Another view through rose tinted spectacles at some once common automotive sights here in the UK.
This time, our very own Austin Rover features here with their own slant on the ‘Hot Hatch’ The MG Maestro EFi, but the car hardly made a flying start as Mike Humble explains.
Gone but not forgotten
Whatever people say about cars like the Ford Escort XR3i or the Volkswagen Golf GTi Mk2, they were undoubtedly sales sensations and a common sight on our roads that both offered a sporting image along with a different slant on what they were based on – rather unexciting three- or five-door hatchbacks. The hot hatch era saw some brilliant and inspired cars arrive in the showrooms, great models such as the Astra GTE or 205GTi even today, are held on an almost God-like pedestal. In the case of the Peugeot 205GTi, quite rightly so, as they drive so bloody well even by a modern standard – and today, still make middle aged men nod approvingly when spotted.
But there was also a whole host of metal which failed to catch on for differing reasons, but all of which having a genuine talent, cars like the Daihatsu Charade GTti, Fiat Strada 130TC and one of my own favourites – the Citroen Visa GTi. Of course there were models that were best left forgotten like the Toyota Corolla or Mazda 323GTi for example, but one thing is certain, that era is long gone and sadly missed. Our very own cash-strapped Austin Rover jumped in with both feet with the MG Metro and Turbo thus creating the nearest thing to powered roller skates and the best laugh yet since the original Cooper S Mini.
A Pain in the R series:
In my own opinion, the 1983 MG Maestro 1600 was nothing short of a mess, even the production team had no confidence in the car and it was forced into the showrooms by sales hungry and greedy senior management, with much protest from the engineers, with a view to making money rather than to develop the thing properly and enjoy some deserved success. The Maestro worked well in the intermediate models, but the MG was nothing short of embarrassing as dealers struggled to cure running problems with the Weber carburettors, symptoms that manifested as flooding, backfiring, stalling and monumental flat spots – even the occasional engine bay fire.
The 1.6-litre engine, designated R-Series had been quickly developed out of the 1500 and 1750cc E-Series unit which found fame in the Allegro and Maxi. This chain driven overhead cam unit was launched back in 1969 and was designed in Issigonis tradition to be fitted with a transmission in sump design as per the Mini & Metro. For Maestro application, the transmission was end fitted in the conventional FWD manner, this left the block of the engine without torsional rigidity so ARG engineers designed a heavy duty cast alloy sump in order to regain some lost bottom end rigidity. Sadly, some 1.6-litre cars were known for breaking crankshafts partly due to poor castings causing an ultra high sonic vibration and partly owing to a lack of block strength which caused flexing.
The gear change was at best, imprecise and the even the horn was poor – being the same part as fitted to Mini and Metro models emitting a laughable high pitched peep sound rather than a shouting twin tone blare. Looks wise, it was not too bad with those pretty herringbone and velour trimmed faux-Recaro seats and red themed carpets/seat belts. Those odd shaped alloys were pretty to look at too even if they were buggers to keep clean. Such a shame, as the MG Maestro 1600 was potentially a good dish, just a bit half baked with some inferior ingredients. The MG 1600 model quickly gained a reputation for being poor, but ARG tried again a year later – with some success too!
After trying the twin carburettor treatment on the new and vastly superior S-Series engine, Austin Rover engineers admitted defeat mainly due to not having access to a crossflow cylinder head. Out on the open road the 1600 MG could give a fairly good account of itself where good airflow was present. But around town where temperatures in the engine bay would rapidly rise quickly, petrol evaporation became the critical problem owing the exhaust manifold being inches away from the fuelling systems. Even firing up an MG 1600 after a motorway ‘splash and dash’ could be a traumatic experience thanks to the fuel in the carb float chambers evaporating due to heat. Redesigned carb jets and heat deflecting manifold shields made the MG 1600 at best, tolerable.
O What an improvement:
In late 84, Austin Rover launched a revised range of Maestros with some much needed tweaks – including an all new 115bhp 2.0-litre EFi engine and gearbox which mirrored the power train fitted in the also new MG Montego. The trusted O-Series engine used a Lucas designed fuel injection system which aided top end performance while at the same time, not harming the O-Series nature of good low speed torque. Gone was the Volkswagen-sourced gearbox with its, at best, tolerable shift change quality, replaced with a Honda designed but ARG built T5-AR transmission known latterly as the PG1 which became Rover’s signature gearbox in years to come.
To cope with the increased power from 103 to 115bhp, the front brakes benefited from vented discs and hub assemblies again, from the 2.0-litre Montego which at the same time, lessened another common Maestro fault of failed front wheel bearings which would hum like a Child’s spinning top. As a consequence, the 2.0 MG Maestro was over a second quicker to 60, had superb in gear acceleration times, and was no thirstier on the fuel the outgoing 1.6 version. Visually, there was little difference between the two models, and when viewed from the rear, only larger badges with a subtle EFi logo gave the game away.
The interior also looked fairly unaltered, but keen eyes would have spotted the new 3 spoke steering wheel which looked far better than the spindly affair of old, there was also a new gear lever and gone was the Texet calculator style digital dashboard, replaced by conventional dials – though it could still be specified, but only as an option. The MG Maestro finally became a credible car for the ’86 model year when the Montego style dashboard was fitted, ridding the Maestro of its ‘unfinished prototype’ look to the interior. This new facia was of decent visual quality too and gave the car a solid feel along with some novel touches like fibre optic column switch illumination.
Austin Rover were keen to re-market the MG as a sporting five-door family car with some keen advertising and single class motorsport competition gained valuable TV coverage on ITV. By the mid-1980s – partly riding on the coat tails of the blisteringly quick MG Montego Turbo and the well recieved new 200 range – Austin Rover seemed to have a vision and a range of cars to suit all tastes, seemingly a far cry from the Union torn BL era that came before. After a shaky start, the MG Maestro at last gained some favourable comments from the critics and public, thanks to various talents which included keen pricing, decent performance and class leading packaging.
Still tainted, but also talented:
Out on the road, the MG EFi was blessed with good road manners partly thanks to the revised suspension featuring a rear anti roll bar while at the same time, a ride comfort that was on the right side of acceptable and not being as crashingly harsh as the XR3i or Astra GTE. Engine-wise, the MG Maestro was a joy to drive, no coughing or spitting from angry hot carburettors, no annoying flat spots at low revs and certainly no worrying smell of fuel from inside the car. Simply grab first gear and away you went with a flawless presentation of power and torque from the gutsy 2.0 engine with that unique induction thrum that was unmistakable injected O-Series.
Just as happy to slog through the rainy rush hour in Bristol as it was to zoom across to Brussels, ARG produced a car that was equally at home with the elderly or eager motorist, all that needed to be shown now, was confidence and recapturing lost custom. Well, the MG Maestro EFi went on to sell in decent numbers, especially after the ’86 interior upgrades and those memorable feel good ‘Now We’re Motoring’ TV campaigns. Never a runaway hit of Golf GTi or XR3i standards, but hardly a flop either but the ’80s for Austin Rover was more about survival and gaining some badly needed credibility rather than world domination.
My own MG Maestros (a 1600 and 2.0EFi) were like chalk and cheese, I was glad when the 1600 caught fire, it was nothing short of trash – I hated it after a few months, but the ’87 EFi was a different beast. Quick and reasonably economical too, the way it could seat five with comfort and boot full of clutter impressed me. I grew quite fond of the odd styling too, and as for ease of DIY repairs and servicing? They don’t come much easier than a Maestro. A once common sight (and sound) on our roads, not a class leader by any imagination, but equally not a dreadful one either.