The cars : MG Maestro Turbo development story

Launched at the 1988 British International Motor Show, the MG Maestro Turbo became the fastest accelerating front-wheel-drive MG saloon ever built.

David Morgan tells the updated and painstakingly researched story behind the development of this hot hatch hero.

Maestro! The fastest MG

MG Maestro Turbo

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.

But it was the new MG Maestro Turbo – officially referred to as the Maestro MG Turbo – that was the most significant new model on Stand 207 inside the National Exhibition Centre (NEC). Before its unveiling it seemed that 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. Therefore, its announcement 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. However, 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 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 turbo-charged 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 revisited and given serious consideration.

The inspiration behind taking the project forward came from Richard Hamblin, Director of Austin Rover Group’s Concept Design. At the time ARG’s Advanced Design Studio at Canley 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.

Maestro BODY ENHANCMENT

Styling the MG Maestro Turbo concept

The Concept Design team management team comprised of Derek Anderson as Feasibility Engineering Manager; Graham Lewis, Design Manager; Vic Horner, Modelling Manager; Terry Horner, Studio Engineering 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.

ARG had demonstrated that it could offer low volume Body Styling Enhancement packs through outsourcing their manufacturing to specialist companies such as Wood & Pickett and Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR). Therefore, it was understandable that ARG’s Designers would want to give the MG Maestro Turbo a similarly dramatic profile by designing an exclusive Body Styling Enhancement pack for it.

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.

Richard Hamblin assigned David Saddington the task of producing sketches for the MG Maestro Turbo variant in 1987. David was one of the team of Designers in the Advanced Design Studio and recalls it being a small studio in which it was possible to build up a great team spirit. Corresponding with the author in January 2023, he said: ‘My overarching memory is of a studio that was confusing – fast moving, constantly changing organisationally, and somewhat chaotic. Having said that, us Designers were having a lot of fun, working on a huge mix and variety of projects.’

David believes the initial plan for the Body Styling Enhancement (BSE) pack he had created was to also offer it as a dealer fit option to be made available on all Maestro model derivatives, in tandem with similar packages created for the Montego saloon and Rover 800 Series. However, this remit quickly changed and it became reserved for the MG Turbo project; something he admits to being very glad about. As he freely admits: ‘The thought of all that extra ‘body depth’ being fitted to a ‘boggo’ Maestro on 13-inch wheels? Ugh!’

Speaking about the challenges of working with the Maestro as the base car, he said: ‘The existing MG version always looked the best, mainly because it had the largest wheels and tyres. Therefore, the biggest challenge was to try and ensure that the MG Turbo variant would have even bigger “boots”, giving the best “wheel to body relationship”.’

‘We then had to ensure the MG Turbo stood out from the rest of the [Maestro] range. This became relatively easy once it was agreed that it would have unique front and rear bumpers. We made these as deep as possible, to give the impression that the MG Turbo was lower to the ground, making it look as though it would corner flatter. These, of course, had to be matched with the new deeper sill mouldings.’

The result was a BSE pack comprising of more aggressive looking bumpers with mock side air intakes and Lucas auxiliary driving lamps in the front bumper and an extended valance treatment for the rear bumper. Completing the transformation were full length sill skirts and a rear spoiler to sit above the windscreen to give the impression that the MG Maestro Turbo had a lower stance, even though its ride height would be unchanged over that of the regular MG 2.0i variant.

Team Concept

From clay model to production specification

The first rendition for the front bumper design featured a single unbroken insert strip which ran above the number plate, while the lower section of the bumper below the air intake featured a slight protrusion and a removable tow eye cover. In addition, the horizontal feature line in the lower part of the bumper did not extend to the central air intake’s sides.  These features were all incorporated into the clay model’s BSE pack for its initial review, with the model-making team being led by Michael Wilkes and Graham Allcock.

The clay model was built as a static display example by the Prototype Department at Canley and was photographed in the viewing garden outside the Advanced Design Studio in January 1988. The photograph shows that it 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 Advanced Design Studio. This wheel design ultimately did not make it into production for the MG Maestro Turbo nor for any other ARG model.

