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Austin Maestro (1983 - 1994)

Last updated 4 April 2013

 
3

Model Timeline

June 1975
First plans for the Maestro were drawn-up

Spen King and Gordon Bashford in Solihull had instigated initial work on a mid-sized hatchback programme back in the summer of 1975, but in the climate of uncertainty prevalent in the Ryder years at Leyland Cars, it was slow going. King and Bashford had devised a classic front wheel drive layout, as LC10 Project Director Malcolm Harbour described it, with a transverse engine, end-on gearbox and conventional suspension layout.

Spen King also saw it that way, designing the LC10 in a pragmatic way: ‘I guess it was me that decided that it should have that very simple layout – the utterly conventional one actually. We had no good reason for doing anything anymore complicated in fact. It is a Golf layout: simply a take off, that’s all.’ It may have been somewhat different to the front wheel drive designs that had thus far been produced by the corporation, but it was a very realistic view of how that type of car would evolve. This intended replacement for the Maxi and Allegro enjoyed a leisurely development programme, until the point that the TM1 was axed, when it suddenly became rather more important to the company’s future plans.

Funding was always a worry – and because of the stop-go nature of industrial relations at the time, the Government was reticent about giving the ailing company any more handouts. Edwardes and Ray Horrocks thoroughly evaluated this programme and viewed it as a viable car on which to base their future corporate strategy. Because the ADO99 programme had been given full managerial backing, the newly invigorated programme was renamed LC10. With this change in project number, a door had finally been closed on the past – the long-running ADO model numbering system, that had been around since the mid-1950s was no more.

Harris Mann sketch for the proposed mid-sized hatchback. What emerged was rather more conservative...

Harris Mann sketch for the proposed mid-sized hatchback. What emerged was rather more conservative...

Within double-quick time, Edwardes approached the Government to lay out his plans: There would be the LC8 small car (the Metro), and the LC10 (hatchback and notchback versions), the mid-sized cars to replace Allegro, Marina and Maxi. There would also be the LC12 and LC14, the larger car and sports model; whether these cars would appear in the fullness of time would depend on how successful the LC10 was.

In terms of European volume sales, the LC10 would be the major seller, so plans were rapidly drawn up rapidly for a Two-box hatchback in the mould of the Volkswagen Golf and upcoming Ford Escort Mk3. The B-class of cars in the European market was rapidly growing and since the arrival of the Volkswagen Golf in 1974, the template for the cars in this class was set: Front wheel drive, engines in the range of 1100cc and 1600cc, a 94-96in wheelbase and importantly, a hatchback rear door.

The car would employ almost completely conventional engineering unlike the Metro, as dictated by engineering chief, Spen King – Hydragas suspension was not considered, the Maestro would be suspended by the VW formula of front MacPherson struts up front and trailing arm rear suspension. This was no doubt, a political decision made by King, who was a man who always preferred a conventional engineering solution. He believed that the extra weight and cost of Moulton’s suspension system was no worth the benefits that it offered. In reality, by the time the Austin Ambassador appeared in 1982, the benefits of the system had been demonstrated in the best possible way.

This quaint photograph demonstrates that CAD/CAM was used extensively in the development of the LC10, helping speed up the process of productionisation. Much of the stressing of the body was processed on these systems before prototype building and so, therefore, the Maestro was blessed with impressive torsional rigidity.

This quaint photograph demonstrates that CAD/CAM was used extensively in the development of the LC10, helping speed up the process of productionisation. Much of the stressing of the body was processed on these systems before prototype building and so, therefore, the Maestro was blessed with impressive torsional rigidity.

The question of what engines were to be used in the LC10 was an easily resolved dilemma. The early ADO99 prototypes used the standard A-Series engine in 1.0 and 1.3-litre form, with transmission-in-sump layout – common with the Allegro and Metro. The larger engined version was tried out 1.7-litre version of the O-Series engine with an end-on gearbox, but was quickly ruled out because of the size of the gearbox. Next, the E-Series unit was tried out, using a bought in VW gearbox (because it matched the size of the new gearbox under development in BL) – and the packaging was perfect for this car. Quickly, the development of this car focused on this package and just as quickly, the A-Series engine was also adapted to make use of the same gearbox.

