Car of the Month : January 2004

When launched in 1983, the Austin Maestro was notable for its use of digital instrumentation (on the top models), full-size body colour bumpers (on most of the range) and its spacious, airy cabin. To this list of attributes, the Vanden Plas version added wood capping on the doors, deep pile carpeting and ornate wheel covers.

It was a very appealing package, and proved to be a very effective Austin-Rover counter to the Ford Escort Ghia. However, traditonally minded Vanden Plas customers did not like the vacuum-fluorescent instrumentation, and within two years, the option was dropped. There were also many reliability issues with the early models (as reported in AUTOCAR magazine, who ran a Vanden Plas as a long term test car), and the Vanden Plas was soon tarred with the same brush.

However, Austin-Rover knuckled down to the task of fixing the Maestro, and by 1986, it had received the far more solid single-piece Montego dashboard, its S-Series engine and benefited from improved build quality. Later models were relatively desirable, especially those equipped with a leather interior.

My personal favourite is the original version – warts and all – and one of the finest remaining examples of the breed belongs to Matt Ife. it is this version that takes pride of place as the first Car of The Month for 2004.

Frontal aspect of the Maestro was always its happiest... the white indicators and slim homofocal headlamps were soon adopted by many rivals. The Vanden Plas version was easily distinguishable from the rest of the Maestro range by its chrome finished grille and chrome bumper inserts.
Frontal aspect of the Maestro was always its happiest... the white indicators and slim homofocal headlamps were soon adopted by many rivals. The Vanden Plas version was easily distinguishable from the rest of the Maestro range by its chrome finished grille and chrome bumper inserts.

Matt bought his Maestro Vanden Plas in May 2003 for a not unreasonable £300, from a lady whose family had owned it from new. She had driven it for a while after her husband died but got got too old to drive a car with such steering. Like many of these single owner cars, this VP had built up a low mileage; in this case, 46,000 miles. Mechanically, a Maestro of this age is fairly simple, making DIY very easy: Matt says, “I have done all the servicing myself and since purchase and have replaced oil, filter, distributor cap, rotor arm, fuel pump, fuel lines, two fuel flow transducers, spark plugs, HT leads and a few other bits and pieces…”

Matt continues, “In September, I did some major work on the car and replaced front and rear suspension (dampers, springs and rear bushes), front driveshafts, brake discs, brake callipers, front hubs and bearings. All of these were original Rover parts bought from Ledbury.” Matt was careful to picture his work.

One of the unhappiest aspects of the Maestro styling was the side “scollops”. In this photograph, the way it is lit allows us to imagine the Maestro without them…

These early unassisted R-Series Maestros were well known for being heavy to drive, and a little bit on the “understeery” side, but given careful consideration to tyre choice and pressures, these tendencies can be pretty much alleviated. Matt found this to be the case: “…until a month ago, the car still had the original Goodyear tyres. They still looked fine but performed terribly so I have now got a set of Uniroyals that I am very pleased with.” No doubt, on high quality rubber, this Maestro will have felt like a new car, especially when compared with their replacements’ 18-year vintage!

Thanks to an easy life, mileage is going up slowly. There is little immediate danger of this VP becoming anything other than a cherished car.

Matt intends to improve the car: “Planned repairs and mods are: Electric mirrors from a later VP, upgraded stereo (but not offensively so!), repair the few minor scratches and stone-chips in the paint job, new headlining (much needed) and electric sunroof. This last mod will, sadly, not retain the mark-1 headlining with single interior light but only the later headlining is available from Rover these days. I will only fit an electric sunroof if I can retain the body-coloured panel – not changing it for glass. Needless to say, I won’t do anything to the car that changes its appearance or originality in anything but a minor way, and I always try to use Rover/Unipart parts where I can.”

It is nice to see such an original example of an unusual Maestro variation in such enthusiastic hands. This car might only be a footnote in the Vanden Plas story, but that does not stop it from being an interesting and entertaining car. The digital dash may have been seen as an evolutionary dead-end by the end of the 1980s, but it is interesting to see that non-analogue instruments are becoming more widespread now.

Seen in this view, the Maestro still looks reasonably contemporary – the large glass area afforded an airy interior. Again, identifying Vanden Plas features involved the application of chrome: in this case, on the plastic wheeltrims and the door mirrors.

I leave the last words to Matt: “I love the car. It has faults, as all old cars do, and only just tops 30mpg in the summer (25 in the winter!), and repair jobs can be a continual source of frustration, but that is part of the charm. It is really the ideal car for me; undoubtedly cost-effective, large, acceptably fast (as the R-Series engine has plenty of torque when it is tuned properly), very comfortable, quiet at motorway speeds (again a feature of the R-Series. The S-Series is turned through 180-degrees, so the exhaust manifold is next to the bulkhead and, therefore, is much noisier), quirky due to the digital dash and voice unit. It is also reliable; it never let the previous owners down in 20-years of use and has behaved admirably with me too.”

The vacuum-fluorescent display – here seen in “boot-up” mode. This was seen as something of the future in 1983, yet in 2004, it is still to be widely adopted by the motor industry. This car lacks the original Vanden Plas steering wheel badge (they all seemed to fall off) and due to the lack of a radio, the driver is deprived of Nicolette McKenzie’s dulcet tones.

Keith Adams


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