The clay model also showcased a number of features that were also earmarked for the 1989 Model Year MG Maestro 2.0i. These comprised of a colour-coded tailgate spoiler with strakes and rubbing strip mouldings with a contrasting insert for the body sides and bumpers. Finished in Pulsar Silver metallic, it certainly looked dramatic compared to the existing production model variants in the Maestro’s line-up.

As David Saddington explained: ‘We always painted our design models in silver for three main reasons. Firstly, it’s a neutral colour, so it is very rare any senior managers from other departments would accidently hate your work because they hated the colour. Secondly, if you needed a competitor’s car, you could guarantee being able to find one in silver. Finally, and most importantly, silver is the best colour for a Designer to assess their own work, as lines show clearly and form is illustrated beautifully in the light and dark shades that one gets with the metallic.’

Following a review of the clay model with Richard Hamblin, David agreed the next round of refinements with the modelling team. This included working out the front bumper’s removable towing eye cover, as there had initially been a need for this to be removable. However, when David returned to the studio the next day ready to start the next phase of clay modelling work, the clay model had already been given the okay for production and removed for measurement and release.

When asked whether he was annoyed by this, he said: ‘Well, for a few years after, when seeing a Turbo on the road, I was miffed that my “dream level of perfection” wasn’t achieved. But you know what, they look great, don’t they? And… back in the day, I was able to get the MG Maestro Turbo out of the Advanced Design Studio and then move onto the next exciting project!’

David recalls the programme had quick timings, admitting that he would have liked to have spent more time easing the surfaces away from around the front auxiliary lamps so that they weren’t surrounded so closely. This is because the slightest misalignment of the lights in their tight surround became very obvious. Despite this, during the delivery phase there had been other improvements to the profile of the front bumper which now featured a two-piece insert in a contrasting colour, the lower horizontal feature line extending into the sides of the air intake and the discontinuation of the tow eye cover.

The idea for the distinctive ‘turbo’ graphics on the lower sections of the doors was initially created as a quick sketch by David and was influenced by various graphic designs being unleashed by other manufacturers at that time. It was Graphics Designer Colin Parsons who then further developed and refined the three-dimensional design, although he recalls that it was taken out of his hands at a very early stage in the process. Presumably, its progress for production was completed by someone working in Martin Peach’s colour and trim team.

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.

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.

MG Maestro Turbo prototype

One of the official development cars that still survives to this day is a 1987 Model Year MG Maestro EFi finished in Moonraker Blue metallic and registered on 25 June 1987 as D786 POF. Built by the Prototype Build department at Canley, this example was a fairly faithful representation of the final engineering specification, including its turbocharged O-Series engine, that would follow in the production cars. 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 stock front and rear spoilers that would be introduced on the 1989 Model Year MG 2.0i model variant.

The development work for the turbocharged 2.0-litre O-Series engine had already been completed as part of the MG Montego Turbo’s development programme for its launch in spring 1985. The MG Maestro Turbo would utilise the current LM11 Turbo spec engine whereas the 1989 Model Year Montego Turbo would receive the new ‘ERIC’ engine management system. Therefore, 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

ARG found that they had little to no capacity in-house to progress the project for a speedy introduction. Nor could they accommodate all the requirements of this project as part of the mainline assembly process. Richard Hamblin therefore 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 manage the sub-contracting of short run, low volume Body Styling Enhancement mouldings.

Tickford could offer a number of advantages compared to keeping a project in-house. This included delivering the project in half the time and for a greatly reduced cost, hence why they were often approached by other automotive manufacturers who did not have this level of agility. The company’s reputation for managing development and test programmes on behalf of other manufacturers included clients such as Jaguar Cars with the XJS-C cabriolet project and Ford with very high performance derivatives such as the Ford Sierra RS500 Cosworth. Tickford had also been responsible for developing and managing the Capri Tickford Turbo which also came with its own special BSE pack.

Peter Arnold was a Chassis Engineer at Tickford who became the company’s Project Manager for the MG Maestro Turbo. He recalls that representatives from Tickford were called over to ARG’s Cowley assembly plant who wanted to discuss a high-performance vehicle to compete against other established high performance hot-hatches, namely the Ford Escort RS Turbo and Volkswagen Golf GTi 16V.