The R-Series engine came about as a development of the E-Series – a logical resizing to 1598cc, because the market demanded a 1600cc engined version (not 1.5 or 1.75-litres). This would suffice until a thoroughly revised version, called the S-Series could be developed and pressed into service. The S-Series would prove to be a useful improvement in terms of refinement and efficiency over the R-Series, but it was not going to be ready in time to be a part of the initial launch (scheduled for the Geneva motor show, 1983).

The R-Series engine received some of the developments planned for the upcoming S-Series engine; the ones that required little modification to the E-Series engine, such as its modified water pump and the addition of a clever electronically controlled SU carburettor. These add-ons would add little time to the development of the R-Series engine, but were considered enough (along with a change in displacement) to warrant a new name. In reality, it was nothing more than a stopgap. In 1598cc form, the R-Series with its siamesed bores and lack of water jackets between the cylinders (a carry-over from the E-Series), proved to be more efficient than the former 1485cc and 1748cc versions, because in this displacement, the inlet and exhaust valves, which were considered too small for the 1.7-litre engine and too large for the 1.5-litre engine, were perfectly-sized in this interim engine size.

The S-Series engine would have to wait for the launch of the Montego in 1984. This delay would prove to be a disappointment for Austin-Rover because the new engine would prove to be a genuine and quantifiable improvement over its predecessor. The new unit, which incorporated a belt-driven overhead camshaft, fully ECU controlled timing and a more compact induction system genuinely deserved the new designation. It was a shame that the resources were not available in the company at the time to design the Maestro around the new engine, because the modifications incorporated in the S-Series unit allowed for a lower bonnet line on the LM11 saloon than it did on the LM10 hatchback.

However there was some reason behind this outwardly illogical decision: ‘As always, this business was a lot more complicated than it appears from outside. Shall we say that a game of chess was played with the Government over the funding of the revised engines, and that the two-stage process was a way of winning that game,’ was how an insider put it – and the result was the R-Series engine’s launch – an inferior engine to the S-Series, and shown to be in the company’s newest product. Further planning was forthcoming on the evidence of this performance, and how ever illogical it may have looked to outside observers, there was a reason why the Maestro was released with an engine that would last less than two years!

The A-Plus engine in 1300cc guise was still a very efficient engine, thermally, and with addition of electronic control for its SU carburettor, it would improve on its remarkable potential for economy. There was no question that the old Mini and Metro arrangement of a gearbox-in-sump being used, as it would not be good enough for the market it was intended for: four gears in your ‘box would not do. Also, the lack of refinement in this arrangement might suffice in the Mini and Metro, but for the LC10 and its middle-market pretensions, nothing less than an end-on gearbox with a five-speed option would do. King and Bashford had seen this clearly way back in 1975, and development engineers honoured this original plan.

Regarding the gearbox question, BL’s in-house LT80 design was abandoned following successful early trials in LC10 mules with VW gearboxes. Ray Horrocks made the decision that the cost of putting their own new unit into production would have been too much and so, made a deal with VW to buy-in the boxes. This would erode into the profitability of the LC10, but the compromise was considered to be worthwhile. There were also further talks with Volkswagen to co-develop a diesel engine for future use, but these amounted to nothing.

Both engines would need to be mounted the opposite way round (turned around 180 degrees) in the Maestro engine bay than they would in their predecessors. The reason for this was so that the VW gearbox could be mounted on the end of the engine – a happy side effect of this was that the electrical ancillaries on the A-Plus series would be at the back of the engine, against the bulkhead, not at the front of the engine, exposed to the elements, as they were in the Mini and Allegro, to the disdain of their owners.

The man in charge of Austin Morris engineering was ex-Triumph man Ray Bates. He and his team worked themselves worked themselves into the ground to get the Metro launched on time in October 1980. Bates complained to managing director Harold Musgrove about his lack of design manpower. Musgrove’s response was to merge Austin Morris and Rover Triumph engineering. Instead of putting Ray Bates in charge of this enlarged organisation, the man who had masterminded the successful Metro, Musgrove promoted Rover Triumph’s Joe Farnham, an ex-Chrysler man in charge. Farnham allegedly had no experience of front wheel drive. According to Ray Bates, development of LM10/11 was conducted in an atmosphere of ‘general turmoil and bitterness’.

