Thirty years ago, Austin Rover Group unveiled the MG Maestro Turbo, which at launch was the fastest accelerating MG road car ever built.
David Morgan tells the story behind the development of this hot-hatch hero.
Maestro! The fastest MG
The 1988 British International Motor Show was a memorable event for our British marques. Alongside the stunning Jaguar XJ220 concept, there was the new Aston Martin Virage and third-generation Vauxhall Cavalier. Austin Rover Group (ARG), on the other hand, as Britain’s largest volume manufacturer, had no new metal to show but instead saw this event as an occasion to be confident about the future under new owners British Aerospace through its 1989 Model Year model line-up.
Bold new paint colours, including the company’s first ever pearlescent paint option, adorned the comprehensive line-up ranging from Mini to Rover 800 Series. Models such as the Metro and Montego were also given subtle cosmetic updates, taking inspiration from the more upmarket Rovers when it came to enhancing interior ambience and creating new badge designs for the front grille or bonnet. For those buyers wanting to express even greater individuality, the Body Styling Enhancement packs for the Montego saloon and Rover 800 Series which had been launched the previous year, were given a further airing.
However, it was the new MG Maestro Turbo – officially referred to as the Maestro MG Turbo – which was the most significant new model on Stand 207 inside the National Exhibition Centre (NEC). Before its unveiling, it seemed MG Enthusiast magazine had been the only publication to speculate about such a variant, running a short 242-word article about it in the August/September 1988 issue. The new model’s announcement therefore came as a surprise to many journalists due to it being widely speculated that the Maestro range was to be phased out in 1990, following the anticipated launch of the new R8 generation Rover 200 Series in October 1989. As we all know the Maestro would actually live on until the end of 1994.
Concept Design takes the idea forward
The idea of fitting the 150bhp turbo-charged 2.0-litre O-Series engine into the MG Maestro (above) was nothing new. Indeed, as the December 1988 issue of the ARG dealer’s magazine Newslink confirmed, ‘Prototypes of a non-intercooled Maestro Turbo were tested in the early 1980s, but were not proceeded with because of a need at that time to balance engineering and manufacturing resources against potential commercial benefits’.
In spring 1985, the idea of a turbocharged MG Maestro was also aired by MG Enthusiast magazine when interviewing ARG’s Chairman, Harold Musgrove. Musgrove is reported to have been less than enthusiastic about the idea and even cited reasons such as inadequate braking to stop it and the complexity of fitting the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine into the Maestro’s engine bay, as reasons not to pursue such a project. It would not be until after Musgrove had left the company in September 1986 that the project would be given serious consideration.
The inspiration behind taking the project forward came from Richard Hamblin, Director of Austin Rover Group’s Concept Design Department. At the time ARG’s Design Studios comprised of Current Design and Concept Design. Whereas Current Design concentrated on current and immediate mainline replacement models, Concept Design investigated concepts for future models and possible new derivatives for existing models (e.g. performance variants, Coupes and Cabriolets, etc.). In addition, all Colour and Trim programmes and Limited Edition variants were developed by Concept Design, often in response to a marketing brief. The team’s work in developing Limited Edition variants also saw them venturing into the extreme of designing Body Styling Enhancement packs for a number of models.
Styling the MG Maestro Turbo concept
The Concept Design Studio management team comprised of Derek Anderson as Feasibility Engineering Manager; Graham Lewis, Design Manager; Vic Horner, Modelling Manager; Martin Peach, Colour and Trim Manager; and Don White, Body Styling Enhancement Development Manager, who liaised with outside suppliers. The rest of the team consisted of four Design Engineers, six Designers and eight Clay Modellers.
Richard Hamblin first requested his Designers to produce sketches for the MG Maestro Turbo variant in early 1987. ARG had demonstrated that it could offer low-volume Body Styling Enhancement packs through outsourcing their manufacturing to specialist companies such as Wood and Pickett and Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) – it was therefore understandable that ARG’s Designers wanted to give the MG Maestro Turbo a similarly dramatic profile by designing an exclusive Body Styling Enhancement pack for it. This would comprise of more aggressive looking bumpers with mock side air intakes and Lucas auxiliary driving lamps in the front bumper, full length sill skirts and a rear spoiler to sit above the windscreen.
Despite the immediate image benefits such specialist projects can deliver to a company’s product range, they can cause considerable problems to mainline engineering and production, as well as risk being seen as either unnecessary, disruptive or a potential threat. The MG Maestro Turbo project therefore required Concept Design to step carefully, yet push hard, to achieve the intended goal. It was not until later on that year that Concept Design gained support from ARG’s top management to develop the ideas into feasible concepts and produce Three-Dimensional clay models.