Speaking to the author in November 2022, he said: ‘The first problem Austin Rover’s Engineers had identified was that something on the upper part of the Montego’s turbocharged engine package fouled the Maestro Body-in-White engine bay. Changing the Body-in-White to accommodate this would cost a fortune, so this was out of the question.’

He continued: ‘Installing the turbocharged engine was considered a major engineering problem, so I suggested that Tickford could modify examples of the standard cross-member Austin Rover made in-house. Once we had completed the modifications for Austin Rover, we would then return them to Cowley for their assembly line workers to weld into Maestro bodyshells already identified at the Body in White stage as an MG Turbo. This would deliver enough clearance for the engine package to be successfully accommodated.

‘I advised Austin Rover’s Engineers that Tickford could modify, say, up to 20 cross-members a week, which helped us gain the contract of working on the MG Maestro Turbo project in a number of different areas, including final assembly at our Bedworth facility.’

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.

Tickford’s ability to manage development and test programmes for other automotive manufacturers often saw their Engineers driving test vehicles hard for three shifts a day, covering between 600 and 700 miles a day to see if they would break. This test work was carried out on a combination of road circuits in Cheltenham and on test tracks such as the Millbrook Proving Ground. However, Peter Arnold does not recall Tickford carrying out this aspect of the MG Maestro Turbo’s test programme. Presumably, ARG’s Engineers had opted to retain this aspect of the MG’s development programme in-house.

The special vehicle production centre at Bedworth

Following the completion of a suitable tender procedure, Tickford was then awarded the contract to complete the MG Maestro Turbo’s engineering design, development and test programme at its special vehicle production facility at Bedworth in Coventry. The contract to manufacture its Body Styling Enhancement pack 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.

At the Bedworth facility, originally the Coventry Hood factory, Tickford was able to complete partially built cars for other manufacturers. Brian Tennant was the Production Manager and recalls that it was a busy time. Speaking to the author in February 2023, he said: ‘In one building we were completing a major interior retrimming contract for the Ford Orion 1600E whose production had suddenly been increased by Ford from the initial 1000 examples to 1500, as well as making hoods and soft trim for other companies.’

He added: ‘The MG Maestro Turbo was a small programme for Tickford, more of an engineering project than a production project in comparison to what we had previously handled, so was fairly straightforward to undertake. Therefore, the completing of its assembly took place on a mini production line in a corner of the second building alongside the remnants of the Ford RS200 programme as well as the Tickford Capri Turbo.’

Despite being seen as having an important halo effect for the Maestro and ARG range in general, Peter Arnold admits that he felt the MG Maestro Turbo was pretty average when signed off. He said: ‘The quality of the car was still on the low side, while I personally felt the ‘turbo’ graphics on the body’s sides looked ridiculous. The car’s brakes and suspension were definitely its weak point.’

He added: ‘While the MG Maestro Turbo was not considered particularly special within Tickford compared to other high performance projects we had previously worked on, my fellow colleagues and I were, nevertheless, pleased with what we had done on the project.’

Show-stopper: Building ‘No. 1’

MG Maestro Turbo

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 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 Pendigo Lake for the official press photo (above). It now wore the production approved version of the new 15-inch multi-spoke alloy wheel design which was the biggest wheel size offered on a Maestro variant. 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 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.

The only obvious trim-related difference separating the MG Maestro Turbo from its MG 2.0i sister was the speedometer which went up to ‘150MPH’ and was a carryover part from the MG Montego Turbo. Equipment wise, it would feature electric front windows and power-assisted steering as standard, which would continue to be optional extras on the MG 2.0i.

The big reveal 

MG Maestro Turbo motor show car

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.

Supporting the new MG Maestro Turbo’s announcement were representatives from Tickford. As Peter Arnold explained: ‘Tickford continued to support the manufacturers we had worked for after a specific project had finished, so we had an official presence at the 1988 British International Motor Show where the car was unveiled.’ Peter recalls attending this event in an official capacity in relation to this project.

