The Maestro Express was conceived by Austin Rover Group following a competition staged by a national newspaper to gauge the views of female drivers about their experiences of car ownership.
David Morgan tells the story behind this one-off Maestro which was eventually won in a separate competition by a lady living in Jersey.
The one-of-a-kind Maestro
In the early spring of 1987, Designers from Austin Rover Group (ARG) teamed up with the Daily Express to seek the views of female drivers on how aspects of car ownership could be improved. As an interview with Roy Axe, ARG’s Director of Design and Concept Engineering, published in the dealers’ magazine Newslink highlighted, women were becoming increasingly more car-minded. Axe had previously been involved in several ‘women’s car’ projects and he said in the interview, featured in the January 1988 issue, that ‘they generally emphasise the very practical concerns of women.’
Through the Sunday Express newspaper, female readers were invited to enter a survey-based competition designed to capture their requirements, the results of which would then be considered for future model programmes. And it proved to be a well subscribed survey, with approximately 22,000 female readers responding.
From these, 25 entrants were chosen by the newspaper as competition winners and invited to visit ARG’s Canley Design Studio to discuss car design and put questions to senior Designers. The results of these discussions would help influence the creation of the one-off Maestro Express.
Turning ideas into a (one-off) reality
It was during the summer of 1987 when ARG’s Designers, possibly working as part of the Concept Design Team, would further develop many of the ideas discussed with the competition winners so that they could used for a unique trim-based specification in an Austin Maestro.
Featuring the 1.6-litre S-Series engine, and likely based on either an L or HL specification, the Maestro Express was finished in the mainline duotone colour combination of Silverleaf metallic over Hurricane Grey. However, in place of wheel trims, was the 14-inch ‘flat dish’ alloy wheel design that had been introduced as an extra cost option on the MG Maestro and Montego EFi variants a few months earlier. For the Maestro Express it would feature plain centre caps rather than monogrammed items.
Other exterior features included a chrome tailpipe finisher and special ‘Maestro Express’ decals on the leading edge of the front doors above the bodyside protection strip and also on the tailgate. The version used on the tailgate comprised of the ‘Maestro’ name finished in uppercase style red lettering, with the ‘Express’ name directly below it in dark grey or black lettering. To the right of it was the Daily Express newspaper’s ‘Crusader’ logo finished in red. To further reaffirm the link with the newspaper, the ‘Express’ name would be in the larger font size and also use the same typeface as that for the heading on the newspaper.
The inside story
The exterior might have conveyed a message of understatement, but inside there were numerous changes that exuded style and enhanced practicality over that of the mainline models. For starters the seats were finished in a combination of Flint Grey cloth borders with a unique ‘Lightning’ fabric design for the centre section. This was the same fabric design earmarked for the new Rover 827 Vitesse, due to be announced in May of the following year. However, for the Maestro Express, it also featured grey piping which also extended to the edges of the head restraints.
The rear facing sides of both front seats also had nylon fastening straps which were secured within the seat-frame. These enabled two matching soft document bags made from the same material as the seats to be attached to them.
Elsewhere, ‘Lightning’ fabric also extended to the door casings and was also used for a pair of front seat belt protector pads designed to enhance comfort. And it didn’t stop there as there was also a matching ladies’ purse, handbag, tool kit roll and even a first aid kit roll which sat in a Montego-style storage tray located between the passenger’s front seat and door sill. Completing the interior enhancements were Flint Grey sheep skin over-rugs for the footwells and inflated hand-held rubber ‘squeezy lemon’ lumbar supports for the two front seats.
Other notable features were colour-coded handles for the screwdriver and wheel-jack housed in the spare wheel insert moulding. There were also colour-coded items in the engine bay such as the dipstick handle, brake fluid top, washer bottle cap and expansion tank cap to further aid checking all those essential fluids. The end result of all this research and incorporating so many unique features was a car that had reputedly cost £20,000 to create!
Making an impact at Motorfair ’87
This one-off Maestro project was displayed on the Austin Rover stand at Motorfair ’87, held at Earls Court in October. At the time there had not been any special edition versions of the Maestro compared to other ARG models, so the appearance of the Express was something of a novelty. Then again, unless you were an ardent reader of the Sunday Express, the Maestro Express would have been seen as an unknown curio. Its obvious association with a prolific national daily newspaper title also meant that many other print titles would not give it any editorial space. That said, one or two regional newspapers such as the Sandwell Evening Mail did give it a mention as part of their Motor Show coverage.
Ian Elliott was the Public Affairs Manager at ARG at the time, whose role also included editing and producing Newslink for the dealer network. He remembers the Maestro Express and believes that it wasn’t covered in any of Austin Rover’s regular sales brochures. This was because it might have generated a level of demand the company couldn’t (or wouldn’t) fulfil. Furthermore, the photo transparencies of the car used in the January 1988 edition of Newslink reveal that its exterior shots were taken in the viewing garden outside the Canley Design Studio, while the car’s registration number of E404 KUC was likely used for photo display purposes only. The interior photos were possibly taken inside the Design Studio.
After Motorfair ’87 had closed its doors, the car was offered as a prize in a further competition run by the same newspaper. It was eventually announced that the winner was a lady living in Jersey. But what became of it?
The search to find it begins
Fast forward to April 2020 and keen to find out if the Maestro Express still survived, my search centred around Guernsey and Jersey, with pleas for information being published in the Guernsey Post and Jersey Evening Post newspapers.
Within hours of the plea appearing in the Jersey Evening Post, an email was received from a lady living in Jersey (whose name I have withheld) confirming she had won the car in the Sunday Express’s competition and that the handover of the car had taken place on 7 February 1988. The lady still has the photograph of the handover event although she no longer owns the Maestro Express, having part exchanged it at Bel Royal Garages some years ago.
My next move was to contact the Managing Director of Bel Royal Garages, but he soon got back to me to say that no-one he had spoken to who worked at the garage remembered this particular car, so he was unable to help me. In addition, as I had no knowledge of the car’s actual registration number, I have not been able to undertake checks into its MoT history or road tax status. Therefore the current whereabouts and fate of the Maestro Express continues to remain unknown.
Leaving a lasting legacy
In reality, the Maestro Express quickly disappeared from the minds of those who had either seen it at Motorfair ’87 or read coverage of it in newspapers. However, its objective to enhance the practical needs of car ownership for a then often overlooked demographic group of drivers was in many ways forward thinking. Many of those unique features considered the issue of enhanced practicality in a way that was stylish and appropriate.
If we’re honest, practical elements such as colour-coded items in the engine bay to aid routine DIY checks by the owner and features designed to enhance convenience and stowage flexibility in the cabin would make life easier for many motorists, regardless of their gender. So perhaps there was a genuine relevance in carrying out this survey and using the feedback to build this one-off car.
If anyone has any further information they can add about the known whereabouts of the one-off Maestro Express, please let us know.
* My thanks to John Breedijk, the ‘lady winner’, Paul Le Conte and also Ian Elliott for his help with supplying the photos originally used in Newslink.