Testing new ideas and engineering prototypes
From the 3D clay models moulds were taken while a number of cars were measured to gain a good fit of the parts for the production cars. This was followed by a static display example being built by the Prototype Department at Canley. This completed example finished in Pulsar Silver metallic was photographed in the viewing garden outside the main Design Studio in January 1988. At this stage it differed from the final production design by having a single unbroken red insert in the front bumper and a removable tow eye cover.
The design prototype car also featured a unique ‘telephone dial’ alloy wheel design which was one of a number of different road wheel designs in development at that time in the Design Studio. This wheel design ultimately did not make it into production for the MG Maestro Turbo or any other ARG model. However, the design prototype car did showcase a number of features that were also earmarked for the 1989 Model Year specification MG Maestro 2.0i. These comprised of colour-coded side rubbing strips and bumper insert strips, rear sill trim treatment and a rear spoiler and strakes.
A formal Concept Approval meeting with the ARG board took place in March 1988, followed by a further display two months later to all relevant departments which included product planning, marketing and costing.
In the meantime, early engineering prototypes based on numerous stock MG Maestro EFis fitted with the turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-litre O-Series engine and brakes from the MG Montego Turbo were continuing to be evaluated.
One of these was a 1987 Model Year MG Maestro EFi finished in Moonraker Blue metallic and registered on 25 June 1987 as D786 POF (below). Built by the Prototype Build department at Canley, this example was a fairly faithful representation of the final engineering specification that would follow in the production cars.
Recent photos of this surviving example confirm that an additional spoiler sitting on top of the tailgate was being considered, together with colour-coding to the front and rear spoilers.
With the development work for the turbocharged 2.0-litre O-Series engine having already been completed as part of the MG Montego Turbo’s development programme in 1985, the MG Maestro Turbo’s modest development budget would predominantly be used for confirming the design and operational requirements of the Body Styling Enhancement pack.
The role of Tickford
With there being little to no-capacity in-house to progress the project for a speedy introduction, Richard Hamblin arranged to meet with Aston Martin Tickford’s Managing Director John Thurston and his right-hand man, David Burnicle. This was to consider Tickford as a potential outside supplier to manage the complete project under contract, based on them having sufficient engine knowledge, overall engineering ability and the capability to produce short run, low volume Body Styling Enhancement mouldings.
Tickford was already well known for managing development and test programmes on behalf of other manufacturers, particularly for Ford with very high performance derivatives such as the Sierra RS500 Cosworth. Tickford had also been responsible for developing and managing the Capri Tickford Turbo (below) which came with its own special Body Styling Enhancement package.
Between January and June 1988 there would be numerous meetings between ARG representatives and Tickford. Don White, Body Styling Enhancement Development Manager within ARG’s Concept Design Department, was the liaison between the two parties and ARG’s Engineering and Production Departments.
Following the completion of a suitable tender procedure, Tickford was awarded the contract to complete the MG Maestro Turbo’s engineering design, development and test programme at its Milton Keynes facility. The contract to manufacture its Body Styling Enhancement package would actually be completed by a sub-contractor on behalf of Tickford, with a Moonraker Blue MG Maestro EFi being used by Tickford to trial fit it.
Show-stopper: Building ‘No. 1’
The first complete MG Maestro Turbo – referred to as ‘No. 1’ in Tickford’s production records – was originally built as an MG 2.0i and its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) suggests that it left the Cowley assembly line sometime during July or early August 1988. Details of how it was transformed into the 1988 British Motor Show display car have not be documented, although it is likely that it was handled by the Prototype Build Department at Canley.
The build process would have likely seen it being prepared to a ‘Category 2’ standard of finish where special attention was paid to its manufacture during all stages of its build process. This would have included hand-spraying the body in the new Flame Red colour and extra attention being paid to the consistency of panel fit and ancillary components under the bonnet, not to mention final rectification and polishing. It would have been at this point rather than on the assembly line that it would have been fitted with a turbocharged O-Series engine. The new Body Styling Enhancement pack was also fitted at Canley rather than by Tickford.
In late September or early October this vehicle was then transported to the National Exhibition Centre to be photographed by the centre’s lake for the official press photo. It now wore the production approved version of the new 15-inch multi-spoke alloy wheel design. Meanwhile, across the bottoms of the doors, it displayed outline ‘turbo’ decals. A ‘turbo’ decal was also fitted onto the tailgate which was aligned with the bottom edge of the display number plate rather than mounted centrally between the top and bottom, as found on later built examples.
