The cars : Italian-market Austin Maestro 1.3 HLS (1983)

Chris Cowin remembers an Austin Maestro with a specification the Brits couldn’t buy – not at first anyway.

Did Austin Rover Italia hit on the winning formula before their mothership in the UK? You decide…

Only Italians need apply

Italian market Austin Maestro
The Italian-market Austin Maestro 1.3 HLS of 1983. Note Vanden Plas style bright grille and mirror, and side indicator repeaters

When the Austin Maestro was launched in early 1983 some felt the range of models available to British buyers had gaps, one of them being a well-equipped 1.3 model – if you wanted luxury, you had to buy a 1.6-litre engined Maestro.

However, in Italy high taxes on displacement counted against the 1.6 HLS and 1.6 Vanden Plas which were not marketed there. Instead, Austin Rover Italia from the start offered a Maestro with a package which surely would have appealed in Britain as well.

The Italian-market Maestro 1.3 HLS combined the economical 1275cc A-Plus engine with a five-speed gearbox – a combination none of the British market Maestros could offer in 1983. Here, customers had to buy a 1.6 to get five gears. Unlike various preceding Austins with the gears in the sump, the Maestro’s gearbox was mounted end-on to the engine and, on all 1.3 and 1.6 manual Maestros and Montegos, the gearbox was a Volkswagen-supplied unit.

Small engine, big equipment

As well as being five-speed, the Italian 1.3 HLS came as standard with the attention-getting solid state electronic instruments incorporating a trip computer and voice synthesiser. I am told that the latter issued Italian orders in stern male tones, as would seem fitting with ‘Austin Maestro’ translating as ‘Austin Master’.

In the UK the electronic dash was standard only on the 1.6 Vanden Plas and MG 1600 – and optional on the 1.6 HLS and (supposedly) on the 1.3 HLE.

Not only that, but the appearance of the 1.3 HLS was lifted by adding the silver-effect grille from the Maestro Vanden Plas combined with its bright side mouldings, door handles and bumper trim and a matching chromed door mirror (just one).

Equipment was generous (similar to the 1.6 HLS) with a rear wash/wipe standard (optional on cheaper Maestros) and a soft-feel steering wheel – the Italians would have hated the scratchy plastic one fitted to cheaper Maestros originally, which could leave your palms sore after a long drive.

An electronic dash with voice synthesiser, five-speed gearbox and rear wash-wipe. What’s not to like on the Maestro 1.3 HLS for Italy?

Italian market Austin Maestro
Generous equipment was standard on the 1983 Maestro 1.3 HLS for Italy

Economy drive

Anybody trying to buy a Maestro like this in Britain would have been directed to the 1.3 HLE model which, for the first year, was saddled with the infamous ‘3+E’ gearbox which wasn’t much fun on the road, with its ridiculously tall top gear.

Surely, the five-speed box would have resulted in almost as good economy in practice – the Italian consumption data suggests so. But the Brits couldn’t get a five-speed transmission, even as an option, on any 1.3 Maestro initially – only a base 1.3, a 1.3 L and the 1.3 HLE were available.

So, if you wanted a vaguely luxurious Maestro 1.3 in the British Isles in 1983/84, Harold Musgrove‘s team forced you to take part in a grim economy drive in the HLE…

The Italian 1.3 HLS had precedents

With bigger engines being heavily taxed in Italy, quite a few ‘Italian market specials’ had been developed over the years, combining top end equipment with the smaller engines in the range. Historic examples include the Allegro 1300 Special of the 1970s and later an Allegro 3 1000 HLS with the 998cc A-Plus engine.

The Austin Maestro 1.3 HLS was one of four Maestros launched in Italy in 1983 – three 1300s and the MG 1600.

An Italy-specific feature were the unusually-placed indicator side repeaters, which were not initially fitted on UK cars, but were required by law in Italy.

Italian market Austin Maestro
A slimmed down range: only four versions of the Maestro were offered in Italy at launch – with the 1.6-litre engine confined to the MG Maestro

The British market follow-on

However, if Austin Rover had left a gap unfilled in the UK range by not offering the Maestro 1.3 HLS to British buyers, it did eventually move to fill it.

For 1985, the Maestro range was expanded by the introduction of a 1.3 HL model (and 1.6 HL) which gave buyers a rather posher (than the base 1.3/1.3 L) alternative to the economy focused 1.3 HLE which itself had been improved by switching to a ‘4+E’ gearbox.