Harris Mann had proposed this hatchback design for the LC10; very similar to the Bache-designed Maestro in its proportioning, but with distinct GM Europe design cues (the 1981 J-Car Cavalier in particular). It is debatable that the car would have sold any better than the Maestro, but it did look a more 'conventional' design. It also paid none of the homage to its predecessors, the Maxi and Allegro that Bache's version drew inspiration from.

Harris Mann had proposed this hatchback design for the LC10; very similar to the Bache-designed Maestro in its proportioning, but with distinct GM Europe design cues (the 1981 J-Car Cavalier in particular). It is debatable that the car would have sold any better than the Maestro, but it did look a more 'conventional' design. It also paid none of the homage to its predecessors, the Maxi and Allegro that Bache's version drew inspiration from.

The question of styling was never an issue, as it had been during the development of the Metro. David Bache, as overall chief 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 (but not unpleasant ones) 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 it evolved nicely 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.

Now that the Solihull Office had been entrusted with finishing the development of the LC10 styling, the engineering for the car followed a predictable path. The marketing department within BL renamed the hatchback version of the car: LM10 – and the notchback version received its own development code for the first time: LM11 (for Light-Medium, reflecting the post-Leyland management).

The marketing department ensured that the styling clicked with targeted buyers, running countless customer clinics to ensure the detailing of the car was just right. Not much tweaking of the neat and tidy 1975 vintage Bache concept was required, but significantly, the cars that the LM10 was pitched against were generally first generation family hold-alls such as the Mk1 Golf and Renault 14. The most fearsome opposition to the car was still in development, such as the MK2 versions of the Volkswagen Golf and Opel Kadett/Vauxhall Astra.

January 1980
BL received the government funds it needed to develop the Maestro to production

Production engineers worked on the Maestro, developing it so that it would have all the features that would be required in a car of this class. The underpinnings of the LM10 ensured that it had a long wheelbase of 98in, as it would need to share many parts with the LM11 saloon, a larger car. The development of the Maestro was governed somewhat by the need for it to sit on a shared floorplan with the larger LM11 – the Montego, as it emerged, needed to be a larger car than the traditional booted hatches, such as the Volkswagen Jetta, being pitched at competing directly with the larger fleet car competition such as the Vauxhall Cavalier.

The development of the LM10 and LM11 centred on tuning the ride and handling to be as competitive as possible, so Spen King and his team aimed for a compromise of taut handling and an accommodating ride. With the basic components of McPherson struts up front and trailing arms at the rear having been decided right at the beginning of the programme, the ride was never going to offer the compliancy of the Hydragas suspended models, but with long wheel travel and variable rate springs, a class leading ride/handling compromise was reached.

The design of the interior followed corporate thinking, with a low-line dash and well-shaped seats. Like the Metro, BL wanted to make the interior of the LM10 as practical and adaptable as possible. Like the Rover SD1, Austin Metro and its predecessors, the Maestro had a low-line fascia, incorporating a dash-top shelf and voluminous stowage areas. Whereas the functionality of the fascia could not be faulted, its design certainly could; the architecture of the fascia dated back to 1977 and had been subject to considerable internal criticism during the LM10′s development.

The problem was that it presented a rather stark vista to the driver and adding insult to injury, it was made up of several components that conspired to rub against each other whenever the car was driven, resulting in countless rattles and squeaks – Axe described the Maestro interior thus: ‘The interior was very poor with a fascia/instrument panel that, out of the car, had the structural integrity of something from a fishmonger’s slab!’ The decision was made by Roy Axe during the development of the LM11 to drop this design completely, going with a more homogenous single-piece design, but because this was instigated late into the LM10 development programme, it was decided to go ahead with the original item, so not to delay the launch any further.

Towards the end of the development programme, the strategists knew that the Maestro was already quite dated and very conventional in its execution, they wanted to give the range something of a fillip by launching it with a couple of firsts.

