Our Cars : The Project Maestro Vanden Plas

Well, the work has started on the Project Maestro and it’s already moved to a temporary home in leafy Horsham. So if you’ve got a Maestro, and it don’t run good, who ya gonna call? Mike Humble tells the tale…

Yes folks! its very gold and very brown inside - Its the AROnline project Meastro and work has officially started.
Yes, folks, it’s very gold and very brown inside! It’s the AROnline Project Maestro and work has officially started

Well, if you keep abreast of events, you’ll know I came very close to selling the Rover 75. After a small deposit was taken on said vehicle, this left me in a bit of a pickle: what to smoke around in until a suitable replacement came along?

AROnline’s Editor, Craig Cheetham, came to the rescue – I was thrown the keys to a very gold Maestro Vanden Plas with a brief of sorting out any jobs that looked like needed doing and so would be able to kill two birds with one stone. However, when collecting the car from its Fenland location, I was a bit apprehensive about a return journey which included the A14, M11, M25 and M23 – roads not for the faint-hearted driver even in a modern motor. Anyway, after requiring more cranking than a gramophone, the 1600cc S-Series eventually spluttered into life and the first “on the list” job made its self noisily known.

Personally speaking, NOTHING is more miserable than a car with a blowing exhaust – especially when it’s coming from up front. Leaving Cambridgeshire for my jaunt back home, I treated the yokels of Chatteris to a noise that was rather similar to the Les Dawson comic character, Cosmo Smallpiece, blowing a raspberry. Only one thing beats a nasty exhaust blow and that’s a noisy exhaust working hand in glove with a random misfire… Oh, did I mention it had one of those two? Still, it was not all bad news, I could get Radio 2 and the cigarette lighter worked.

Once the engine warmed through, the exhaust quietened down a bit but the random splutter prevailed as I traversed the Fens heading west towards the A14. The undulating roads soon showed up the ancient damper settings and the long suspension travel but I was actually very surprised at how “all-together” the car felt in comparison to its less than concourse visual condition. There was no sickly smell of hot engine oil either as the S-Series can be known for wetting itself. It does have a couple of minor leaks but nowhere near as bad as I have seen them get in mature years.

I've had a lot of experience with "S" series engines. Trust me when I say... this ones a genuine belter!
I’ve had a lot of experience with S-Series engines – trust me when I say that this one’s a genuine belter!

However, once on the A14, there was an epic traffic jam where the two left lanes veer off to by-pass Cambridge and the other two become the M11 and it dawned on me I had no tools whatsoever. All I had on my person were 20 smokes, a lighter, my wallet (containing my RAC card), a Zippo lighter and mobile ‘phone. I did not have so much as a screwdriver with me and a peer into the glove box revealed only a broken plastic comb and a golf ball – not even MacGyver or the A-Team could do much with those items.  Fortunately, after crawling in a jam on one of the hottest days so far, the dear little VDP never so much as broke into a sweat.

Away from the traffic and sailing southbound on the M11 with gutso the gold grotmobile bumbled along quite happily with the exception of that bloody annoying stutter now and then. By Harlow it was starting to drive me mad so, just off Junction 8, I pulled into the BP for a peep under the bonnet and a nibble at the Wild Bean. It was an easy spot – the vacuum pipes were either not fitted or perished. Well, in fact, the one that’s meant to plug into the ECU was just lying loose next to the battery – not ideal really as this one regulates the advance and retard settings for the programmed ignition.

This improved things a little and after a brief chat with an elderly chap in a Kia who mentioned he had a VDP a few years ago (surprise, surprise eh?) it was time to continue. The Maestro was known for being a good riding car and this one is no exception. Keeping up with the flow on the motorway despite only having a trio of cogs was a doddle with 70mph relating to 350orpm or thereabouts. The usual wind noise builds up quite dramatically as the speedo needle twitches its way round the dial but, apart from that, she whips along quite nicely.

By the time the M25 got closer I was more than confident the journey would be uneventful and, indeed, that proved to be the case as an hour later I was in the comfort of the RH12 postcode area – leafy Horsham. She didn’t consume any lubricants or fluids nor has it deposited any on the driveway – bless its little cotton socks. It has, in fact, been the second Maestro on there in just over so many months – the last one being a very tidy MG 1600. My neighbour over the road claims he’s not seen as many in so many years – my neighbours love the crud that ends up outside my house… no kidding!

