The Austin Maestro was launched during a particularly fertile period in car design. There were some advances, and it looked neat and tidy, albeit not exactly cutting edge, but big success eluded it…
It singularly failed to capitalise on goodwill towards the firm in the months following the launch of the impressive new Austin Metro. Here we chart its development – from conception to the end.
Austin Maestro development story
Shortly after becoming the BL Chairman and Chief Executive in November 1977, Michael Edwardes oversaw the introduction of a plan that would hopefully bring the company’s range of cars kicking and screaming into the 1980s. He had already turned his attention to the Metro and now he needed to get a plan of action in place for the mid-range cars.
Spen King and Gordon Bashford in Solihull had instigated initial work on a mid-sized hatchback programme back in the summer of 1975, but in the climate of uncertainty prevalent in the Ryder years at Leyland Cars, it was slow going. King and Bashford had devised a classic front-wheel-drive layout, as LC10 Project Director Malcolm Harbour described it, with a transverse engine, end-on gearbox and conventional suspension layout.
Spen King also saw it that way, designing the LC10 in a pragmatic way: ‘I guess it was me that decided that it should have that very simple layout – the utterly conventional one actually. We had no good reason for doing anything anymore complicated in fact. It is a Golf layout: simply a take off, that’s all.’
It may have been somewhat different to the front-wheel-drive designs that had thus far been produced by the corporation, but it was a very realistic view of how that type of car would evolve. This intended replacement for the Maxi and Allegro enjoyed a leisurely development programme, until the point that the TM1 was axed, when it suddenly became rather more important to the company’s future plans.
ADO99: A new mid-liner planned
Funding was always a worry – and, because of the stop-go nature of industrial relations at the time, the Government was reticent about giving the ailing company any more handouts. Edwardes and Ray Horrocks thoroughly evaluated this programme and viewed it as a viable car on which to base their future corporate strategy.
Because the ADO99 programme had been given full managerial backing, the newly invigorated programme was renamed LC10. With this change in project number, a door had finally been closed on the past – the long-running ADO model numbering system, that had been around since the mid-1950s, was no more.
Within double-quick time, Edwardes approached the Government to lay out his plans: there would be the LC8 small car (the Metro), and the LC10 (hatchback and notchback versions), the mid-sized cars to replace Allegro, Marina and Maxi. There would also be the LC12 and LC14, the larger car and sports model; whether these cars would appear in the fullness of time would depend on how successful the LC10 was.
Now, Edwardes was well and truly at the helm of the company and was in a favourable position with the Government, he quickly secured this funding in order to finance this essential new model programme. He cancelled projects where necessary, in order to focus resources on the new cars, killing the development of anything else that was considered superfluous to these plans. And there were some interesting cars that did not see the light of the day in order to make way for the Maestro:
- Allegro 4 with two-tone paint
- Rover SD1 Estate: Michael Edwardes used to run one, but we could not.
- Princess Estate: Potential to be a useful load-lugger.
- Triumph Lynx: The closure of Speke and a questionable sales potential were responsible for this one’s early demise.
The choice for the Government had been an easy one: they could continue to invest in the beleaguered company, knowing that industry in the Midlands would be decimated by any decision that involved closure. Labour had a lot of MPs in the Midlands at the time in marginal seats.
Leyland LC10: The British Golf
Going into the 1979 Election was going to be tough enough without having alienated the electorate in the Midlands by potentially pulling their jobs from beneath their feet. It was a very logical new-model plan and, once Edwardes had secured finances from the Jim Callaghan-led Government in 1978, the parallel development programmes of the saloon and hatchback versions of the LC10 progressed, full steam ahead.
Government was also acutely aware of the fact that Edwardes had laid out plans to close several factories in the Midlands and, although they knew that these painful cuts would be needed to save the car company, it cannot have made knowledge of this any less painful for the men in Westminster. Edwardes also would not start closing these factories until after the General Election in 1979, so in the run-up, it would make good press to accede to the wishes of Michael Edwards and give him the finances he needed.
So, although the politicians had been appeased, what exactly were the LC10 models and how would they fit into the market?
New hatchback becomes a priority
The first decision made was to push ahead with the hatchback car. There was a universal love for the saloon in the UK market, but as it was important for BL to re-establish themselves in the important export market of Europe where the hatchback was king, the LC10 would be the first of the two cars to be launched.
The LC10 notchback would follow rapidly after, within the space of a year in fact, but as the two cars shared a great deal of their underpinnings, the development of both cars would be run together. In terms of European volume sales, the LC10 would be the major seller, so plans were rapidly drawn up rapidly for a two-box hatchback in the mould of the Volkswagen Golf and upcoming Ford Escort Mk3.
The C-segment of cars in the European market was rapidly growing and, since the arrival of the Volkswagen Golf in 1974, the template for the cars in this class was set: front-wheel drive, engines in the range of 1100cc and 1600cc, a 94-96in wheelbase and, importantly, a hatchback rear door.
LC10: Conventional to the core
The car would employ almost completely conventional engineering unlike the Metro, as dictated by engineering chief, Spen King – Hydragas suspension was not considered, the Maestro would be suspended by the VW formula of front MacPherson struts up front and trailing arm rear suspension.
This was no doubt a political decision made by King, who was a man who always preferred a conventional engineering solution. He believed that the extra weight and cost of Moulton’s suspension system was no worth the benefits that it offered. In reality, by the time the Austin Ambassador appeared in 1982, the benefits of the system had been demonstrated in the best possible way.
The question of what engines were to be used in the LC10 was an easily resolved dilemma. The early ADO99 prototypes used the standard A-Series engine in 1.0 and 1.3-litre form, with transmission-in-sump layout – common with the Allegro and Metro. The larger-engined version was tried out 1.7-litre version of the O-Series engine with an end-on gearbox but was quickly ruled out because of the size of the gearbox.
