wheel-drive layout. In contrast Ford stuck to Cortina’s old front engine and rear-wheel-drive concept for the Sierra, insisting it was the proven layout for easy maintenance.
The industry shook its head and whispered that Ford Europe was short of the funds needed to develop a front-wheel-drive job with a new engine because it was having to support its hard-pressed US parent. Ford was not going to loosen its grip on such a lucrative market easily. It hit back with fleet discounts of around £600 for every Sierra bought and threw in a lot of demonstrator models. Vauxhall had been waiting too long to get its feet under the fleet table so it, too, offered discounts of hundreds of pounds a car. A full scale discounting war broke out with first one side upping the ante and then the other. In September 1981 when the front wheel drive Cavalier was launched the General Motors company held a little over 8% of the fleet market. At the end of 1983 it was claiming 16.5% and within the crucial medium sector was holding a remarkable 25 to 30%. John Pugh, Vauxhall’s fleet sales manager, was quite insistent that there has never been anything approaching Cavalier’s impact on fleet buyers.
‘They are a notoriously conservative bunch where new cars are concerned preferring to sit back and let someone else iron out the bugs. That did not happen with Cavalier. Right from the start they took to it and they have been buying it in increasing numbers ever since.’ Ford replied: ‘As the market leader for a long time we appreciate more than anyone else that our competitors can only make progress at our expense and there is no way we are going to take that lying down. We shall increase our efforts even further,’ was how a company spokesman summed it up.
Commenting on latest trends in the fleet and business car sector, Tony Semper, Ford’s fleet development manager, said: ‘The true cost of running a fleet of company cars is more apparent than ever now because inflation has been reduced so significantly. As a consequence the growth of specialist fleet management companies has slowed up. They are still widely used however for their leasing expertise by the middle sized companies who do not have the resources to support their own in-house fleet administration department.’
One big fleet executive said: ‘It’s a bloody battlefield with nobody taking any prisoners. They’ve thrown away the rule book on business etiquette. Some of the salesmen who come here are nervous wrecks. They say the pressure is so great to get sales they have no alternative but to get down in the mud with the competition. The battle between the market leader Ford and fast improving Vauxhall for the lion’s share of the fleet market for medium cars, represented by their Sierra and Cavalier models, is one of the most bitter confrontations we in Britain have seen for a long time.’
‘Those two are not taking many prisoners and that means give away prices, follow up services and five star attention,’ was how the fleet sales manager of a rival manufacturer put it. This then was the business climate that the Maestro and Montego had to compete in.
The relief at having at last broken free to take on the competition with both fists swinging was so obvious at the press preview of Montego that Harold Musgrove, chairman and chief executive, became quite emotional: He bullishly stated, ‘For the past three years, I have had to sit and take it while our competitors took the cream. Yet all that time I knew we had a real winner in LM11. Metro saved our bacon, Maestro pointed the way, ahead but Montego will unlock the door not only to bigger sales at home but also to help us to build networks in overseas markets.’
As explained before the Montego incorporated a slightly longer wheelbase, a lower bonnet line and stretched overhangs at the front as well as the rear. The range of engines was also vastly different to the Maestro’s incorporating the following engine range:
|1994cc||O-Series EFi||115 bhp|
Where the Montego differed from the Maestro was that the O-Series engine was used in conjunction with the brand-new Honda designed PG1 gearbox, described as a gem by Autocar. The new arrangement resulted in a far more pleasant gear change than the obstructive VW-sourced box in the smaller models. It has never really been explained why the VW-gearboxes in the lesser Maestros would prove to be so inferior to those of their German cousins, but the weakness was certainly not evident in pre-production testing. Between pre-production and production, VW changed the synchromesh design – to a new ’Konusring’’ design. The change had negative effects on the Maestro’s gear change quality and it was this, and not the linkage, as many people mistakenly believed. There was a suspicion, never proven, that VW might just have given BL the worst of the new units.
More variance from the Maestro was in the Montego’s new dashboard and interior. The accommodation was broadly similar, but improved in quality and design over the Maestro. It would be fair to say that the new dashboard was an improvement, but the new style of seats was merely different, not any better.
