Essay : Austin Maestro styling – the real killer

Ian Nicholls discusses the Austin Maestro’s styling, and concludes that it was bad enough to cause a change in fortunes of BL. Then it was more of the same with the Montego.

Just when the company needed some good fortune, a series of management blunders led to two of the most ineptly styled mid-sized cars hitting the market in the most design-conscious decade of them all, the 1980s.

Austin Maestro: spelling trouble with a capital ‘T’…

Austin Maestro

One reason cited for the Austin Maestro and Montego’s failure to sell in the numbers expected was its undistinguished styling. The Austin Metro launched in 1980 looked state of the art; it was attractive yet modern – the archetypal Eurobox. Somehow this momentum was thrown away with the Maestro and Montego. The Maestro was meant to replace the Austin Allegro, so how could BL get it so wrong? The ramifications of this would reach the corridors of power, and the media would join Government ministers and senior civil servants in asking searching questions as to whether Austin Rover really had the management, engineering and production skills in depth for a long-term future.

According to this site’s Austin/MG Maestro development story: ‘The question of styling was never an issue, as it had been during the development of the Metro. David Bache, as overall Head of Styling and Design at British Leyland had ensured that the Solihull Design Office had taken full control of Maestro styling from the point of its go ahead when the LC10 was presented to the BL Board in May 1976.’

‘Ian Beech, under the direction of Bache had quickly devised a glassy, five-door design that had echoes of the Maxi and Allegro, but with some styling cues from the Rover SD1 thrown in for good measure. Initially, there had been five full-size clay models (two Solihull, two Longbridge and one, perhaps, by Pininfarina), but following early customer clinics, these were whittled down to two – the now familiar Bache/Beech design and one by Harris Mann. Malcolm Harbour and Spen King both believed that the decision to ditch the Harris Mann effort was a little premature because the design evolved nicely, and although it did not start off very well in the eyes of management, it evolved into a very handsome design. In fact, customer clinic results showed that the Mann design was by then ahead of the Beech’s effort, but by this time LC10 was committed to the Solihull scheme.’

Exasperation over Bache’s design direction

Barney Sharratt’s 2000 book ‘Men and Motors of the Austin’ is an excellent source of quotes on this period. Former Rootes man, Rex Fleming, who was involved in the Harris Mann proposal, was blunt: ‘At a viewing of both cars we couldn’t believe it when David Bache said he thought Ian Beech’s model was the right route to take and that Harris Mann’s was completely wrong. Here was the boss of styling supposedly presenting two cars to management but completely dumping on one of them. If he didn’t damn well like it, he shouldn’t have been showing it. In fact, the shape of the panels on Harris Mann’s car would have given it a more solid, better quality look. The production Maestro was a good package and had a good interior so it must have failed on its appearance or desirability.’

Ian Beech said in his defence: ‘In fact, the Maestro had to tread water for so long that it lost some of its freshness… Crisp cars were considered modern when I started on the Maestro in 1976 but it ended up with even more of a folded paper look than it was meant to. Apparently the Body Engineers liked the sharp features I had given it so they decided to emphasise them a little. It took ages to get the Maestro into production and once there it wasn’t replaced as soon as it should have been. It meant the Maestro was always out of phase with the current trends. David Bache didn’t have a lot of input but he was very good at looking at a design and picking out anything not quite right.’

The problem for any historian is trying to find the truth from the myriad of statements that are often the product of bruised egos, injured pride and attempts to deflect criticism for failure onto others. Who does one believe?

So, why didn’t they back Mann’s design?

Harris Mann's version of the LC10 was judged by many to be the best concept, and yet it was passed over in favour of Ian Beech's final solution.
Harris Mann’s version of the LC10 was judged by many to be the best concept, and yet it was passed over in favour of Ian Beech’s definitive design

The whole issue of car styling is subjective, what one person may find attractive, another may find objectionable. Why did BL go with the Bache/Beech design? Perhaps it is something to do with the stock that David Bache and Harris Mann were held in at the time, May 1976. At the time David Bache was one of the most outstanding car stylists in Europe. The Rover P5 and P6 had been personal triumphs for him and the forthcoming Rover SD1 was perhaps the most sensational looking car since the Jaguar E-type and many other cars were to take their styling cues from it.

On the other hand, Harris Mann’s track record looked poorer. All the cars he had been involved in were in trouble. The Austin Allegro had disastrously failed to sell, the Triumph TR7 was threatening to kill Triumph and the motoring press were filled with tales of woe about the Princess. Why these cars did not sell as well as expected is a separate area for discussion, although the poor build quality and disaffection amongst the workforce cannot be blamed on Harris Mann. It may have been that some within BL saw him as a scapegoat for the company’s woes.

Certainly the Harris Mann LC10 proposal looks a lot more modern than the Bache/Beech design that became the Maestro we know and love. It has a more anonymous Eurobox look that would have not looked out of place on 1980s roads with Metros, Escorts and Astras.

And now for the Montego

BL management opted for a Roger Tucker design, but with reservations. The Austin Montego development story states: ‘As the LM10 neared production, the design and implementation of the LM11 went ahead. Whereas the Maestro was pretty much the product of one man, the LM11 Montego was not. David Bache left BL after being fired by Harold Musgrove in 1981 following protracted disagreements (“the last straw was at a (Montego) styling review where Bache ignored several instructions to shut up from Musgrove – his last interruption was just that”) – and, when he left, the Maestro was a mere four months from production and therefore, its styling was fixed. The Montego, however, was well advanced in its development and production engineering was also well under way, but the styling had yet to be finally signed off.

