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
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?
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.
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.
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.