The press were less than enthusiastic about the Montego, regarding it as a very conservative design in the market, ‘Cowley’s Cortina’, as Car magazine called it: The Ford Sierra was mechanically backwards, but avant-garde in styling and the Vauxhall Cavalier was well engineered and very popular. The Montego really was quite a conservative design and in terms of driving experience and appeal to the company car market, it did not manage to bring anything new to the game
In much the same way as the Maestro story of a year previous, the car simply did not make a huge impact on the market. That is not to say that the Montego was a bad car – far from it in fact, but the Montego just did not have much in the way of appeal to the private buyer or his company counterpart.
Just like the Maestro, the Montego soon fell victim to the resurgence in industrial action that was occurring throughout BL. On 10th May 1984, 40 Cowley trim workers went on strike, bringing Montego production to a halt. Also hampering both the Maestro and Montego was the vicious price cutting war going on. An example of this is in the first 20 days of May 1984, when Austin Rover’s UK market share fell from 21 to less than 14%.
The Times reported in its 24th May issue, ‘Mr Sam Toy, chairman of Ford of Britain responded to pressure from his dealers on the 4th May and returned to the price war he quit eight months ago. Bonuses of up to £350 a car have enabled dealers to offer Granadas and Capris at up to £1500 below list prices, with up to £1000 off Sierras. Ford dealers reported an immediate increase in showroom traffic. In the past ten days Ford’s market share has increased from 25.3% to nearly 27% and is still climbing. Austin Rover is also suffering because of the resurgence of Japanese cars this month after a poor start to the year. In the first four months the Japanese took only 8.3% of the market compared with their voluntary ceiling of 11%. So far this month they have taken more than 12.5 per cent.’
Then on 5 June, the sacking of a forklift driver led to a strike of drivers who ferried components around the Austin Rover empire. This led to lay-offs at both Longbridge and Cowley and the halting of production. The dispute was disastrous for Austin Rover, who hoped to capitalise on a strike in the German components industry crippling the Continental factories of Ford and GM.
An Austin Rover executive was quoted as saying, ‘Until this happened. we were poised to make a real killing with the Americans short of cars during the build-up to the August bonanza.’
The drivers’ strike collapsed on the 14th June, but it had cost Austin Rover 20,000 cars in lost production, worth about £100m. In August, Austin Rover called Union officials into Cowley to impress on them the need to end the series of unofficial strikes that had hit the plant, which had lost 2000 cars in disputes in the fortnight following the factories summer holiday. Unfortunately disputes continued to afflict Cowley, and by mid September 1984, Maestro and Montego production was again at a standstill in a dispute that lasted around ten days. Hot on the heels of this came the Austin Rover pay dispute of November 1984, which cost the whole group another two weeks’ production of all models. A firm stance by chairman Harold Musgrove saw the strike collapse.
By the end of 1984, Austin Rover announced it wanted to recruit another 200 workers at Cowley to boost production. A sign that things were not going to plan appeared in The Times of 29 December 1984. ‘BL has told the Government that if the steady improvement of its Austin Rover group is to continue, in the face of a growing challenge from General Motors of America, more public funding will be necessary to develop the next generation of new cars.
‘The warning is contained in the BL corporate plan covering 1985 to 1990, which has just been submitted to the government. The news will come as a shock to government supporters who thought that the taxpayer had made his last contribution to a company which has received £2.3bn of state aid since 1975. The final tranche of government aid was drawn by BL 18 months ago. Since then Jaguar has been sold for £297 million, and the profitable Unipart subsidiary is expected to be privatised next year.’
By the end of 1984, the Montego had only sold 34,700 cars since its launch – disappointing at best. Then, in August 1985, came the bombshell – Austin Rover announced that 200 assembly workers were to lose their jobs, and a further 740 transferred to enable production at the company’s Cowley and Longbridge factories to be reduced by 10%. At Cowley, weekly output of Maestro and Montego models was reduced from 2200 to 2025 and from 2500 to 2200 respectively. In reality it was a tacit admission that the dream that Austin Rover could remain a volume producer of bread and butter cars was over.
Needless to say, the sales performance of the Montego on the UK fleet market soon established it as a distant third place in the medium saloon market, behind the offerings of GM and Ford. This pattern of sales was also mirrored by the Maestro in its own market sector, so it is fair to say that the sales figures expected by Austin Rover management (approximately 4000 cars per week) were never met. The sad thing about this performance is that the Maestro and Montego never actually matched the Allegro and Marina of a decade before and no way was the new pair of cars worse than their distant relatives. It seemed that people bought the Allegro and Marina because they were products of the British carmaker, whereas these same people ten years hence did not buy the Maestro and Montego because they were products of the same manufacturer.