The British International Motor Show undoubtedly had plenty of new metal to attract attention from journalists writing their motor show reports, although that didn’t stop this very high performance MG from being featured in the BBC’s Top Gear Motor Show Special. Top Gear presenter Chris Goffey provided the brief coverage, with the programme being broadcast two days after Press Day.

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. In addition, the Motor Show car would also be photographed for the initial sales literature to be released over the coming months. This took place at Hayden’s Place Studio, off Portobello Road, which at the time was one of the best car photographic studios in London.

For reasons unknown, a few minor trim-related changes were made which would feature on the four Special Designation Vehicles to follow and the production cars. The seats’ facings design was revised, with the production-approved version 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.

Interestingly, 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. Therefore, the revised production design for the MG Turbo would also feature on the MG 2.0i model 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 to 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 demo cars to come ‘off assembly’ was the British Racing Green metallic example, to be registered as F999 RHP (below), 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 pack, ‘MG’ and ‘turbo’ graphics and a modified exhaust system.

Tickford allocated an individual production number for each car on its own job record sheets. There was no specific process in place in terms of how each car was assigned a Tickford production number/job number, hence why they did not always harmonise with the chronological ascension of the VINs. This rather arbitrary methodology meant that the White Diamond example was actually assigned as Tickford number two, the British Racing Green example number three, Flame Red was number four and Black as number five.

Preparing for the sales launch

Early publicity in the form of an A4 sales brochure (Publication No 4020) 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 supply incidence. 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 being built had actually been first suggested in the December 1988/January 1989 issue of MG Enthusiast magazine and then in 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. This would perhaps also explain why, according to Roger Parker, who became the custodian of the Tickford build records after all the cars had been completed, the contract for manufacturing the BSE packs required 1,500 to be produced before the moulds were either returned to ARG or destroyed. It would possibly also be the reason behind why there had been no plans to issue each vehicle with its own individually numbered plaque.

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. 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 as F121 AOP and 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.

Additional motion photos of F121 AOP (below) were taken at different locations. One of the photos taken at Burton Dassett Hills Country Park in Warwickshire was used as the front cover shot for Issue 27 of Auto Express magazine dated 31 March 1989 under the title ‘Quick Brit’. Contrary to popular belief, this particular vehicle wasn’t a Press demo car but instead was later used by someone working in Sales and Marketing.

MG Maestro Turbo

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.

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 for appraisal 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.Autocar 10 May 1989

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.

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, the MG was up against the Peugeot 309 GTi. CAR magazine, meanwhile, 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 Citroën BX 16 Valve, Mitsubishi Colt Lancer GTi-16v and Volkswagen Golf GTi 16V.

Press coverage even extended to a road test by the motoring programme Top Gear where the White Diamond example registered as 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

MG Maestro Turbo advert

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 created by ARG’s advertising agency, Dorlands. This headline had been created by using manufacturers’ quoted 0-60mph acceleration figures published in What Car? magazine as well as from an independent roadtest for the Porsche 944 carried out by the same publication.

Meanwhile, a new image of the interior (below) was also introduced into the Today’s Cars sales brochure from June of that year. 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. Corresponding with the author in June 2018, Kim Burdon, the director for the television commercial, disclosed that ‘it was used as a random choice of car just to indicate traffic.’

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 Tickford build records show that the last batch of cars was delivered to their 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 breakdown of colours across the production cars, four Special Designation Vehicles and the Motor Show car reveal 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 stars, the R8 generation Rover 200 and 400 Series and Rover Metro. 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 car 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 cost 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!

Was it 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 ARG 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. Examples of the RSP ethos include the 1990 Mini Cooper, MGR V8, Range Rover CSK, Rover 820 Turbo 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; the second a Metro-based mid-engined car; and thirdly a backbone chassis rear-wheel-drive car. 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 (below) 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.

MGF PR1 engine

New-found recognition

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 6 (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.

In the issue of Autocar magazine dated 18 January 2018, their writers selected it as one of their thirty 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.’