The E-Series unit was then tried. Harold Musgrove told AROnline: ‘I was talking to Ray Gatrix, the Purchasing Director for Longbridge, and said we needed a 1.6-litre engine for the LM10. He said he might be able to help me there: he’d been told to scrap the E-Series engine and destroy all the tooling, but he had kept it all in storage at Longbridge.
‘So, we dusted it off and redid the engine as a 1.6-litre and put it in the Maestro as the R-Series. We got our 1.6-litre engine after all! That’s why the S-Series came only 12 months later in Montego, and 15 months in Maestro – because it was a development of the R-Series that was never meant to be!’
Powering LC10: Engines and Politics
The R-Series was a development of the E-Series – a logical resizing to 1598cc, because the market demanded a 1600cc engined version (not 1.5 or 1.7-litres). This would suffice until a thoroughly revised version, called the S-Series could be developed and pressed into service. The S-Series would prove to be a useful improvement in terms of refinement and efficiency over the R-Series, but it was not going to be ready in time to be a part of the initial launch (scheduled for the Geneva Motor Show in 1983).
The R-Series engine received some of the developments planned for the upcoming S-Series engine; the ones that required little modification to the E-Series engine, such as its modified water pump and the addition of a clever electronically controlled SU carburettor. These add-ons would add little time to the development of the R-Series engine but were considered enough (along with a change in displacement) to warrant a new name.
In reality, it was nothing more than a stopgap. In 1598cc form, the R-Series with its siamesed bores and lack of water jackets between the cylinders (a carry-over from the E-Series), proved to be more efficient than the former 1485cc and 1748cc versions, because in this displacement, the inlet and exhaust valves, which were considered too small for the 1.7-litre engine and too large for the 1.5-litre engine, were perfectly sized in this interim engine size.
Waiting, waiting, waiting for the new engine
The S-Series engine would have to wait for the launch of the Austin Montego in 1984. This delay would prove to be a disappointment for Austin Rover because the new engine would prove to be a genuine and quantifiable improvement over its predecessor. The new unit, which incorporated a belt-driven overhead camshaft, fully ECU controlled timing and a more compact induction system, genuinely deserved the new designation.
It was a shame that the resources were not available in the company at the time to design the Maestro around the new engine, because the modifications incorporated in the S-Series unit allowed for a lower bonnet line on the LM11 saloon than it did on the LM10 hatchback.
However, there was some reason behind this outwardly illogical decision: ‘As always, this business was a lot more complicated than it appears from outside. Shall we say that a game of chess was played with the Government over the funding of the revised engines, and that the two-stage process was a way of winning that game,’ was how an insider put it.
The result was the R-Series engine’s launch – an inferior engine to the S-Series and shown to be in the company’s newest product. Further planning was forthcoming on the evidence of this performance, and how ever illogical it may have looked to outside observers, there was a reason why the Maestro was released with an engine that would last less than two years!
The A-Series engine – still a winner
The A-Plus engine in 1300cc guise was still a very efficient engine, thermally, and with addition of electronic control for its SU carburettor, it would improve on its remarkable potential for economy. 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. This would erode into the profitability of the LC10, but the compromise was considered to be worthwhile. There were also further talks with Volkswagen to co-develop a diesel engine for future use, but these amounted to nothing.
Engineering the changes
Both engines would need to be mounted the opposite way round (turned around 180 degrees) in the Maestro engine bay than they would in their predecessors. The reason for this was so that the VW gearbox could be mounted on the end of the engine – a happy side effect of this was that the electrical ancillaries on the A-Plus series would be at the back of the engine, against the bulkhead, not at the front of the engine, exposed to the elements, as they were in the Mini and Allegro, to the disdain of their owners.
The man in charge of Austin Morris Engineering was ex-Triumph man Ray Bates. He and his team worked themselves into the ground to get the Metro launched on time in October 1980. Bates complained to Managing Director Harold Musgrove about his lack of design manpower.
Musgrove’s response was to merge Austin Morris and Rover Triumph Engineering. Instead of putting Ray Bates, the man who had masterminded the successful Metro, in charge of this enlarged organisation, Musgrove promoted Rover Triumph’s Joe Farnham, an ex-Chrysler man, and put him in charge. Farnham allegedly had no experience of front-wheel drive. According to Ray Bates, development of LM10/11 was conducted in an atmosphere of ‘general turmoil and bitterness.’
Styling the Maestro: a two-horse race
The question of styling was never an issue, as it had been during the development of the Metro. David Bache, as overall Head of Styling and Design at British Leyland had ensured that the Solihull Design Office had taken full control of Maestro styling from the point of its go ahead when the LC10 was presented to the BL Board in May 1976. Ian Beech, under the direction of Bache, had quickly devised a glassy, five-door design that had echoes (but not unpleasant ones) of the Maxi and Allegro, but with some styling cues from the Rover SD1 thrown in for good measure (below).
Initially, there had been five full-size clay models (two Solihull, two Longbridge – above – and one, perhaps, by Pininfarina), but following early customer clinics, these were whittled down to two – the now familiar Bache/Beech design and one by Harris Mann.
Malcolm Harbour and Spen King both believed that the decision to ditch the Harris Mann effort was a little premature because it evolved nicely into a very handsome design. In fact, customer clinic results showed that the Mann design was by then ahead of the Beech’s effort, but by this time LC10 was committed to the Solihull scheme.
Leyland Cars becomes Light Medium
Now that the Solihull Design Office had been entrusted with finishing the development of the LC10 styling, the engineering for the car followed a predictable path. The Marketing Department within BL renamed the hatchback version of the car: LM10 – and the notchback version received its own development code for the first time: LM11 (for Light-Medium, reflecting the post-Leyland management).
The Marketing Department ensured that the styling clicked with targeted buyers, running countless customer clinics to ensure the detailing of the car was just right. Not much tweaking of the neat and tidy 1975 vintage Bache concept was required, but significantly, the cars that the LM10 was pitched against were generally first-generation family hold-alls such as the Mk1 Golf and Renault 14.