The 1.3 HL still came with a four-speed gearbox as standard, but a five-speed was optional – the equipment, though, was not up to HLS standards.

More luxury please

Another couple of years on and any attempt to nudge buyers into buying a Maestro 1.6 if they wanted luxury had been abandoned – by 1987, a Maestro 1.3 Mayfair had joined the range, offering a full-fat luxury specification – bronze tints, velour and central locking were combined with the 1275cc engine and five-speed gearbox. The electronic instruments and voice synthesizer had been dropped on all models by this stage.

It’s possible some other export markets may have received the five-speed Maestro 1.3 HLS at launch in 1983, although France and the Netherlands did not. The French were offered the enticingly named Austin Maestro Electronique as a limited edition a couple of years later – like the 1.3 HLS, that combined the five-speed transmission with the 1275cc engine and the electronic voice synthesiser – even though that item was soon to disappear from all Maestros and Montegos.

Such a specification would have made a lot of sense in both Portugal and Greece, which taxed engine displacement heavily like Italy, but there’s no evidence the 1.3 HLS was exported to either. They were markets that still frowned on hatchbacks as utilitarian in 1983.

Italian market Austin Maestro
The UK-market Maestro 1.3 Mayfair of 1987. A spartan Maestro this was not

Austin Rover goes from strength to strength

At the start of the 1980s, Austin Rover Italia (or Leyland Italia as the company was known until 1982) was on a roll. Italy was vying with France for the title of biggest export market – especially after American sales evaporated in 1981. The Austin Metro, which was launched in Italy in 1981, got off to a very strong start in this small-car focused country, helped by being introduced at a time when both the Fiat 127 and Renault 5 were long in the tooth.

And the Triumph Acclaim (launched locally in 1982) qualified as a ‘British car’ for trade purposes and thus was able to side-step barriers which kept Japanese cars out of Italy, finding an eager market among Italians attracted to cars of such a concept – as would the small Rovers that followed it.

The classic round-nosed Mini, which had been absent from the market for several years, made a comeback (only Clubman estates had been marketed after 1976) and Austin Rover market share hit 2.2% in 1982 which was a big advance on the late 1970s, although at the height of the Innocenti partnership in the early 1970s the 5.0% figure had been approached – although this was mostly accounted for by Innocenti-assembled Minis.

Unfortunately, the launch of Maestro in 1983 could not stem a fall in Austin Rover’s Italian volume which can be blamed largely on the launch of the Fiat Uno bringing an end to the Metro’s Italian honeymoon – by 1987, Austin Rover Italia’s market share was back down to a weak 1.0%.

Italian advertising for the Maestro at launch followed a chess theme – ‘Make a master move’. The lack of passenger side mirror – despite the luxury positioning of the featured 1.3 HLS – is very evident here.

Italian market Austin Maestro
‘Make a Master move.’ But Master of the Italian market the Maestro was not.
Austin Maestro
‘Austin Maestro speaks clearly’ – The electronic dashboard with voice synthesiser that was standard on the Maestro 1.3 HLS pictured and the MG Maestro 1600 in Italy also featured in advertising at launch. The voice synthesiser was notionally an option on the British 1.3 HLE, but hardly any Maestro 1.3s were delivered with one in the UK.
Chris Cowin


  1. Would an end-on five speed not have fitted on the Metro if the radiator were moved to the front?

    Seems like a missed opportunity on the face of it given one could get a 1275cc Maestro in that form.

    • If I recall correctly the Metro had a front mounted radiator but still it was not until the K Series and the more compact Peugeot gearbox than the VW box that it was made to fit a Metro with a wider track and reengineered engine bay.

      • Did the mk1-mk2 VW Polo share the same Golf gearbox as used in the Maestro/Montego or was it possibly a more compact design that could have been fitted to a Metro (if not also a Mini)?

        • So far have found the Volkswagen gearboxes were known under the codes 084 (4-speed) and 085 (5-speed) respectively, being used in everything from the Polo and Golf to the Maestro and Montego.

          The Austin Memories site on the Minki project did mention an attempt to fit a Maestro spec A-Plus and 5-speed gearbox into Minki I (without the 50mm increase in width like on Minki II), only for it to be revealed as too tight a fit.

