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
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.