Technician’s Update : Going the extra mile

Sometimes, trying to make a difference creates more hassle than its worth.

The Maestro that ended up being anything but music to the owner’s ears will haunt me for years to come…

Words: Mike Humble Photographs: Maestro and Montego Owners Club

Sometimes you just can’t do enough

Not top of the list for style and desire, but the Maestro was a lesson to its rivals for service bay simplicity!
Sometimes, it’s great to get back to basics. Indeed John Major back in the early ’90s told us just that, along with his other so called brilliant ideas like the Citizen’s Charter and the motorway cone hotline. Around this era, our very own fully independent and British owned Rover Group were flying high, with Longbridge running 24 hour shifts to cope with demand for the R8 200/400 range and the Rover Metro flying out of the door as quick as the steel coils were being delivered to the Cowley press shops. Of course, if you wanted simple basic motoring, your local Rover dealer would sell you a Mini or Rover Maestro, powered by the ultimate back to basic design of engine – the lovely A plus 1275.

Being the wrong side of 40 now, I remember, as do many, how almost every other car featured a Ford Kent Cross flow or Leyland A series engine under the harvest gold or terracotta coloured bonnet. Just like the Ford Pinto tussled it out with the GM Family Two engine for OHC supremacy, the BL A series caused many a bar room argument as to who made the best little pushrod four banger around. Of course, the tuning capabilities of this engine were, and still are – legendary, but a bog standard 1.3 Metro could still put on a decent show against much more modern rivals in terms of performance and economy right up to the models demise over 20 years ago – crikey! Does it really seem that long ago?

When I decided to operate as a sole trader, I not only advertised in the local press but I also visited various used car traders offering my services for pre sale servicing and warranty repairs – a smart move I thought. This paid off following some interest from a trader of long standing who specialised in mainly diesel cars and also used to be a small retail Rover dealer a few years beforehand. We struck a mutually beneficial deal whereby I charged him a favourable rate for my services and in return I could use his ramp and facilities for my own clients. This worked really well, especially during rough weather and I got to know both him and some of his customer’s well, one of which ran an elderly Maestro.

The chap in question drove a two tone Maestro 1.3 LX and because he was a bit of skinflint, he never really serviced the car as required, opting to maintain the car as and when it simply conked out. My man Peter had sold him the car from new and lived close by to him but had no appetite in servicing an old scrotter on the books as t`wer, so Pete put the old boy in contact with me directly. After speaking to the ageing owner of the Maestro it became obvious that there were some running problems with the car and I would pop by to see him that evening. Apart from the grubby appearance of the car, it was in fairly good body condition with low mileage and even the factory fitted central locking worked, as did the electric front windows.

Time erodes the full dialogue but a figure was banded about to fully service and sort out the cars dreadful stuttering and flat spot. He was visiting family by rail I recall and left me the car for the week so I could fit the job in around other commitments. Basically, the Maestro needed nothing more than some new plugs, leads, distributor cap, ignition timing and some oil in the SU HIF 44 carb dashpot. A belly full of fresh oil along with some Unipart filters did the trick in the end, but the car sounded like a child’s Tommy gun so it had obviously been some time since a 0.12 feeler blade had worked magic with the tappets. Pulling off the valve cover revealed a cork gasket that was even harder than a Sheffield night club bouncer.

Some of the tappet clearances were so large you could just about slide a jam butty through the gap without dropping a crumb, so after digging out my almost redundant feeler blades and working to the ‘rule of nine’- the Maestro sounded almost like brand new in next to no time. After dropping the tin sounding bonnet shut, I hopped into the Cowley built clonker for the obligatory road thrash and was stunned how smooth and tight the car felt on the road. The excellent visibility and spacious interior were always plus points, and apart from the familiar clunky gear change and slightly ponderous steering, the Maestro felt no where near like a car that was designed in the 1970s. I was actually starting to enjoy myself too!

With acres of room in the Maestro engine bay, the A Plus plant was child’s play to wield a spanner on.

The rest of the service went without a hitch, that was, until it came to stripping down the rear brakes. No matter how much prising hammering or brute force you applied, the offside drum would not budge from the backplate. In the end, the whole hub had to be unbolted from the car and thrown away. Locating a decent used unit from a breakers yard, both rear drums were skimmed to a matching pair and some new shoes fitted, the brakes were bled through and the ancient Austin now had some credible stopping power to match the restored performance. One thing that can be said in favour of the Maestro is the sheer ease of repair or servicing, nothing is difficult or taxing in the service bay – even the 1.6 or 2.0i MG are lessons in simplicity.