The HiF44 SU was possibly victim to an over eager MOT tester. It was running way to lean with an idle speed that was too high. You could switch the engine off, nip into the paper shop and come back again to find it still running on!
The HiF44 SU was possibly victim to an over eager MoT tester. It was running way too lean with an idle speed that was too high. You could switch the engine off, nip into the paper shop and come back again to find it still running on!

The poor running boiled down to a carb with no oil in the dashpot and too lean a mixture, too high a tickover which caused some nasty running on, life-expired plugs and the aforementioned dodgy vacuum pipes – all of which have now been sorted. I’ve had a shuftie underneath at the exhaust and it seems quite new but appears to have been fitted by a group of Colobus Monkeys so that needs to be attended to as well. Another nice party trick is that the dashboard lights flicker off when you hit a pot hole thanks to a dimmer switch that’s faulty – I’ll bridge the switch until another one can be sourced.

What we have here then is an honest miracle Maestro in a genuine World War 2 veteran spec. It’s a bit dog rough here and there with a wonderfully brown interior and the added misery of an automatic gearbox. Indeed, all it needs is a faded orange Motability sticker and the picture is painted perfectly – it’s a truly awful car but one that makes you smile from ear to ear as you drive along, the epitome of anti-establishment motoring, if you like. All it needs is a damn good clean and scrub – I’ll sort out the oily bits – but, as Maestros go, this one actually drives really well and the engine is really sweet and rattle free.

However, more worrying is the problem encountered yesterday. Opting to go to work in the Maestro, it was raining quite hard and I barely got half a mile up the road when the wipers made a nasty clonk noise and started sweeping in a comedic “on the cock” fashion. Turning round and returning home, I pulled off the plastic cover that hides the linkages to reveal a snapped cross linkage that had rusted through and broken. A replacement part is winging its way to me as I type so that – along with refitting the exhaust properly – seems to be all that’s required for its debut at the BMC BL Peterborough Show.


Mike Humble


  1. 3500rpm at 70mph? Nasty!

    When did four speed autos become the norm? Wiki says Honda and Toyota (predictably) led the charge in the mid 1980s, and the Rover SD3 also got one on the 216 models.

    • Not nasty, just normal in the 80s. A manual 5-speed Maestro would have had just a few revs less at the same speed, while a manual Honda 216GTi would have been sitting much closer to 4000… Even many big engined cars of the time did not have taller gearing.
      It is not a question of the number of gear ratios, but the spacing between them…

      Oh- and, BMC (Mini, 1100, Allegro, Maxi and Metro) and Mercedes Benz (4 cylinder petrol and Diesel models) offered 4-speed autos on mainstream cars from the mid-60s on.

      • Interesting you mention the 216GTi as an example. Honda are one of the worst offenders for short gearing! They’re great cars in other respects, but on all of the Hondas I’ve had (now on my third), I’ve always wished for at least one extra gear on top of the existing ratios.

      • All the early Mercedes-Benz auto transmissions were 4 speed, appearing on the 300SE first in about 1963. They were very low geared ( the 300 as I recall was about 17.5 mph/1000rpm ) and needed to be , because the coupling was a fluid flywheel rather than a torque converter. These boxes lasted throughout the 1960s until the advent of the S class in about 1972

      • Paradoxically the HLE derivative of the Maestro was one of the first cars with very tall gearing!

  2. Some years ago I had a Montego GSi estate where the wiper cross link broke in Bury St Edmunds. That seemed to be fatigue rather than rust.

  3. An interesting project car, did have a talking dash & an econometer that’s a line of LED’s in the middle of the dash?

  4. That mix of gold and silver (mirrors, etc) is oddly fashionable, like the gold and silver mixed jewelry, in a way it wouldn’t have been at the time. Got a bit of bling going on there.

  5. You call it a grotmobile, but it sounds like a tired old war veteran. In favour of cars like tis, my late mother in law owned a Toyota Corolla 1.3 with 3 speed automatic. She had shoulder problems and hence a manual was getting very difficult to drive and small autos were not easy to find. I drove the little toyota on several occasionas and I found it surprisingly pleasant and quite fun to drive despite the minimal acceleration and 3 speed slush box. In fact, round town it was brilliant and highly sensible (where the old dear did most of her driving). It lasted until she passed away and then went on to a new life with another OAP.
    Good luck with the Maestro. Dull but very worthy.

  6. What are your plans for the car once the wiper linkage and exhaust are sorted, Mike? Is the aim to make it simply reliable or more A1 ?

    When I first saw the top photo I thought the car looked pretty good.

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