Back in 2011, I visited a fair-sized barn in North Yorkshire full of Maestros, Montegos and the odd Metro. I’m a former Austin Maestro owner, admirer and salesman, so it was not without some sadness that I pondered on the decline and unrealised potential of the Maestro.
BBC Radio 4 had recently broadcast a programme by Steven Punt (of Punt and Dennis fame) called Uncool Britannia which focused on the Austin ‘Miracle’ Maestro. My then boss had taken part in the programme along with a few motoring rotters and all had wide-ranging views on BL’s failed hatchback.
Here, though, I’d like to bring some more attention to the surprising indifference and neglect inflicted upon the Maestro during its 11-year lifespan by its various parent companies.
Rewind to 1 March 1983
Following the launch of the highly successful Metro, the Maestro was the car to bring home the profits for BL and lead us all to a bright, prosperous future. It was well received at launch for its sound design as trumpeted by Stephen Bayley among others and even the ever-critical CAR magazine.
The car promised a lot with high-tech features in a remarkably spacious and airy body shell and superb ergonomics.
Sadly, as we all know, the Maestro never lived up to expectations and was cut adrift during its lifetime in favour of Honda-based in-house rivals. That need never have happened – if only some loving care and attention had been given to this practical mid-ranger. Why was the car just completely ignored by management and engineers alike?
Austin Montego arrives
When the Montego was launched in 1984, it was already several steps ahead of the Maestro in terms of style, engineering and customer appeal. It needed to be to face the Yuppie-fuelled 1980s. It slowly started donating bits and pieces of its powertrain: the S-Series engine, the fuel injected O-Series and PG1 combination for the MG variant, its slick one-piece dashboard and various other items of trim.
This all made sense – keep the Maestro as up-to-date as possible and maximise component commonality to maintain a profit margin.
When Montego went WOW! with smart two-tone paint and a slide and tilt sunroof, so too did the Maestro – even if the dealers had to apply the Tempest Grey paint themselves and cut a hole in the roof for a tilt and remove glass roof affair. Such were unsold stocks and unanticipated demand…
Roverisation is invented
Sadly, this rationality was bizarrely lost when the Montego received its one and only facelift in 1988. The Montego facelift (was there a code name?) was a jolly decent effort for a few pennies which required no major changes to body or interior.
Briefly, the Montego got a combined Lucas ECU, a revised dashboard, new internal door cards and R8-style door cappings (with or without tree), Rover’s excellent ‘World Seat’ with attendant tasteful fabrics and, best of all, standardisation of the licence-built PG1 gearbox courtesy of Honda.
The updated Montego also had a cracking turbo diesel engine which had been under going proving in n/a form by in the Maestro van. The term and the philosophy of Roverisation had been invented and the world was about to rave about it when applied to moribund Austins.
At this point in the production cycle, it would have made perfect sense for the Maestro to have followed Montego and receive its Roverisation. Its position in the sales charts was slipping like a contaminated clutch and ARG needed every sale they could muster. Management had by now ruled out a proper facelift for the range in favour of putting their shirts on Honda-based offerings.
Yet ARG also knew that they were chasing a premium market with said joint ventures, progressively moving their cars upmarket and charging heavily for it. The Maestro could and should have been used to plug the gap between an up and coming Hyundai Pony and the ever-aspirational Volkswagen Golf.
Chase volume, chase the cost conscious, chase the practical buyer, re-chase the fleet buyer but, most of all, chase a bit of profit. The Maestro could have easily done this with a tiny bit of time and effort: indeed, it put up a valiant fight to the very end against the Escort despite the dated ungainliness.
The Dealer Network despaired with the Maestro and ARG’s indifference towards it. They could see that, despite the passage of time, there was a decent car trying to get out and a willing public wanting to buy it – if only it could be made to work properly.
One frequent complaint raised in Dealer Network meetings was the shockingly reluctant and unreliable gear change. It may have looked good on paper, but the VW ‘box was a big let down in reality.