The most fearsome opposition to the car was still in development, such as the Mk2 versions of the Volkswagen Golf and Opel Kadett/Vauxhall Astra.
LM10 development: finessing the chassis
Production Engineers worked on the Maestro, developing it so that it would have all the features that would be required in a car of this class. The underpinnings of the LM10 ensured that it had a long wheelbase of 98in, as it would need to share many parts with the LM11 saloon, a larger car.
The development of the Maestro was governed somewhat by the need for it to sit on a shared floorplan with the larger LM11 – the Montego, as it emerged, needed to be a larger car than the traditional booted hatches, such as the Volkswagen Jetta, being pitched at competing directly with the larger fleet car competition such as the Vauxhall Cavalier.
The development of the LM10 and LM11 centred on tuning the ride and handling to be as competitive as possible, so Spen King and his team aimed for a compromise of taut handling and an accommodating ride. With the basic components of McPherson struts up front and trailing arms at the rear having been decided right at the beginning of the programme, the ride was never going to offer the compliancy of the Hydragas-suspended models but, with long wheel travel and variable rate springs, a class-leading ride/handling compromise was reached.
Interior styling: light and airy
The design of the interior followed corporate thinking, with a low-line dash and well-shaped seats. Like the Metro, BL wanted to make the interior of the LM10 as practical and adaptable as possible.
Like the Rover SD1, Austin Metro and its predecessors, the Maestro had a low-line fascia, incorporating a dash-top shelf and voluminous stowage areas. Whereas the functionality of the fascia could not be faulted, its design certainly could; the architecture of the fascia dated back to 1977 and had been subject to considerable internal criticism during the LC10’s development.
The problem was that it presented a rather stark vista to the driver and, adding insult to injury, it was made up of several components that conspired to rub against each other whenever the car was driven, resulting in countless rattles and squeaks – Axe described the Maestro interior thus: ‘The interior was very poor with a fascia/instrument panel that, out of the car, had the structural integrity of something from a fishmonger’s slab!’
The decision was made by Roy Axe during the development of the LM11 to drop this design completely, going with a more homogenous single-piece design, but because this was instigated late into the LM10 development programme, it was decided to go ahead with the original item, so not to delay the launch any further.
Towards the end of the development programme, the strategists knew that the Maestro was already quite dated and very conventional in its execution, they wanted to give the range something of a fillip by launching it with a couple of firsts.
Hastily conceived MG Maestro leads to compromises
The MG version of the Maestro was devised near the end of the model’s development and was hastily conceived as a result of two factors: the success of the MG Metro, launched in June 1982, and, more importantly, the burgeoning popularity of the hot versions of rivals Ford Escort and VW Golf.
Because development was rushed, the company devised a twin-Weber carburettor set-up for the car, which raised the power output of the 1600cc version from 81bhp to a healthier 103bhp.
Installation problems, which were an inevitable by-product of the rushed development, resulted in serious under bonnet heat build-up leading to hot-starting and fuel starvation problems.
Bumper and paint innovations
The first involved the usage of body-coloured bumpers – something that Porsche had done beforehand with the 928 but was still a novelty in the family car class. Unlike the coloured plastic used on the Citroën BX bumpers, the Maestro’s were made from a new type of Bokan plastic which was treated specially so that they could be painted at the same time as the rest of the body.
The first few Maestros suffered because the treatment had not been perfected at the time of launch and so were prone to cracking at the slightest impact, especially in the cold weather.
The new bumpers did cause a few last-minute delays though. According to Dick Law, the Director of Purchasing at Austin Rover at the time, they were responsible for a large number of Maestros being stockpiled. He explained: ‘We had major nightmares in getting the bumpers tooled up and into production. Cowley was producing Maestros without bumpers [and storing the cars over at Abingdon] for a good few weeks. My memory tells me over 3500 cars were produced minus the bumpers in the pre-launch days! We, in Purchasing, did finally get things sorted, but it took a long time.’
The legendary talking instruments…
The more controversial of the firsts for the Maestro was definitely the adoption of a solid-state all electronic dashboard display. The reasoning for this was simple: the marketing strategists wanted to portray a high technology image for the Maestro and do so in a highly visible way.
Drivers would not see the electronic carburettor control or the high technology wiring that the Maestro contained, but they would see a digital dashboard and so, late into the LM10 development programme, Lucas & Smiths were commissioned to produce such an item.
In March 1983, when the Maestro was launched, the digital dashboard came as standard on the top-of-the-range MG and Vanden Plas models and as an optional extra on the 1.6HLS – a deliberate marketing ploy.
Nicolette McKenzie: take a bow
However, it did not end there; not only was the instrument display digital, with LED readouts for all the car’s vital functions and its trip computer, but the electronic package also included a voice synthesizer. The synthesizer, which ran to a 32-word vocabulary recorded in 15 languages, would warn the driver when the fuel level was low or when you needed to fasten-up your seatbelts, for example.
Noted motoring journalist and ex-Austin Rover graduate trainee, Richard Bremner, related his own involvement in the adoption of this device for the Maestro: ‘This last item enabled me to play one of my tiny roles in the development of the car, for it was me and my boss, Evan Mackenzie, who were given the task of selecting the voice for the talking Maestros.
‘We were sent samples from voice-over agencies, which we played back on Mackenzie’s portable cassette player in the office. No research, no science was used in the selection – we simply went for the voice whose timbre we liked the most.
British car: Kiwi soundtrack
‘Our most controversial decision was to go with a lady’s voice rather than a man’s and we picked Nicolette McKenzie (no relation to my boss) because she sounded warm, intelligible and not so authoritative that she would come over as admonishing. Then again, we weren’t to know how often her verbal interventions would pipe up in the early, troublesome cars.’
Interestingly, the actress, who starred in the BBC saga, Triangle was born in New Zealand – fitting for this most British of cars. When Autocar magazine contacted the Austin Rover press office, questioning the nationality of Miss McKenzie they received this response: ‘…well, New Zealand is part of the Commonwealth!’
