Unsung Heroes : Austin Maestro 1.3
Anyone who knows Keith Adams might be a little surprised at this choice of Unsung Hero, especially considering the chequered history he has with A-Series Maestros.
But despite the dramas, there’s no doubting that Spen King’s post-Allegro Volkswagen Golf remix was far more worthy than the sum of its parts.
The unfulfilled symphony
If we were to choose AROnline‘s signature car, the Maestro would be able to make a great case for itself. On the old HTML site, the Maestro/Montego’s index page was by far the largest of all, and out of all the owners clubs and websites out there, it’s probably the Maestro and Montego’s that we retain the closest links with. I’ve personally owned several Maestros, and although they have provided me with as many downs as ups, there’s a little place in my heart reserved for the car that wore its green and blue chevrons with pride.
When it was launched in March 1983, the Maestro carried the expectations of a nation on its shoulders. Although the Metro had proved a huge sales hit when it burst on to the scene amid a patriotic swell of tearful emotion, with the Maestro would come volume and profit. And with profit would come recovery for BL Ltd. It was the heart of what former Chairman and Chief Executive Michael Edwardes described as the company’s ‘product led recovery’ – one sadly that he’d not witness, neither as a company employee, nor as an outsider. Because that recovery never came.
We’ve analysed the Maestro to the nth degree on this website – and as well as the development story, further reading by Steven Ward and Ian Nicholls are well worth spending ten minutes on – but I think that with all of these Unsung Heroes being written about on the website, it’s high time we mark the 1.3-litre Maestro’s similar status. Why do I think the Maestro as an unsung hero right now, given that we all know how practical, economical and efficient it is? Probably because it’s also as fashionable as a New Kids on the Block cassette played on a Saisho ghetto blaster at full volume on Worksop high street.
But the Maestro’s unfashionable status isn’t a recent phenomenon. It’s March 1983, and even as those first press cars were unveiled to those international journalists in Southern Spain, there was an uneasy sense that BL had made something of a mistake with the Maestro’s styling. CAR magazine’s Steve Cropley may have described it as ‘refreshingly modern, with some overtones (and no nasty ones) of the Maxi and Allegro’, but most commentators were deeply unimpressed. This was an exciting era of car design – sharp origami still looked good, but we were moving into the aero era… and the poor old Maestro (with its design signed off by 1976) was a member of neither camp. Optimists might have described the Maestro timeless, but realists thought differently.
So, it was never a fashionable choice. But one thing the Maestro was – essentially – was well-engineered. The bodyshell was reasonably stiff, with sturdy sills, the interior exceptionally roomy, and hardly heavyweight in construction. That interior was also airy as well as roomy – the glass area is huge, and rear seat passengers sit higher than those in the front, for a relatively unimpeded view forward. As for performance and economy – and despite the age of its engines – the Maestro was as quick and economical as an Escort or Astra, and no more unrefined than the former – an exceptional achievement, especially for the lowly 1.3-litre car.
On the road, the Maestro was pretty good too. The suspension set-up, developed by Spen King during one of his pragmatic phases, was thoroughly conventional with Mac struts up-front and a VW Golf-apeing beam axle at the rear. But it was carefully developed and blessed with long travel suspension and supple damping, giving it class-leading ride quality. Of course, the 1.3-litre version, lacking roll-bars and tyre width, lacked a little grip, but the steering (geared at 4.5-turns from lock-to-lock) was light without PAS, and blessed with bags of feel.
In short, back in 1983, it was a better bet than a Ford Escort III – and yet somehow less desirable.
I had my first experience of the Maestro in 1988. As an avid reader of What Car? and Car magazine, I was more than aware of the Maestro’s victories in a string of group tests – making it good enough to be the former’s Family Car of the Year in 1984 and 1985. I liked it. I thought this would be the one to have. Even as late as August ’88, the Maestro – now boasting two-tone paint and a much improved dashboard – was putting in a good performance in Car magazine, seeing off the Escort, Golf II and Astra in a Giant Test. Sadly, it also concluded that the class of ’88 was far less desirable than the class of ’71… and that they all had something to learn from the Citroen GS and Alfa Romeo Alfasud.