‘The Montego had been taking shape at the Longbridge Design Office behind the Maestro as the larger saloon car it was designed to be – the wheelbase was longer than the Maestro’s, but was to the original LC10 dimension (the Maestro’s was shorter because it had 2.4 inches taken out of it) but, due to the fitment of the more compact S-Series engine, the Montego was given a slightly lower bonnet line and longer, more tapered nose. The major changes were to the front and rear of the car, where the styling from Roy Tucker’s saloon proposal was grafted onto the centre section of Ian Beech’s design. It looked different to the Maestro, but at the same time, because it was the product of two different Designers, it was an unhappy mixture of ideas. Malcolm Harbour reiterated the danger of adopting Ian Beech’s design for the LC10: the side doors with their pronounced scallops would influence very heavily the way that the saloon looked – and so it was thus.

‘Because the doors from the Maestro were used, there was the need to add a sixth-light to accommodate the extra length. The problem was that the extra rear side windows were incorporated to look like an extension to the rear screen, like a huge wrap around swathe of glass. The end result could not be happily integrated into the styling and this rear aspect no doubt spoiled what could have been a tidily styled Eurobox.’

A tale of a car designed by committee

So, there you have it. The Montego was basically Ian Beech’s Maestro welded to Roger Tucker’s bonnet and boot! You couldn’t invent this stuff! Harris Mann was the gentleman tasked with ‘welding’ two different designs together. He commented: ‘David Bache insisted on offering Musgrove these American-type schemes for the rear end – little opera and so on. We told him (Harold) Musgrove didn’t want anything like that but he insisted we do them for a presentation. When Musgrove walked in he completely blew his top and walked out again. David was a very free and easy character. I don’t think he liked Longbridge. He certainly didn’t spend very much time with us. We were told after each viewing what was required for the next one. There might be a month between the viewings, but David would rarely visit us.’

If the whole styling story of the Maestro and Montego sounds shambolic and farcical, then the question should be asked whether David Bache was the right man to be in charge of Austin Rover styling. His greatest designs were executive cars, the classic Solihull Rovers, which needed a distinctive style. He had no track record in designing cheap and nasty Euroboxes. Perhaps his talents could have been better utilised at Jaguar? In selecting unconventional designs he put Austin Rover at a disadvantage in comparison with Ford and GM. That said the 1959-67 Ford Anglia 105E had an unconventional style and did not sell much less than the Mini but, if one considers that it was an ADO16 rival as well, then it sold poorly in comparison.

But where was BL management during this period? The only firm dates we have are the May 1976 viewing of the competing LC10 designs and 1981 when Austin Rover boss Harold Musgrove fired David Bache. These two cars, the Maestro and Montego, were absolutely vital for the BL recovery plan. They were meant to generate the profits to fund the next generation of BL cars.

So, why wasn’t something done to stop it?

Image leaked to CAR magazine in 1981...
Image leaked to CAR magazine in 1981…

Surely someone within senior BL management such as Sir Michael Edwardes, Ray Horrocks or Harold Musgrove should have intervened before things went too far? The 1980 Vauxhall Astra was the new state of the art styling wise, and a succession of cars emerged in the years to come that all had a similar look, including BL’s own Metro in 1980. Why was the styling of LM10/LM11 allowed to get out of hand and proceed to production? I cannot accept that BL management just sat back and let the styling department drift aimlessly.

In September 1981 images of the forthcoming LM10 Maestro appeared in CAR magazine. Who leaked them to the press? Was it the now redundant David Bache? Austin Rover replaced David Bache with ex-Rootes and Chrysler man Roy Axe, who had more experience in styling bread and butter cars.

Roy Axe recalled: ‘I was ushered into a room and stood in front of this object and asked, “What do you think of that?” It was the Maestro. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The car’s whole stance and proportion were wrong. The spiky lines and all the facets and scallops made the surfaces look hollow and weak. Design was moving into more rounded forms and this car was back in the old folded paper era. Its proportions were peculiar too. Its front wheels were almost under the A pillar, producing an enormous front overhang, and there was virtually no rear overhang so the car had a very awkward stance. The sill was very high off the ground and looked even higher because of the way it sloped under. In short, it was a complete shambles. I thought so and said so. The interior was even worse. The fascia panel was like a wet codfish, all floppy. It was engineering of the 1950s not of the ’80s. To find a car that was two decades out in its thinking was just mind boggling. When I said, “We have got to start again”, it was made clear to me that the car was only four months off production so there was nothing anybody could do.’

The phrase ‘…it was made clear to me that the car was only four months off production,’ implies this event took place in late 1982.

A voice of sanity, albeit too late

Roy Axe continued: ‘A few days, later I was shown the Montego. That shook me even more. I was absolutely appalled. Roger Tucker’s front and rear ends had already been grafted on. Once again I suggested starting from scratch but it was made crystal clear to me in words that only Harold (Musgrove) would use that it was not an option. I simply had to improve it as much as I could. I went along with that but, in retrospect, it was not the right decision.

