Ian Nicholls discusses the Austin Maestro’s styling, and concludes that it was bad enough to cause a change in fortunes of BL. Then it was more of the same with the Montego.
Just when the company needed some good fortune, a series of management blunders led to two of the most ineptly styled mid-sized cars hitting the market in the most design-conscious decade of them all, the 1980s.
Austin Maestro: spelling trouble with a capital ‘T’…
One reason cited for the Austin Maestro and Montego’s failure to sell in the numbers expected was its undistinguished styling. The Austin Metro launched in 1980 looked state of the art; it was attractive yet modern – the archetypal Eurobox. Somehow this momentum was thrown away with the Maestro and Montego. The Maestro was meant to replace the Austin Allegro, so how could BL get it so wrong? The ramifications of this would reach the corridors of power, and the media would join Government ministers and senior civil servants in asking searching questions as to whether Austin Rover really had the management, engineering and production skills in depth for a long-term future.
According to this site’s Austin/MG Maestro development story: ‘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 of the Maxi and Allegro, but with some styling cues from the Rover SD1 thrown in for good measure. Initially, there had been five full-size clay models (two Solihull, two Longbridge 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 the design evolved nicely, and although it did not start off very well in the eyes of management, it evolved 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.’
Exasperation over Bache’s design direction
Barney Sharratt’s 2000 book ‘Men and Motors of the Austin’ is an excellent source of quotes on this period. Former Rootes man, Rex Fleming, who was involved in the Harris Mann proposal, was blunt: ‘At a viewing of both cars we couldn’t believe it when David Bache said he thought Ian Beech’s model was the right route to take and that Harris Mann’s was completely wrong. Here was the boss of styling supposedly presenting two cars to management but completely dumping on one of them. If he didn’t damn well like it, he shouldn’t have been showing it. In fact, the shape of the panels on Harris Mann’s car would have given it a more solid, better quality look. The production Maestro was a good package and had a good interior so it must have failed on its appearance or desirability.’
Ian Beech said in his defence: ‘In fact, the Maestro had to tread water for so long that it lost some of its freshness… Crisp cars were considered modern when I started on the Maestro in 1976 but it ended up with even more of a folded paper look than it was meant to. Apparently the Body Engineers liked the sharp features I had given it so they decided to emphasise them a little. It took ages to get the Maestro into production and once there it wasn’t replaced as soon as it should have been. It meant the Maestro was always out of phase with the current trends. David Bache didn’t have a lot of input but he was very good at looking at a design and picking out anything not quite right.’
The problem for any historian is trying to find the truth from the myriad of statements that are often the product of bruised egos, injured pride and attempts to deflect criticism for failure onto others. Who does one believe?
So, why didn’t they back Mann’s design?
The whole issue of car styling is subjective, what one person may find attractive, another may find objectionable. Why did BL go with the Bache/Beech design? Perhaps it is something to do with the stock that David Bache and Harris Mann were held in at the time, May 1976. At the time David Bache was one of the most outstanding car stylists in Europe. The Rover P5 and P6 had been personal triumphs for him and the forthcoming Rover SD1 was perhaps the most sensational looking car since the Jaguar E-type and many other cars were to take their styling cues from it.
On the other hand, Harris Mann’s track record looked poorer. All the cars he had been involved in were in trouble. The Austin Allegro had disastrously failed to sell, the Triumph TR7 was threatening to kill Triumph and the motoring press were filled with tales of woe about the Princess. Why these cars did not sell as well as expected is a separate area for discussion, although the poor build quality and disaffection amongst the workforce cannot be blamed on Harris Mann. It may have been that some within BL saw him as a scapegoat for the company’s woes.
Certainly the Harris Mann LC10 proposal looks a lot more modern than the Beech/Bache design that became the Maestro we know and love. It has a more anonymous Eurobox look that would have not looked out of place on 1980s roads with Metros, Escorts and Astras.
And now for the Montego
BL management opted for a Roger Tucker design, but with reservations. The Austin Montego development story states: ‘As the LM10 neared production, the design and implementation of the LM11 went ahead. Whereas the Maestro was pretty much the product of one man, the LM11 Montego was not. David Bache left BL after being fired by Harold Musgrove in 1981 following protracted disagreements (“the last straw was at a (Montego) styling review where Bache ignored several instructions to shut up from Musgrove – his last interruption was just that”) – and, when he left, the Maestro was a mere four months from production and therefore, its styling was fixed. The Montego, however, was well advanced in its development and production engineering was also well under way, but the styling had yet to be finally signed off.
