In a driving career spanning more than 30 years and 250+ cars, Keith Adams highlights some of the highs… and lows.
Here, in the sixth of the series, he recalls an Austin Maestro Vanden Plas that proved to be far from trouble-free…
Great idea, badly executed
This one was a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand I absolutely loved my Maestro, but on the other, it proved unreliable, expensive to maintain and frustrating in the extreme. So, why do I have such fond memories of it today, and why do I constantly find myself wanting another?
Rewind back to 1990 – I was 20 and, after a string of clapped-out heaps, I wanted a younger car that wasn’t just practical and economical in time for the arrival of my first son but was interesting and didn’t look like a washing machine.
After looking at a number of Ford Escorts, Vauxhall Astras and other sensible European hatchbacks, I stumbled across a really nice-looking Austin Maestro Vanden Plas on a local dealer forecourt. It was in a lovely shade of light blue metallic, and came complete with wooden door caps, a blue velour interior and an electronic digital dashboard, complete with voice synthesizer. All this for the not-so princely sum of £2375.
What was not to like?
So, what was wrong with my Maestro?
Within about a week, I realised it wasn’t the car I was hoping it was going to be. It replaced a rather rough A-reg Maestro 1.3L I’d swapped with my brother (for a Fiat Strada) and, although the Vanden Plas had far fewer miles on it and was a one-owner car, it didn’t really feel any less flimsy inside.
Its engine was rough and gutless, the gearchange was vague and unpleasant, and I soon worked out that it was drinking far too much fuel for what was supposed to be a reasonably modern family hatchback. Even worse than that, it soon started to prove troublesome.
The trip computer was as trustworthy as a politician’s promise, the electric windows misbehaved like a sulky teenager. The voice synthesizer cried wolf too many times, too. As much as I liked Nicolette McKenzie‘s voice, the novelty of her telling me that the car’s oil pressure was low a million times soon wore off.
I remember being so cheesed off with it, I wrote a list of the car’s woes, and popped it through the supplying dealer’s letterbox, suggesting he came and picked it up the following Thursday. Unsurprisingly, he never turned up and, when I returned to the dealer to sound him out, he just said, ‘leave it with me, and we’ll fix what we can.’
I did, and in the end, nothing was fixed – and being a gentle soul – I concluded that I’d be best off not going back there. That would show him. Yeah, I was naïve like that back then…
But far worse than that, it continuously chewed through its driveshafts (it had four in the 18 months I owned it), and the gearbox popped its linkages on a fairly regular basis, too. Reliability was a concept this car simply wasn’t acquainted with.
Was it love or hate?
I wanted to love this car – and, had it been more reliable, better built and offered more refinement, I think I would have. Despite the protestations of my mates to the contrary, I really liked the way it looked (and actually still do), and when it was working, I did enjoy driving it.
This was one that I used as a family hack, so I have happy memories of fitting rear seatbelts (an astonishing omission on a 1983 car) and taking lots of trips out and about in it. When it wasn’t wobbling and vibrating, it was decent enough on the motorway thanks to long gearing in fifth, but in town, it wasn’t pleasant at all.
There was no power steering, and if I drove it with the windows down or the sunroof open, I soon tired of the noise from the engine, and the rattling wheeltrims (yes, really). In short, it was rubbish.
In the end, I caved in
After a year or so of throwing driveshafts at it, and generally suffering from the effects of one fault or another, I threw in the towel. The final straw was being told I needed to fit a new steering rack – bear in mind this car was six years old at the time, that felt wrong to me.
I spotted an Audi 80 CD Automatic for sale near me, and wanting to recreate my five-cylinder powered youth in an Audi 100, I let it go for far less than it was worth in favour of this German executive saloon. I still have one of those today, and still love it…
And that was that. So, ended a run of Austin- and Rover-badged cars that would last for quite some time – it started with a Metro, then a Mini, a Rover SD1, and then a couple of Maestros. I wouldn’t return to the fold until the turn of the millennium (unless you discount an Acclaim I briefly ran), when I embarked on a run of Rover 200, 400, and 800s that saw me through the first and most productive years of what would become AROnline.
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