‘We changed the bumpers, the lamp configuration at front and rear, the bonnet and the rear screen. The wraparound window was something I wanted to get rid of altogether, but just couldn’t manage it, so we raised its base to strengthen the side view. But look at the proportional problems we had with that front wheel arch being hard against the door opening line. The wheel was so far back on that car it was just unbelievable. We lived with that and the enormous ground clearance for the rest of the car’s life. They had effectively produced a platform and then perched the people on top of it.

‘The result was a very high car, but with no more than normal headroom because the floor was so high. Proportionally, the car was a disaster all along the line. The Engineers had been running the operation and they provided the styling people with the package and there wasn’t really any opportunity to go back and say this is in the wrong place or that is in the wrong place… The car was 20 years old when it came out. I ought to have stopped it, but Ray Horrocks (BL MD) would have had to go back to the Government and tell them they had just screwed up in a big way and needed X more millions. He wasn’t in the mood to do that. But it was a car that should never have happened like that. It really shouldn’t. The company had invested millions in automated equipment to make this antiquated machine. It was tragic.’

In defence of the Montego

Roy Axe felt the Montego drove okay, commenting: ‘So it wasn’t an unpleasant car to drive but things fell off it all the time. It was unreliable.’

Austin Rover boss Harold Musgrove later defended himself over the Maestro and Montego: ‘Looking back, I feel we should have said it just wasn’t good enough and stopped it. But I don’t think we had the luxury of that being a possibility and, to be perfectly frank, it was infinitely better than the Princess or Allegro. But in market research it never managed to come first in any category – top in nothing. If Roy Axe had been responsible for it from the beginning it would have been an entirely different car.’

BL management had from 1976 to 1983 to stop the Maestro and Montego. Why didn’t they? As for the claims that Maestro and Montego were better than the Allegro and Princess that is open to debate.

Selling as well as a disappointing predecessor

Austin Allegro

The Maestro sold at about the same rate as the Allegro. The Princess was a more upmarket car than the Montego and therefore sold in lower volume. The Montego was really a replacement for the Morris Ital (nee Marina). Peak Montego production of 95,874 was in 1985 the first full year when it was on sale, which was similar to Marina production of 96,487 in strike-torn 1979 when the venerable Morris had been on sale for eight years.

The failure of the Maestro and Montego in the market place was a treble defeat for BL – it was a defeat in business, politics and public relations. The business defeat was the failure of the Edwardes plan to make BL a standalone company, forcing the company to ask the Government for more taxpayers’ money and go further up the path of collaboration with Honda.

The political defeat is closely related to the public relations defeat. The Conservative Government had been sold the Edwardes plan as the way forward and the launch of the Metro in 1980 suggested that BL was well on the way to prosperity. The engineering flair that had produced some of the world’s greatest cars seemed to be still alive within Austin Rover. When the Edwardes plan failed Mrs Thatcher lost patience and tried to offload Austin Rover to Ford.

Although there was a public outcry at this, one has to look at it this way: if a relative borrowed £10,000 for a business venture which didn’t go to plan and then came back for more money, the lender might be entitled to start asking serious questions as to how the business was run. Austin Rover had less than a 20% share of the UK new car market, but all of the UK’s taxpayers were keeping BL afloat.

Morris Ital

The golden opportunity, squandered

With the Maestro and Montego, Austin Rover threw away the golden opportunity to thrive without state aid and collaboration. The public relations defeat was in thwarting the hopes of many Britons that the UK could have a viable independent car industry and allowed old negative views about British cars to re-surface. To many, BL was now exposed as being rotten to the core, in every strata of its workforce from top to bottom. Stoppages were still occurring at Cowley and Longbridge which showed that old issues still lurked beneath the surface, the cars were still badly built, there were still design faults that were on cars leaving the factories, the models were stylistically challenged and the fact that they were all these things could be blamed on senior management which sanctioned them in the first place.

Sir George Harriman may have been in his grave for over a decade, but it seemed the management culture that had led to disaster was still alive in BMC/Austin-Morris/Austin Rover. And in the mid Eighties, most people who could afford new cars were likely to hold such views. The Government drafted in Graham Day to run BL and Roy Axe got on with the job of producing a range of cars that people actually wanted to own. His Maestro/Montego replacement, the Rover R8, became a bestseller, while many of those involved in the Maestro/Montego story left the company.

However, Rover never really recovered from the Maestro/Montego debacle, it was the end of the dream that Longbridge and Cowley could survive as producers of bread and butter cars and would always be dependent on outside help. One of the ironies of the story is that Peugeot enlisted the help of Pininfarina to style its 1980s cars to great success. Many of these cars emerged from Roy Axe’s erstwhile place of employment, Ryton, and Pininfarina had styled many BMC cars when the company’s products were at their sales zenith in the 1960s.

The Maestro and Montego were meant to re-capture that golden era, and they missed by a mile.

Crisply styled Rover R8 - the Maestro's replacement was a big seller...
Crisply styled Rover R8 – the Maestro’s replacement was a big seller…
Ian Nicholls
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  1. The R8 was a cracking looking car when launched and still looks good today.

    If only Roy Axe had been in on the Maestro & Montego from the start…..

