Ian Elliott joined ‘The Austin’ as a student Engineering Apprentice in the late 1960s and remained there until 1991. In his time, he has been involved in some amazing projects. Here’s his account of the lead up to the Austin Maestro launch.
As he amusingly reveals, there was much about the Maestro’s launch filming that did not go to plan…
Maestro: a difficult, if miraculous birth
As an Engineer and Public Relations man who had misguidedly wandered into the Marketing Department of BL Cars in 1981, I found myself responsible for the advertising and promotions aspects of the launch of the Austin Maestro range in March 1983. Naturally, this included the MG derivative – in fact, considerable emphasis was put on the MG and Vanden Plas versions (above), with their notorious ‘talking fascias’ in order to ‘lift’ the technological image of the whole range.
It is no secret that the ‘Quad-choke’ Weber carburation on the original MG Maestro (R-Series) 1600 was rather less than fully developed at launch. It had been hurriedly installed, late in the development process, because ARG boss Harold Musgrove simply wouldn’t tolerate an MG competitor to the Ford Escort XR3 that couldn’t at least equal its performance figures. That was a reasonable stance to take, but the problem was that while we knew all about twin SU installations, (which had already been tried), there wasn’t time to sort out a fuel-injection package, and the in-house expertise in Weber installation was very close to zilch. As the time approached to film the launch TV commercial, I heard disquieting tales of temperamental MGs.
As luck would have it, the MG was the last version of the specially-built advertising launch Maestros to come off the pre-production line at Cowley. The result was that Bruce, my transport man/stunt driver/Mr Fixit, with his covered trailer, and yours truly had to collect the car on the last working afternoon before Christmas, 1982. When the car showed signs of running on only one or two cylinders, and hardly capable of dragging itself onto the trailer, the demob-happy Cowley manufacturing bods weren’t terribly interested!
Getting the MG Maestro up to speed
After I’d expressed my unhappiness about the matter, one of the tuners came to have a fiddle with it and marginally improved the running, but once again, it was obvious that he was an SU expert first, and a Weber man last. These Italian lavatory cisterns were regarded as distinctly pagan devices! On top of this, it was obvious that the exhaust system was open in places where it ought not to have to been, adding to the tractor-like sound effects.
There was a tight filming schedule to meet, so we decided to take a better set of tools than normal with us up to Haweswater, in the Lake District, where the main part of the advert was due to be shot. Our ad agency was Leo Burnett, and they’d come up with a fairly wacky idea of a big Geodesic Dome (top), out of which the entire Maestro range would be seen driving, as ‘A Miracle Is Born’. There was then to be some ‘hero’ driving sequences of the MG in a nearby forest, together with various studio close-ups of the interiors.
In parallel with the filming, we also had to produce a dealer launch video and two lots of still photography for brochure and PR use. Four lots of agency people, one set of cars – enjoy! Adding to the fun were the attentions of the local newspaper, sniffing around for a scoop shot of all these secret cars, and an incoherent manager at the lakeside hotel, who was three sheets to the wind throughout our time there.
Stunt driving the Maestro
The MG stunt driving bit was shot over the first few days. Bruce was doing his best with the erratic power delivery – to be fair, once on full song, it sounded good ‘n throaty, just like a rally Escort Twink, but the film man was difficult to please, and kept asking for sillier and sillier speeds. Inevitably, Bruce started to go off – sometimes far enough to contact a tree. The 5km/h impact bumpers didn’t like it, neither did I. Silver-painted MG bumpers weren’t exactly growing on those or any other trees at that stage of pre-production – I was lucky to find a friendly man in the Engineering Stores at Canley who fed us replacements, provided I could persuade someone to do the mad dash from the Lakes to Coventry and back.
Meanwhile, the dome, a magnificent structure, was painstakingly assembled at the far end of the Lake. All was ready for filming next day, with helicopter zoom-in shots and all. That night came the mother of all freak storms, seriously damaging the fairly delicate dome. Consternation! Most of our crew’s time now seemed to be spent with the Weather Insurance loss-adjuster, as until she had been satisfied that we hadn’t deliberately trashed the dome ourselves, we wouldn’t have the budget to start again.
All was resolved, but some high speed rearranging had to be done to hit the timing deadlines. Soon after Christmas, we had a somewhat smaller dome set up in a weatherproof studio, while some extra footage was shot in a suitable conifer forest somewhere in the South East. Well, one lot of 20-year-old Sitka Spruce looks much the same as another.
Another bit of fun came when we had to put the talking/electronic display fascia through its paces for the film camera. Salvation came with a man from the Electronics Engineering Department, who had a little black box that plugged into the back of the instrument pack, and which enabled you to call up any message or play tunes on the rev counter and speedo at will.
Once we’d done this filming, a certain senior Director happened to notice that the MG instrument pack hadn’t been given its intended red graphics to distinguish it from the blue theme on the Vanden Plas version. A quickie prototype therefore had to rustled up by the joint Lucas/Smiths outfit who made the unit, for us to film it again. You’d have to have had very square eyeballs to spot the difference on a TV screen, but these things have to be done.
The same senior man also insisted that our launch video should have a real-life demonstration of the 5km/h impact bumper capability. Measuring 5km/h in those days was very difficult – and there wasn’t much tolerance to avoid damage above 5km/h, so you had to be quite accurate. We ended up timing the car over a measured distance just before contact. If the time was right, it was thumbs up, have the bump. If it wasn’t, thumbs down, clap the brakes on and abort the run. They decided that the best target car for the impacts was a Series 1 Rover SD1, which had a nice deep, smoothly-profiled stainless bumper blade with fairly hefty mountings. I happened to be running a 2600 at the time, so my poor car was bumped several times over for the benefit of the camera. I imagined the insurance form I would have to fill in… but it escaped unscathed, as did the Maestro.
In the months afterwards, I often enjoyed some quick motoring in that early MG Maestro, in the course of photo shoots, promotions, etc.. But it and its ilk were to cause occasional grief when refusing to start through fuel vaporisation. There was a brief flowering of the S-Series 1600 MG (complete with cooling fan for the carbs), but the real production fix was the 2.0 litre EFi, a superb, and still sorely underrated tool, in my opinion. The pity was that we couldn’t do that for the original launch!
Video: Austin Maestro launch advert
Ian went back to Haweswater in about 1986, when the water was low enough to reveal some of the roads and other features which had been flooded to create it. There were still some small pieces of the original dome lying around in the undergrowth…