Maestro reminiscences : John Dalton
John Dalton penned the following for the programme for the MG Saloon Day in July 2003, an event that celebrated the 20th anniversary of the MG Maestro.
John worked for ‘the company’ for more than twenty years, and his favourite motor remains the MG Maestro EFi, which he campaigned successfully in International Rallies. More recently he participated in the 2000 Cape-to-Cape Challenge, where he, Neil Turner and David Smith drove Neil’s J-Registered Montego estate from Nordkapp, Norway to Cape Tarifa, Spain – some 3500 miles – in 55-hours and 15-minutes.
Memories of the Maestro – John Dalton
THE first time I can recall seeing a Maestro was I believe at the end of 1977, or early 1978, so as far as I am concerned we are already in the Silver Jubilee year! As a raw recruit in the pricing department I was asked to deputise for my boss at a Styling Review held at the ‘Elephant House’, now the palatial Longbridge showroom. I think the basic exterior design of the car had already been decided (OK so the plastic bumpers were added about a year from launch).
We were shown the facia design, with Malcolm Harbour the overall director of the project in attendance, and after various derogatory comments about the multi-piece construction, both in terms of the way it looked and the way it fitted together, we were told that this was for theme approval only, and assured that the final production version would be far superior to this. Of course 5 years later it appeared almost unchanged with the predicted quality problems of fit and finish: different colours on different parts, and annoying squeaks and rattles in abundance.
The LC10 project as it was to be known, had a history going back to the early 70’s, when British Leyland needed to develop replacements for a range of small family cars – Allegro, Maxi, Marina and Dolomite. Indeed it was the Dolomite replacement, and smaller brother of the SD1, the SD2, that lay the foundations of the LC10 project. And it was a Triumph man, Malcolm Harbour, who oversaw bringing it to market. The ‘David Bache’ swage down the side of the car (a larger version of that found on the SD1), and some SD1-style dashboard characteristics also indicate this Rover-Triumph heritage.
The programme got underway after the government bailed out British Leyland in 1975. The company had to be rescued following the collapse in the market after the 1973/74 oil crisis. It meant that the new Leyland Cars had to survive and prosper on an ageing model range, with no new models for 4 years from the SD1 launch in 1976 to the Mini-Metro introduction in 1980. The Maestro followed on from this but was subjected to further delays, first by a redesign on the Metro, from ADO88 to LC8, and then when Michael Edwards struck up a deal with Honda to build the Honda Ballade as the Triumph Acclaim. So the 5 or 6 years from drawing board to launch was a very long gestation period indeed, even for the days when computers had only just started to reduce design and development lead times.
By 1982 the market had moved on. The new FWD Escort introduced in 1980 had been a radical step forward for the Maestro’s main UK competitor, and in market research clinics, where it was compared to the new Escort and Astra, the Maestro did not fare too well. There was now also a trend to more aerodynamic designs, with the Audi 100 and Ford Sierra drawing people’s attention to the concept of a low drag factor. As the launch approached various changes were made to improve the design, the most notable of which was the addition of full wrap-around plastic bumpers.
Despite this, the shape and style of the car was already looking a bit dated. To counter this we had the advent of ‘technology’. It may have been a gimmick, but the LED instrumentation and ‘talking dashboard’ certainly had the desired impact at launch – for many the Maestro will still be remembered as the first talking car. In fact it was the Renault 11 that achieved this feat in Europe when it was launched just a couple of weeks before Maestro!
And in many ways the Maestro was ahead of its time. The overall size of the car was virtually identical to the Astra that was on sale 10 years later (within an inch in every main dimension). It was certainly a wide car, and this was accentuated by the styling – the lamp design of the later Montego and the tapered nose actually made it look narrower than the Maestro. The width gave it a wide track that provided the potential for great handling and roadholding – the design brief had been to be the best in class, beating the Alfasud back in 1978, and this was one of the few targets that in my view was to be fully achieved. Indeed the new Mini could have been developed from a cut down Maestro platform – the width and track of the car are virtually the same as a Maestro, and the Mini One is about the same weight as an MG EFi version, so the MG Maestro should be able to hold its own with the car now generally acknowledged as being the most fun to drive package!