The shame of all this was that the Maestro and Montego were far, far better cars in relation to their competitors than their forebears.
Both the Montego and Maestro suffered from the familiar story of build quality niggles that one would have assumed by this point in time, Austin Rover would have succeeded in beating. Unfortunately, the first few long-term tests published by the UK car magazines reported tales of woe and the Montego, especially suffered from electronic maladies. No big deal in the grand scheme of things, but when you are trying to rebuild an image, the last thing that you want to hear.
Needless to say, Austin Rover quickly knuckled down and commenced development work on both cars, turning them into the cars that they should have been at launch. By Motor Show time in 1984, the 1.6-litre versions of the Maestro had received the Montego’s S-Series engine and soon after, its much improved dashboard. The MG version was also up gunned from the Twin-Weber carburetted 1600cc version, to the 2-litre fuel injected O-Series version it should have always been. The fact that at launch, the weakest link in the Maestro range was the ’hot hatchback’ version did hamper sales.
The MG Version of the Maestro was devised near the end of the model’s development and was hastily conceived as a result of two factors: the success of the MG Metro, launched in June 1982 and more importantly, the burgeoning popularity of the hot versions of rivals Ford Escort and VW Golf. Because development was rushed, the company devised a twin-Weber carburettor set-up for the car, which raised the power output of the 1600cc version from 81bhp to a healthier 103bhp. Installation problems, which were an inevitable by-product of the rushed development, resulted in serious under bonnet heat build-up leading to hot-starting and fuel starvation problems.
With this engine transplant, the MG version was transformed from the troublesome ’warm hatch’ 1600 into a viable Golf GTi rival in one fell swoop. OK, the styling of the 2.0 EFi was never going to be called adventurous or exciting, but the strong and torquey engine, combined with the excellent chassis made for an interesting, honest and very down to earth car.
The performance figures achieved by Autocar magazine bear this out:
|MG 1600 Maestro||111 mph||9.6s 0-60 mph||29.5 mpg|
|MG Maestro EFi||114 mph||8.4s 0-60 mph||33.4 mpg|
The testers were impressed; reporting in their Autotest of the newer car, Autocar stated that, performance, naturally enough, is much better; the EFi will reach 60mph in only 8.4 seconds, which only the FIAT Abarth 130TC and Lancia Delta Turbo can better.’ – and that the ‘revitalised MG Maestro is without doubt one of the most exciting packages on offer from Austin-Rover’. It was a common held belief that the MG Maestro 2.0 EFi was the car that should have been launched at the outset.
Car spotters should note that there was an S-Series twin carburettor version in the MG version, which replaced the R-Series version, but preceded the 2-Litre version and was in production for a very short period of time. Its production amounted to a mere 2762.
At the same time (Motor Show 1984), the Estate version of the Montego also appeared and it has to be said that this was a successful piece of design, not being hampered by the same design compromises as its saloon brother. The awkward glasshouse and long overhangs of the saloon ceased to be a problem with the estate version as it was modified so that it incorporated nicely integrated rear end styling. Practicality was excellent, having a well-sized boot and unusually for this class, the option for an extra row of rearwards facing seats – just like a French car, in fact. As a result of this successful transformation into a load carrier, the Montego estate received a Design Council award.
In January 1986, the ’85 UK car sales figures were published. They made grim reading for Austin Rover. The fierce showrooms price war pushed new car sales in Britain to an all time high that year. The Escort was most popular car of the year, and Ford commanded an overall share of 26%. Austin Rover trailed with 17%, and Vauxhall was close behind with 16%. The number of imported cars — including Ford and Vauxhall cars made abroad — sold in Britain rose to 58%.
The ten top selling cars for 1985, were:
New car sales in Britain totalled 1,832,408, 4.7% up on 1984, and a further 2% more than 1983, the previous peak. Analysis of the list reveals that the Maestro was even outsold by the Ford Orion, the booted derivative of the Ford Escort. Total Montego production for 1985 was 95,874, a similar figure to that of the Morris Marina in 1979, when that model was eight years old and overdue for replacement.
Total Maestro production for 1985 was 88,849, a little more than the Allegro in 1978, when that model was five years old. And to produce the Maestros and Montegos , Austin Rover’s zeal in cutting out washing up time, tea breaks, togging up time and other long standing employee rituals, in an effort to squeeze the last few cars out of Cowley, had resulted in fractious industrial relations, with trade unions accusing the company of bullying, intimidation and industrial slavery. And in the end it was all for naught as fleet buyers turned their backs on the Cowley cars in an expanding market – the end result was that production had to be cut back in August 1985.