  2. I don’t get that the Maestro’s styling is bad, I’ve always found it an attractive car, more so than the Mark 2 Astra, which lost the crispness of the Mark 1, and the uglified Escort Mark 4, where a good looking car was made cheap and nasty looking. To me, the Maestro had a friendly look and the styling was conservative but attractive, and it remained largely unchanged for 11 years as the buyers probably liked the styling.

    • Surely it was unchanged for 11 years as ARG effectively replaced it after 6 years with R8.

      I actually saw a Maestro yesterday, a G reg automatic, in an ASDA carpark! It’s certainly distinctive looking…

      • They do look a bit like an Allegro from the rear, but otherwise a much better looking car. I suppose the R8 sort of replaced the Maestro in 1989, but the Maestro had a second lease of life in diesel form, when police forces and fleets wanted a cheap to run car.

        • Did you happen to see the chrome bumper Maestro version in that godawful watership down adaption a while ago?
          Actually looked quite good..
          I’m seeing images of Vanden Plas & Wolseley versions. I wonder where I left the brain bleach..
          I never thought they were particularly bad looking cars, it was the colours that let them down – although there was a nice metallic blue.

    • I could not agree more with Glenn. I thought, and still think, that the Maestro was clean and airy looking, and much better in that respect than the stodgy Mark 2 Golf, the mark 2 Astra or any Escort

      • Sadly there is only one of you and several hundred thousand of everyone else who much preferred the Escort/Astra/Golf – Lets not forget all those cars also had relatively (for the time) modern powertrains with Alloy Heads, Hydraulic tappets and other gizmos at a time when your average motorist actually started taking an interest in such things. All the Maestro could offer was the ancient A series or a warmed over Maxi engine.

    • I would go along with the view that the Maestro’s styling was not bad. It may have been behind the most current thinking, themes at launch but the overall shape was far from ugly. It was quite a successful, more modern interpretation of a Maxi/Allegro hybrid. What let it down most, visually speaking, was the detailing. A later, MG 2.0 EFi is an attractive car. An early, beige 1.3L ain’t.
      I remember viewing a 1.6L at launch, and being very hopeful but hugely underwhelmed compared to my first viewing of a white Metro 1.0L a couple of years earlier. When first seeing a Montego in 1984, yes, I did have my reservations about the ‘opera’ rear window but I remember thinking how much better the detailing was, especially inside. That said, though, a Maestro dash looked far better in a light blue metallic HLS compared to a dowdy coloured 1.3L. The angular, several section look even had a functional appeal in the right colour, with higher trim.

  3. I had 2 Escort MK4’s as company cars. I always regard the MK4 as a facelifted MK3 rather than a 4. Mine had the 1.3 Valencia engine which actually went okay considering it was only 60bhp.

    • Agree – I always thought that the Escort only went to Mk4, that being the 1990 car. Only recently did I Realise that those who know about these things reckoned all the various facelifts and tweaks took things to Mk6!

  4. Visiting Gaydon a few months ago, where a steel bumpered Maestro was parked behind an Allegro 3, I have to say that the Allegro looked more modern and attractive! The base Maestros looked especially dull and undesirable.

    The long front overhang, especially on the Montego rather reminds me of the Peugeot 407, another challenging looking car…

    It’s ironic that the one time Harris Mann produces a pleasantly contemporary and uncontroversial design it’s not selected

  5. There’s no doubt that the Allegro is a prettier car. Would an Allegro 4 with upgraded hydrogas, a hatchback and improved engine and driveline be a better bet? Or an improved maxi (similar improvements) with a reskin and 4 door version.

    It;s the same argument about the Allegro v an upgraded 1100/1300 with better engines, the victoria reskin V the Allegro, ahd the Marina verses a sorted four door maxi.
    not sure what the answer is

  6. I think Harris Mann design could have been developed into a real contender if the company had been well managed, unfortunately BL was a mess. The design was similar in appearance to the metro which would have given it some help in sales and given the company a real modern looking line up. The design also doesn’t look like it drops down at the back.

    I also thought the mock up body that was on the spen King prototype looked better than the end product, just needed better design on handles and the rear end.

  7. Ignoring the fact that Mann’s design was the more contemporary of the 2 designs and furthermore the design continuity would have been a blessing to ARG, the Maestro did not fail on styling. In fact its styling was roundly praised, not just by the likes of Steve Cropley but design guru Stephen Bailey who lavished praise upon it.

    The Maestro, and the Montego failed because of atrocious build quality, patchy delivery and numerous minor and serious design faults. Pure and simple. If they had been built with the quality of a Ford, Vauxhall or VW then ARG would have been a viable company.

    Nobody buys a car which leaks, fails to start on a morning and rusts-out before its first MOT. To say anything otherwise is looking back with a view to revising history.

    • “Roundly praised”???

      Stephen Bailey might have liked it, but I’m not sure that’s a widespread view. The reliability and quality issues were a bigger problem, but to an extent is a car is attractive and “desirable” people can be more forgiving, e.g. the Land Rover Freelander 1

      • The view was widespread. I have never been able to find a single word of criticism from the time of launch in either in the press or from the dealer network. Plenty of criticism for availability, reliability, quality and powertrain however.