On the inside, the Motor Show display car (above) featured the Flint Grey-coloured sculptured velvet and plain velour seat facing design that would also be offered on the 1989 Model Year MG Maestro 2.0i. This seat facings design had been introduced on the MG Montego Turbo two years previously and featured a red diagonal stripe on the backrests, with the front seats’ backrest also having a heat-applied red MG motif. However, unlike on the Montego, the MG Maestro Turbo would have vinyl backs for the front seats rather than cloth and no map pockets. Instead, it would be completed with red piping to the edges of the head restraints and seat centre cushions.
Prior to its unveiling at the NEC, the Motor Show car would also be photographed in a studio for the initial sales literature to be released over the coming months.
The MG Maestro Turbo was officially announced on Tuesday, 18 October – Press Day of the British International Motor Show – with journalists being issued with a one-page press release and photograph. It would serve as one of ARG’s main new product display cars in Hall 2 of the NEC and was parked alongside a Metro Sport finished in White Diamond and an MG Montego Turbo finished in British Racing Green metallic. Unlike some of the other new model variants being revealed, this very high performance derivative for the Maestro range was intended for sale in the home market only.
The devil’s in the detail: Trim and identity changes for ‘No. 1’
After the British International Motor Show had closed its doors 12 days later, the project underwent a further review. For reasons unknown, the seat facings design would be revised, with the production-approved design now featuring Flint Grey woven piping and seat backs finished in cloth rather than vinyl. The Motor Show car would be the only example of the MG Maestro Turbo to feature the red piping.
However, this pre-production seat facings design had also been previewed on a British Racing Green metallic MG Maestro 2.0i displayed on an additional ARG trade stand located outside the NEC’s main entrance. The revised production design for the MG Turbo would therefore also feature on the MG 2.0i variant as well.
The Motor Show car (No. 1) was initially retained by the company and for reasons unknown not registered until over two years later. Prior to an application to first register it, No. 1 would have been allocated the correct Vehicle Identification Number prefix for a Maestro MG Turbo. By this time it would also have been fitted with the production specification seats to enable it to be in a sales condition. It was formally registered in November 1990 and used under the Management Car Plan scheme until it was sold off in either 1991 or early 1992, in line with the company’s policy on how long they retained company registered vehicles for.
Special Designation Vehicles
The next cars to be built after the Motor Show car were the four Special Designation Vehicles to be used as press demonstration vehicles – one in each of the four colours earmarked for the 1989 Model Year MG Maestros. These would be registered on consecutive registrations from F996 – F999 RHP.
Maestro production records confirm that the first of the Press cars to come ‘off assembly’ was the British Racing Green metallic example, to be registered as F999 RHP, which left the Cowley production line on 16 December 1988. This was followed by the Flame Red example (F997 RHP) three days later. On Tuesday, 20 December the Black example (F996 RHP) left the assembly line, followed later on that day by the White Diamond example (F998 RHP). These four cars would then be transported to Tickford’s specialist vehicle production centre in Bedworth on 6 January 1989 to be fitted with their Body Styling Enhancement packs, ‘MG’ and ‘turbo’ graphics and a modified exhaust system.
Tickford allocated an individual production number for each car on its own job record sheets. Each production number was based more on the order Tickford received or handled each vehicle rather than simply harmonising with the chronological ascension of the VINs. This rather arbitrary methodology meant that the White Diamond example was actually Tickford number two, the British Racing Green example number three, Flame Red was number four and Black as number five.
Preparing for the MG Maestro Turbo sales launch
Early publicity in the form of an A4 sales brochure which opened up to reveal an A2-sized side profile of the Motor Show car on one side, was issued from late December 1988. The accompanying letter issued by Customer and Dealer Relations revealed that the MG Maestro Turbo would have a retail price of £12,999 and also listed the four available colours. The official price list dated 1 January 1989 confirmed that Black solid-finish and British Racing Green metallic paint were the only two extra cost options available and cost £106 and £149 respectively.
However, none of the press release or sales material confirmed the fact the MG Maestro Turbo was a limited production model. The main two-page press release dated 22 March 1989 revealed its performance credentials, equipment levels, and the four available colours, which were now listed in their order of production frequency. It also referred to the involvement of Tickford in the final assembly process and that the car was ‘now available to special order’. Reference to just 500 examples initially being built was actually first suggested in the December 1988/January 1989 issue of MG Enthusiast magazine and then in the edition of Auto Express dated 31 March 1989.
The reason why a production number wasn’t confirmed was because ARG initially planned to complete 500 examples, but at the same time they also wanted the freedom to extend this number should there have been a higher level of demand.