More recently, in a feature titled ‘50 Hot Hatches Heroes’ compiled by Modern Classics magazine for its July 2020 issue, the MG Maestro Turbo made it to position 40. ‘…[I]t really does hold up as a great hot hatch,’ said the Editor. ‘While not quite as rapid as the advertising suggests, its 2.0-litre carb engine doled out 128mph at the top end, and actually drives in a sophisticated manner despite the presence of a 1980s turbo. The chassis is sweet and the boost comes with a linear surge; the only downside is the slightly soggy brakes. For all the bodywork aggression, the Maestro is easily as sophisticated to drive as a Golf GTi.’

All of which confirms that more than 35 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.

MG Maestro Turbo

My thanks to the following individuals for all their assistance with this article: Peter Arnold, John Batchelor, Kim Burdon, John Dalton, Ian Elliott, Richard Hamblin, Jerry Hibbert, Kevin Jones, Roger Parker, Colin Parsons, David Saddington, John Simister, Trevor Stanton, Richard Sykes, Brian Tennant and Richard Walbyoff.

15 Comments

  1. Looking at these photos of the red MG Maestro Turbo thirty years on, make me think what a good looking car it was, (with all the color coding that was coming in vogue back then).

    It was a much better looking car than the cheaper Austin badge versions, however better a performer it was. A worthy recipient of the MG badge.

    • A worthy recipient of the MG badge? Well, yes and no. For me these should have been called “Austin Maestro MG Turbo” not “MG Maestro” because this was just a trim level like an HL or HLS etc. and should never have been a “brand”. Thus it would not be the “fastest MG” and nor should it be. MG was a proper brand at one time, these things just sully it however good they may actually be.

      Oh, and these are hilarious to drive. When going for an overtaking move you don’t need to steer. You just stomp the loud pedal and the car magically jumps over into the next lane via the prodigous torque steer. Marvelous fun.

      And don’t even ask about the brakes. Trying to haul it down from 130 MPH coming up to a roundabout on a dual carriageway I thought I was being ultra conservative but ended up straight-lining through at about 40 MPH because the brakes faded out on me. Lucky there was a gap in traffic.

      Yes, yes, I was a lunatic doing 130 in the first place but what was the point of having that much performance if you didn’t try it out at least once?

      • Interesting point regarding the “brand” of MG. All proper MGs should hence come out of Abingdon. By the same token, all proper Rovers should come from Lode Lane or Coventry as all the ones built from the SD3 onwards (and although the later SD1s were built at Cowley, as least they had input from the Rover boys) shared no DNA with anything built before and were just branded “Rover”. They could all have been branded “Triumphs” just as easily I suppose.

      • They had the right to be called MG’s as had many MG saloons before had, that had come from Cowley. That horse had long ago left the stable in the form of a Farina or 1100.

        To me BMC should have fully embraced the Badge / Brand immediately after merger, bringing the Austin and Nuffield sales networks at home and abroad. With adopting a strategy of using Badges as the respective model trim.

        Morris – (Base)
        Austin – (Mid line)
        MG – (Sports Base)
        Wolsey – (High line)
        Riley – (Sports High Line)

        This would have allowed them both to keep connection with the heritage and segment the market, by offering different price points for the same models and an opportunity to motivate customers to trade up to a higher model for their favoured badge or trade up to a more premium badge. At the same time it would have eliminated the tendency for Austin and Nuffield brands to feed off each other.

        I think this would have worked well against Ford, Morris had a good reputation in the market, for reliable and unpretentious cars that drove well, so no shame in being seen as a Morris driver v a Ford driver in the company car park. At the same time though, a driver would covet an Austin let alone an MG or Wolsey, Riley etc badge much more in the company car park than a GL, GT badge etc, because of that associated heritage.

      • Haha – quite right, Simon! Performance is there to be used, as safely as reasonably possible. That brake fade was the one concern I had over 1980s on MGR cars. While my Rover 100/Metro couldn’t manage 130mph, it did have similar brake fade after coming down a rural back road along a steep ridge – by the time I got close to the narrow T-junction at the bottom the brakes just went awol, and took a few quick pump-and-release to get cooler and regain their grip.
        Which all begs the question – David has outlined in the article the extensive body kit styling work done for the turbo Maestro, and notes Harold Musgrave worried about “inadequate braking” in spring ’85, so why didn’t anyone at MGR fit bigger brakes in the next 3 years of trials? Hmmm.
        In fact, I would say Musgrove slowed this gem of a car, but it still should have been a 6 month development to slot in the existing turbo engine from the Montego and bigger brakes, then check handling. Then the car should be on sale in 1987 to catch the turbo crazed eighties sales boom. The fact they struggled to sell such an exquisite package by 1989-90 tells us they were too late getting to market (same as MG F came out long after Mazda MX5). Oh well, at least they built it 🙂