Notchy, slow, unpleasant to use and with a poorly designed and built linkage, it was the car’s most obvious weak point in every sense. Women especially, were staying away from the Maestro for this one reason. Would the management listen? No, of course not. The limited edition Turbo was a sop to the dealers and, even then, its run of 500 was less that hoped for. Water leaks too, constantly created a running battle between a disillusioned buyer and a weary dealer. I’m not even going to mention the electronic choke.
Off the shelf engineering
It really didn’t have to be like that. ARG now had the PG1 in its hands and had tooled-up to allow fitment of it to the S-Series for both Montego and Rover 216. Surely it could have done the same for the bag-of-nails A-Series as well, for relatively lose change? Why did they not just fit it to the Montego when they knew it could rejuvenate its sister car?
Those customers who insisted on buying ARG, and who knew of the dodgy gear change, bought a 213 instead. ARG may have retained the sale but, in doing so, it lost vital (and substantial) profit and added a customer to a waiting list. All the while a newly-built Maestro sat unwanted on a disused airbase.
Crazy stuff… However, it gets even more frustrating when the subject of build quality is touched upon. Maestros (as mentioned above) leaked like crazy and a ‘routine’ PDI could take as long as 24 hours to rectify faults. Management blamed workforce, workforce blamed engineers. In truth, all were responsible for the situation, because the same factory could knock out Triumph Acclaims without fault or blemish at a fast pace. Consider this: the machinery used to build the Maestro was state of the art compared to anything in the world, let alone a CKD Honda.
Just why, then, did it take over four years for the Maestro to receive the sensible and stylish Montego updates, when the car was fast fading away and being subject to criticism? I’ve no idea if I’m honest. The three rotary dials the Montego used for heating and ventilation controls were an excellent update – they tied the fascia to the upcoming R8 style and they were more user friendly that the existing (largely obscured) switch and slider arrangement.
Those Montego vent dials would also star in the LDV Bulldog range and the MGR V8 – likewise the repositioned and restyled buttons for the heated rear window, rear wash, rear wipe and rear fogs. These went on to star in all sorts of BL-based vehicles, even in the MG TF. It just didn’t make sense NOT to share the Montego love with its sister car, especially in light of the forthcoming R6 Metro facelift.
Internal door arm rests are a case in point. The Montego got a choice of two restyled items, the Metro got a restyled item which was the same as a base Montego’s, yet the Maestro stuck with the original. Surely all of these bits of trim should have been made universal across the Triple M range to save money, add a family theme and keep them all relatively contemporary?
Finally, let us look the ‘World Seat’ as first appeared on XX. It was an excellent design in conjunction with ICI which was a world leader in duel density foam and ergonomics. This seat went on to comfort in Metro, Montego, R8, R17, Mini and could also, in fact, be found in the SAIC Motor-built MG TF. Yet bizarrely, the Maestro only got it at the very, very end of its life. WHY?
Spen King’s package – still sound
The Maestro’s basic package never fell out of fashion at any time during its lifecycle. Indeed, the Ford Focus, in my eyes, could have been son of the Maestro in so many ways. Europe’s insatiable demand for hatchbacks of this size continued to grow and ARG should have Roverised the Maestro to fill-in demand where R8 fell short.
The R8 fell short in a few notable areas, losing sales which could have been mopped-up by a more competitive Maestro until R3 and HH-R burst on the scene. We have touched upon the lower end of the spectrum, an area where Hyundai and Skoda were making inroads and where the Astra Merit and Escort Popular held sway. The Clubman-spec Maestro did very well in this area, especially when the excellent diesel arrived (late). However, there were those who felt the R8 lacked a practical package and that the car cost too much.
There was also the occasional 12-16 week waiting lists for R8 to deter buyers. Getting a potential customer into the showroom is difficult enough, so if you’ve got them captive, scalding hot coffee in hand, having an alternative car to sell would have been ideal.