        • There were in fact words of criticism in the press – I wrote some of them as a 19 year old student in the form of a letter to Autocar magazine which was published the week after the Maestro was launched. I thought then – as I do now – that the car’s styling was massively compromised compared to its competitors, and I said as much. Two weeks later, a flood of replies to the magazine tried to tell me how wrong I was and that its looks would be a major contributor to its massive future success. Hmmm. I must try and dig out the Autocar issues in question.

  8. In some respects the Maestro’s styling was arguably how the Allegro should have resembled from the outset.

  9. I sold them new in early 86 and for years after many used, biggest fault the auto choke mostly retro fitted with a good old pull manual type and how the bumpers would shatter or crack easily if glanced on gate post etc. I like them to drive the auto VDP with the VW Golf box was especially good and even the 1.3HLE with the high economy top gear wasn’t bad!.

  10. “One of the ironies of the story is that Peugeot enlisted the help of Pininfarina to style its 1980s cars to great success.”

    Peugeot’s 1980’s success was down to the 205 which was an in-house design, Pininfarina only built the cabrio models.

    • The 205 was indeed designed in house, but not without significant input form Pininfarina (in the form of rejected styling proposals) that did influence the eventual design.

      However, Peugeot’s 1980’s success was very much enhanced by the 306 and 405, that were equally succesfull in their segments and (at least per unit) probably more profitable. Those were designed by Pininfarina, as well as the (admittedly unsuccesful) 605.

      • @ Zebo, prior to the 205, Peugeot wasn’t a major player in the British market, the 104 never took off and the bigger models like the 504 were seen as reliable and sturdy cars, but rather dull and not very exciting to drive. The 205, particularly the GTI and diesel models, attracted plenty of interest, while the 309 was a vastly better car than the Talbot Horizon it replaced, and being made in Britain, attracted the patriotic buyer. Also the British made 405 was a far better car than the Ford Sierra and looked excellent.

        • It also helped that by the 1980s most old Rootes / Chrysler / Talbot dealers were also selling Peugeots, & their range was beginning to look more attractive.

          Certainly by the mid 1980s 305s seemed to be common on the roads & 505 estates would have been attractive to large families before MPVs were common.

          • My local Chrysler dealer took on a Peugeot franchise when Peugeot bought out Chrysler. It was probably a very good move for him as sales of Talbots fell in the early eighties and the Peugeot 205 arrived at the right time. It did seem Peugept hit a golden era in the 1983-93 period as every car they launched was a success and cars like the 205, 405 and 306 were very good. Also not as well remembered as the 205, but the 305 was a decent car, my parents owned a 1983 305 S for a while and I remember it being very comfortable with an upmarket interior.

        • Glenn, I believe what you say goes for most of Europe outside France. The 404 and 504 were quite succesfull in their segments, but those segments weren’t the largets in the market. Peugeot was a relatively small, upmarket player (nicknamed “the French Mercedes”) until they bought Citroën and Chrysler Europe in 1976 and 1979 and introduced the 205 in 1983. Especially the latter transformed the company into the mass market player we know today.

          • The Peugeot 504 had a legendary reputation in Australia, starting with their win in the round Australia rally. It was seen as THE car for long distances in the outback, unless you could afford a W123 Mercedes

  11. Sad to say, particualrly as someone who has owned six BL etc cars over the years, but I think the firm was simply not able to deliver desirable vehicles. The entire product strategy around the Meostro/Montego was flawed. And the results of that are clear. The the senior manangement of both styling and engineering must surely take their share of the blame for that. But at the end of the day, the buck stops with the top management of the compnay.

  12. Glenn, one of my ex-colleagues had a couple of 305’s as company cars, the second one was in red and as you say had comfortable seating and seemingly good build quality. An unobtrusive car back then.

    • @ Hilton D, quite a good looking car and 1.6 versions were powerful. Made an interesting alternative to a Ford Orion and better made and quieter at speed. However, the 205 and the British built 309 were the cars that really established Peugeot in the British market.

      • Right Glenn… yes there certainly were more 309’s seen on UK roads than the 305, but I still prefer the look of the 305. As I get older, I seem to prefer the look of older cars!

  13. I remember when the Maestro came out it was looked on by the public as being an attractive alternative to the Astra and Escort. It was roomier thanks to its longer wheelbase and handled as well as its contemporaries. However, it didn’t take long for even the most loyal of customers to tire of the shoddy build quality.
    A friend of mine actually had two. The first one developed squeaks and rattles almost immediately, but the second car, the MG version, was a real hot hatch and most of the gremlins seem to have been ironed out. Too little too late perhaps?
    When the Montego came out I recall all the managers at the company where I worked requesting one as their next vehicle. It was viewed as a preferable alternative to the Vauxhall Cavalier and Ford Sierra.
    Like Maestro owners, those same managers realised all too soon that BL build quality was as bad as ever and not one replaced their Montego with another BL product.
    Incidentally, my Maestro-loving friend desperately wanted to replace the MG with the new 200 hatch, but was offered washers for his car. He, instead, went to check out the VW Golf, was made a sensible offer and has driven VW products ever since.
    In my view, the styling had little to do with the cars’ troubles; it was shoddy build quality that wrecked their chances.