‘The Montego had been taking shape at the Longbridge Design Office behind the Maestro as the larger saloon car it was designed to be – the wheelbase was longer than the Maestro’s, but was to the original LC10 dimension (the Maestro’s was shorter because it had 2.4 inches taken out of it) but, due to the fitment of the more compact S-Series engine, the Montego was given a slightly lower bonnet line and longer, more tapered nose. The major changes were to the front and rear of the car, where the styling from Roy Tucker’s saloon proposal was grafted onto the centre section of Ian Beech’s design. It looked different to the Maestro, but at the same time, because it was the product of two different Designers, it was an unhappy mixture of ideas. Malcolm Harbour reiterated the danger of adopting Ian Beech’s design for the LC10: the side doors with their pronounced scallops would influence very heavily the way that the saloon looked – and so it was thus.
‘Because the doors from the Maestro were used, there was the need to add a sixth-light to accommodate the extra length. The problem was that the extra rear side windows were incorporated to look like an extension to the rear screen, like a huge wrap around swathe of glass. The end result could not be happily integrated into the styling and this rear aspect no doubt spoiled what could have been a tidily styled Eurobox.’
A tale of a car designed by committee
So there you have it. The Montego was basically Ian Beech’s Maestro welded to Roger Tucker’s bonnet and boot! You couldn’t invent this stuff! Harris Mann was the gentleman tasked with ‘welding’ two different designs together. He commented: ‘David Bache insisted on offering Musgrove these American-type schemes for the rear end – little opera and so on. We told him (Harold) Musgrove didn’t want anything like that but he insisted we do them for a presentation. When Musgrove walked in he completely blew his top and walked out again. David was a very free and easy character. I don’t think he liked Longbridge. He certainly didn’t spend very much time with us. We were told after each viewing what was required for the next one. There might be a month between the viewings, but David would rarely visit us.’
If the whole styling story of the Maestro and Montego sounds shambolic and farcical, then the question should be asked whether David Bache was the right man to be in charge of Austin Rover styling. His greatest designs were executive cars, the classic Solihull Rovers, which needed a distinctive style. He had no track record in designing cheap and nasty Euroboxes. Perhaps his talents could have been better utilised at Jaguar? In selecting unconventional designs he put Austin Rover at a disadvantage in comparison with Ford and GM. That said the 1959-67 Ford Anglia 105E had an unconventional style and did not sell much less than the Mini but, if one considers that it was an ADO16 rival as well, then it sold poorly in comparison.
But where was BL management during this period? The only firm dates we have are the May 1976 viewing of the competing LC10 designs and 1981 when Austin Rover boss Harold Musgrove fired David Bache. These two cars, the Maestro and Montego, were absolutely vital for the BL recovery plan. They were meant to generate the profits to fund the next generation of BL cars.
So, why wasn’t something done to stop it?
Surely someone within senior BL management such as Sir Michael Edwardes, Ray Horrocks or Harold Musgrove should have intervened before things went too far? The 1980 Vauxhall Astra was the new state of the art styling wise, and a succession of cars emerged in the years to come that all had a similar look, including BL’s own Metro in 1980. Why was the styling of LM10/LM11 allowed to get out of hand and proceed to production? I cannot accept that BL management just sat back and let the styling department drift aimlessly.
In September 1981 images of the forthcoming LM10 Maestro appeared in CAR Magazine. Who leaked them to the press? Was it the now redundant David Bache? Austin Rover replaced David Bache with ex-Rootes and Chrysler man Roy Axe, who had more experience in styling bread and butter cars.
Roy Axe recalled: ‘I was ushered into a room and stood in front of this object and asked, “What do you think of that?” It was the Maestro. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The car’s whole stance and proportion were wrong. The spiky lines and all the facets and scollops made the surfaces look hollow and weak. Design was moving into more rounded forms and this car was back in the old folded paper era. Its proportions were peculiar too. Its front wheels were almost under the A pillar, producing an enormous front overhang, and there was virtually no rear overhang so the car had a very awkward stance. The sill was very high off the ground and looked even higher because of the way it sloped under. In short, it was a complete shambles. I thought so and said so. The interior was even worse. The fascia panel was like a wet codfish, all floppy. It was engineering of the 1950s not of the ’80s. To find a car that was two decades out in its thinking was just mind boggling. When I said, “We have got to start again”, it was made clear to me that the car was only four months off production so there was nothing anybody could do.’
The phrase ‘…it was made clear to me that the car was only four months off production,’ implies this event took place in late 1982.
A voice of sanity, albeit too late
Roy Axe continued: ‘A few days later I was shown the Montego. That shook me even more. I was absolutely appalled. Roger Tucker’s front and rear ends had already been grafted on. Once again I suggested starting from scratch but it was made crystal clear to me in words that only Harold (Musgrove) would use that it was not an option. I simply had to improve it as much as I could. I went along with that but, in retrospect, it was not the right decision.