Enter the K-Series
The Maestro Clubman and, surprisingly, LX-spec cars continued to sell of their own accord but they weren’t without issues. A-Series cars couldn’t comfortably cope with unleaded and would run-on. Catalysts, uncontrolled but mandatory, would block up and break down. There was, of course, the ever-present gear change to contend with and the lack of PAS on 1.3s was becoming a sticking point. Bumpers continued to crack and shatter too.
Rover Group should, in my opinion, have launched a K-Series Maestro a year before the R8 in conjunction with a full transfer of Roverised Montego trim and the PG1 on S-Series. This product move would have allowed Rover three full bites of K-Series publicity. Rover Group should have launched the 1.4-litre 8-valve in the Maestro – after all, it had been used as the K-Series test mule.
The Rover 214 got the 1.4-litre 16-valve with injection and, finally, the Metro/R6 got to debut the sweet 1.1-litre 8-valve K. All met with critical acclaim and, in the case of the 214/R8, it had the benefit of additional testing of engine and R65 box (there were a few teething troubles on both). The Maestro would have been given a much-needed shot of steroids in the arm. Can you imagine that outstanding engine replacing the expensive to build, heavy in weight and lengthy to service A-Series nail?
A K-Series-engined Maestro would have come with a delightful new Rover-manufactured gearbox, no emissions issues and marginally lighter steering. No electronic choke either. It would not have detracted from the almighty bang with which the R8 was launched – indeed, it would have been a delicate bit of foreplay. A prelude to the brave, successful world of Rover Raving that we’d all been waiting for.
Detail engineering to improve the Maestro
I also think that, in addition to the above mechanical and trim alterations, Rover should have revised the Maestro’s bumpers into a form and material very close to the forthcoming R8 and Metro R6. This would have added much needed family resemblance and reduced costs (no painting needed and just one bumper material/supplier used). Visually, this would have modernised the look of Maestro and banished the awful crack and shatter of those fragile plastic bumpers.
Ford and Vauxhall successfully replaced the black moulded bumpers on both the Escort and Astra respectively for just the last 18 months of their production runs. The steel bumpers were a relic of the 1970s, as too was that fussy grille until it went body-coloured. Finally, the door mirrors on both the Maestro and the Montego should have been replaced with the forthcoming R8’s items.
These seemingly insignificant details would, like many of the changes I’ve suggested, have reduced overall costs, added to family resemblance and modernised appearances. It was a trick that worked well on the last Austin Metros which got R6 Metro door mirrors (which are still in production today). Instruments shared with Metro, Montego and LDV Bulldogs too, would have looked more modern and less fussy for simply having a black background.
I believe that, with this simple pattern of range-wide adoptions, the link between R6 Metro, Maestro and R8 would have been credible and successful. I’m quite sure that, had the Maestro benefited from these updates during the last six years of its production life, Rover could have shifted significantly more units, placed less of a burden on warranty costs and the model might even have been cheaper to build. Furthermore, a Maestro so updated would have offered new and existing customers a more satisfying ownership experience, lower running costs and higher residuals – that would have been good for fleet operators too.
Crucially, prolonging volume sales could have saved a lot of jobs at Cowley – if you think I’m wrong, go and compare the size of the R3 200 with a Maestro and remember that the R3 came with a Maestro rear axle and a lot of Montego switchgear. The difference is that you could fit into a Maestro rather more comfortably. Cruelly, BMW ended production of the Maestro in 1994 even though there were still consistent and profitable sales of the car – rather like the Austin Maxi before it.
Admittedly, by then, the Maestro was hand-built to special order so there was no longer any build issues, just a waiting list. Surprisingly, it lived nearly as long as its successor, but really, it had to go. Could you imagine some wag comparing the package of the 1970s-designed Maestro to the forthcoming MINI? The cry of ‘where’s the progress’ would have rang loud, pretty much like it did at the launch of the Maestro back in 1983 when the dealers lifted the bonnet only to discover the R-Series (nee E-Series) and struggle with the reluctant gear change…