From the archive : January 1983

Thirty years ago, British Leyland was on the cusp of launching its most important car in a decade – the Austin Maestro. And the company management was already beginning the important task of briefing the press…

The Times, January 1983

BL’s hopes riding on Maestro in the medium car market

Maestro Scoop 1981

On the road special report on the LM10

The most important new British car of 1983, will be BL’s belated entry to the ranks of the small/medium hatchbacks, known so far by its code-name, LM10, but due to go on sale at the beginning of March as the Austin Maestro.

Already in production on highly automated lines at Cowley, the new car will play an even more crucial role than its smaller sister, the Metro, in the BL recovery programme laid down by the departed chairman, Sir Michael Edwardes. The importance of the Maestro is that it should not only be a strong seller but profitable. The contribution of the Metro to BL’s fortunes has been psychological rather than financial, raising morale both internally and among the dealers, but doing little to reduce the company’s huge losses. But since production costs do not rise in proportion to the size of the vehicle, the Maestro should be able to command bigger margins.

BL’s main weakness in recent years is that it has been poorly represented in the medium car sector which accounts for about 65 per cent of the total market. The Maxi and the Allegro, disappointing sellers in any case, have gone, leaving only the ageing Marina-based Ital to carry on a forlorn battle. The Maestro, which will compete with cars like the Ford Escort, Vauxhall Astra, Talbot Horizon and Volkswagen Golf, represents the first stage in a two-pronged attack by BL on the medium sector.

The other will come with the launch in 1984 of the LM11, mechanically similar to the Maestro but bigger and with a saloon instead of a hatchback bodyshell. Here at last should be a convincing BL riposte to the Ford Sierra and Vauxhall Cavalier.

Mr Andy Barr, managing director for operations of BL’s Austin Rover division (which makes all its cars except the Jaguar), has described the Maestro as, ‘probably one of the most technically advanced cars in the world,’ though under the skin it will depend largely on existing components.

The car will offer the choice of two types of engine, both mounted crosswise and driving the front wheels. The less powerful unit is the 1275cc A-Series engine, which has seen service in a variety of models, including, currently, the Mini, the Metro and the Ital. On paper it is an old fashioned design, relying on pushrod instead of what is regarded as the more efficient overhead camshaft, but BL spent £30m updating it for the Metro and the results were impressive: smoother running, brisker performance and, not least, improved fuel consumption. There seems no reason why the 1.3 Maestro should not, like the Metro, be as economical as the best in its class.

The Maestro’s other engine will be a revised version of the uninspiring E Series design, first used, in 1500 and 1750cc versions, in the Maxi. Now called the R Series, it will have to work a lot better than its predecessor. The 1750 Maxi, for instance, was no quicker than the similar sized Renault 14, whose power unit was a mere 1200, and it was also less economical.

The A-Series engine will be mated with the equally venerable Metro/Mini gearbox, not one of the crispest but easier to operate than it used to be. The dreadful Maxi box, however, was felt to be beyond redemption and BL decided to buy “off the peg” from Volkswagen the excellent box of the Golf. The suspension will be based on the hydragas system familiar from a succession of Leyland models. Its ability to soak up the bumps has never been in question but it has not always provided damping of the same order, nor the tautest of handling.

For the Metro, however, the system was significantly, modified to meet these criticisms and the new car should reap the benefit. The ride/handling compromise could, in fact, be one of the best features of, the Maestro. The Escort handles with a satisfying tautness but its ride, though less capricious than when the car was launched two years ago, is still on the hard side; and the same can be said of the Astra. The Horizon, on the other hand, feels too soggy.

The Maestro will have a five- door bodyshell, with a tailgate and the facility for folding down the rear seat. It is expected to follow the example of the Metro and provide a seat that can be split one third/two thirds to allow a more versatile deployment of passengers and luggage. With three windows, on each side, there will be optimum visibility. In overall size the Maestro will be close to the Maxi and at around 13 ft 4 in will be a little longer than most of its rivals, which should give it the edge in interior space. The Metro was a brilliant exercise in what the motor industry calls packaging and the Maestro should set a similarly high standard.

