This is the Austin Maestro and Montego Story. The Maestro & Montego started life way back in 1975 when the company started looking to create a successor to the Austin Maxi and the much-maligned Austin Allegro, which was only two years old at that time. But the British Leyland bankruptcy and subsequent restructuring had put paid to any thoughts of a new mid-size car. Thoughts of the new cars really kicked into gear when Sir Michael Edwardes was drafted in to “fix” British Leyland in 1977 by rationalising BL’s product line.
Gone were the open top sports cars, to be replaced with small and medium volume cars that would bring the car company back to profitability. The small car would be the Metro, codenamed LC8, to be released in 1980. The medium car would be LC10. Once these were released, if there were sufficient funds, LC12 and LC14 would be a new large car and sports car model. And a new medium-sized car was truly needed. By the late 70’s customers found that cars like the Volkswagen Golf were so versatile, they traded down from larger cars.
It was small enough to park and being smaller it used less metal to manufacture and petrol to run, so was cheaper to both purchase and operate. With a hatchback and folding rear seats, its magically expanding boot could handle a variety of loads, and with improvements in suspension it handled well enough to be stable cruising on the motorway. The LC8 / LC10 plan was approved by British Leyland’s Government owners, so work on the Maestro and Montego gathered pace. It was decided a hatchback was necessary to compete on the continent where the hatchback was king, so the Maestro was prioritised to be released first. Spen King and Gordon Bashford, fresh from their work off the Rover SD1, were drafted in to make the Maestro and Montego underpinnings. Thinking of the Golf, it was made front-wheel drive, with conventional suspension. Gone was the fancy Hydragas suspension of the Metro as Spen had always favoured simple car chassis. And he could make simple suspension feel class leading, and it was simple and cheap to produce, so why not? The wheelbase would be 98”. Long for a hatchback, but this was done so both the Maestro and Montego could share the same platform.
The Maestro would go up against the Ford Escort, and the Montego would compete with the larger Ford Cortina. And it would have a similar range of engines. The stalwart 1950’s Austin Mini A-series engine would be pulled into service one last time in improved 1.3L “A-plus” form used in the Metro. The larger 1.6L engine was more of a problem. The O-Series engine from the Marina and Princess was tried, but the gearbox was too big in the tight engine bay. Without an alternative, British Leyland got lucky. The Austin Maxi & Austin Allegro production was ending, and its E-Series engine wouldn’t be needed so the tooling was ordered to be destroyed.
But Ray Gatrix, the Longbridge Purchasing Director had ignored that instruction and had kept it in storage. With some tweaks the E-Series could be the perfect Maestro and Montego large engine. It was reconfigured into a 1.6L, tweaked and called the R-Series. The E-Series wasn’t a new engine, but there wasn’t enough time to make it better before the Maestro was launched. That would come when it was renamed once more as the S-Series with the Montego launch, and retrofitted back into the Maestro.
BL were doing the best they could with the limited resources from the Government, who were more focused on short-term full employment in marginal West Midlands seats than ensuring the company’s long-term survival. The A-series Metro engine had a 4-speed gearbox. This wasn’t competitive in a car the size of the Maestro, so BL worked to create their own 5-speed box as the LT80. But they couldn’t make it good enough, so the VW Golf gearbox was drafted in. Where British Leyland prided itself on making its own engines and gearboxes, this was a sign that the company didn’t have the funds to develop its own parts any longer. At the start of 1970 BL had produced 2M cars each year. 10 years later it was down to just over 1M.
Although Harris Mann submitted a design for consideration, the styling for the cars was done by Ian Beech under the management of David Bache, who had designed the Rover P6 and SD1. It seems that although Harris Mann was flavour of the month in the early 70’s, the failure of his cars put him out in the cold by the mid to late 70’s. Ian Beech’s design offered a light cabin with lots of glass, and it was one of the first mass-produced cars to use body-coloured bumpers. Realising that the Golf GTI was a hit, BL decided the Maestro needed its own hot variants. But with little time and resources they merely “warmed up” the R-Series 1.6L engine, producing a hardly outstanding 0-60 time of seconds. The car was pitched in customer clinics against competitors such as the mk1 Golf and Renault 14, all late 70’s designs, where it performed well. The team thought they were on to a winner. To show off the hidden microchip-run lean burning engine of 60mpg at a steady 56mph, Austin Rover put an “Econometer” on the dashboard that would light up to show you how clever it was.
