Concepts and prototypes : Maestro Express (1987)

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.

Maestro Express

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.

16 Comments

  1. I suspect the 20k it cost, was a lot cheaper than buying the space in the daily express.

    I recall them doing a similar thing with the Cortina when it was being run out, called the Crusader you could have a tarted up Cortina with a Daily Express Crusader logo on the back.

    Given what the Daily Express has involved into, it is hard to imagine any reputable company wanting to be associated with them.

    • Comments a bit hard as the Express was not the unrespected paper that it has become today (by the majority – it’s banned from being used as a reference on Wikipedia because it is unreliable! ). It was a respected paper until Desmond got his hands on it.

      • Sorry I made a typo, I was meaning to write “evolved into” not “involved into”.and your point was the very point I was making.

  2. As a bit of related trivia – BMC Australia had a similar idea of producing a car aimed at the fairer sex back in 1969 – based on their Morris Nomad (which was a 5 door car derived from “ADO16” and thus quite similar in concept to the Maestro).
    They teamed up with well-known Australian fashion designer and TV personality Maggie Tabberer. The base car was a Nomad automatic (so 1275cc) but the design changes were of a rather different flavour to the Maestro.
    It was painted a bright lime green colour called Chartreuse which was also used for the carpeted rear parcel shelf.
    Everything else inside the car that wasn’t already white (like the headlining) was coloured white including steering wheel, window winders and seats in white “Nylex”. This created quite a few problems which would have made the car difficult to build in volume.
    The floor was covered in thick white shag pile carpet, including the boot.
    To relieve the whiteness a selection of removable seat covers was supplied. One set was in Chartreuse to match the exterior paint but the others featured various high fashion designs ….
    The Nomad featured seats which converted into a bed (like the Maxi) with the added advantage of the front seat being a bench seat – so when all seats were folded down the resulting bed was flatter than a Maxi.
    I’m not sure what became of that car …

    • Ford Australia did a similar thing in the mid 1980’s by teaming up with local fashion designer Carla Zampatti twice to create two special edition Ford Laser hatchbacks for the KB and KC models. Among the special decals and colours it also featured a special carpet pad designed for wearing high heal shoes while driving. It had colour coded alloy wheels, an upmarket interior with an upgraded stereo and unique interior trim pieces. Buyers also received a special leather key case, sunglasses and a bottle of her perfume.

  3. I guess this Maestro will have been scrapped by now, despite its uniqueness it probably wasn’t rated as collectable.

    I remember the run out Cortina Crusader too (hired one in Aberdeen in 1983) with its red Crusader logo on the boot and nice Ghia style interior trim. Almost 40 years ago – wow

  4. That’s a good looking Maestro – a drop of 25mm and even the stance would be right.

    Interesting to see how some of those ideas did make it into production – particularly the storage (removable bag on Discovery 1) and colour-coded filler caps (sadly all now yellow!).

  5. If I was designing a 1980s car aimed at female driver I’d consider

    1) light controls – Power steering as standard, handbrake and clutch pedal which aren’t incredibly stiff (often an issue with cars of the 70s certainly)
    2) height adjustable seats and controls – I remember shorter women regularly having to put a booster cushion on the driver’s seat to see out properly, or having to put a block on the floor under the clutch pedal, as it was too high up for them to operate with shorter feet.

    I remember my father in the late 70s replacing his Renault 12 with a Ford Escort, as my mother who was learning to drive at the time, found it too hard to operate.

  6. I can’t remember which manufacturer it was now, but in the 90s they installed a hand bag hook as an added option?

    • Are you maybe thinking of the curry hook fitted to Nissan Almeras?; a little hook that you could flick out under the glovebox, at just the right height to hand a takeaway from, and get it home without spilling anything when cornering.

      • That occurred to me too but I definitely remember a piece about a manufacturer appointing a woman to a senior role in interior design. The article contained some of her thoughts on how design could make more accommodations for women, and I think I remember the “handbag hook” idea being flown. I want to say the manufacturer was Ford but I might be wrong.

        • Ford did have the women design committee which came up with the concept car, that was eventually watered down as the KA (based on the previous fiesta) or in Dagenham pallance car! I remember the Curry Hook on the Almera, but wasn’t that the hand bag hook and Clarkson gave it the curry hook name? Getting old as I use to remember all this stuff!

  7. There is also the style or image which women consider, I’ve spoken to women who when asked about their favourite car who reply “Mercedes” a brand at the bottom of my list for visual appeal.

  8. @daveh:

    There was of course the infamous ‘curry hook’ introduced in the new Land Rover Discovery Series II in 1998 which the motoring press quickly latched onto as a novel feature to write about. It formed part of the moulding for the centre floor console and enabled a carrier bag containing takeaway food such as a pot of curry to be located in the front passenger’s footwell. It worked well, too!

Add to the debate: leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.