The picture that emerges is of a sensibly-designed vehicle, a good all-rounder that should score also on quality and reliability, areas which have let down BL notoriously in the past. Drawing on the experience of the Metro, robots will be much in evidence in the production stage. But however good the car in itself, BL still has to persuade large numbers of motorists to buy it. The Maestro’s main asset could be that it is British, its handicap that it has come late and allowed rivals, particularly the Escort, to corner the market.

As the Metro has shown, there is still a considerable loyalty to the home product, as long as motorists have a reasonable conviction that the vehicle will not let them down. The switch to foreign makes, especially Japanese, was very much based on expectations of better reliability, and the Maestro could follow the Metro in helping to reverse that trend. But no one, least of all the people running BL, would deny that the Maestro should have appeared long before now, Sir Michael Edwardes has admitted that had its launch been exchanged for the Metro’s, the company could be in the black.

As it is, the Maestro has to carve its niche against the likes of the Escort, Britain’s best selling model, and the Golf, the world best-seller. It seems unlikely that the Maestro will eat into Escort sales very much; the Ford, as a recent refresher course has reminded me, is a formidable competitor and, importantly, it has collared the company fleet market where the forerunners of the Maestro, the Maxi and the Allegro, had little impact. The best hope for the new car is that it will persuade owners back from foreign makes.

For BL’s recovery programme, it is vital that the Maestro succeeds.

In the early 1970s, British Leyland (as it then was) took 40 per cent of the British market; this year it has been struggling to hold even 18 per cent. But for the Metro; which by itself has been getting around 7-5 per cent. 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 per cent 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 per cent Nothing much less will do.

Keith Adams


  1. And every version at that time had the VW box, until they saw sense and fitted the sweet Honda box on 5 speed versions

    • With the exception of the 2.0 litre cars (MGs and diesels) none of the Maestros had a Honda gearbox. The 5-speed VW box was fitted right up until the end of production to all 1.3 and 1.6 petrol Maestros.

  2. ‘probably one of the most technically advanced cars in the world,’ – well, it did have the talking dashboard…

  3. #2: Yorkie, the Maestro only ever got the PG1 gearbox with the 2litre engines – read Diesel and MG EFi. But the VW box is not all bad, it has not the slickest gearchange (some of this may be down to the BL designed rods), but it is very robust. It was a good choice they did not fit the Metro’s drive train with the transmission in sump…

  4. Must be the BL designed linkages – I was always puzzled back in the change why my five year old Maestro 1.3L had such a dreadful change, while the Golf’s was so slick.

    But I guess when a manufacturer sells to another one, they keep the best ones for themselves. Might also explain why the PSA XUD engine was so rough in a Rover 200, yet so sweet in a BX/405.

  5. Those bloody linkages. I remember even in the late ’90s Rover 200/400s been unloaded by the AA for a replacement linkage. Indeed, I’ve still got various sets of linkages in stock, ‘just in case’.

    This inability to learn from mistakes is just another nail in that heavily fastened down BL coffin.

  6. Keith,

    I am not sure if picking the raisins is really suitable for mass production – be it gearboxes or engines. Doing a multi-step quality control? Good enough for BL… What could be done is specifying different quality parts – when Rover took the PG1 in house a significant chunk of the reliability went with the specification of different diff-bearings. Do we know if Rover XUDs have different engine numbers to Peugeots units? And – if so – if this is not only due to a different bracket on the outside?

    With the XUD engine: I would assume that the engine mounts and other surrounding parts differ between the PSA platform and the R8 installation. Try a 16v K-series firmly hung into a Rover 114 vs. one softly mounted into a late R8 or bubble 200. One you would say is rough…

  7. Installation of hydragas would have been a waste of money on the Maestro, as in the A-series Metros, the engineers did not use the hydragas displacers as intended by Dr Alex Moulton, the displacers were used as nothing better than coil springs, an expensive wate of trusted technology

  8. Soory but you are wrong on the gearboxes Alexander. Even the Perkins diesel had the Honda gearbox. Dead giveaway was the position of reverse (and the smoother gearchange). The Veedubs have reverse next to 1st, and the Honda unit has it next to 4th(right and back). Only the poverty spec 1.3’s kept the VW gearbox. I’ve even been in a late model 1.6 that had the Honda box

  9. Yorkie; the Montego 1.6 came with the PG1 as standard following the ’88 facelift, but the Maestro was saddled with the VW dogbox on the 1.6 until the very end. The same as the 1.6 auto.