Maestros in development
Nearing introduction: factory changes
During this time, the Maestro was nearing production at Cowley. The factory had been enlarged at a cost of £147million and the new production line was installed, fully robotized, like Longbridge but even more advanced. The modifications to Cowley now made it one of the most advanced and productive in Europe – and Harold Musgrove was very public in his pride at the new factory.
In November 1982 Austin Rover announced it was taking on 1100 more workers at Cowley to meet the expected demand for LM10. Andy Barr, Austin Rover’s Director of Manufacturing Operations, said the recruits would be the highest-paid car workers in Britain. A basic rate of £106 a week would be topped up by a night shift premium of nearly £30 a week and bonus earnings of up to £30 a week. Production of the LM10/Maestro had already begun. The company hoped to be making about 500 a day by March.
‘Virtually all of these 1100 people will be working on the LM10 which is the next important stage in our product programme. We have decided to recruit on this scale because we will be introducing two-shift production on LM10 to ensure that sales demand is met,’ he said. Barr described the LM10/Maestro as, ‘probably one of the most technically advanced cars in the world. Every car in our recovery programme is just as important as the last one. Metro was the first rung on the ladder and the LM10 is possibly even more vital now that we are winning our way back.’
Big sales were needed
What were BL’s sales expectations for the new car? The Times of 8 January 1983 commented: ‘For BL’s recovery programme, it is vital that the Maestro succeeds. In the early 1970s, BL took 40% of the British market; this year it has been struggling to hold even 18% But for the Metro; which by itself has been getting around 7.5%. 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% 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%. Nothing much less will do.’
Perhaps Austin Rover’s reluctance to issue sales forecasts to the media was because the last-minute doubts about the car’s styling created a sense of insecurity within the company, despite the bullish bluster which the company adopted in the media.
Maestro breaks cover
When it appeared on 1 March 1983, the seven-car Maestro range was greeted with enthusiasm; maybe more so by the dealers than the public, who after enduring some horrible years selling some horrible mid-range cars, had something new and competent to sell.
The Maestro was lauded by the motoring press, who after driving it in the South of Spain, commended it for its tidy styling, contemporary feel, excellent economy and practicality. It continued the good work that the Metro had done in winning new friends but unlike its smaller brother, the Maestro was up against some very stiff opposition.
As Autocar magazine summed-up after a marathon 2700-mile circumnavigation of Spain at the time of the launch, ‘this very hard-worked car (a 1600HLS) returned a truly remarkable 29.2mpg over the whole trip. We left that dirty Maestro besides the neat lines of its shining, polished brothers, ourselves a bit tired, but distinctly sad at parting from a very pleasing British motor car that objectively we now thoroughly approved of, and which subjectively had become a reliable, very likable companion.’
Maestro gets good reviews
The Maestro may have won the heads of the road testers, but it certainly did not win their hearts, as this road test verdict of the 1.6HLS from Autocar testified, ‘As it is, the Maestro is sufficiently quick for the time being, and impressively efficient. Its handling and general cornering behaviour are excellent, but the ride could be improved further.
‘Its road noise levels disappoint, as to a lesser degree does the extent to which one hears the engine. But overall, it proves to be a very likeable and professional piece of contemporary motor car engineering.’
Performance was excellent, given the vintage of the engines – the 1300 version being especially good, delivering brisk acceleration, backed up with excellent fuel economy – this showing that despite its vintage, the A-Plus engine was still a remarkably efficient power unit. The 1600 version may not have been quite so efficient, but it delivered the goods and nothing more.
This less than charismatic engine resulted in the 1.6-litre Maestros delivering good economy and adequate performance, but in a theme common with the A-Series-powered versions, its refinement was not quite up to scratch. Thankfully, both engines had good torque characteristics and the sound insulation of the Maestro was excellent, so you did not need to extend the engine to make reasonable progress and the noise produced may have been of a gruff and uncultured nature, but at least it was reasonably quiet.
Impressive ride and handling
Handling and ride were competitive; the chassis being blessed with good ride quality and cornering balance, which was only limited by the mean width of the tyres that were specified with the Maestro at the beginning of its production run. It may not have been blessed with French car levels of ride subtlety, but a good ride/handling compromise was reached, and it was far better than the Ford Escort and Volkswagen Golf.
The range followed the conventional wisdom of the class and came in a logical ‘steppingstone’ of models, starting at the 1.3 basic models, through the higher spec A-Plus engine models to the R-Series engine fleet sellers and right, at the top, the Vanden Plas and MG models.
That magical interior
The digital dashboard did indeed prove controversial, but for all the wrong reasons; Nicolette was soon found to be nagging drivers that they had left their doors open or that their engines were running low on oil pressure.
All well and good had she been telling the truth, but the system had the disadvantage of being assembled by Britons and, therefore, suffered from variable build quality. AROnline’s Editor, Keith Adams, recalled, ‘I remember vividly running out of fuel in an early Vanden Plas version one evening and only being given the ‘Warning Low Fuel’ announcement, after the car had come to a halt, lifeless.
‘There was also the rather amusing trait of reporting low oil pressure, every time I drove over a bump in the road, but nothing was quite so funny as being told repeatedly to fasten my seatbelt, even though it had been fastened at the journey’s start. Thankfully, the voice synthesiser had a volume control/off switch – most owners made use of it!’
Beaten by Renault, but still optimistic
Adding insult to injury, this technical tour-de-force was not even a first for Austin Rover. At the last moment, Renault stole Austin Rover’s thunder by introducing their own version in the new Renault 11 TXE Electronique, a week before the Maestro was launched to the press.
At launch, senior Austin Rover executives gave their views on the new Maestro and its prospects. Commercial Director, Mark Snowdon, told The Times, ‘We will have around 6000 cars in our dealer showrooms by 1 March, and production from Cowley will be running at around 2000 a week to give maximum back up.’ He then added, ‘Metro was the key to our survival. Maestro is the key to our prosperity.’