As time went on and it became clear that the LM10 and LM11 were still not making a profit, funds were not forthcoming to finance future model programmes. Sir Michael Edwardes‘ plan for the first generation of LM cars to finance the next generation had long since gone out of the window – Honda being called on as a joint partner in the development of the car. But the lack of sales meant that all through this period, the company continued to make a loss, which exasperated the incumbent at Number Ten.
On 2nd February 1986, opposition MP, Roy Hattersley, broke the news in parliament that GM was in talks to buy Leyland Trucks and Land Rover, and it was also revealed shortly afterwards that Ford was negotiating to buy Austin Rover. MPs of all parties condemned the move as unpatriotic and joined the then current anti-American business bandwagon. But to be fair to the Thatcher government, it was faced with a dilemma, and the lack of market penetration by the Maestro and Montego was at the eye of the storm. The government’s opponents could vent their spleen, but doing something positive was another matter altogether.
The government could not force new car buyers to purchase an Austin Rover vehicle. Back in January 1982, Sir Michael Edwardes had told the media: ‘In 1983 we will be free-standing.’
Events in 1985 revealed that was far from the case. In 1975, the Wilson government had boasted of saving the British motor industry. Critics of the concept of nationalisation saw it as reinforcing failure, and the Maestro and Montego epitomised this argument. How could BL get it so wrong – again? The Thatcher government was faced with two choices: continue to pump money into Austin Rover, regardless of its financial and industrial performance, or privatise the business by selling it to an interested party.
There was already an alternative motor industry strategy in progress; that of persuading the Japanese automotive giants to set up in Britain as a way of circumventing European Union tariffs. Nissan began car production at Washington in 1986.
By February, the Ford buyout talks were discontinued, as the government climbed down, but the Austin Rover problem would not go away. By April, Austin Rover Managing Director Mark Snowden was claiming that rumours over British Leyland’s future cost the Austin Rover car division almost £240 million in lost sales in the previous month alone. According to him, up to 40,000 cars were left standing in the showroom when talks of a Ford take-over, confused buyers into thinking existing ranges would end. Ray Horrocks also publicly criticised the Government for BL’s continuing problems, much to the delight of opposition politicians. The paradox was that Horrocks was disliked by the unions who saw him as the instigator of the company’s hard line industrial relations strategy.
In May, the government took action and appointed Canadian, Graham Day, as chairman of BL Ltd, replacing Sir Austin Bide, Sir Michael Edwardes’ nominee. Also out was Ray Horrocks, another Edwardes appointee. On 8 July, BL Ltd announced it was changing its name to Rover. Two days later, the Rover 800 was launched, the first ARG car styled by Roy Axe‘s team.
The top ten sales figures for July 1986, traditionally not the biggest month made more grim reading for Austin Rover.
1: Ford Escort 5088
2: Ford Sierra 4236
3: Austin Metro 2877
4: Vauxhall Astra 2429
5: Ford Fiesta 2379
6: Vauxhall Cavalier 2310
7: Ford Orion 1893
8: Austin Montego 1566
9: Austin Maestro 1324
10: Ford Granada 1210
On 15 September, Austin Rover announced expected half-year losses of £60m.
David Benson of the Daily Express wrote: ‘Austin-Rover’s problems are two fold. It is operating in the toughest selling market since the war and its products – with the exception of the new Rover – already have a vintage feel which puts off new car buyers. The tough sales environment has meant that all manufacturers are offering huge incentives to enable dealers to meet sales targets. But these incentives cut in to profits.’
On 22 September, Graham Day fired Harold Musgrove and Mark Snowdon from Austin Rover. Harold Musgrove commented retrospectively on the Maestro and Montego, the cars that arguably sealed his fate: ‘Looking back I feel we should have said it just wasn’t good enough and stopped it. But I don’t think we had the luxury of that being a possibility and to be perfectly frank it was infinitely better than the Princess or Allegro. But in market research it never managed to come first in any category – top in nothing. If Roy Axe had been responsible for it from the beginning it would have been an entirely different car.’
There was more bad news for Rover in October when the September car sales were revealed. The company’s market share sank to 14.8% in September, which meant that Austin Rover’s stake in the record-breaking UK market had declined, by 2% to 16.2% in the opening nine months of 1986. And the market was still expanding.