  14. I owned an HLE and still find the styling attractive, especially having so much glass and the big back doors. The one thing I’d change would be the white-look front indicator lenses, which someone at BL thought would be a marketing point

  15. A very interesting article, thank you!
    I remember early Maestro reviews talking of ‘BL’s impressive new hatchback’. My Dad had one, a dark blue 1.3L with the early-type dashboard. I recall it was spacious and had acres of glass. He didn’t keep it long though, the gearchange wasn’t great and the dreaded engine electronic gremlins put him off in the end.
    I did get to drive later examples of MG Maestro and Montego VP, both being EFI variants. I remember those as being much more like it, smooth, comfortable and quick.
    Styling is subjective of course, but neither the Maestro or Montego struck me as being controversial. Certainly not in the way the early Sierra was. And massively improved over plain-Jane Maxi and the too-compromised Allegro.
    The Montego estate won a Design Council award so must have had something going for it. In diesel Countryman form it was for a short while regarded as being an excellent family car.
    Ultimately they kept the seat warm until the 200/400 and the 600 came along.

  16. I can understand that the models had to make it to market for political reasons. However to leave them unchanged for so long was surprising. Ford would change the Escort every few years, so surely a quick refresh of the design, as with the Princess to Ambassador could have been done.
    Elsewhere on this site there is a picture of Axe’s mini 800 design for the Montego that would have been a massive improvement to the image in the late 80s
    The two Tone paintjobs helped and to me the Maestro and Montego were comparable with the opposition. Reliability wise, my experience is that the Maestro was better than the Escort, but somehow the Ford product seemed to get an easier ride.

  17. At one time we had a Maestro 1.3HLE [my brother] and an Escort 1.4LX [mine] in our family. The Maestro was the disgusting chocolate brown colour which hid the inevitable rust so well. The Escort in Metallic Grey. The Maestro had the 3+E gearbox, Escort a slick 5 speeder. Neither was a great drive, the Maestro best described as “stodgy” with permanent understeer, the Escort was lighter but twitchy in turns and unstable in cross winds. The A+ engine rattly and with the dreadful automatic choke, the Escort CVH, even though not Fords finest moment, was streets ahead in terms of power and refinement.
    Which would I choose? Bluntly, neither were much good. The Maestro was spacious but felt antediluvian, even for the 1980s. The Escort more modern but still not a good drive. The Maestro was more reliable but dull, dull, dull.
    In the end, I opted to get rid of the Escort and went for a Golf Mk2 which I kept for over 7 years.

  18. Depressing, Allegro them Maestro, crippled then fatal. There are no excuses, they had years to develop it and all the rest. Depressing. I remember the late 1980’s when around here about everybody was driving a Renault. A Maestro was seen as about slightly better than a Lada. Of course they were not that bad, just was the styling as this article describes. Those scollops and the sills made the car look half built then as Roy Axe seen the overhangs made it look like all 4 wheels were pushed back. I had a summer job in a garage in 1990 and a Maestro 1.3 came in needing a head gasket. I went to open the glove box and the handle came off. Just was something too sickening about them. Was a Renault 11 a worse car at the time? Hard to say, however there was no way Austin-Rover was going to sell as many units as Renault did with the 9 and 11 and they were designed and built just to be cheap cars.

  19. Even at launch the Maestro was a dumpy dowager designed for old people. My brother owned one in dog turd brown, which he intended to use as a taxi (but didn’t, it’s a long story). It was a 1.3HLE and therefore hasthe “3+E” gearbox and the LED ecometer. Yes, it was spacious, and it handled passably due to the low weight of the A series, but God almighty it was DULL inside and out.

    At the same time I had a Mk2 Astra. Not as good as the Mk1, but still passably spacious inside, amazing on the motorway due to the aerodynamic shape and a nice interior, decades ahead of the Maestro which was like something out of the late 60s. The Astra had a more convenient boot due to the lower loading lip and the zippy Vauxhall Family II engines.

    As for the Montego, it was undeniably awkward in terms of styling, and the pseudo wrap around rear window never really worked stylistically. I drove a 1.6 on a few occasions and found that the interior creaked, groaned and flexed and the 1.6 engine decidedly less exciting than the equivalent Vauxhall Cavalier 1.6.

    Harris Mann’s LC10 would have been a worthy competitor to the Astra / Escort / Golf alternatives, especially with a decent selection of engines. Regardless of how reliable the A series was it was 30 years behind the VX Family 2 / Ford CVH and VW EA827 engines.

    What a waste.

    • The Ford CVH was an OK engine, but nothing special, and by the late eighties was found wanting in terms of economy and refinement. Vauxhall’s Family 2 engines, even if they were Opels really, certainly led the way for refinement, power and economy in the era of carburated engines. Yes the camshaft could fail at 80,000 miles and belt changes had to be carried out religiously at 36.000 miles, but for the time, the Famlly 2 was a good engine.
      Mind you, we mustn’t be too harsh on the A series that lived on until the end of the Mini. It was a simple design that was easy to maintain and fairly reliable, and improvements made to the engine in 1980 made economy excellent for the time. Probably by the mid eighties, the A series was becoming old fashioned, but it was no worse than the Ford CVH and considerably better than the Simca engines used in Talbots.