‘We changed the bumpers, the lamp configuration at front and rear, the bonnet and the rear screen. The wraparound window was something I wanted to get rid of altogether, but just couldn’t manage it, so we raised its base to strengthen the side view. But look at the proportional problems we had with that front wheel arch being hard against the door opening line. The wheel was so far back on that car it was just unbelievable. We lived with that and the enormous ground clearance for the rest of the car’s life. They had effectively produced a platform and then perched the people on top of it.
‘The result was a very high car, but with no more than normal headroom because the floor was so high. Proportionally the car was a disaster all along the line. The Engineers had been running the operation and they provided the styling people with the package and there wasn’t really any opportunity to go back and say this is in the wrong place or that is in the wrong place… The car was 20 years old when it came out. I ought to have stopped it, but Ray Horrocks (BL MD) would have had to go back to the Government and tell them they had just screwed up in a big way and needed X more millions. He wasn’t in the mood to do that. But it was a car that should never have happened like that. It really shouldn’t. The company had invested millions in automated equipment to make this antiquated machine. It was tragic.’
In defence of the Montego
Roy Axe felt the Montego drove okay, commenting: ‘So it wasn’t an unpleasant car to drive but things fell off it all the time. It was unreliable.’
Austin Rover boss Harold Musgrove later defended himself over the Maestro and Montego: ‘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.’
BL management had from 1976 to 1983 to stop the Maestro and Montego. Why didn’t they? As for the claims that Maestro and Montego were better than the Allegro and Princess that is open to debate.
Selling as well as a disappointing predecessor
The Maestro sold at about the same rate as the Allegro. The Princess was a more upmarket car than the Montego and therefore sold in lower volume. The Montego was really a replacement for the Morris Ital (nee Marina). Peak Montego production of 95,874 was in 1985 the first full year when it was on sale, which was similar to Marina production of 96,487 in strike-torn 1979 when the venerable Morris had been on sale for eight years.
The failure of the Maestro and Montego in the market place was a treble defeat for BL – it was a defeat in business, politics and public relations. The business defeat was the failure of the Edwardes plan to make BL a standalone company, forcing the company to ask the Government for more taxpayers’ money and go further up the path of collaboration with Honda.
The political defeat is closely related to the public relations defeat. The Conservative Government had been sold the Edwardes plan as the way forward and the launch of the Metro in 1980 suggested that BL was well on the way to prosperity. The engineering flair that had produced some of the world’s greatest cars seemed to be still alive within Austin Rover. When the Edwardes plan failed Mrs Thatcher lost patience and tried to offload Austin Rover to Ford.
Although there was a public outcry at this, one has to look at it this way. If a relative borrowed £10,000 for a business venture which didn’t go to plan and then came back for more money, the lender might be entitled to start asking serious questions as to how the business was run. Austin Rover had less than a 20% share of the UK new car market, but all of the UK’s taxpayers were keeping BL afloat.
The golden opportunity, squandered
With the Maestro and Montego, Austin Rover threw away the golden opportunity to thrive without state aid and collaboration. The public relations defeat was in thwarting the hopes of many Britons that the UK could have a viable independent car industry and allowed old negative views about British cars to re-surface. To many, BL was now exposed as being rotten to the core, in every strata of its workforce from top to bottom. Stoppages were still occurring at Cowley and Longbridge which showed that old issues still lurked beneath the surface, the cars were still badly built, there were still design faults that were on cars leaving the factories, the models were stylistically challenged and the fact that they were all these things could be blamed on senior management which sanctioned them in the first place.
Sir George Harriman may have been in his grave for over a decade, but it seemed the management culture that had led to disaster was still alive in BMC/Austin-Morris/Austin Rover. And in the mid Eighties, most people who could afford new cars were likely to hold such views. The Government drafted in Graham Day to run BL and Roy Axe got on with the job of producing a range of cars that people actually wanted to own. His Maestro/Montego replacement, the Rover R8, became a bestseller, while many of those involved in the Maestro/Montego story left the company.
However, Rover never really recovered from the Maestro/Montego debacle, it was the end of the dream that Longbridge and Cowley could survive as producers of bread and butter cars and would always be dependent on outside help. One of the ironies of the story is that Peugeot enlisted the help of Pininfarina to style its 1980s cars to great success. Many of these cars emerged from Roy Axe’s erstwhile place of employment, Ryton, and Pininfarina had styled many BMC cars when the company’s products were at their sales zenith in the 1960s.
The Maestro and Montego were meant to re-capture that golden era, and they missed by a mile.
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- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Ten : 1973 - 19 July 2021