Snowdon also said that senior management. were called on to drive the car from the earliest stage to ensure that it not only met its quality and comparative targets but was a car with a personality. The result, Snowdon said, was that the Maestro was not a replacement for any past or present car in the company’s range. ‘We quite deliberately freed our thinking of any conventional perception of the market. And that is where the real importance of the Maestro lies: in its position in the market place.’
Snowdon: BL will win new business
He continued: ‘Maestro’s unprecedented breadth of appeal will enable Austin Rover to go out and win new business from other manufacturers. There is no definitive car right at the centre of the medium sector. We believe that Maestro has the credentials to become the definitive medium car.’ Only the day after launch, Austin Rover management was boasting the company had already received £50m of orders from fleet buyers.
ARG Fleet Sales Manager Jeffrey Johnson was quoted as saying, ”We had the fleet user very much in mind when we were developing the Maestro. A combination of outstanding fuel economy, high specification, good load-carrying capacity, and extremely fine handling and ride comfort are built into the car. So far the response has been terrific. It is going to help the Austin Rover Group to recover sales in the vital business sector of the market.’
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also tried the car and stated, ‘It is a very, very good car, and I hope people buy it.’ Good job, as the day before the Maestro’s launch, her Government had agreed to inject another £100m into BL. Although Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party had a record since 1975 of opposing the state injecting funds into British Leyland, the better than expected sales performance of the Metro had created a mindset where there seemed to be light at the end of the BL tunnel and the expectation was that both Maestro and the forthcoming Montego would emulate the smaller car’s success.
Maestro launch scuppered by strikes
BL’s attempts to banish its strike-torn image to the history books took a knock on 28 March 1983; just four weeks after the Maestro had been launched. On that day, 5000 Cowley day shift workers walked out on strike, followed by 2000 nightshift colleagues.
This was the start of the so-called ‘washing up’ dispute. Cowley always had a reputation for militancy – walkouts had followed the launch of both the Marina and 18-22 Series, although workers’ representatives claimed Austin Rover management had adopted heavy-handed management techniques, in an effort to boost production.
The Montreal Gazette reported at the time: ‘At the gate at lunch time and in dingy Johnson’s Cafe, a short walk away, the worker mood is bitter. No one is willing to be quoted by name. ‘There are repercussions for speaking out,’ said a 15 year employee. ‘The foremen treat us like dirt. They curse at us. The washing up time was the last straw. Enough was enough.’
Workers overrule Shop Stewards
‘But this man, said, as did virtually all the others, that in the end, they were certain to lose their protest. ‘I need a job. I’ve got a family. BL threatened to fire us. The tactics of the management were terrible. Look, we’re all human beings together.’ Finally, the workers over-ruled their own Shop Stewards, who had turned down the last company offer for a joint labour-management team to study the washing up problem and other grievances.
‘I was unemployed 18 months before this job’, said a 29 year old.’
‘Even a clergyman who worked at Cowley claimed employees were verbally abused. The dispute became a war of words between Austin Rover’s MD Harold Musgrove and Mr David Buckle, Area Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Mr Buckle described Harold Musgrove as ‘one of the greatest dangers to industrial relations and the security of the company. He does not seem to have the slightest idea what motivates human beings on the production line.’
Musgrove: Frustrated by unionism
Meanwhile, Mr Musgrove said: ‘Many of the people behind these wild claims about ‘brutality’, and ‘slavery’ want a return to the days of the early 1970s when every decision could effectively be vetoed by a shop steward so inclined, when dogmatic insistence on the right to veto even the most minor shop floor change throttled our ability to compete with the rapidly improving industries of Japan, and western Europe.
‘Unfortunately, there are some people who once wielded the power of veto, who resent the changes which have taken place despite the fact that employees have benefited. Some of these people are now cynically portraying their loss of influence as some sort of general movement by management to oppress the entire workforce.’
A high-profile disappearance
This kind of dire industrial relations, which had dogged the post-war British motor industry, did not augur well for the future. The workforce wouldn’t return until 27 April; four weeks’ later. The dispute cost Austin Rover 19,000 cars in lost production, including 9000 Maestros, worth more than £100m at showroom prices.
The Times reported a postscript to the dispute: ‘Mr Tom Gray, who was appointed 16 months ago to improve productivity at Cowley, has left Austin Rover for personal reasons. Mr Gray avoided the public eye as Cowley’s Director in charge of the body and assembly plants, but was quickly identified by the workers as the man behind the new style of management.
‘Cowley car workers achieved their best production figures for five and a half years last week, two weeks after the end of a strike which threatened the plant’s future.’ Unfortunately, the month-long dispute exposed Austin Rover as still having a rebellious and uncooperative workforce and sent the wrong message to prospective buyers.
Strong(ish) sales to start with
By mid-August 1983, the Maestro was now Britain’s sixth best-selling car, with total sales of 49,000. In fact, it had performed far better than the much-vaunted Mk2 Vauxhall Cavalier in its first six months, suggesting that a great future lay ahead for the Maestro. Indeed, during the first ten days of September 1983, the Maestro was Britain’s best-selling car. However, the honeymoon was not to last.
The Maestro failed to make the anticipated impact on the market that Austin Rover had hoped for. It was not that the public disliked the Maestro, it was just that they were not particularly excited by it and so, during the crucial first few months of its production, it failed to make the huge impact expected of it.
Why? Uncle Henry, with all its money, had the UK fleet car market sewn-up. This situation was simple: the company could appear unchallenged in the fleet sector by being able to sell their cars as cheaply as they wished. Austin Rover simply could not afford to ‘buy’ its market share in order to compete on these terms – and so was at an immediate cost-disadvantage.
Poor marketing doesn’t help
The other problem was, of course, the Austin Rover marketing machine, which on the surface still did not appear to understand properly how to sell cars. The message banged out by Harold Musgrove‘s company was one of pushing the company forward without really marketing the individual cars.