Soon afterwards, the unions accepted a two-year pay deal without the rancour and confrontation that had accompanied previous negotiations. This suggested that Graham Day sought the genuine co-operation of the workforce in an effort to turn Rover into a niche manufacturer, with the emphasis on quality not quantity, and that abrasive management techniques were to be a thing of the past. Certainly a scan through the news archives suggest that the era of never ending strikes was finally over. During 1986 the Rover group as a whole lost a staggering £892 million, despite Graham Days re-organisation – but as the Canadian commented at the time the results were made public, he wanted to throw everything ‘including the kitchen sink’ into these results.
In January 1987 the overall new car sales figures for 1986 were released and there was no respite in the misery for Rover. The full sales table showed Ford in first place with 27.38% of the market; Rover second, with 15.8%; General Motors third, with 15.1%; Nissan fourth, with 5.84%; and Peugeot/Talbot fifth, with 4.6%. Rover’s share tumbled to 15.8% in 1986. This compared with the group’s 17.9% market share in 1985 and the 19% share anticipated by the company’s sales team.
‘We’ve got capacity to build 750,000 cars a year and are selling only 450,000. That is the key question we have to address.’ said Andy Barr, head of the Austin Rover manufacturing operations to Andrew Cornelius of The Guardian on the same day the latest grim sales figures were released. ‘We are all committed to making this business profitable… We have to hold our existing 450,000 sales and build from there,’ Barr added.
A decade earlier Leyland cars could not produce enough cars to meet demand because of strikes. Now with the industrial relations issues by and large solved, the post of industrial relations officer had been abolished, Rover could not sell its cars in an expanding market. Both the Maestro and Montego were a spent force sales wise and the Rover 800 could not fill the void. All this caused much speculation in the media that the Cowley South Works, the old Morris Motors plant would be closed. And there was also a question mark over the future of the AR6 supermini intended to replace the Metro and Mini. In the meantime Rover had to make the best of what it had.
After extensive market research, it was found that the Maestro and Montego were saddled with an unfortunately pedestrian image, so the marketing departments worked on producing more appealing cars. The 1.3L Maestro and 1.6L and 2.0Si Montego were announced in 1987, resplendent with ‘duotone paint that echoed the theme instigated by the Rover Sterling. The focus of the advertisers was aimed at these cars in an attempt to attract a more youthful clientele – one such advert depicting a Montego 1.6L crashing through a showroom window in order to demonstrate just how quick off the mark and how good its stereo was to a couple of sales rep-types. Kevin Morley and his team of marketing gurus fancifully went Yuppie chasing.
At this time, they also realised that the Austin brand was a positive barrier to sales and so, at the disgust of the dealers, stopped badging the cars as such – all cars being called by their model names only.
The top ten selling cars for the first six months of 1987 were:
1: Ford Escort (88,962)
2: Ford Fiesta (77,400)
3: Ford Sierra (67,771)
4: Austin Metro (57,316)
5: Vauxhall Cavalier (52,620)
6: Vauxhall Astra (42,996)
7: Ford Orion (34,683)
8: Austin Montego (30,696)
9: Rover 200 series (25,361)
10: Austin Maestro (23,025)
Kevin Morley, marketing director of Austin Rover, said: ‘We are poised for a significant breakthrough. The Metro, Maestro and Montego have all been given extra quality in their specification and our customers have seen this.’ Whether this is strictly true is open to debate, but what is significant is the progress of the Anglo-Japanese Rover 213/216, which had overhauled the Maestro.
In 1988, the first Diesel engined Montegos began to appear – a range that would eventually blossom into a full one, comprising of turbo and a normally aspirated versions of both the Montego and Maestro by 1990. Perkins, based in Peterborough, England, was responsible for the development of these highly advanced Prima engines – and it is no surprise that they were greeted with some enthusiasm on the UK market.
The first application of the Perkins MDi/Prima engine actually came in 1986, with the Maestro van, but initially, it was considered too rough for passenger car consumption, so remained in a lengthened development programme for a further two years. These engines were loosely based on the BL O-Series unit, but were heavily modified, which employed Direct Injection technology. One must wonder why it took over four years for the cars to receive a diesel engine. The answer lies with the fact that during the early development of the Maestro, the hope was that the company would buy in a unit from VW. When that idea failed, Austin Rover approached Perkins, and asked them to develop something suitable for passenger car usage.