I kept thinking how impressed the customer was bound to be upon his return from afar and even the hard to please garage proprietor Pete was stunned at how sweet the car ran. The old boy returned as planned from his family break and we arranged to pick the car up from my house as I had ample space on the drive. I even treated the car to bucket of soapy water – it really was a back from the brink kind of job, the kind I enjoy doing the most. Arriving at the house, he seemed bowled over at how clean it looked both outside and under the bonnet, I explained what had been replaced and why and how important it is to keep on top of a decent car service wise. It was all going swimmingly – that was, until I flicked the key and fired up the motor.

The engine fired up like only a sweet A+ series can do – I was almost bubbling over with pride, but the bubble burst via means of the customer’s response to my skills with a half inch spanner, screwdriver and feeler blade. Using some language that was not in fitting with my postcode, he went into a rage and told me in no uncertain terms that I had wrecked his engine. In a nutshell, he eventually cooled down and settled the bill after I told him to get as many second opinions as he liked, but he left my premises in a manner that gave me the impression I would not be receiving a Christmas card. As you can imagine, I was gutted and downright angry at this but it was all forgotten about soon after – until one day at Peter’s showroom.

I was called in to fit a new clutch to a Rover 25 diesel and upon arriving Peter handed me a tin of chocolates with a letter stuck on the lid. It seemed that the Maestro man had indeed visited a few local garages including the once Rover main agent Reg Vardy to be told the same thing. His old banger was of course in first class mechanical order and his letter told me of how he was putting in a fiver less in fuel each week, even his son had told him how well the car seemed to be. I subsequently never went on to do any more work for him, partly because I had deleted his number from my mobile and partly because I think he may have been too embarrassed to contact me directly.

Such a shame – I enjoyed working on that old heap!

Mike Humble


  1. Simple car the Maestro, really nothing should be a chore to fix, no Hydrgas or over complicated electrics and I can vouch for there reliability. My Dad had a brand new 1.3L in 1983 and clocked up 100k fault free miles over 5 years and I had one nearly new in 1986 (1.6HLS), kept it for two years and did 50k fault free miles. I just the love the trolls who slag them off on hear say and gossip. Mike makes a very good point here, it don’t matter what make of car it is, if you don’t service it properly then its bound to get bust sooner or later.

  2. Maybe it’s just the passage ot time or rose spectacles but I think the Maestro looks so much better and more contemporary than the Escort and Astra of the day, solid almost. I always wanted one and I’d have one now if I could find a minter…oh, and afford it….

  3. I was wondering the same as james #2, why did he get on like that?

    Did he think rattling and pinking were normal operation?

    Did he think smooth and silence was it running too rich?

  4. @James – sorry, but as gallant an effort the Maestro was for cash strapped BL, when you look at its two contemporaries – the Mark 3 Escort and the first generation Astra, BL missed the boat completely, not just in the obvious build quality and reliability departments. The Ford and GM offerings were just, better developed, better built and more desirable. Given that both the Escort and Astra were replaced and facelifted twice within the Maestro’s lifespan it is a miracle it remained in production for so long.

  5. @ Kevin, I agree,(told you it must be my rose tinted specs!) I just think there was something different about the Maestro, but then that was probably it’s achiles heel. At the end of the day I’m a BL/ARG etc fan so I would think it looked appealing wouldn’t I? lol! Though as a fan of the BL stable I always thought there was something soul-less about the Escort, perhaps there were just too darn many of them on the road – always kills it for me.

    All in all though I think the Maestro was a much better car than it’s reputation – as was the Montego. But of course there have been lots of decent cars let down by their image or reliability and unfortunately too many of these have come from BL/ARG! Damn shame.

  6. The long lifespan of the Maestro:
    1983 – 1994

    Mk2 Golf:
    1983 – 1992

    Fiat Uno:
    1983 – 1995 (present in S.America, 2003 in Morocco)

    Citroen BX:
    1982 – 1994 (93-94 in estate form)

    Peugeot 205:
    1983 – 1998

    Ford Ka mk1:
    1996 – 2008

    Mercedes 190:
    1982 – 1993

    Audi 100/200 C3:
    1982 – 1994

  7. They still make Audi 100s and Citroen ZXs in China too.

    My point was that people gurn about the Maestro’s lifespan, but other manufacturers seem to get away with it.