  2. I think that much more could have been achieved with the MG maestro (and Montego), by rather than going down the turbo route, they had utilized the 16v M & T Series engine (available from 86) to create 16v variants that would not only have had wider appeal in the market than the Turbo but would have had more of a “halo” effect for the lower models.

    Also could have led onto a 200 hp T Series 16v turbo MG Maestro as a final fling!

    • Agree apparently even the 2-litre O-Series was capable of putting out 127 hp, that is not forgetting turbocharged 1.6 S-Series used in the 150 hp Rover 216 Vitesse Turbo Janspeed.

      As for the prospect of a Maestro M/T-Series Turbo, it would depend on whether the Maestro was capable of handling more than 150 hp though would probably limit it to 180 hp (e.g. Rover 800 Vitesse Tickford Turbo spec) as a last hurrah so it does not encroach on the 200 hp Rover 220 Turbo.

      Despite the small sportscar being overshadowed by the rise of the hot hatch, one wonders whether a 2-litre only MG Maestro-based sportscar like Gerry McGovern’s MG F-16 project would have been a complete flop despite its FWD layout had there been enough money available (along with the Montego-based 2-door coupe LM12 project).

      • I always think that instead of going down the Metro based route with the MGF, which to me was always struggling to justify its price tag with the quality of Metro components, ie instruments and without back lighting and unlit heater controls, that did they would have done better going down the route of something like the Audi TT with the R8 as a basis.

  3. I could never understand that given the Maestro stayed in production 5 years after the R8 arrived why Rover didnt continue some development, at least giving it the interior improvements that the 1988 Montego got – That would have cost literally nothing! – They could also have slotted the 8V K Series into it – K series development was done in Maestros so again it would have cost very little and massively improved the car. Done right the Maestro would have complemented the R8 in the same way the Golf complements the Audi A3.

  4. I guess the temptation to jump on the Hot Hatch band waggon & keep the MG brand in the public eye was too great. Even cars like the Datsun Cherry had a hot version in the 1980s, with a laggy turbocharged engine the rest of the car couldn’t really handle!

  5. Personally, I never liked the ‘blocky’ body-styling kits that were inflicted on unfortunate vehicles in that timespan; Tickford were one of the worst offenders [I feel their Capri to be a gruesome monstrosity that totally compromises the original style] though I feel the hideous Vauxhall Cavalier “Calibre” kit also needs a dishonourable mention.

    Given the braking problems noted in comments, perhaps the front foglights should have been omitted and replaced by some brake-cooling ducts?

    Body kits add weight, which goes against the oft-quoted “Now Add Lightness!” comment by Colin Chapman when presented with a design by one of his junior staff.

    The more I look at the Maestro, the more I think there should always have been a 3-door version. Escorts, Astras, Golfs all had 3-door sporty models [XR3i/RS1600i, GTE, GTI] which looked a lot better than the 5-door versions.

    Lighter/stiffer bodyshells too.

    And if you’re selling into the then emergent-yuppie market [singles or couples] you don’t need rear doors – which are only for those who have kids/elderly relatives to transport.

  6. Thanks for the excellent read – I have owned Two MG Maestro Turbos and looking back these were in the Top 5 of exciting cars I’ve owned. The first one I purchased from a dealer in Coventry and was led to believe it was the original show car at the release motor show. It had been traded in for a brand new Montego Estate by an employee of ARG. I don’t know for certain how true this was but I always thought the depth of the Flame Red Paint work was in access of a production and so it was very possible.. Unfortunately I had to sell that car to purchase a house move, but always had the desire to buy another when affordable. A few years late I purchased a BRG and owned this for several years. These cars had presence on the street and turned heads and in the right hands could be driven extremely fast on our country roads. A joy to have owned these hatchbacks and wish I still did.

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