British Leyland had formerly been playing around with Diesel Morris Marinas and Princesses in the mid-’70s, but the power unit employed in the Montego and Maestro was much more sophisticated in its design and a far cry from these earlier efforts. Development dragged on because the two companies need to ensure that the engine was refined enough for use in passenger cars: the DI engine is inherently less refined than its indirect counterpart and much work centred on the design of the combustion chambers and engine block.
The trade-off in refinement is considered worthwhile because the potential for economy from this design of engine was tremendous. The wait was considered worthwhile by customers keen to purchase a British middleweight Diesel, as the Maestro and Montego diesels gained a following with enthusiastic owners who liked the excellent potential for economy and performance. They were, however, considered to be far inferior in terms of refinement to the PSA Indirect injection diesel rivals, such as the Citroën BX and Peugeot 405.
At the same time the diesel models were rolled out, a subtle facelift for the Montego was also premiered. Incorporating a new radiator grille and smoother rear end treatment, the upgrade significantly improved the car’s visual appeal without costing the company an arm and a leg. It had been envisaged that it was to have been a much more far-reaching facelift (new body panels were designed, as well as the incorporation of the M16-Series engine), but these plans were quietly dropped as work with Honda on the R8 and R9 pressed quickly ahead.
So although new switchgear and a few cosmetic changes didn’t seem so significant, it was a step towards the Roverisation of the Montego. In fact, in Germany, France and the Benelux countries, the ’89 Montego estates, did indeed pick up Rover badges (thus creating the Rover GTi Estate), but as far at the UK was concerned, a Rover shaped ‘MONTEGO’ badge was as near to a Rover as the LM11 was ever going to get.
And yet, it did come close to becoming the Rover 400-Series, as was regularly predicted in the press at the time. According to Technical Apprentice, Nick Chung, who served at Cowley between 1985 and 1989, the groundwork had been more than prepared. He said: ‘The Roverisation process affected the Montego not only by deleting the Austin Badge the previous year. By the time of the first serious facelift ‘88.5MY’ (Model Year) pre-production process, build cars that were in S-Block, Cowley South Works, in August 1988 all had ‘ROVER 400′ badges on. The 1.3-, 1.6- and 2.0-litre variants were to be named 413, 416, 420 and 420i. This was, however, never adopted because of the R8 version the following year.’
On 30 March 1988, Rover was purchased lock, stock and barrel by British Aerospace. On 18 July, Rover then announced that car assembly at the Cowley South, Oxford, works would be phased out between then and the early 1990s, affecting around 4000 jobs. The plant produced Montegos and Maestros. Rover had decided to concentrate production of small- and medium-range cars at Longbridge. Once the switch had been made, only executive saloons would be made in Oxford and they would roll off the lines of the Cowley North factory. Although it was expected and the workforce were the last to know, the axing of the former Morris Motors works was a symbolic body blow to the British motor industry. Only a quarter of a century before the plant had worked flat out to supply the world with Morris 1100’s and now there were few takers for that cars descendents.
In the event both the Maestro and Montego appear to have lingered on longer than planned. In November 1988 The Guardian reported that an all British replacement for the Montego, aimed at the fleet market had been axed at the behest of chairman Graham Day. On 11 October 1989, the Rover R8 was launched as the next generation 200-Series, and at last the company’s long suffering dealers had something competitive to sell in a marketplace, now dominated by Ford.
Early in the life of the Maestro, Harold Musgrove had expressed concerns over the viability of a turbocharged version of the Maestro, believing that the extra complication would bring limited benefits. The company pushed ahead with the concept, but chose the larger and heavier Montego as a vehicle for the forced-induction version in 1985. Initial problems with excessive torque steer that was so bad, that it overshadowed rest of the car, and limited the MG Montego Turbo’s appeal to enthusiasts.
The chassis engineers tamed this malady by 1987 – and the new management regime appreciated that as worthy as the Maestro EFi was, to compete with the newly emerging 16-valve rivals, the 152bhp Turbo engine would need to be drafted in. When the Turbocharged MG Maestro was finally announced at the NEC Motor show in 1988, it was as a limited run of 505 cars. The MG Maestro Turbo was the last hurrah for the model, being pushed quite hard by the marketing department as a performance bargain (which it undoubtedly was, being remarkably quick – 0-60mph, 6.8 seconds, 128mph top speed), but again, in the image conscious ’80s, the styling of the Maestro was a positive turn off to GTi buyers, Tickford designed bodykit or not.
