Richard Bremner is well-known for being a highly-respected motoring scribe, but in his formative years, he worked in the employ of Austin Rover.
His love/hate relationship with the company’s products stayed with him long after he left – and here are his recollections of working on the Maestro.
Austin Maestro: My part in its downfall
I remember the moment I first saw a photograph of the Austin Maestro. I was a graduate trainee at Austin Rover, working in the Sales Forecasting Department, and we were being shown some shots of a full-size clay styling model.
A few of the large-format prints were being handed around the office, and I had to wait several tantalising minutes before they were mine to handle. It was an exciting moment for me – I was 22, obsessed with cars and this was the first time I had been privy to the secrets of a new model so long before it was to be launched.
However, I should have guessed that this car wasn’t the most desirable vehicle in the world even before I got the pics. The reaction of my colleagues said it all. Muted enthusiasm would have over-stated their response, which was closer to hopeful resignation. The LC10, as it was codenamed at that point, wasn’t frumpy like a Maxi, but it wasn’t sexy, exciting or desirable either, qualities that the just-launched Ford Escort Mk3, whose range included the gotta-have-it XR3, had in spades.
It wasn’t all bad news
But the Maestro wasn’t bereft of plus points. Its big windows, mild angularity and tidy shape lent it an appealing functionality and, if it lacked the dash and pleasing detail of the Escort, its moulded body-colour bumpers and the neat integration of its headlamps and grille at least partly compensated. And it was undeniably superior to an Austin Allegro.
The body-colour bumpers were a new addition. Harold Musgrove, Austin Rover’s feared boss, had recently decreed that the Maestro should be substantially upgraded before it went on sale, the car lacking the magic ingredients that had made the Metro such a big hit. Musgrove was right. Without his late changes, the car would have been mildly dated even before it had gone on sale, offering little other than extra space and a massive glass area over rivals like the Escort, the Astra, the Golf, the Talbot Horizon and the Renault 11.
The changes weren’t merely cosmetic, either. The original plan was to offer the 1500 and 1750 E-Series engines – both were of the wrong capacity to compete in the fleet market – but Harold Musgrove demanded a new 1600cc configuration, which became the R-Series. He also ordered the development of moulded body-colour bumpers, flush glazing for the front and rear screens, electronic carburettors, an MG version, a top-spec Vanden Plas and – radical, this – digital instruments and a voice synthesiser.
Finding the right voice
This last item enabled me to play one of my tiny roles in the development of the car, for it was me and my boss Evan Mackenzie who were given the task of selecting the voice for the talking Maestros. We were sent samples from voice-over agencies, which we played back on Mackenzie’s portable cassette player in the office. No research, no science was used in the selection – we simply went for the voice whose timbre we liked the most.
Our most controversial decision was to go with a lady’s voice rather than a man’s, and we picked Nicolette McKenzie (above, no relation to my boss) because she sounded warm, intelligible and not so authoritative that she would come over as admonishing. Then again, we weren’t to know how often her verbal interventions would pipe up in the early, troublesome cars.
I was also given the task of writing the Marketing Department’s product brief on the car. This was to be a reference document used by all sorts of departments, including the advertising agency, to give them a feel for the car, setting it in context and detailing its various attributes.
Though it seems unlikely now, it had plenty, and I did my best to talk the Maestro up. On paper the 1300 A-Series motor, hooked up to a VW Golf gearbox, managed competitive performance and economy figures, while the ludicrously long-geared, economy-minded HLE – which achieved its maximum speed in third gear – managed unworldly steady-state consumption figures.
In reality, drivers found they had to thrash the (fragile) nuts off the HLE to make it go, all the while listening to an LED econometer in the dash which made a farting noise under heavy acceleration. A loose vacuum pipe was the cause of that one.
Still, the MG was more appealing. I saw that clearly for the first time in the Styling Studio. Again, I couldn’t believe that I had been allowed into Longbridge’s so-called Elephant House. It was a hallowed building, though it was hard to know why when monstrosities like the Austin 3-litre had emerged from it. But I digress.