  20. I’ve never understood the comment in this article about the car having elements of the Maxi and Allegro styling. I still dont get the Maxi but there is a picture of a prelaunch Maestro behind a Jetta based mule on the Maestro development story page. It has smaller indicators and suddenly it looks like a clear development of the Allegro face. What on earth possesses a management team to reference a car that was panned for its looks when it was new, let alone once it had become old? Sorry, I know this is a site for those who love AR/BL etc (I love some of them and enjoy reading about all of them) and no doubt many of you love the Allegro and Maxi…but being polite neither of them had a commercially successful look…To reference them in the Maestro was bonkers×426.jpg

    • That’s not a design direction though, is it? Looks to me like parts bin on purpose disguising? Like the Maestro Van with the Freelander running gear.

  21. Apart from being too high off the ground, I like the Maestro styling. It was different compared with the bland euro boxes which were its competitors.

    The Montego was less successful in my eyes – less distinctive and more bland. I had several as company cars and I liked them, especially the roomy estates which looked better than the salons.

    I had a couple of MG Montego Turbos as well. Fast, comfortable and well equipped. And nothing went wrong with either of them.

  22. The Maestro could claim it was in production for 2 years longer than the Allegro and the diesel versions became popular as police cars due to the economy and durability of the engine, and some private buyers were being won over by the turbodiesel, which offered 65 mpg if driven gently. All wasn’t lost the Maesttro as it ended life with a better reputation than it started and MG Turbo versions became cult classics.

  23. My old company had a Montego 1.6 base estate (B reg) which wasn’t bad for a base trim car and went reasonably well. It was replaced with a facelift 1.6 LX which was better (trim, colour, performance etc).

    When my colleague retired he bought it from the company and ran it successfully for a couple more years.

    My favourite Montego’s were the MG variants and the Monty Si in the late 80s.

    • Had the Maestro been reliable and better built from the start, it could have done well. At last this was a British Leyland car that had the logical 1.3 and 1.6 litre engines like the Escort and was a hatchback like most its rivals. Most reviewers were quite favourable about the Maestro and reckoned it could be as big a success as the Metro in the class below, which had occasionally been the best selling new car in Britain. Also there wasn’t the instant contempt or lukewarm reviews that greeted the Allegro ten years earlier.

      • Both the Maestro & Montego had poor quality control early on that damaged their reputation, which they never seemed to shake off even when things improved,

        • @richardpd, a shame as both were otherwise quite good cars and were almed at the Escort and Sierra, and in some cases better. Yet when things came good for both cars, it was too late, but some buyers took a chance and found the Rover era cars to be quite good. I always found the Montego estate in British Racing Green to be quite a stylish car and good to drive in either 2 litre petrol or diesel form.

          • Agreed Glenn… BRG on a Montego Estate did look good. Our company’s was in light blue metallic that also looked good. It was a better car than the pre facelift originals

  24. The Perkins Prima diesel engines also improved the Maestro & Montego.

    I can remember my late Dad had a pre-facelift when his Cavalier was being fixed & we needed to make a long distance journey.

    He wasn’t that impressed by the roadholding and that it was a poor cold starter.

    • The Perkins engines probably kept the Maestro and Montego alive for a few more years and in its last two years of production, you could only buy a Montego with a diesel engine as sales of petrol models had dried up. In the early nineties,

      • And the R8 Rovers were starting to get more popular in the early 90’s too… with petrol engines. a high point for ARG then

      • The last regular Montego production was for estates only, until the Rover 200 estate was launched.

        Saloons were only availably fleet orders, I remember a mid 1990s Parkers Guide stating this.

        • The Ministry of Defence ordered one of the last batches of Montego saloons for use as officer transport. I suppose Rover would have given them a decent deal and the bean counters in the MOD would have liked the low running costs.

          • I heard some were mothballed by the MOD & never actually used by them.

            If you see a green Montego on a P reg it might be one of these.

  25. If the R8 series Rover 200 was seen as being the Maestro replacement, then it follows the 400 series saloon & Touring estate car would be the Montego replacements (?)

  26. The Maestro has more kerb appeal than many modern hatchbacks, all cars look the same today, there is no character in the modern hatchback, lok at the VW Golf Mark, is at best bland, or confused, designed by a committee

    • I don’t think all cars today don’t look the same; I can easily identify one from another.

      I think all cars from the 1930s and 40s look the same; not only that, they also seem to all be the same colour – black.

    • I’ve always liked the Maestro’s looks and was tempted to buy one buy one back in the day. I didn’t, having been warned off by my sister who worked for Hertz, and was all too aware of the model’s reliability failings. I don’t know which Golf you refer to in your post, but if it’s the Mk8, I agree that it’s bland and has lost the good looks of the Mk7.5. This happens quite often I think, when stylists mess with a successful design, and attempt to “improve” it.

    • You obviously have no idea! The Golf 7 is a masterclass in giving what the majority of the public want, right up to the R model.

  27. OK, it’s just me, but in my eyes the LC10 has always been a very, very nice effort. Compare it with a contemporary 2nd generation Golf, for example. OK, the Maestro was far from a wedge shape, but therefore featuring an enormous glass surface, bright grill and colour-keyed bumpers and those cut-off corners which I liked at that time and still do now.

  28. The Maestro was somewhat “styling-challenged” when compared to the likes of the Golf.

    I always thought they looked over-inflated and too-round; the way the doors/sills tucked-under the body seemed all wrong. If they’d added an extra three inches of width to the floorpan and had the doors ome down more-vertically into the sill-line without the tuck-under [or if they’d fitted some sort of body-kit with skirts that broadened out the car’s lower-waistline] it would have looked better.