Supporting the March 1989 press release from ARG and a supplementary two-page press release issued by Impact Public Relations on behalf of Tickford, was a press photo featuring a Flame Red example. Registered as F121 AOP (above), this particular car had arrived at Tickford’s specialist vehicle production centre during the third week in February and was recorded as Tickford number 48. It was registered on 13 March 1989 and within those first few days was driven by Richard Walbyoff, an Engineering Technician in the Press Garage, along the A46 dual carriageway between Coventry and Warwick to be photographed for the official ‘moving’ press photo. Kevin Jones, a Product Communications Executive in ARG’s Press Office at that time, remembers driving a Rover 800 containing the photographer.
Contrary to popular belief, this particular example wasn’t a Press demo car but instead was one used by someone working in Sales and Marketing.
Shortly after the press release announcing the MG Maestro Turbo’s on-sale details, ARG dealers would be able to take delivery of production examples. However, unlike for the MG Maestro 2.0i, dealers were discouraged from ordering the MG Turbo as a dealer demonstrator. Instead, examples were purchased based on a confirmed order from a customer or as a showroom display car. In reality it was predominantly main dealers such as Douglas Grahams of West London and Wadham Stringer who had an example on display in their showrooms.
MG Maestro Turbo: Impressing the motoring press?
The four official Press demo cars were registered on 2 March 1989 and would be available for the motoring press to use from early April. The two most frequently used examples were F997 RHP and F999 RHP, probably due to their respective new exterior colours being more favourable for the photographic requirements of print publications.
Early road tests were rather mixed, with all publications being impressed by the MG’s performance. Independent performance trials by Autocar, Fast Lane and Performance Car managed to achieve its claimed top speed of 128mph.
The first magazine to test the MG Maestro Turbo was Performance Car. Using the press demo example F997 RHP, Road Test Editor John Simister took its performance figures at Millbrook Proving Ground using Flowtronic testing equipment driven by a transducer attached to a rear wheel. Here, he managed to record a two-way average of 6.8 seconds for the 0-60mph time.
CAR Magazine later recorded a 0-60mph acceleration time of 6.6 seconds against the official time of 6.7 seconds when using the press demo example F999 RHP (below).
While road testers had no complaints about the MG’s performance, which in terms of acceleration was quicker than its rivals, they were more critical of its driving dynamics under hard acceleration and during cornering, not to mention the like-it-or-loathe-it body styling.
A number of the road tests saw the MG Maestro Turbo being pitched against similar priced offerings from other manufacturers. For example, in the issue of Autocar & Motor dated 10 May 1989 (right), the MG was up against the Peugeot 309 GTi. CAR Magazine decided to concentrate on two closely matched rivals in the form of the Ford Escort RS Turbo and Vauxhall Astra GTE 16v. In the November 1989 issue of Fast Lane magazine, the pride of Cowley was not only up against the Vauxhall Astra GTE 16v again but also some continental opposition in the form of the Citroen BX 16 Valve, Mitsubishi Colt Lancer GTi-16v and Volkswagen Golf GTi 16-valve.
Press coverage even extended to a road-test by the motoring programme Top Gear where the White Diamond example (F998 RHP) was driven by Chris Goffey in rural (and rather wet!) Wales in a comparison test with a Vauxhall Astra GTE 16v. It was aired on 2 May 1989 under a central theme for the programme about whether performance cars were becoming too fast. Naturally, its performance was well liked although criticism was aired at its fuel economy, retail price and the familiar comment of the poor placement of some of the switchgear, which applied to all Maestros.
Sales are given a ‘boost’
May 1989 saw the on-the-road price for the MG Maestro Turbo increase to £13,259. By now the car was being advertised in various local and national print publications using the ‘Faster than a Ferrari, a Porsche, a Lamborghini, a Lotus, an Aston...’ advertisement. This headline had been created by using manufacturers’ quoted 0-60mph acceleration figures published in What Car? Magazine as well as from an independent road test for the Porsche 944 carried out by the same publication.
Meanwhile, a new image of the interior was also introduced into the Today’s Cars sales brochure from June. This replaced the original image featuring the interior of the Motor Show car which had the red seat edge piping and vinyl seat backs not found on production examples.
Publicity for the MG Maestro Turbo would be given a further ‘boost’, albeit from the confectionary industry, when an animated image of a British Racing Green example would feature alongside other cars in a television advert produced by Hibbert Ralph Animation for Cadbury’s Boost chocolate bar.
By the late spring of 1989, production of the MG Maestro Turbo had reached its peak, with examples remaining with Tickford for between two and fourteen days. The last batch of cars was delivered to Tickford’s specialist vehicle preparation centre in the final week of November 1989, making up the remainder of 500 production cars that had been built for customer purchase. The Tickford build records confirm that 215 examples had been finished in Flame Red, 149 in British Racing Green metallic, 92 in White Diamond and 49 in Black.