At this time, development and marketing of the Maestro pretty much stopped in favour of the emergent Rover 200, as Day and his managers knew that it was dead in the water: by 1989, for example, it was down to 19th in the list of best selling cars in the UK. This was a terrible performance for a domestically produced medium sized hatchback, in only its sixth season: Contrast that with the Allegro of a decade previous – In 1979, six years after its launch, it was still fifth in the sales charts…
A slow death
By 1990, as far as Maestro marketing was concerned, it was all over, as all the plush models in the range were dropped to make way for the new Rover 200. At this point, it could be said that the Austin brand was effectively dead, on life support until Montego and Maestro withered away – Rover was on the ascendancy and the new Honda-engineered 200 was showing all cars in its class the way home.
The Montego was not forgotten just yet. The company considered that it still had an important role on the market, fighting the Vauxhall Cavalier and Ford Sierra for those all-important fleet sales. The marketers, who ensured that public profile remained high, using the medium of advertising most effectively, threw money at the car. The development also continued in earnest – small modifications ensured the Montego remained competitive, but it fair to say that the competition did begin to leave the it behind by the late-Eighties.
In both cases, the car would stay in production for as long as it would be viable to do so. The Cowley plant required the volume and as the Rover brand was relentlessly moved upmarket by management, the ex-Austin models would remain a useful antidote to that, with their cheap prices and utilitarian image.
It was telling, however, that upon buying Rover in 1994, Bernd Pischetsrieder was reported to have been surprised to find out that both cars were still very much in production – he had assumed that they were products of a bygone age. Needless to say, that situation was reversed rapidly – the Montego and Maestro it was ‘built in the corner of the Cowley Body Plant in ‘V’ Building as the original assembly area in the Cowley South Works had been sold off by BAe a year earlier. The bodies were pushed along by hand along a ‘make do’ one off type production line, on a virtually cottage industry basis by this time,’ as Nick Chung put is. Soon after the BMW takeover, the last Montego Clubman Diesel left Cowley in December 1994.
Of course, it is easy in hindsight to criticise the Maestro and the Montego for being dull, but they were both good cars in search of better styling and tightened build quality. The fact that they failed shows that the public would no longer blindly buy cars, simply by the fact that they were produced by the Midland Company. It is a shame, however, because as stated before, both cars were vastly better in relation to the competition, than the Allegro and Marina had been a decade previously.
The company did produce some desirable cars in the period of the Maestro and Montego, but they were all Honda-Engineered and it is easy to see why Graham Day and George Simpson both beat a path to Honda’s door. Rover stopped being an independent producer of volume cars as a direct consequence of the Maestro and Montego’s failure in the marketplace and the blame for this can only be laid at the feet of a logistical situation that prevented the company from thoroughly developing parallel programmes – and allowing the Maestro and Montego to endure an eight-year gestation.
Also their failure resulted in the demise of Cowley South Works, one of the traditional centres of British car manufacturing, a tragedy in itself. But who was to blame? We know that Alec Issigonis created the Mini and Spen King was the father of the Range Rover, but who was the mastermind behind the Maestro and Montego? Was it Spen King and Gordon Bashford who conceived the basic layout? What part did Derek Whittaker, managing director of Leyland Cars play in all this? How much direct involvement did Michael Edwardes and Ray Horrocks have?
We know that David Bache approved the styling at the expense of Harris Mann’s more modernist design. How much did Ray Bates and Joe Farnham contribute to the debacle? How culpable was Harold Musgrove in not effectively getting a grip on the design process, some of which appears to have resulted in a clash of egos and allowing a flawed car reach the market place? It appears that the Maestro and Montego had many fathers, non of whom wanted to take direct responsibility for the resulting product. It was the archetypal car by committee so despised by Sir Alec Issigonis. Perhaps it was always going to be a tall order to take on the American owned giants in the fleet market, but the Cowley twins lacked serious private buyer appeal as well in the decade that Peugeot demonstrated how a company with a dowdy image could re-invigorate itself with stylish new cars the public wanted to buy.
It could be argued that the Maestro and Montego were the most significant British cars since the Mini – for all the wrong reasons. The future now lay in managed decline and Anglo-Japanese co-operation. The way the Honda-designed cars subsequently turned out would indicate that there was real talent in the company; it is a shame that they were not there to influence and accelerate the development of the Maestro and Montego.