The first involved the usage of body-coloured bumpers – something that Porsche had done beforehand with the 928, but was still a novelty in the family car class. Unlike the coloured plastic used on the Citroën BX bumpers, the Maestro’s were made from a new type of Bokan plastic which was treated specially so that they could be painted at the same time as the rest of the body. The first few Maestros suffered because the treatment had not been perfected at the time of launch and so, were prone to cracking at the slightest impact, especially in the cold weather.

The new bumpers did cause a few last minute delays though. According to Dick Law, the Director of Purchasing at Austin Rover at the time, they were responsible for a large number of Maestros being stockpiled. He explained: ‘We had major nightmares in getting the bumpers tooled up and into production. Cowley was producing Maestros without bumpers [and storing the cars over at Abingdon] for a good few weeks. My memory tells me over 3500 cars were produced minus the bumpers in the pre launch days! We, in Purchasing did finally get things sorted, but it took a long time.’

Digital dashboard was the talking point for the Maestro – literally. The synthesised voice of actress Nicolette Mackenzie made sure of that.

Digital dashboard was the talking point for the Maestro – literally. The synthesised voice of actress Nicolette Mackenzie made sure of that.

The more controversial of the firsts for the Maestro was definitely the adoption of a solid-state all electronic dashboard display. The reasoning for this was simple: the marketing strategists wanted to portray a high technology image for the Maestro and do so in a highly visible way. Drivers would not see the electronic carburettor control or the high technology wiring that the Maestro contained, but they would see a digital dashboard and so, late into the LM10 development programme, Lucas and Smiths were commissioned to produce such an item.

In March 1983, when the Maestro was launched, the digital dashboard came as standard on the top-of-the-range MG and Vanden Plas models and as an optional extra on the 1.6HLS – a deliberate marketing ploy. But it did not end there; not only was the instrument display digital, with LED readouts for all the car’s vital functions and its trip computer, but the electronic package also included a voice synthesizer. The synthesiser, which ran to a 32-word vocabulary recorded in fifteen languages, would warn the driver when the fuel level was low or when you needed to fasten-up your seatbelts, for example.

March 1983
Austin Maestro launched

When it appeared on 1 March 1983, the seven car Maestro range was greeted with huge enthusiasm; maybe more so by the dealers than the public, who after enduring some horrible years selling some horrible mid-range cars, had something new and competent to sell. The Maestro was immediately lauded by the motoring press, who after driving it in the South of Spain, commended it for its tidy styling, contemporary feel, excellent economy and practicality. It continued the good work that the Metro had done in winning new friends, but unlike its smaller brother, the Maestro was up against some very stiff opposition.

The Maestro may have won the heads of the road testers, but it certainly did not win their hearts, as this road test verdict of the 1.6HLS from Autocar testified, ‘As it is, the Maestro is sufficiently quick for the time being, and impressively efficient. Its handling and general cornering behaviour are excellent, but the ride could be improved further. Its road noise levels disappoint, as to a lesser degree does the extent to which one hears the engine. But overall, it proves to be a very likeable and professional piece of contemporary motor car engineering.’

1983 Maestro 1.3L poses for Dutch market launch photo: finally the LM10 was on sale, and the dealers were mightily relieved. However, the traditional styling did not prove an instant hit, and early reliability gremlins did the image of the vitally important new car no favours whatsoever.

1983 Maestro 1.3L poses for Dutch market launch photo: finally the LM10 was on sale, and the dealers were mightily relieved. However, the traditional styling did not prove an instant hit, and early reliability gremlins did the image of the vitally important new car no favours whatsoever.

Vanden Plas interior was a very habitable area and very civilised, note the wood capping on the doors.

Vanden Plas interior was a very habitable area and very civilised, note the wood capping on the doors.

Performance was excellent, given the vintage of the engines – the 1300 version being especially good, delivering brisk acceleration, backed up with excellent fuel economy – this showing that despite its vintage, the A Plus engine was still a remarkably efficient power unit. The 1600 version may not have been quite so efficient, but it delivered the goods and nothing more.

This less than charismatic engine resulted in the 1.6-litre Maestros delivering good economy and adequate performance, but in a theme common with the A-Series powered versions, its refinement was not quite up to scratch. Thankfully, both engines had good torque characteristics and the sound insulation of the Maestro was excellent, so you did not need to extend the engine to make reasonable progress and the noise produced may have been of a gruff and uncultured nature, but at least it was reasonably quiet.