MG Maestro: a glimmer of desirability
The MG Maestro looked a damn sight more promising, anyway. Sporting a dramatic combination of lateral strakes and a rear spoiler on its tailgate, plus a chin spoiler that splayed almost sexily into the front-wheel arches, the MG looked more than convincing. Strange but striking alloys completed the effect, while inside the light grey cabin mouldings were set off with enough red cloths, fabrics and carpeting to furnish a royal wedding. I was happy; the MG actually looked like it meant business.
And in the end, it did – mostly for Austin Rover’s put-upon dealer network. They soon found that on top of the malfunctioning electronic carbs and shattered impact-absorbing bumpers they were contending with on the lesser cars, the MG was incapable of idling on a warm day, and impossible to start once it had stalled.
The reason? The rather impressive pair of twin-choke Webers, which got so hot that fuel evaporated from within their float chambers. The solution was to fit thicker gaskets where they joined to the inlet manifold; this crude modification allegedly lifted them sufficiently far from the soaking heat. No, I didn’t think it sounded convincing either, and on the S-Series, a year later, the carbs got their own little cooling fan.
Upping the ante
Not long after that, the MG 1600 became the 2.0i, a model that I got quite excited about because its engine was bigger and torquier than the Escort XR3i’s and the Golf GTi’s, leaving me – and several others in the organisation – to dreamily relish the possibility that the company might be about to launch a half-decent performance car.
And it did. By the time the MG Maestro 2.0i had been launched I had left the company to become a motoring journalist on the now-defunct weekly Motor. I would soon take part in a five-car test in Wales, featuring the Ford, the VW, the Lancia Delta 1600 HF, the Fiat Strada Abarth and the Vauxhall Astra GTE.
My memory is foggy now, but I seem to remember that, though the MG didn’t win, it came second or third with honours – let down mainly by its rather feel-free steering. Sadly, as with so many British Leyland cars, the damage had already been done by the early examples, and though it sold moderately well, the 2.0i wasn’t quite the winner that it would have been had this version been launched in the first place.
But I’ve got ahead of myself. I had one more crucial involvement with the Maestro before I left Austin Rover, and it concerned seat belts. Back then, rear belts were an option, and they could be retro-fitted as a Unipart accessory. But to do that, you had to cut holes in the parcel shelf fillets – the plastic filler-pieces between the shelf and the sides of the car – unless, of course, all cars had pre-made cut-outs.
The trouble with doing this, went the debate, was that you could see these ugly slots through the glass, where they would draw attention to the absence of said rear belts. More than anything, we worried about undermining the perceived quality of the Maestro’s interior (which seems like a joke when you consider the loose assemblage of strangely shaped bits that counted for a dashboard in the early cars).
I recommended fitting all the cars with the cut-outs, imagining owners struggling with Stanley knives as they attempted to fashion the slots for themselves, and wondering whether at some point, rear belts might not be standardised in any case.
Regrets – they’ve had a few
Anyway, I’m proud to say that the company acted on my recommendation, saved itself the trouble of making two versions of the rear parcel shelf fillets, and moved into profit shortly afterwards. Alright, I lied about the last bit.
I went onto test quite a few Maestros during the life of the range, always admiring the airiness of the interior, and the above-average ride-versus-handling compromise, if little else. And the MG was a hoot. Yet with the Maestro I always felt that creeping regret that I do with so many BL models, knowing – and wishing – that it could have been so much better.
Some further info…
Today, there are still a healthy number of enthusiasts for Maestros and Montegos, although the cars have yet to achieve the cult status of the preceding Allegro. There are two clubs dedicated to these cars: the Maestro and Montego Owners Club (MMOC) catering for the family runabouts, and the MG’M’ Group 1998 which specialises in the high-performance MG versions, including the sought after limited edition Turbo model.