So during that summer, when my poor, long suffering brother approached me to find him a 1.3-litre hatchback for about £3000 to replace his long suffering Ford Cortina 1.3, I completely ignored his desire for an Escort, and favoured the Austin. I visited a couple of local dealers, tried a number of Escorts and Maestros, convinced myself I was right to go with a Maestro, and pushed on with the plan to buy one for him. In the end, I chose a Rattan Beige 1.3L with complementing chocolate interior. Registered A783 LNF, it was one of the first off the line, and as basic as it came. No rev counter, one door mirror, and no stereo. And a snip at £2795.
He was away when I bought the car, so for a couple of weeks, I had the Maestro to myself. And have to say, as an 18-year old, it was rather good. It was as quick as I needed (pace of life must have been much more leisurely in 1988 Blackpool), and had an air of respectability that far transcended my real position in life at the time. I was happy with the choice – and sad when he came to collect his car, leaving me to head back to my N-registered Honda Civic. Ah, well.
But A783 LNF would make its way back into my hands a couple of years later, when tiring of his car, my brother was convinced by me to swap for my 1981 Fiat Strada. We were both happy with that deal. I’d obviously seen his Maestro a few times during his ownership, and had been following it keenly. First, I fitted a Motorola stereo to it. Then, in the summer of ’89, I needed to repair the door bottoms for him, which were rusting away (at five years old remember!), and practised my art with the Isopon P38 and Rattan Beige rattle-can. I think it was the first rusty Maestro I’d ever seen!
But a year later, it was mine, and as a 20-year old, living in the age of the 48p litre of petrol, I ended up driving all over the country in it. By six years old, it was already feeling tired though – and although I’d happy run it up to 100mph (and beyond) on the motorway, and throw it around country lanes, things were beginning to go haywire. It began to break down mysteriously – first, the electronic control of the carburettor failed – and then one evening driving along minding my own business with my girlfriend alongside me, all the dashboard lights came on, and the throttle jammed open. I think at that point, her hatred of Maestros was cemented. And remained that way to this day.
Needless to say, A783 LNF moved on. I placed it in the Blackpool Evening Gazette for the bargain price of £1000. And ended up waiting. And waiting. And waiting. As far as I knew, this was the first £1000 Maestro ever advertised, and no one wanted it. But, still, that was the punters’ loss, as in the end, I found a local trader who was happy to swap it for an A-registered Rover SD1 in Targa Red, and after an unenthusiastic deal following an examination of the Maestro’s underside on a ramp to reveal the beginnings of some serious corrosion.
Luckily we’d shaken hands before that. And I kept my girlfriend.
But clearly, despite her hatred of the Maestro, it was a good car then, and an unsung hero today. I’ve driven plenty since my first, and have always come away admiring rather than loving them. I owned A71 UDM after that – a 1984 R-Series Vanden Plas with talking dashboard – and had many a happy time in that, but somehow felt that the 1.3-litre car was far sweeter. The roomy cabin and supportive seats always impress, and I even have a sneaking admiration for those ‘timeless’ looks (yes, I am an optimist).
The last time I drove a cooking Maestro was in 2003, when Alexander Boucke let me have a play in his LPG-powered 1.3LS, and despite its lack of go and laborious steering, I still liked the Maestro. Far more so than the Montego, which I’ve always considered to be a bit of a ‘bitsa’. Funnily enough, I think over the intervening 20 years, they’ve matured into another one of those sensible first time practical classics that BL (and its predecessors) seem so good at making.
The 1.3-litre is easy to work on, and easily tuned, while that corrosion only really seems to attack the most visible parts of a Maestro, leaving the structure underneath largely solid and unaffected. With a 0-60mph time of 12.8 seconds and a top speed approaching 100mph, a 1.3-litre Maestro is more than capable of sitting in modern traffic, while 40mpg fuel consumption and low fuel consumption makes one reasonably cheap to run day-to-day. The lack of street cred probably means that for years to come, you’ll be able to buy one of the best for an absolute pittance.
But unlike the Allegro, which is an ironic and comedic choice for non-conformists, the Maestro is sensibly dull, and a great way into classic ’80s motoring… without the ‘fire up the quattro…’ hype.
Would I have another? Yes. It’s the AROnline cheap workhorse of choice!