Handling and ride were competitive; the chassis being blessed with good ride quality and cornering balance, which was only limited by the mean width of the tyres that were specified with the Maestro at the beginning of its production run. It may not have been blessed with French car levels of ride subtlety, but a good ride/handling compromise was reached and it was far better than the Ford Escort and Volkswagen Golf. The range followed the conventional wisdom of the class and came in a logical ’’stepping stone’’ of models, starting at the 1.3 basic models, through the higher spec A-Plus engine models to the R-Series engine fleet sellers and right at the top; the Vanden Plas and MG Models.

Adding insult to injury, this technical tour-de-force was not even a first for Austin-Rover. At the last moment, Renault stole Austin-Rover’s thunder by introducing their own version in the new Renault 11 TXE Electronique, a week before the Maestro was launched to the press. At launch. senior Austin Rover executives gave their views on the new Maestro and its prospects. Commercial Director, Mark Snowdon, told The Times, ‘We will have around 6000 cars in our dealer showrooms by 1st March, and production from Cowley will be running at around 2000 a week to give maximum back up.’ He then added, ‘Metro was the key to our survival. Maestro is the key to our prosperity.’

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also tried the car and stated, ‘It is a very, very good car, and I hope people buy it.’ Good job, as the day before the Maestro’s launch, her government had agreed to inject another £100m into BL. Although Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative party had a record since 1975 of opposing the state injecting funds into British Leyland, the better than expected sales performance of the Metro had created a mindset where there seemed to be light at the end of the BL tunnel and the expectation was that both Maestro and the forthcoming Montego would emulate the smaller cars success.

July 1984
MG Maestro received Montego's 1.6-litre S-Series engine

The MG Version of the Maestro was devised near the end of the model’s development and was hastily conceived as a result of two factors: the success of the MG Metro, launched in June 1982 and more importantly, the burgeoning popularity of the hot versions of rivals Ford Escort and VW Golf. Because development was rushed, the company devised a twin-Weber carburettor set-up for the car, which raised the power output of the 1600cc version from 81bhp to a healthier 103bhp. Installation problems, which were an inevitable by-product of the rushed development, resulted in serious under bonnet heat build-up leading to hot-starting and fuel starvation problems.

Car spotters should note that there was an S-Series twin carburettor version in the MG version, which replaced the R-Series version, but preceded the 2-Litre version and was in production for a very short period of time. Its production amounted to a mere 2762.

October 1984
MG Maestro received Montego's 2.0-litre EFI engine

The MG version was up gunned from the Twin-Weber carburetted 1600cc version, to the 2-litre fuel injected O-Series version it should have always been. The fact that at launch, the weakest link in the Maestro range was the ’hot hatchback’ version did hamper sales.

June 1987
Running changes to the range, Austin badges dropped

After extensive market research, it was found that the Maestro and Montego were saddled with an unfortunately pedestrian image, so the marketing departments worked on producing more appealing cars. The 1.3L Maestro, resplendent with ‘duotone paint that echoed the theme instigated by the Rover Sterling. The focus of the advertisers was aimed at these cars in an attempt to attract a more youthful clientele – one such advert depicting a Montego 1.6L crashing through a showroom window in order to demonstrate just how quick off the mark and how good its stereo was to a couple of sales rep-types.

At this time, they also realised that the Austin brand was a positive barrier to sales and so, at the disgust of the dealers, stopped badging the cars as such – all cars being called by their model names only.

December 1994
Maestro ceased production

It was telling, however, that upon buying Rover in 1994, Bernd Pischetsrieder was reported to have been surprised to find out that both cars were still very much in production – he had assumed that they were products of a bygone age. Needless to say, that situation was reversed rapidly – the Montego and Maestro it was ‘built in the corner of the Cowley Body Plant in ‘V’ Building as the original assembly area in the Cowley South Works had been sold off by BAe a year earlier. The bodies were pushed along by hand along a ‘make do’ one off type production line, on a virtually cottage industry basis by this time,’ as Nick Chung put is. Soon after the BMW takeover, the last Montego Clubman Diesel left Cowley in December 1994.

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