          Would have probably had a better chance fitted the Metro and Mini with Nissan Micra K10 and K11 sourced gearboxes that appear to be known online under the codes Nissan RN4F (4-speed) and RS5F (5-speed).

  2. The Italian advert shows the standard E and LE models as having a “3+1” gearbox as opposed to a 4-speed, would this be the same as fitted to UK HLE specs? Italian cars were traditionally low geared and high revving so it seems odd to fit such a long-ratio box there other than I assume for fuel efficiency

    • I assume so and I’ve tried to check. The 1983 UK brochure gives fuel consumption data for the 1.3 HLE in metric terms but not in the same format as the Italian advert, confusingly. It states consumption of 4.7 litres/100 km at a constant 90 km/h and 6.8 litres/100 km at a constant 120 km/h. I’m not sure if that can be matched with the Italian data (21.7 km/litre at 90 km/h and 14.7 km/litre at 120 km/h) to see if the gearbox had the same ratios (but I suspect so). That sounds like a maths question for somebody 🙂

  3. Ford sold plenty of Escort 1.3 Ghias at this time, so yes it was a glaring gap in the UK Maestro range that could have been sorted at the drop of a hat at zero cost. They always knew better though…….

    • @ Paul, very odd, as you could buy the top spec Allegro as a 1.3, but not the Maestro, nor could you have a Maestro 1.3 with a five speed transmission in the UK. Yet the old we know best culture was still alive in British Leyland and wouldn’t be beaten until the Graham Day era, when coincidentally a luxury 1.3 Maestro with five speed transmission was launched.
      Speaking of Ford, though, the so called Escort Popular plumbed the depths of penny pinching meanness in the early eighties that was typical of Ford, basic meant basic, ie hard vinyl seats, the bare minimum of instrumentation, no glovebox and a single sun visor. In fact, until 1982, you had to spend a considerable amount more and specify the GL model if you wanted luxuries like a radio and a clock.

  4. incidentally, they did the same with the SD3 200-Series, there were higher-spec 213SE and 213 Vanden Plas versions in many Continental Europe markets through to the end of production whereas in the UK they only lasted a year or so

  5. Typical BL. Where Ford offered every combination under the sun to make sure they had all bases covered in the sales market, the Maestro was only offered with higher specs in larger engines. Did they not learn anything over the previous decade?

  6. I am a bit mystified how an A series engine could end up with a 5 speed gearbox after all the gearbox was an in sump design so there wasnt any room.

    so what design changes were made ?

    Why wasnt this 1.3L A series with a 5 speed gearbox put into a mini ?

    • In the Maestro the gearbox was not in the sump … The Maestro development story (on AROnline) explains it like this: “There was no question that the old Mini and Metro arrangement of a gearbox-in-sump being used, as it would not be good enough for the market it was intended for: four gears in your ‘box would not do.
      Also, the lack of refinement in this arrangement might suffice in the Mini and Metro, but for the LC10 and its middle-market pretensions, nothing less than an end-on gearbox with a five-speed option would do. King and Bashford had seen this clearly way back in 1975, and Development Engineers honoured this original plan.
      Regarding the gearbox question, BL’s in-house LT80 design was abandoned following successful early trials in LC10 mules with VW gearboxes. Ray Horrocks made the decision that the cost of putting their own new unit into production would have been too much and so made a deal with VW to buy-in the boxes.”

    • There actually was a five speed in-sump gearbox for the A-Series engine. It was designed and made in the 90s by an aftermarket supplier called Jack Knight Developments.

      It was never offered as factory standard. But if you bought a John Cooper Works Mini, the 5-speed box was an option. There was also a special edition Mini available only from Cooper, called the John Cooper Sport 5, which came with the 5-speed box as standard.

      The 5-speed box wasn’t universally popular. The extra gear was rather fragile, and wasn’t that much higher than the standard 4th gear.

      The in-sump A-Series box was developed very late in the Mini’s history, and some years after the Maestro was launched with its VW-sourced end-on 5-speed box, so it’s a bit of a footnote in A-Series history, really.

      Nowadays opinions in Mini circles seem to be split between owners who think a 5-speed Mini is the holy grail, and others who think they’re terrible!