  10. Regarding the VW gearbox in Maestro – the early prototypes, with ARG designed linkages, were sweet as a nut. Then VW went through their ‘Konusring’ saga, re-designing the synchro. Result was less than wonderful, a big disappointment to ARG. Easier to blame the Brits though?

    Maestro didn’t have Hydragas because Spen King and Gordon Bashford wanted to follow simple VW Golf layout.
    There was an advantage in using Hydragas, even without interconnection, in Metro, because it gave a very compact layout compared with coil springs and dampers, thus helping Metro to achieve the best packaging efficiency of the lot.
    I agree that the extra cost of interconnection on R6 Metro was well worth it. People forget now that in 1990 the R6 was rated the top supermini!

  11. @16, Ian, personally I found that all the 3 very early Maestros (1.3LE with 3+E box, 1.6HLS and MG with 5-speed) I drove to have perfectly good gearchange. It seems more obstrusive on late 1.3s like mine. So there is possibly a connection? Also in Germany’s press’ praise for the VW box withered away some time during the Golf Mk2 run…

    Interestingly Alex Moulton compared a further developed Hydragas (using a torsion beam rear setup!) with the Golf setup and found that Hydragas was in total both lighter and cheaper – and of course much more compact. As it is the Maestro has a very good ride to handling compromise, but I dare to imagine it being even better in Hydragas form with the added bonus of a good shaped boot… Such a shame we did not get this.

  12. I don’t think alex Moulton could get around the VW patents which applied to their torsion beam axle. I know he thought the simplistic nature of the twist beam to be a good feature on a budget car, which when allied to his hydragas springs made for an outstanding chassis.

  13. I think the torsional rigidity of the Meastro was much higher than a Golfs,the dash may have squeeked but those shells were rock solid.

  14. We had a base 1.3. It had a 4 speed box – not sure whose.
    If you let the spring move the lever too fast from reverse one of the connections twanged off. The car was all but immobilised allowing just first or reverse.
    Huge car inside though and not a bad ride. Th rouble wa that the electronics could throw up problems that the mechanics just couldn’t get their heads round.


  15. We ran a 1983 Maestro for 23 years and never once had a gear linkage off?

    I found the gear change a bit rubbery but never had any trouble finding the gears, shifting between gears was smoother than some rivals.

  16. Dull but worthy. That sums up the Maestro.

    My brother had a 1.3 HLE (3+E gearbox) in chocolate brown. It ran well enough and was pretty reliable with a few hiccups from the electronic carb.

    There was plenty of space inside (my brother is 6’1″ and no shrimp) and he kept it 6-7 years so it must have been reliable. I can’t remember it being off the road very often but exciting it certainly wasn’t!

    We never had any issues with the gearchange or the electrics, but the handling on skinny tyres was tedious understeer. Basically it was dull but reliable day-to-day transport.

    I almost bought the 2.0 diesel at one time but opted for a Golf Mk2 GTD instead which was at least great fun to drive. The Golf gearchange I can vouch for as being absolutely fine.

  17. Dull and dreadful, a really AWFUL car !! Dumpy looks, badly built, awful engines. Yes, I did have one, albeit way secondhand. It leaked oil like the Torrey Canyon. Clutch cable went on me and I got rid shortly after. I hated that car !!!!

  18. the rods and linkages in the Maestro were bloody awful- specifically relating to all but the MG1600 (and the PG1 ‘boxed O-Seres)… no debate about it. They made the gearchange feel like you were stirring a bucket of porridge… and I hated the fact that, when it did feel a bit more solid, the ends of the links simply popped off!! – Terrible design!

  19. If I recall correctly, the very early cars had insecure linkages but a fix was introduced fairly quickly, and the design itself was changed and massively improved soon after. I was a warranty administrator in a large dealership at the time and I can still remember some of the warranty claim fault codes !