Modern cars have grown in size and weight largely due to crash regulations, and here again the Maestro was ahead of it’s time. It was a very strong car, and it’s crashworthiness was certainly better than many of the Japanese designed Rovers that followed it, helped by a wide front compartment that is able to fold around the engine. But in my experience that would have to be some impact as I once ploughed into a solid embankment at about 40mph on a rally and suffered only minor damage such as a broken bumper. Compare this to an early Ford Sierra, which, if driven too quickly over a road hump, would finish up with a kinked bodyshell.
…the design brief had been to be the best in
class, beating the Alfasud back in 1978, and
this was one of the few targets that in my view
was to be fully achieved…
My first experience driving a Maestro that I can recall was when we took delivery of 2 early examples as appraisal cars for Sales and Marketing, and I got the job of co-ordinator to circulate the cars around everyone. We had a blue 1.3HLE with a blue interior, and an Oporto Red 1.6HLS with a dark brown interior. It felt a very big car that seemed to go and handle well, but I certainly disliked the interior colours (3 years later I was responsible for getting grey interiors into all Maestros!)
Problems with early cars were already starting to emerge, including electronic carburettor controls that did not always work well when cold. This did affect our cars, but not the leaking windscreens (a new bonded glass process), and bumpers that cracked easily when knocked, especially at low temperatures (the painting of the bumpers in hot ovens with the bodyshell seemed to have seriously reduced the original design strength specified by Bayer). Our HLE did suffer failure of the econometer, thanks to the vacuum pipe slipping off the unit behind the dash, and I was instrumental in getting a clip fitted to prevent this happening to ongoing production models. Also the early cars had a strange system for raising and lowering the rear parcel shelf, in that the strings had rubberised weights at the end that used to bounce around in the boot against the wheel arches (at least they did when I was cornering!). The noises were really annoying and we got these changed very quickly too.
I was not directly involved with the Maestro prior to launch, as I then had a product job on Metro. However, ‘our’ MG Metro proved to be such a phenomenal success when introduced in May 1982, that the go-ahead was given to create an MG version of the Maestro with only about 6 months to go before production started! The red and black theme of the exterior and interior appearance was based on the MG Metro, and was quite easy to engineer, but the engine was the problem. In order to get extra performance in the time available the company came up with a sort of aftermarket tuning conversion, bolting on two twin-choke downdraught Webers onto the 1600cc R-series engine. With a different cam this raised the power from 86bhp to 103bhp, which was quite good for a 1600 and virtually the same as the 105PS rated Escort XR3i.
The car actually went quite well, and the carbs made a lovely throaty induction noise, but this 1970’s tuning technology was not really suited to the mass market at which the MG Maestro was targeted. It soon became apparent that the cars had hot starting problems, and this could leave the average owner stranded in traffic on a hot day if the engine failed to maintain tick-over and died, as it invariably would. This almost happened to me that summer when I managed to borrow one for a weekend and got stuck in a traffic jam near a country house in Derbyshire. Fortunately I had a well-developed heel and toe technique for keeping my foot on the gas, so I never let the engine cut out. But the MG Maestro had already gained a reputation as a hot hatch to avoid, one that affected it throughout its lifetime.
However, the interior design was a success, as I recall the 3-year-old son of a friend saying that it was ‘just like mummy’s car’ as he was being strapped in the back, proving that her MG Metro had a very distinctive interior, and that the characteristics had been successfully carried over to the Maestro!
It would be nearly 2 years later before I collected my first MG Maestro as a company car, a 2-litre EFi model in June 1985. Despite being shaken to bits on the drive home from Quicks of Leamington up the concrete section of the Warwick bypass (the tyres had 42psi in them!), and the front tyre peeling off the rim when doing a handbrake turn a couple of weeks later (so maybe I should have kept the tyres at 42psi!), I have been hooked ever since!
Reproduced from the Maestro 20th anniversary souvenir programme with John Dalton’s permission.
John is an active member of the MG ‘M’ Group.