  7. The gearbox in sump design was a legacy of the BMC era and the Maestro was designed to be part of a new era for Austin Rover. Hence the end of the E series engines found on bigger engined Allegros, a totally new 1.6 engine, Volkswagen transmissions and a hatchback design. While it was somewhat of a joke that was cancelled in 1985, the talking digital dashboard was a sign the Maestro wanted to be a cutting edge product.

  8. I’m sure I remember reading something back in the late-70s about the lubrication of gears which commented on the divergence of oil characteristics needed for modern low-friction gearboxes/differentials and those needed for the expected extended-oil-change intervals (which you needed to get fleet sales) in combustion engines.

    There were plenty of lubrication issues even for separate engines and gearboxes [black sludge in engines, baulky gearshifts when cold] back in the early-80s, the idea of producing good oils for transmission-in-sump setups might have been a bit much.

    Thankfully the shared-oil thing died a death.

  9. It’s interesting to read how cars were marketed in different countries.

    The talking dashboard was one aspect that most people remember from the early days of the Maestro.

  10. Italy was more receptive to the Rover 2400 SD, which barely sold in the home market, but in Italy, with much lower purchase taxes on large engined diesel cars than petrol models, the car was popular among diesel buyers. I can’t ever remember seeing a diesel SD1, but in general, diesel cars were quite rare in the first half of the eighties.

    • Diesel fuel was much cheaper than petrol in Italy so that made diesel cars more attractive to run, especially higher mileage drivers should would probably choose a larger car for the autostrada.

      In the UK for quite a while diesel was more expensive than petrol. So it was a moot point if it really was cheaper to run unless a high mileage was expected or if the owner had a source of cheaper fuel eg via a business.

  11. I wonder if the Maestro was deliberately denied a “luxury” 1.3 version in the UK so salesmen could steer customers wanting luxury towards the Rover 213 range?

    Also, I’m sure I remember this site having a wonderful archive of scanned brochures. Are these still available anywhere please?

    • That’s a good point. The Rover was sold at a premium over the Maestro. However did the premium get cancelled out by the licencing fee that was paid to Honda?

      • Aside from premium (list) pricing helping profitability, one shouldn’t forget the Honda-derived or Joint Venture developed Rovers tended to be sold with less discounting than previous models from BL – and tended to incur lower warranty costs. They also had a lot more success penetrating continental export markets (many of them barred to direct imports from Japan) giving Austin Rover/Rover higher production volumes than would have been the case otherwise (probably) – which again is a plus for profitability. So there’s quite a lot of positives to balance the cost of royalties paid to Honda.

  12. The Rover 213 was a far better car than the Maestro 1.3 and sold more to better off private buyers and people trading in their Triumph Acclaims. I’d imagine there were probably few cases of people trading in an Acclaim for a Maestro, as sellers would want a saloon again and had been sold on the smoothness and reliability of the Honda 1.3. The Rover was better specced, higher priced and classier inside than the equivalent 1.3 Maestros and would have been more profitable. Also during its run, the Rover 200 always outsold the Maestro.
    Not that the Rover 200 was perfect. The 1.6 versions did have some reliability issues early on, due to using the same engine as the Montegon and Maestro, and rustproofing could be patchy. However, it was far more of a halo model to Austin Rover and had a more middle class, affluent image that counted in the eighties.

  13. Always interesting to see these articles about rare models. The 7 model launch was limited by a low-spec-small-engine or high(er)-spec-large-engine approach. The HLE was a little bit of an exception but apart from the chrome door handles, wasn’t really very high spec.

    The brochures claimed that the HLE could be fitted with an optional digital dash but no-one has ever seen one (as evidence by the doubt offered in this article). It would have required its own specific speedometer transducer (unlike the HLS which could use a Vanden Plas one).

    So one wonders what a 1.3 HLS was fitted with – did it have the same ratios as the 5-speed fitted to the 1.6 HLS? Was it fitted with a 5-speed so that the VP/HLS speedo transducer could be used?

    • It doesn’t quite answer your question but as discussed earlier in these comments (above) – by looking at the fuel consumption figures it was possible to work out the gearbox used in the four speed 1.3 E and LE sold in Italy was the same / same ratios as the UK market HLE with “3+E” box … Combining the digital dash with the 1.3 engine didn’t just happen in Italy – there was a limited edition Maestro 1.3 Electronique in France which did it as well ….

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