And there weren’t just microchips under the bonnet. The top of the range Maestro’s got a “state of the art” all-electronic dashboard, with 32 speech commands in 15 languages that told you if there was a problem with the car. The marketing men wanted customers to know the Maestro was cutting edge, even if it did have a 1970’s dashboard and even older engines. But all wasn’t well in the design team. There was severe friction from David Bache, the design lead, and Harold Musgrove who ran British Leyland.
They were trying to style the cars in two different ways. This came to a head in 1981 where Bache was fired on the spot after a particularly big argument. Bache’s successor was Roy Axe, formerly of Ford. When he arrived, he took one look at the Maestro and Montego development and was in shock. The proportions of both cars were all wrong with the overhangs looking awkward and the cars sitting too high. The design was all sharp angles where current car design was becoming more rounded. The Montego was a product of two different designers merging their ideas unhappily together. The dashboards looked ancient. In his opinion the cars should be scrapped, and work started again. Harold Musgrove told him that the Government would never go for this, and that these cars had to proceed. To be fair to Harold, he was right that the Government would never have agreed, but the experienced people at British Leyland should have made a better car. The Maestro was the second car in BL’s three car strategy to return to profitability.
The Metro had succeeded, so over £200M was invested in the factory, design and marketing to ensure the Maestro and Montego were a hit. The Cowley plant would be the most advanced car production facility in Europe. British Leyland hired 1,100 more workers to meet the anticipated demand of 120,000 cars a year, and the Government poured another £100M into the company ahead of the 1983 election. The car was launched on March 1st, 1983 as the “Miracle Maestro”, although it’s not quite clear why it was a miracle. Maybe it was a miracle it had finally launched after 8 years of gestation? The motoring press were lukewarm. Sales began strong but began to fade by the end of the year – not a good sign for a new car. It soon became clear that customers weren’t warming to the car. As Roy Axe had said, both the outside and inside looked dated. Although the dashboard had a clean and simple design, it had been designed way back in 1977, and was made of several pieces which rubbed against each other causing squeaks and rattles as the new cars were driven down the road.
Austin Rover, as BL were now called, had a terrible time making the body-coloured trim, and many cars sat unfinished as production issues were resolved. Production quality issues, something now expected from the British manufacturer, were there in abundance. The rushed MG Maestro’s engine would overheat due to bad design. So, it was both slow and unreliable! The VW gearbox, so good in the Golf, felt unrefined. And those quality issues hit the most hi-tech feature, the speech unit. In any other car sensor issues might produce the odd blinking warning light, but imagine every time you go over a bump, being told “Warning, please fasten your seat belt” by a nagging woman trapped behind the dashboard. Then the industrial disputes started. With management pushing for high quality and high output, they were being heavy handed with workers, whose natural reaction was to strike to air their grievances. The bad old days of “them and us” weren’t over yet, and it looked like the same old British Leyland from the outside. The strike put BL even further behind on their production targets.
The Montego was able to fix some of the Maestro’s problems. The R-Series engine was fully updated to the much more competent S-Series that allowed both cars to more fully compete with the competition. And the dashboard was modernised, making it a squeak-free one-piece design. The 2.0L O-Series engine, used in the Princess and Rover SD1, would round out the range with a more pleasant Honda gearbox. Montego launched in April 1984 and the attractive estate version followed just a few months later. Finally, Austin Rover had a full suite of cars to sell to fleet managers, a market they’d vacated 7 years earlier, and they hoped the negative reaction to the jelly-mould looks of the Ford Cortina replacement, the Sierra, would help them. But with Ford having to discount their Sierra to get it shifted, and Vauxhall discounting their Cavalier to make gains in the fleet market, this was a market with very little profit margin.
With quality problems hitting both cars, sales weren’t great. Austin Rover’s reputation for poor quality had been known for a long time, and only so much patriotism can get over that hump. Customers were moving towards more reliable German and Japanese cars. With Roy Axe so unhappy with the Maestro and Montego design, Austin Rover had started work on a replacement for the Montego, and by 1985 the project had advanced to the point of clay models and interior designs. The car would be known as the Rover 400 and looked similar to the larger Rover 800 that would be launched the following year. It would be a saloon, hatchback and estate. A Maestro facelift was worked on, but by 1985 it was decided the Maestro would be left to die with Austin Rover focusing on the Rover 200, a rebadged Honda Ballade. But by now it was becoming clear to both Austin Rover and the Government that the hope for profitability had gone. £2.3B had been given to the company by taxpayers in the previous 10 years, and they didn’t have much to show for it.