  20. I think there was also a service bulletin about greasing the linkages at each service interval. This made a big difference to the change quality. Missing this regular greasing is probably the cause of most complaints on later vehicles.

    One thing not mentioned is the Meastro was the first car to go to 12000 mile service intervals. Up until then 6000 and even 3000 was the norm. Imaging having to go to a garage for a service every 3000 miles !!

  21. Lord Sward, you are correct as that was the first model to get the A+ engine. The Maestro was the first all-new model to get the 12000 intervals from launch.

    On that A+ engine, I remember the deep feeling of disappointment I felt the first time I opened a Maestro bonnet to find that little engine sitting in there.

    Having got over that early disappointment, a few years later I ran a 1987 MG 2.0efi for 60000 miles that I still hold up as being one of the best cars of its tine.

  22. They should have got the 1.9 Peugeot XUD, which was proving itself in the Talbot Horizon, from day one. This would have really stolen a march on its rivals. Also owners would be impressed, especially in the cheaper versions, with a car that wasn’t only cheap to buy but was capable of 55 mpg and fairly refined and reliable. Instead we had to wait six years for the admittedly good Perkins engines, but by then the Maestro was an also ran even if the diesels prolonged its life. Same story with the Montego, sales of diesel Sierras and Cavaliers were taking off in 1984, but no diesel until it was too late.

  23. This reads very similar to a CAR magazine “Scoop” in early 83. They too where convinced the car would have hydrogas suspension and sump gearbox on the A series models. Reading the first part of this concerning the commercial aspects confirms BLs mistake in prioritising the Metro in 1980. Development funds would have been far better spent on getting an Allegro replacement to market – not the Maestro though!

  24. @ 17
    Keith, I think ‘What Car?’ gave awards to all three M’s. The MG Metro 1300 certainly got overall Car of the Year in 1982/3. I’m pretty certain that both Maestro & Montego were voted best Family Car, or similar, at some point.

    In later years much of the motoring press, when reviewing the M’s, seemed to forget that it had once highly regarded them.

    There are the obvious errors in the above article (Hydragas etc) but it is right in describing a basically sound car whose market penetration was disadvantaged by a late launch. Montego suffered in a similar fashion. By 1984 a ‘modern Cortina’ was not enough. Montego then needed to be a car in its own right available as saloon & hatch to give full market coverage.

    As so often, though, a good job was eventually made of cars which were by now dated.

  25. Ian @16

    Yes, in 1990 AutoCar or What Car? described the Rover Metro as ‘the best small car in the World’.

    In fact, in the early, mid nineties the motoring press in general was very pro Rover. I recently, on YouTube, came accross Jeremy Clarkson testing the 800 Coupe. I was expecting sarcastic criticism but was surprised to hear Jeremy praising the car.

  26. Maestro before Metro? Or, how about Metro still in 1980 but no Acclaim and Masestro in 1981 with various derivatives to follow – 3dr, Estate. notch( I have seen a simple notch Maestro as opposed to the larger Montego).

  27. David @ 35, a few years earlier, the Austin version was being routinely destroyed by car magazines for being old fashioned, having no diesel option and being a four speeder. Yet the Rover version seemed to bring the car really up to date, but I suppose its main opposition was a substandard reworking of an ageing Fiesta and the Nova, which was a reasonable car, but had some horrid saloon versions and was developing a negative image.The ones that survived joyriding expiditions and rust became the sort of cars that appealed to people who listened to a certain type of music and wore a baseball cap.

  28. @36 – Trouble is without Acclaim in 1981 there would probably be no AR/Honda collaboration. Without that the company would probably have been stone dead by around 1986.

  29. Paul @ 38, the Acclaim was the car that saved Austin Rover by proving a British car could be fault free and popular. It also paved the way for the highly successful Honda engined Rover 213, of which my family owned three and all, despite being 8-10 years old, were totally reliable. I really wish Rover had stayed with Honda as the company was ticking all the right boxes by 1991.