    Same as the Rover 100 NCAP rating, then nobody mentioned the E36s rating.

  8. 13 – Will M, so true, I had read about the E36 NCAP rating elsewhere, its really bad and the E46’s back suspension fall off with age as well. Apparently all Italians cars rust! obviously never seen a 5+ year old Merc, some of them are really bad.

  9. Speaking of bleeding brakes, anyone got any tips? I’ve just overhauled the front calipers on my maestro and I’m having trouble getting out all the air that’s in there. Are the Gunson Eezibleed kits any good?

  10. I had a few Mk3/4 escorts.
    Rotters all of ’em
    They went quick….to quick in fact for the handling especially when wet.
    The only decent one was a 1.8d which had the best balance.
    Compared to a Maestro..No contest!

  11. A friend had a blue Maestro @ uni. It went ok, but you could switch the ignition off, get out of the car, walk to the front door, open it, put the kettle on and walk back, before it stopped running on. We never figured out why. It ran perfectly well when being driven, if a little smokey – but it had the most amazing allergy to stopping when it was switched off.

    I’ve run into people like this when I was working in IT Support. You bend over backwards to get a system set up – they tell you they dont have much budget – so you scour the web for freeware to do what they want – you manage to work out systems that even Apple UK Ltd tell you are impossible (note to Apple: Macs can use IP networking, so they CAN be used in a hybrid Mac/PC environment..). You then spend the next 6 months listening to them whinge about ‘not having office’ even though you have saved them about £20k & you’ve explained to them almost daily that they’ve got the freeware equivalent on their desktop!

    But I have to admit, that this person going ballistic about what sounds like, in effect, a total engine rebuild – makes little sense to me either. Its not as if the work you did on it could have made the thing any worse than it already was. The only thing I can think of is that to get that mechanical nightmare to start he would have had to use arcane knowledge, the same sort of arcane knowledge that with a properly running motor would have flooded it or otherwise killed it – so maybe a starting problem?

    There is something to be said for the A series and its like. They were virtually indestructible. I remember my old Sceptre dropped its entire sump of oil on the A12 one night – I limped it 200 yards in O/D top to get off the road. Got it recovered, refilled it with oil, and expected a dead engine. Not a bit of it, purred into life as usual, no questions asked. I have to admit that it was my fault, having changed said oil and not checked & retightened the bung *blush*.

    • @ Will… Thats ironic as the next article has a similar theme!

      How right about the A series being pretty much imortal Jemma

      Some friend of a friend had a seriously knackered 1300 Marina van which we went to Hunstanton in from Northampton. Anyway, with a passenger and two of us rolling around in the back, it became more than obvious there was a serious cooling issue and it boiled its @rse off on the way back near Peterborough.

      “what do we do now” cries the driver “keep ploughing on” says I, working on the provisor that it was cream crackered anyway, so just keep going till it stops – you know the score, 4 young lads and no breakdown cover.

      After a few miles, the engine just simply locked up with heat on the A605. so we pushed it to a layby in the setting summer sun and let the thing cool down for half an hour as we had a smoke and ate our rations of Kit Kats. About half a mile up the road stood a lone house, so myself and said driver of the crippled ex Gas Board van, armed with a plastic fuel can and a pop bottle, cadged some water and sauntered back.

      In true “McGuyver” style.. with the token tools young Tony had floating round in the van, I removed the thermostat and made a new gasket from an empty Embassy packet, topped up the water and wincingly flicked the key… that little bugger fired up as if nothing happened.

      That van got us home (in stages) and the following week, much to my dads horror, it sat on our drive and I replaced the head gasket!

      Try doing that with K series or EcoTec!

  12. @Jemma good to hear from someone else from the coal face!

    I’ve used OSX to network with Windows/Linux/SMB shares, Apple must be trying to pitch their own network servers.

    The problem with IT support is that it is deemed valueless.

    My father is a great engineer, dabbled in mechanicing, I remember growing up he used to have peoples cars at the door, and even if it was a friend or family member he didn’t want to charge for they’d slip him a few pound or a nice bottle.

    Fix someones computer, spend hours on it diagnosing, fixing, setting up and you’re lucky to get a thanks.