The Conservative Government tried to sell the company to Ford, but the plan was discovered by the opposition party and they were forced to back down. But with the Government privatising everything in sight, more funding for a failed nationalised company wasn’t on the cards. Where the Maestro and Montego had wanted to be top of the sales charts, they were falling rapidly. “And here’s the top 10 cars for 1986. At number 10 a new entry for the Ford Granada. At number 9, moving up one, it’s Austin’s Maestro. At 8, falling one, it’s Austin’s sister car, the Montego.
Moving up one, it’s Ford’s booted wonder – the Orion! Dropping 4 to number 6, the definitely not boring Cavalier. The second-best selling supermini at 5, the Ford Fiesta. And at 4, rising three places and beating the Maestro, it’s the Vauxhall Astra. At number 3, Britain’s leading the supermini pack with the Austin Metro. And at 2, it’s beating out the Montego and Cavalier, it’s Ford’s Sierra. So who will be number one for 1986? Well it’s the same car as last year, it’s the Ford Escort beating both the Maestro and Astra!” By 1987 marketing had discovered the public thought both the Maestro and Montego had a boring image, so decided to make a series of adverts that showed how exciting both cars were. The old-fashioned “Austin” name was dropped on all Austin Rover’s cars, and the company renamed to just “Rover”.
By 1989 a diesel engine had appeared, and the Montego got a light facelift, and in the late 80’s hotter MG Turbo versions of both cars appeared with a larger 2.0L engine, pushing the cars to 60 in seconds. Using the trick to push old cars by pepping them up and sticking on an MG badge would foreshadow the MG ZR and ZS models in the early 2000s. Rover tried one last time to breathe life into the Montego in 1990 by turning it into an SUV of sorts. The team that had come up with the Land Rover Discovery produced an elegant design that had a whiff of the later Volvo XC70 and could have been a popular niche car. But Rover management decided that it couldn’t take it to market, especially as it would have really needed expensive 4-wheel drive changes. With Maestro and Montego still in limited production up until 1994, the company looked to sell the tooling to all bidders to get some extra cash.
The Maestro was sold in Bulgaria where it would be partially assembled in the UK with final assembly at a new Bulgarian factory. After the Soviet bloc collapsed this would help kickstart Bulgaria’s manufacturing industry. Production began in 1995 and though the vehicles had excellent build quality the car failed to sell due to being too expensive against much better and newer Skoda competition. Production stopped in 1996 with only 2,200 being sold. The unsold kits were shipped back to the UK where they were assembled and sold until 2001! Meanwhile the Montego was beginning a new life in India.
Again, Rover would partially produce the cars in the UK with final assembly by Sipani Automobiles in India. Sipani sold it as the “Rover Montego” and pitched it as a high-end European car. But the car hit the same problem the Bulgarian Maestro had – competition. The Indian car market was opening up, with many joint ventures from established car companies such as Suzuki, Daewoo, Ford and GM.
The Montego was ten-year old technology and could never compete. Just 500 were sold. You would think that was the end of the story. But no! The Chinese company Etsong bought the tooling for both the Maestro and Montego and started production in 2000. The cars used Toyota engines with Nissan dashboards and were sold as passenger cars and vans. Production ended in 2003. You think that’s the end? Wrong again! Etsong sold the tooling to FAW in China who then made their own version, the Lubao in 2003. The first cars were essentially Etsong variants of the Maestro, but then FAW, for some reason thought it would be a good idea to weld the front of a Montego to the Maestro, something that’s been nicknamed the “Monstro”. And a “Monstro” it really was as well! But humans weren’t done punishing these cars. It was like the Maestro and Montego had gone to hell for their 1980s sins and new forms of punishment were being dreamt up. Or maybe these cars were like Chucky in that they just… would… not… die! The next company to get their hands on the tooling was Sichuan Auto with its catchily named “Yema SQJ4650” in 2006.
Less a product name and more a Northern Ireland license plate. This was followed in 2009 by the incremental SQJ4651 which used the Maestro chassis but looked for all the world like a knockoff Subaru Forester. Yet this still wasn’t the end! Actually, no, I’m lying. That was the end. The Maestro and Montego had been put through enough.