The Austin Maestro may have been launched in 1983, but its beginnings go back to the mid-1970’s when manufacturer British Leyland went bankrupt. Coming out of this financial stalling following a government bailout, the company wanted to design a world beating family hatchback to compete with Germany and France’s array of modest motorcars. In spirit, designs for the Maestro first came about with 1975’s Leyland Princess, after which the car takes its shape. The intention was to have this car replace the many old and outdated designs that were still on the market 10 years after their introduction, including the Morris Ital (a facelifted Marina), the Austin Maxi, the Austin Allegro and the descendant of the Princess itself the Austin Ambassador. After 6 years of development, the Maestro under project name LC10 (Leyland Cars) entered the market in 1983, reducing British Leyland’s product range dramatically. The car had taken many leaves out of its replacement’s books, mostly from the Austin Maxi, with a new R-Series
engine developed from the original and the hatchback design, but sacrificed many of these to save on costs, including the scrapping of Hydragas suspension in favour of regular strut system. The car also had many endearing features including electronic engine management and plastic bumpers.
Initial reception was surprisingly positive for the Maestro, with motoring journalists admiring the car’s roomy interior, comfortable drive and easy use. The car was launched also with a variety of optional models, including the top ranging Vanden Plas with a styled luxury interior (and thankfully no chrome nose), or the sporty MG Maestro with a 2.0L O-Series engine. Sales did get off to a bit of a good start, but immediately plummeted due to the unreliability of the hashed together R-Series engine that was hastily developed from the engine of the Austin Maxi. The result was that it would suffer heavily from premature crankshaft failure and hot starting problems. The flimsy dashboard was also a point of criticism due to its poorly built nature, making constant squeaking noises and rattling profusely. In 1985 these problems were addressed by the arrival of the Maestro City X, consisting of a new City X 1.3L engine and replacing the dashboard that of the similarly built Montego.
In 1986, British Leyland was sold and the Austin name was dropped, simply being dubbed the Maestro. However, sales were still falling rapidly due to the car’s outdated design and poor reputation. From the 101,000 cars originally built in 1983, 1989 only saw 60,000 built, with new owners Rover Group looking once again for a replacement. With the introduction of the 1989 Rover 200, the Maestro was pushed back to being the entry-level car, and the car continued to sell poorly, with a majority of sales, like most British Leyland cars, being only in the UK.
However, 1989 did see the introduction of the MG Maestro EFi, which went on to become the fastest production hatchback in the world at 130mph. But this was not enough to save the MG Maestro which was discontinued in 1991. In that year alone the sales figures had dropped from 38,762 in 1990 to 18,450 in 1991. By 1993 however the car was selling simply for the fact it was cheap and economical, with no other redeeming factors keeping it truly afloat. Eventually in December 1994, the Maestro, after 11 years of construction, was brought to a close…
…for about 6 months.
Apparently the Maestro wasn’t done yet, as a company in Bulgaria started building Maestro’s out of left over kits from the original production run in September 1995, with 2,000 Bulgarian Maestros being built and sold in the UK at a dealership known as Apple 2000 in Bury St Edmunds. Most notoriously however, the most famous reincarnation of the Maestro has been from China, with the Etsong Lubao QE6400, which was built between 1998 and 2005, incorporating the nose of a Montego and the rear design of a Maestro. The result was a very strange hybrid that looked like it was permanently sinking due to the fact that a Montego is a much lower car than a Maestro. Even today, the underpinnings of the Maestro continue to live on in the Yema F12, which means even though production of the car started way back in 1983, it technically is still alive and very much kicking, but with a different body!
Today though the Maestro is a rare car to find, with most becoming victims of the
Scrappage Scheme in the mid-2000’s, where people could trade in their old car for scrap and receive either enough money to buy, or be allowed a choice of an equivalent car. Because of this, the Maestro’s original 605,000 strong fleet has been reduced to just 1,012, and went on to become the 9th most scrapped car in Britain.
For me though, the Maestro I always considered a nice car, it looks very happy, and many of my friend’s parents owned them without much complaint, especially the later Rover models due to their more reliable nature. In the end though, I find the Maestro notorious because of the fact that in one form or another, this humble little family car that wasn’t built to conquer the world isn’t actually dead yet!