    And I’ve encountered those who wrongly believe if it isn’t MS it isn’t a computer. Firefox/Chrome and Libre/OpenOffice/Symphony just wont do for them.
    During the Netbook craze I lost count of the amount of relatives who wanted Windows on their Linux machines (which had a discount on the Windows “tax” and ran quicker with a compact Linux distro), I asked them what they planned to run (to perhaps recommend Wine or VirtualBox options) and they replied “email, facebook, youtube and that”
    (In fact, I once encountered a Linux box with the task bar skinned to look like a Windows taskbar, MS Office icons for the OpenOffice applications, and an IE icon for Firefox. They seemed oblivious and happy enough!)

    Anyway, getting back to cars, my own tale of “I think it’s terminal” was when I ran an oilchange on my old 406 HDi and stupidly drained the gearbox. Filled 4 litres of oil into the engine, the dipstick was reading high. I thought it needed settling and took it a spin round the block. I was followed by a cloud of smoke (past a police station too!) and 2nd gear was making a strange whine.
    Only when I got back did I realise what I did 😮
    Drained 4l from the proper sump, ran another oil change (with fresh oil) and filled the gearbox up via the breather.
    It ran sweetly afterwards!

  13. Yes Mike, remember my dad used to do repair work on a local shopkeeper’s Escort Mk III van – paint was holding the bodywork together, but the old Kent OHV lump, that was another matter. It boiled over several times, was run with next to no oil in it and we still couldn’t kill it. Today’s lumps with their magnesium alloy blocks and close tolerances wouldn’t stand a chance under that sort of abuse!

  14. Just goes to prove what a good engine service by a competent mechanic can do for a mundane car. What a shame the owner was so incompetent and unknowledgable. He should have looked after it better in the first place!! Mike sometimes you just cant please some folk…

  15. @ Will M – this was well before OSX and iGarbage. This was in the halcyon days of the Mac 8500 – when the only safe ways to open a Mac case were either really good health insurance or military grade body armour.
    There was a reason the old beige Macs were so ridiculously expensive, they made all the metal parts out of second hand samurai swords. The number of knocked off copies of Quark Express had to be seen to be believed. I liked the G4/G5 towers though, powerful & easy to get into (you didnt need +5 plate gauntlets) and unkillable.

    Another joyous experience was a company whose employees major joy in life was booking hire cars for services or when the needed a spare vehicle and then taking someone elses property rallying. I kid you not. I am not a fan of the Corsa, but the poor thing was destroyed in the space of 48 hours – for fun. Their IT credentials werent much better, customer needs a new modem… Find one that works in that pile over there by the leaky window, and charge him for new *sigh*.

    The highlight was the director who ran over a brand new laptop, with his Saab, on no less than two occasions. He walks in, carrying the shattered remains like a shellshocked mother in a Serbian war film, and asks me if I can fix it… after its been crushed by 2 metric tons of Saab.

    I managed to keep a straight face, but only barely. Got it replaced on warranty… and the silly fool went and did it again 3 months later.

  16. IIRC the earlier Macs needed a torx driver (when they were hard to come by) to open the cast, leading to some IT
    tecnicians calling them Macdrivers.

    The IT support story I’ve heard a lot was the customer wanting his cup hold fixed, which slid out of the tower unit at the touch of a button….

  17. Best long-lived small pushrod four? The A-series was very, very good but the Renault Sierra (late renamed Cleon) wins hands down.

  18. The A-Series engine was and still is a great strong reliable motor. BUT ! You have to look after it, regular oil+filter changes and coolant changes. if you do regular maintenance on the A series it will go on and on, But they are no good for people who are not that way You cant just keep on running and running the A series with no maintenance it will fail you otherwise. People these days who have a degree in everything but have no common sense when it comes to cars or even fitting a plug or changing a fuse they have no idea, The modern motor today in most cars will go without an oil change and no maintenance at all they just need fuel, they will probably take you to the moon and back without missing a beat and the people today this is what they expect,and if the car does fail at the roadside then these people with every degree imaginable still would have no idea what was wrong with it.
    They would simply say i will call the AA !!! Who is right ?

  19. You want a really unbreakable engine that is linked to Austin Rover, the Perkins Prima that saw service in dieel Maestros and Montegos. A simple diesel from the era before DPFs and electronics, this tough engine would cope with huge mileages easily so long as it was serviced regularly. Everyone from the police to taxi drivers swore by these cars and gave the often mocked M cars an extended lease of life.

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