    The ride-height also seemed wrong: there were some later ones that looked like they had raised suspension! [a hint to the decade-later Rover Streetwise? Or were they just usinmg up their stock of Maestreo Van springs on saloons/estates?]

    Lowering things by an inch and a half would have improved appearance as well as going some way to hide the aforementioned sill-tuck-under.

    I always thought that the Maestro could have spawned a three-door coupe/semi-fastback version [like the BMW 2002 Touring, or maybe rear door styled like the Triumph GT6] to add some vaguely-sporty image and woo the 20/30-year-olds who were otherwise buying Golf GTIs. A 3-door Montego – think low-budget Scimitar GTE – would also have had an image-boosting place in the lineup.

    So many lost opportunities… but would they have been enough given the build-quality and reliability issues which blighted all the “M” cars?

  29. Apart from anything else, the Maestro and Montego had NO family resemblance to the Metro, which seems bizarre. Surely they could have tried to update the LC10 before launch to look more modern, and more like the Metro?

  30. Your comment is a good point. The Maestro was signed off in 77, but actually no tooling or work was done to produce it until 79 when the Metro was signed off, so wouldn’t you review the design again before committing to develop and build it?

    • Especially when around that time they spent money to give the Ital and Ambassador “sloping noses” to make them look more modern, it seems bizarre to not do the same for an all new model. The Metro, Ital and Ambassador all had a family resemblance.

      Indeed to me the Ambassador looks more modern than the Maestro, especially against the base model Maestros with their steel bumpers.

      • Would it have been a simple matter of carrying over the sloping nose of the Longbridge LC10 proposal by Harris Mann, since it possesses potential to resemble the Metro?

        The Maestro-derived FAW Lubao CA6410 provides an imperfect mismatch in carrying over the Montego’s slightly lower bonnet line and longer more tapered nose, that aside was there a way they could have been better integrated yet distinguished from the Montego?

  31. Logically the Maestro should have been salvaged like the Metro was and visually transformed into a rough in-between composite of the Metro and Montego, which would have allow the possibility of it receiving an AR9 type facelift at minimum later on.

    In that case the Longbridge LC10 proposal by Harris Mann would have probably been the correct design for the task above, then the hybrid Ian Beech/Roger Tucker proposal ultimately chosen.

  32. The Maestro always looked fine to me, but its styling always put me in mind of other family hatchbacks released in the mid’70s to early ‘80s, such as the Talbot Horizon, Mk1 Golf, Mk3 Fiesta and, at the wackier end of the spectrum, the Fiat Strada. Trouble is by the mid ‘80s, shortly into the Maestro’s production run car styling gained a new trend; the aero look. Basically a front end with a bonnet line dropping somewhere between the headlights, coupled with a softening of any sharp angles around the car. This was most typified by the Mk2 Astra. Now whether or not you’re a fan of that type of styling, it quickly became the norm, and the poor old Maestro was left behind by this trend, and suddenly looked like a design from a previous age. AR rectified this with the R8, but between around ‘85 to ‘89 their family car offering suddenly saw its showroom appeal ebb away relative to the competition. A facelift in the vein of the Mk3 to Mk4 Escort would have solved the issue to some extent. Maybe even a cheap fix like fitting the more “aero look” front end panel work of the Montego (possibly with different grille/bumper arrangement to still differentiate the two models?) could have addressed this issue?

  33. Four round headlights at the front would have been a good [and cheap] mid-80s styling-update too.

  34. @ Mowog, maybe for the MG, which would make the car look more sporting, but most light medium cars of this era only had the standard two headlight front end, and I can’t see how it could have helped sales.

  35. As with all subjective things, there will always be people that love the styling of the Maestro and Montego and, if you do love it, then that’s great. The plain fact is that most people didn’t and sales backed this up, just as they did with the Allegro. If they had produced something more in tune with the vogue of the times, it may all have been quote different.

  36. What is clear from the pictures above is that both the allegro and the marina looked better than the maestro or the montego.
    I know that there was a Allegro 4 talked about. Lets say this was an allegro with the A+/S engine married to the Vag transmission and perhaps with a hatchback option. More work put in on NHV. Would it have sold better than the Maestro. Perhaps. I think a lot of people were a bit shocked that the maestro had dumped hydrogas. It worked well in the series 3 and we were told was cheaper than conventional suspension. The Maestro (rightly or wrongly) seemed like a step back. BL buying in a transmission and losing the USP of hydrogas.

    I’ve always thought the Marina/Ital was a pretty car. But could it have been brought up to date sufficiently to be competitive? There would have needed to be some sheetmetal changes to make it “new” perhaps grafting the Coupe end onto the salon body. layout would still have been rear wheel drive but the was not much wrong with the gearbox. It already had the O in 1.7 and 2lt Could the A+ have been pushed up to a 1.4?
    Then the suspension. The torsion bars and leaf springs would have to go. Would Mcpherson struts have fitted? Could you fit it out with hydrogas. More attention to NVH. I’m sure it could have been done. Expensive but surely less expensive than a brand new model.
    With hind sight, although both the M cars were fundamentally good cars, these updated cars could hardly have sold worse.

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