Messages such as, ‘Austin Rover – now we’re motoring’ were typical. This may have been an attempt to curry favour with the patriotic vote, making it a duty to buy these cars, but people had become less willing to give the company yet another break. Not only that, but Austin Rover did not really pitch the Maestro in the correct slot in the market place.
It was trying to sell the Maestro as a Sierra rival as well as an Escort rival, straddling two classes, but the result was that this ploy only managed to confuse potential customers, who saw the Maestro as neither fish nor fowl. To be fair to those in marketing, in this case, they were dictated to by upper management, and were given no choice in the matter. The company wanted to, ‘have their cake and eat it’, but in the end, it turned out to be a fundamental error, and one that the company was guilty of in the past – and would also prove to be guilty of in the future.
The image slides further
The Maestro, unfortunately, was also saddled with the image of unreliability that had come part and parcel of being a car built by BL. The early Maestros lived up to this reputation magnificently, suffering from slack build quality, which led to repeated carburettor maladies, build niggles and high-profile electronic problems.
The net result of this was that these teething problems managed to alienate fleet buyers, who had been stung in the past buying products of BL. If the fleet managers were jumpy, they would not buy the product and that would be a disastrous result in a market where two thirds of the cars sold were company cars.
MG Maestro gets a major upgrade
Austin Rover quickly knuckled down and commenced development work on both cars, turning them into what they should have been at launch. By Motor Show time in 1984, the 1.6-litre versions of the Maestro had received the Montego’s S-Series engine and, soon after, its much-improved dashboard.
The MG version was also up gunned from the twin-Weber carburetted 1600cc version, to the 2.0-litre fuel injected O-Series version it should have always been. The fact that, at launch, the weakest link in the Maestro range was the ‘hot hatchback’ version did hamper sales.
With this engine transplant now completed, the MG version was transformed from the troublesome ‘warm hatch’ 1600 into a viable Golf GTi rival in one fell swoop. Okay, the styling of the 2.0 EFi was never going to be called adventurous or exciting, but the strong and torquey engine, combined with the excellent chassis made for an interesting, honest and very down to earth car.
The performance figures achieved by Autocar magazine bear this out:
|MG 1600 Maestro
|MG Maestro EFi
The testers were impressed; reporting in their Autotest of the newer car, Autocar stated that, ‘performance, naturally enough, is much better; the EFi will reach 60mph in only 8.4 seconds, which only the Fiat Strada Abarth 130TC and Lancia Delta Turbo can better’ – and that the ‘revitalised MG Maestro is without doubt one of the most exciting packages on offer from Austin Rover.’ It was a commonly held belief that the MG Maestro 2.0 EFi was the car that should have been launched at the outset.
Car spotters should note that there was an S-Series twin carburettor version in the MG version, which replaced the R-Series version, but preceded the 2.0-litre version and was in production for a very short period of time. Its production amounted to a mere 2762.
Weak sales in 1985
In January 1986, the 1985 UK car sales figures were published. They made grim reading for Austin Rover. The fierce showrooms price war pushed new car sales in Britain to an all-time high that year. The Escort was most popular car of the year, and Ford commanded an overall share of 26%. Austin Rover trailed with 17% and Vauxhall was close behind with 16%. The number of imported cars, including Ford and Vauxhall cars made abroad, sold in Britain rose to 58%.
The Top 10 selling cars for 1985, were:
New car sales in Britain totalled 1,832,408, 4.7% up on 1984, and a further 2.0% more than 1983, the previous peak. Analysis of the list reveals that the Maestro was even outsold by the Ford Orion, the booted derivative of the Ford Escort. Total Montego production for 1985 was 95,874, a similar figure to that of the Morris Marina in 1979, when that model was eight years old and overdue for replacement.
Total Maestro production for 1985 was 88,849, a little more than the Allegro in 1978, when that model was five years old. And to produce the Maestros and Montegos, Austin Rover’s zeal in cutting out washing up time, tea breaks, togging up time and other long-standing employee rituals in an effort to squeeze the last few cars out of Cowley, had resulted in fractious industrial relations with trade unions accusing the company of bullying, intimidation and industrial slavery.
Further investment doesn’t follow
In the end, it was all for naught as fleet buyers turned their backs on the Cowley cars in an expanding market – the end result was that production had to be cut back in August 1985.
As time went on and it became clear that the LM10 and LM11 were still not making a profit, funds were not forthcoming to finance future model programmes. Sir Michael Edwardes‘ plan for the first generation of LM cars to finance the next generation had long since gone out of the window – Honda being called on as a joint partner in the development of the car.
But the lack of sales meant that all through this period, the company continued to make a loss, which exasperated the incumbent at Number 10.
The failed sale of Austin Rover
On 2 February 1986, opposition MP, Roy Hattersley, broke the news in Parliament that GM was in talks to buy Leyland Trucks and Land Rover, and it was also revealed shortly afterwards that Ford was negotiating to buy Austin Rover.
MPs of all parties condemned the move as unpatriotic and joined the then current anti-American business bandwagon. But to be fair to the Thatcher Government, it was faced with a dilemma, and the lack of market penetration by the Maestro and Montego was at the eye of the storm. The Government’s opponents could vent their spleen, but doing something positive was another matter altogether.
The Government could not force new car buyers to purchase an Austin Rover vehicle. Back in January 1982, Sir Michael Edwardes had told the media: ‘In 1983 we will be free-standing.’
Slow sales reflect an unfolding industrial tragedy
Events in 1985 revealed that was far from the case. In 1975, the Wilson-led Government had boasted of saving the British motor industry. Critics of the concept of nationalisation saw it as reinforcing failure, and the Maestro and Montego epitomised this argument.
How could BL get it so wrong – again? The Thatcher Government was faced with two choices: continue to pump money into Austin Rover, regardless of its financial and industrial performance, or privatise the business by selling it to an interested party.
