As a former Maestro owner, it was sad to see so many of these cars gathered in what was effectively a huge spare parts bin. I recalled that Maestros and Montegos were models that never fully realised their potential. That's because, back in the day, bashing the British motor industry had become somewhat endemic and these models didn't escape the negativity.
Weirdly, this negativity was heaped on by us British. Bizarre traits of national self-loathing were almost certainly uniquely British because I'm sure I never heard a German or French person declaring how awful BMWs or Renaults were. Sadly, this attitude translated into indifference being inflicted on large swathes of the British motor industry. This impacted the Maestro, meaning that a potentially great car was never really allowed to flourish.
Bringing home the bacon
Following the successful launch of the Mini Metro, the Maestro was intended to be the car that brought home the bacon for Austin Rover. Indeed, at launch, the model was very well received, promising much with high-tech features such as the fabled talking digital dashboard packaged in a wonderfully spacious and airy cabin. But alas, the Maestro never lived up to expectations and was largely sidelined in favour of Austin Rover's Honda-based product line.
When the Montego arrived in 1984, it was way ahead of the Maestro in terms of styling and engineering. As time went on, the Montego slowly started drip-feeding some of its components to the Maestro, such as the fuel-injected O-Series engine and its rigid single-mold dashboard (replacing the Maestro's original rattle-prone offering). It all made perfect sense because it helped keep the Maestro up-to-date by maximising component sharing and keeping a lid on costs. When the Montego got a smart two-tone paint job and a slide-and-tilt sunroof, so too did the Maestro. Dealers were known to have applied the Tempest Grey lower body paint in order to mod up unsold stock. They even got specialist outfits to cut a hole in the roof in order to fit removable smoked glass 'sunroofs' (affectionately known as 'toilet windows')
It was during the Montego/Maestro era that 'Roverisation' of the somewhat moribund BL model range took place. In 1988, the Montego received its one and only facelift. It certainly looked the part considering it was all done on a shoestring. No major changes were made to either the body or the interior. In a nutshell, the Montego got a new Lucas ECU, a better dashboard alongside a set of plushed-up door cards complete with cappings. It also got Rover’s uber-comfy ‘world seat’ clad in tasteful contemporary fabrics. But the real biggie was a slick new gearbox courtesy of Honda.
The updated Montego also got a rather robust turbo diesel engine which had been well-tested in Maestro vans. So, you'd think that this might have been the perfect juncture for the Maestro to have enjoyed a splash of Roverisation at a time when sales were slipping? Sales that the Austin/Rover Group (ARG) desperately needed. But, management had by now fully placed their eggs in their Honda-based basket. ARG decided to chase the premium market with the Honda-derived joint ventures, gradually moving the prices up accordingly. Prices that many of their customers found difficult to reach.
Decent little car
BL had traditionally made cars for practical, cost-conscious motorists and fleet buyers. It was about sales volumes and hopefully a bit of profit. The Maestro was well placed to carry on this tradition alongside their upperty "Mrs Bouquet" Roverised models. But customers and dealers alike got frustrated with ARG’s indifference towards the Maestro. Despite everything, the beleaguered Maestro was a pretty decent little car with much potential. More to the point, the motoring public actually wanted to buy it, if only it could have been made to work properly.
For example, the VW-derived gearbox was unwieldy to use. This was one of the Maestro's most obvious weaknesses. Lady drivers particularly loathed it. ARG customers (who knew about the dodgy gearbox) would order a Honda Ballade-based Rover 213 instead. Whilst ARG defaultly retained their custom, they still lost substantial profits as yet another newly-built Maestro was consigned to a muddy compound or a disused airstrip.
It gets even more infuriating when the subject of build quality is mentioned. For one thing, Maestros leaked like baskets and the leaks proved time-consuming to isolate and rectify. A blame game erupted between ARG management, dealer networks and an already tetchy factory workforce. In truth, they all shared some responsibility for the Maestro's poor reputation. Perversely, Triumph Acclaims were built at the same factory, yet Acclaims emerged with hardly any niggles. The tooling used to facilitate Maestro production was state-of-the-art - far more advanced than the Acclaim production line.
Despite the Maestro's venerable A-Series engine being pretty bomb proof they could never (even in A+ guise) cope with unleaded petrol. As the mileage amassed, they tended to suffer from 'pinking' and pre-ignition run-on. The A-Series had a long-held tendency to burn oil. Thus, the increasingly mandatory catalytic converters would block up with soot. But the Maestro never got any of the more modern K-Series engines. Despite being known for having plenty of its own flaws, the K-Series could perhaps have helped sort out a myriad of issues relating to emissions and fuel efficiency. Yet another example of apathy towards the poor old Maestro?
So, a K-Series-engined Maestro would almost certainly have come with the slick new (Rover-manufactured) gearbox. There would have been no emission issues and a much lighter steering. Crucially, such minor alterations alongside some discreet styling updates might well have prolonged the Maestro's tenure and preserved ARG's status as a volume sales operation? This may well have helped save a lot of jobs at Cowley. The Roverised models that followed (such as the Rover R3 200) may have gained much by way of kudos but despite sharing the Maestro rear axle and some Montego switchgear, the bijoux Rovers lacked the Maestro's spaciousness and comfort.
It's fair to say that the Maestro became the "forgotten model". The saga surrounding its demise illustrates how ARG lost its way within the key market which it (and BL before it) had long pursued. Neglecting the Maestro meant that ARG lost sight of what it was all about, thus losing its market position in the process.
The Maestro replaced BL’s largest volume sellers, the Allegro as well as Marina/Ital models. Arguably, it also replaced the hatchback Maxi as well. Basically, three quite illustrious models which had collectively notched up hundreds of thousands of sales during the BL era. So, far from shunning the Maestro in favour of the march upmarket, it was a clear imperative that ARG got the Maestro absolutely right. After all, the Maestro was ARG's Escort/Astra. It was bread & butter.
Small wonder that owners of aging Allegros and Marinas looked to Ford or GM for replacements. Put off by that VW gearbox or facing having to pay extra for a Rover badge was probably too much for many ARG customers.
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.