  30. We had a D reg base model while inthe Met Police as a pool car,very nippy,gearbox a bit rubbery as previous comment already made,but quite comfortable,also the Met Police had a pre production model,I remember its was X reg in dark brown been tested out buy Transport Branch at the time. Ilike the Vanden Plas and the MG version myself, Regards Mark

  31. I owned a maestro van with the 2.0 perkins diesel. It was noisy and had an appetite for front wheel bearings but it was an incredibly tough, robust well built machine. Never less than 50 mpg.

  32. Back in 1999, I was asked by a mate of mine, who worked at a car auction, if I wanted to buy a brown 1983 Maestro 1.3 L for £20. They wanted the space and it hadn’t sold. So I parted with £20, with the intention of selling it on. It was in good condition inside and out, with MOT and a bit of tax, but ran roughly and had a rear light cluster missing. The cluster was in the boot and after pushing a few pipes back onto the carburettor it ran like a dream! Easy, I thought. I washed and vacuumed it out and it was ready for sale. While it was in the local paper, I used its few times and it was very nice to drive. It was winter, and all it needed was full choke and it started straight away. The 1.3 engine was responsive and warmed up quickly. The first person who came to view it, bought it for £150 without even knocking me down. I have to say, I was sad to see it go! It just shows that the simplicity of these cars made them very good everyday transport.

  33. In retrospect, the Maestro’s bodystyle and size look similar to Honda’s Quintet from 1980/81 (a nice looking car but didn’t sell well in the UK). I note that a project code HD9 had been allocated to building a British (Triumph badged) version of the Quintet.

    Presumably the Austin Maestro’s parallel development scuppered that

  34. The Maestro could have done very well if early cars were reliable. Here was a car from Austin Rover that did away with unusual engine sizes like 1750 and 1500, in favour of the more usual 1.3 and 1.6 in this class, had a huge range of models from the poverty spec City to the luxurious Vanden Plas, an MG hot hatch version and was spacious and good to drive. It could have done very well and early predictions were the Maestro could take 7 per cent of the market and restore British Leyland’s market share to 25 per cent. Also had the Montego lived up to expectations, then it’s likely British Leyland would overtaken Ford to be Britain’s number one again.
    Sad thing is, poor quality and reliability ruined the company’s attempts at a revival in the mid eighties and by 1986 Austin Rover was being pushed into third place by Vauxhall. In a way it’s a big shame as by 1984 the company’s range was far more coherent, you no longer had three cars in the family class, just one with a regular 1.3-2 litre engine range, the unloved Morris and Triumph brands had been pensioned off, and the company seemed optimistic for the future.

  35. “probably one of the most technically advanced cars in the world,’ though under the skin it will depend largely on existing components” – an oxymoron if ever there was one….

    • As well as the aforementioned talking dashboard it did have 1 piece moulded bumpers, though originally the lower specs would have had the black painted steel ones only fitted to the vans.

  36. I used to drive a Maestro van for work, and it was really good, nice to drive, massive load space, metal bumpers and the improved Montego esque dashboard.

    The throttle cable fell off the carb at around 6000miles and the accelerator dropped to the floor – but it was easily clipped back on.

    At the time I had a brand new Golf GTI Mk2, and a friend bought an MG Maestro, think it may have been 2 litre?

    The Golf broke sown and was immobilised twice with faulty electric fuel pumps ( bad batch) and then was off the road for a month with numerous gearbox rebuilds in an effort to make the synchromesh work. It used to steam inside if I had a passenger (insert joke in here) and the wipers were set for LHD….

    In contrast the Maestro was a nicer drive more suited to our imperfect roads,and more roomy, and in red looked rather good.

    I even looked into part-exing my often at the dealership Golf with its grating gear changes fora Maestro MG. Trouble was, every new one I saw in various showrooms had rust blisters under the paint where the A pillar is welded to the roof panel. Salesmen just said that they all are like that, Sir.

    And all the evidence backed that up. I even wrote to BL asking whether they were going to improve but the reply said they were unaware of an issue.

    My friend’s MG ended up on its roof and I’m pleased to say that despite the corrosion he walked away. Bravo BL.

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