There was already an alternative motor industry strategy in progress; that of persuading the Japanese automotive giants to set up in Britain as a way of circumventing European Union tariffs. Nissan began car production at Washington in 1986.
Ford walks out – goes on the attack
By February, the Ford buyout talks were discontinued, as the Government climbed down, but the Austin Rover problem would not go away. By April, Austin Rover Managing Director Mark Snowden was claiming that rumours over British Leyland’s future cost the Austin Rover car division almost £240 million in lost sales in the previous month alone.
According to him, up to 40,000 cars were left standing in the showroom when talks of a Ford takeover, confused buyers into thinking existing ranges would end.
Ray Horrocks also publicly criticised the Government for BL’s continuing problems, much to the delight of opposition politicians. The paradox was that Horrocks was disliked by the unions who saw him as the instigator of the company’s hard line industrial relations strategy.
Graham Day is appointed to ‘fix’ BL
In May, the Government took action and appointed Canadian, Graham Day, as Chairman of BL Ltd, replacing Sir Austin Bide, Sir Michael Edwardes’ nominee. Also out was Ray Horrocks, another Edwardes appointee. On 8 July, BL Ltd announced it was changing its name to Rover. Two days later, the Rover 800 was launched, the first ARG car styled by Roy Axe‘s team.
The Top 10 sales figures for July 1986, traditionally not the biggest month made more grim reading for Austin Rover.
1: Ford Escort 5088
2: Ford Sierra 4236
3: Austin Metro 2877
4: Vauxhall Astra 2429
5: Ford Fiesta 2379
6: Vauxhall Cavalier 2310
7: Ford Orion 1893
8: Austin Montego 1566
9: Austin Maestro 1324
10: Ford Granada 1210
On 15 September, Austin Rover announced expected half-year losses of £60m.
David Benson of the Daily Express wrote: ‘Austin Rover’s problems are twofold. It is operating in the toughest selling market since the war and its products – with the exception of the new Rover – already have a vintage feel which puts off new car buyers. The tough sales environment has meant that all manufacturers are offering huge incentives to enable dealers to meet sales targets. But these incentives cut in to profits.’
On 22 September, Graham Day fired Harold Musgrove and Mark Snowdon from Austin Rover. Harold Musgrove commented retrospectively on the Maestro and Montego, the cars that arguably sealed his fate: ‘Looking back I feel we should have said it just wasn’t good enough and stopped it. But I don’t think we had the luxury of that being a possibility and to be perfectly frank it was infinitely better than the Princess or Allegro. But in market research it never managed to come first in any category – top in nothing. If Roy Axe had been responsible for it from the beginning, it would have been an entirely different car.’
Market share falls to record low
There was more bad news for Rover in October when the September car sales were revealed. The company’s market share sank to 14.8% in September, which meant that Austin Rover’s stake in the record-breaking UK market had declined, by 2% to 16.2% in the opening nine months of 1986. And the market was still expanding.
Soon afterwards, the unions accepted a two-year pay deal without the rancour and confrontation that had accompanied previous negotiations. This suggested that Graham Day sought the genuine co-operation of the workforce in an effort to turn Rover into a niche manufacturer, with the emphasis on quality not quantity, and that abrasive management techniques were to be a thing of the past.
Certainly, a scan through the news archives suggest that the era of never-ending strikes was finally over. During 1986 the Rover Group as a whole lost a staggering £892 million, despite Graham Day’s re-organisation – but, as the Canadian commented at the time the results were made public, he wanted to throw everything ‘including the kitchen sink’ into these results.
BL improvements, product lags behind
In January 1987, the overall new car sales figures for 1986 were released and there was no respite in the misery for Rover. The full sales table showed Ford in first place with 27.38% of the market; Rover second, with 15.8%; General Motors third, with 15.1%; Nissan fourth, with 5.84%; and Peugeot/Talbot fifth, with 4.6%.
Rover’s share tumbled to 15.8% in 1986. This compared with the group’s 17.9% market share in 1985 and the 19% share anticipated by the company’s sales team.
Speaking to Andrew Cornelius of The Guardian on the same day the latest grim sales figures were released, Andy Barr, Austin Rover’s Director of Manufacturing Operations, said: ‘We’ve got capacity to build 750,000 cars a year and are selling only 450,000. That is the key question we have to address. We are all committed to making this business profitable… We have to hold our existing 450,000 sales and build from there.’
Rover capacity outstrips demand
A decade earlier, Leyland cars could not produce enough cars to meet demand because of strikes. Now, with the industrial relations issues by and large solved, the post of industrial relations officer had been abolished, Rover could not sell its cars in an expanding market.
Both the Maestro and Montego were a spent force sales wise and the Rover 800 could not fill the void. All this caused much speculation in the media that the Cowley South Works, the old Morris Motors plant would be closed. And there was also a question mark over the future of the AR6 supermini intended to replace the Metro and Mini. In the meantime, Rover had to make the best of what it had.
Maestro running changes for 1987
After extensive market research, it was found that the Maestro and Montego were saddled with an unfortunately pedestrian image, so the Marketing Department worked on producing more appealing cars.
The 1.3L Maestro and 1.6L and 2.0Si Montego were announced in 1987, resplendent with duotone paint that echoed the theme instigated by the Rover Sterling.
The marketing people focused on these models in an attempt to attract a more youthful clientele – one such advert featured a Montego 1.6L crashing through a showroom window in order to demonstrate just how quickly it got off the mark and how good its stereo was to a couple of sales rep-types. Kevin Morley and his team of marketing gurus went Yuppie chasing.
Out with Austin
At this time, they also realised that the Austin brand was a positive barrier to sales and so, to the disgust of the dealers, the company stopped badging the cars as such – all cars being called by their model names only.