Approximately 30% of the production cars had been registered before August 1989, with those purchased from that month onwards commanding a revised on-the-road price list of £13,610.
Twelve months after going on sale there was still a healthy supply of unsold examples. By now the MG Maestro Turbo was no longer commanding major editorial coverage compared to Rover Cars’ latest star, the R8 generation Rover 200 and 400 Series. Its retail price had increased to £13,995 and the imagery in the Today’s Cars sales brochure now featured a White Diamond example set in an outdoor location. The same had also been used in Rover Cars’ corporate magazine Catalyst and displayed its actual registration number, G358 HOH.
By the end of July 1990, there were approximately 60 unregistered examples left. Even though production had ended eight months previously, the extra cost option of black paint had crept up to £120 and British Racing Green metallic to £190. Rover Cars was also offering the MG Maestro Turbo with a new extra option in the form of a higher specification Philips R682 radio/cassette with Radio Data System. This cost £125 to upgrade over the standard R681 radio/cassette and would have been fitted by the supplying dealer.
The final price list with an entry for the MG Maestro Turbo was dated 1 April 1991 and it showed that its on-the-road price had risen to £14,299.24, even though the actual number of unregistered examples at this point was likely to have been down into single figures!
Conclusion: was the MG Maestro Turbo a success?
Looking back on that interesting period in Austin Rover Group’s history, the MG Maestro Turbo showed how to deliver an exciting new performance variant within a small time scale and on a small budget. The project also successfully harnessed the skills of an external contractor such as Tickford in its development and final assembly, while also delivering image enhancement for the company and its products.
At a deeper level, Richard Hamblin points out that, with the MG Maestro Turbo having one of the lowest cost-to-maximum-benefit programmes achieved by ARG, it would have an influential part in the formation of the Rover Special Projects (RSP) division. The remit of RSP was to conceive and develop concepts for potentially new derivatives which usually had a higher level of engineering differentiation, whether it be powertrain or body design, over the mainline variants.
Concepts which continued to have a relatively short gestation period and a modest cost-to-maximum-benefit ratio, yet were still able to further enrich the respective brands within the Rover Group included the 1990 Mini Cooper, MGR V8, Range Rover CSK and Rover 200 Cabriolet.
The potential afterlife…
Beyond the MG Maestro Turbo project, Richard Hamblin was keen for Concept Design to find a way to re-introduce a new two-seater MG sports car to the range, and considered the MG Maestro Turbo as one of a number of options for a suitable base vehicle.
He commissioned three running test mules to be built: one of which was a front-wheel-drive MG Maestro Turbo-based car (PR1); the second a Metro-based mid-engined car (PR3); and thirdly a backbone chassis rear-wheel-drive car (PR2). History has shown that the Metro-based route was ultimately chosen, even though it was subsequently completely re-engineered as it became a mainline project, thus losing the low cost development approach.
A sports car body on MG Maestro Turbo-based underpinnings and running gear was considered to be the easiest route to get into production which, unlike the Metro-based proposal, did not raise concerns by Concept Design about being underpowered. However, a general love of the driving qualities of the mid-engined Metro-based route, the concern that a sports car should be rear-wheel drive and the potential discontinuation of the Maestro platform, were the main reasons why the Maestro route was eventually dropped, in favour of the Metro route.
In more recent times, there has been a growing appreciation for the MG Maestro Turbo in the motoring press. In the Channel 5 motoring programme The Cars That Made Britain Great, the MG Maestro Turbo appeared in Episode Six (aired on 7 October 2016) which reviewed some of the fastest cars produced. While the debate on this car’s qualities did not receive praise from guest presenters such as Vicki Butler-Henderson, Jon Culshaw or Phil Tufnell, there was more obvious enthusiasm from Tim Shaw and Jonny Smith.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, Autocar magazine for the issue dated 18 January selected it as one of their 30 hot hatches of all time. They concluded that ‘It shouldn’t have worked out and yet… it was faster than most rivals and handled surprisingly well. It turns out they’d [Austin Rover Group] saved the best [Maestro] for last.’
All of which confirms that, 30 years on from its unveiling, the MG Maestro Turbo continues to attract interest from a legion of enthusiasts who see it as the ultimate composition for the Maestro, while at the same time still remaining an impressively quick car.
Thanks to the following individuals for all their assistance with this article: Kim Burdon, John Dalton, Ian Elliott, Richard Hamblin, Jerry Hibbert, Kevin Jones, Roger Parker, John Simister and Richard Walbyoff.