The top 10 selling cars for the first six months of 1987 were:
1: Ford Escort (88,962)
2: Ford Fiesta (77,400)
3: Ford Sierra (67,771)
4: Austin Metro (57,316)
5: Vauxhall Cavalier (52,620)
6: Vauxhall Astra (42,996)
7: Ford Orion (34,683)
8: Austin Montego (30,696)
9: Rover 200 series (25,361)
10: Austin Maestro (23,025)
Kevin Morley, Marketing Director of Austin Rover, said: ‘We are poised for a significant breakthrough. The Metro, Maestro and Montego have all been given extra quality in their specification and our customers have seen this.’
Whether this is strictly true is open to debate, but what is significant is the progress of the Anglo-Japanese Rover 213/216, which had overhauled the Maestro.
A new owner: British Aerospace
On 30 March 1988, Rover was purchased lock, stock and barrel by British Aerospace. On 18 July, Rover then announced that car assembly at the Cowley South Works would be phased out between then and the early 1990s, affecting around 4000 jobs. The plant produced Montegos and Maestros. Rover had decided to concentrate production of small- and medium-range cars at Longbridge.
Once the switch had been made, only executive saloons would be made in Oxford, and they would roll off the lines of the Cowley North Works. Although it was expected and the workforce were the last to know, the axing of the former Morris Motors works was a symbolic body blow to the British motor industry. Only a quarter of a century before the plant had worked flat out to supply the world with Morris 1100s and now there were few takers for that car’s descendants.
In the event, both the Maestro and Montego appear to have lingered on longer than planned. In November 1988 The Guardian reported that an all-British replacement for the Montego, aimed at the fleet market had been axed at the behest of Chairman Graham Day. On 11 October 1989, the Rover R8 was launched as the next generation 200 Series, and at last the company’s long-suffering dealers had something competitive to sell in a marketplace, now dominated by Ford.
MG Maestro boosted…
- Read more: MG Maestro Turbo development story
Early in the life of the Maestro, Harold Musgrove had expressed concerns over the viability of a turbocharged version of the Maestro, believing that the extra complication would bring limited benefits. The company pushed ahead with the concept but chose the larger and heavier Montego as a vehicle for the forced-induction version in 1985. Initial problems with excessive torque steer that was so bad, that it overshadowed rest of the car, and limited the MG Montego Turbo’s appeal to enthusiasts.
The Chassis Engineers tamed this malady by 1987 – and the new management regime appreciated that as worthy as the Maestro EFi was, to compete with the newly emerging 16-valve rivals, the 152bhp Turbo engine would need to be drafted in. When the turbocharged MG Maestro was finally announced at the NEC Motor Show in 1988, it was as a limited run of 505 cars.
The MG Maestro Turbo was the last hurrah for the model, being pushed quite hard by the Marketing Department as a performance bargain (which it undoubtedly was, being remarkably quick – 0-60mph, 6.8 seconds, 128mph top speed), but again, in the image conscious 1980s, the styling of the Maestro was a positive turn off to GTi buyers, Tickford body kit or not.
At this time, development and marketing of the Maestro pretty much stopped in favour of the emergent Rover 200, as Day and his managers knew that it was dead in the water: by 1989, for example, it was down to nineteenth in the list of best-selling cars in the UK. This was a terrible performance for a domestically produced medium-sized hatchback, in only its sixth season – contrast that with the Allegro of a decade previously – in 1979, six years after its launch, it was still fifth in the sales charts…
The Maestro’s slow death
By 1990, as far as Maestro marketing was concerned, it was all over, as all the plush models in the range were dropped to make way for the new Rover 200. At this point, it could be said that the Austin brand was effectively dead, on life support until Montego and Maestro withered away – Rover was in the ascendancy and the new Honda-engineered 200 was showing all cars in its class the way home.
Of course, it is easy in hindsight to criticise the Maestro and the Montego for being dull, but they were both good cars in search of better styling and tightened build quality. The fact that they failed shows that the public would no longer blindly buy cars, simply by the fact that they were produced by the Midland company.
It is a shame, however, because as stated before, both cars were vastly better in relation to the competition, than the Allegro and Marina had been a decade previously.
The company did produce some desirable cars in the period of the Maestro and Montego, but they were all Honda-engineered and it is easy to see why Graham Day and George Simpson both beat a path to Honda’s door.
Rover stopped being an independent producer of volume cars as a direct consequence of the Maestro and Montego’s failure in the marketplace and the blame for this can only be laid at the feet of a logistical situation that prevented the company from thoroughly developing parallel programmes – and allowing the Maestro and Montego to endure an eight-year gestation.
Car failure costs its factory too
Also, their failure resulted in the demise of Cowley South Works, one of the traditional centres of British car manufacturing, a tragedy in itself. But who was to blame? We know that Alec Issigonis created the Mini and Spen King was the father of the Range Rover, but who was the mastermind behind the Maestro and Montego?
Was it Spen King and Gordon Bashford who conceived the basic layout? What part did Derek Whittaker, Managing Director of Leyland Cars, play in all this? How much direct involvement did Michael Edwardes and Ray Horrocks have?
We know that David Bache approved the styling at the expense of Harris Mann’s more modernist design. How much did Ray Bates and Joe Farnham contribute to the debacle? How culpable was Harold Musgrove in not effectively getting a grip on the design process, some of which appears to have resulted in a clash of egos and allowing a flawed car to reach the marketplace?
Conclusion: why did the Maestro fail?
It appears that the Maestro and Montego had many fathers, none of whom wanted to take direct responsibility for the resulting product. It was the archetypal car by committee so despised by Sir Alec Issigonis.
Perhaps it was always going to be a tall order to take on the American-owned giants in the fleet market, but the Cowley-built hatchback lacked serious private buyer appeal as well in the decade that Peugeot demonstrated how a company with a dowdy image could re-invigorate itself with stylish new cars the public wanted to buy.
It could be argued that the Maestro and Montego were the most significant British cars since the Mini – for all the wrong reasons. The future now lay in managed decline and Anglo-Japanese co-operation. The way the Honda-designed cars subsequently turned out would indicate that there was real talent in the company; it is a shame that they were not there to influence and accelerate the development of the Maestro and Montego.