Theme: Special – 1988 MG Maestro Turbo

“Special” might not be a term that many would use in its positive sense to describe a Maestro of any kind, but I think this one deserves a mention as part of this month’s thematic celebration.

1989 MG Maestro: source
1989 MG Maestro: source

I like to think that this was a car marketed with a twinkle in the eye of those involved. It was as if they knew that the public and journalists in particular would scoff at the very notion of it, and so they just added a little wry smile to the way that it was presented to the market.

Maestro Turbo Advert
Truth in advertising: source

The car was introduced to an unsuspecting public in a corner of ARG’s stand at the 1988 NEC Motorshow. It was a response to hotter hatches of the time – the VW Golf GTi 16v, Astra GTE 16v, etc. – and a pretty thuggish one at that. The 1,994cc, 4-cylinder, 8-valve, Garret T3 via a single SU carburetor, “O” Series engine produced 150 bhp at 5,100 rpm and 169 lb/ft of torque at 3,500 rpm. This engine had been tested – sorry – proven in the Montego, a car which quickly gained a reputation for rampant torque-steer and unruly chassis behaviour. In the lighter, shorter wheelbase Maestro, the prospects for this latest MG seemed seriously scary.

Maestro Turbo Interior
Maestro interior: source

As if to signal this, ARG arranged for the car to wear a very individual, butch body kit. Cars were assembled with other Maestros at Rover’s Cowley facility before being shipped to Tickford’s Bedworth plant for application of the five-piece body kit and graphics. They were returned to ARG before being despatched to dealers. The list price was £13,529.

Although those power and torque figures are unremarkable today – my Mazda3 2.2L diesel matches the power and delivers almost 120 lb/ft extra of torque – the car was obviously light because it could rocket to 60 mph from rest in 6.7 seconds on the way to a claimed 132 mph top speed, making it at that time the fastest production MG ever built.

And this is where I think the twinkle came into way ARG decided to market this car. Remember that, by 1988, the Maestro was a thoroughly spent force in the market. Indeed, the car had looked old-fashioned even when first introduced in 1983 – a factor of an extended development cycle courtesy of Government/ Management/ Union/ Shop Steward interventions. So, the marketing team must have cried and then laughed at the idea of having to shift 500, high priced, extreme examples of a car deemed dumpy and unsexy by an indifferent public.

Maestro TurboThe first clue is in the body-kit and, more specifically, the graphics. At the core of the attitude were bold front and rear bumpers – the front carrying integral Lucas-sourced driving lamps – and rather obvious side “TURBO” graphics. Here, someone was clearly having a chuckle to themselves as the script was a rip of that used by Porsche on a number of its models. Second, press ads, which often covered a twin page spread and must have cost a bomb, explicitly compared some aspect of this turbocharged MG’s performance (the 40-60 mph, or 50-70 mph sprint, from memory) favourably to that of “a Ferrari, a Porsche, a Lotus, a Lamborghini …”. This pure act of bravura was worthy of an award on its own. I can picture the team gently wetting themselves every time they caught sight of it in the FT, or Times, or – heaven forbid – Car Magazine.

1982 Austin Maestro, standard model: source
1982 Austin Maestro, standard model: source

I never got to drive, let alone own, one, but this is the kind of stupid car that appeals to me. I once owned its French near-equivalent, the Visa GTi, and my parents did own an MG Maestro EFi, which was far better than you will be sat there imagining. I am sure that not everyone got that it was a bit of a joke, though. I once saw a red example in the car park under the BZW (‘90’s predecessor to Barclays Capital) building with the doctored number plate “A1 1N FX” which suggested that individual thought the Turbo capable of carrying a serious personal statement.

500 were commissioned, although Tickford’s records indicate 505 passed through their facility. Of these, 149 were in extra-cost metallic BRG, which must have gone a little towards recovering the cost of those ads. To those who still own them, I envy you; to those who did the marketing, I salute you!

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

9 thoughts on “Theme: Special – 1988 MG Maestro Turbo”

  1. Volvo had the same approach to their 360 GLT Turbo: faster than a Porsche, they said.
    With the passage of time the Maestro doesn’t look glaringly different from its 1983 peers. All of those cars were quite basic except the Kadett of course. Ford’s Escorts were usually quite horrid.
    Is there a reason Kia or Hyundai or Nissan don’t sell a mad version of their tiny cars? An i10 Turbo would be fun.

  2. I like the body kit treatment. Very backwards baseball cap, sure, but the squarer bumpers and deep side skirts imbued visual gravity, drawing the high riding Maestro shape downwards.

    A story went around that the cars for the press launch all had their turbos dialled up, leading to a rather unruly driving experience. One gets the feeling that certain elements within Austin-Rover enjoyed this turn of events; the whole project has the whiff of an after hours project.

    I gather the MG Maestro Turbo is quite collectable now. One wonders whether it is time the Maestro was reappraised?

    1. I’ve mooted my ‘Phil Collins’ theory before on these pages regarding Audi. By which I mean that, although not actually to my taste, I’m hard put to find Mr C any more naff than many others. He just became a lazy target for anyone to use to suggest that they are musically discerning.

      Equally, the Maestro comes in for a lot more criticism than it really deserves, if you look at its competitors at the time. Yes, it was late to market and had the typical build problems of any late era BL product, but it was extremely roomy, comfortable, handled well and had good visibility. It even lives on in a way, albeit unrecognisable as the Yema F12. And the Turbo had red seat belts, which is always a plus point.

      I remember someone I worked with 15 years ago telling me rather shamefacedly that he’d bought a third hand Maestro Turbo, basically just because it was cheap. I got quite enthusiastic and I think he thought I was being patronising, but I’ve always remembered quite enthusiastic reviews at the time.

  3. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the Maestro. It’s always seemed like a special car, above all because I’d only got to see one when I went to the UK for the first time in the early 1990s. Then there are the proportions – that giant greenhouse! – and the concave sides. There was, please don’t laugh, something exotic about that compact car to my West German eyes.

    On a more sophisticated level, I’ll always have a modicum of respect for it simply because it happened to be David Bache’s swan song. And albeit far from his best work, it still possesses traces of the man’s flair for the bold.

  4. The Maestro wasn’t the car I wanted “the home team” to be making in 1983 (I had similar feelings about the Maxi and Allegro in their time). Yet now it appears pleasingly proportioned and distinctive in its detailing (the same is true of the Maxi, but the Allegro remains unforgivable).

    It’s probably just coincidence that David Bache and Brown Bag were both playing games with chamfers at the same time. The Italian-born Mercedes Benz designer did them better on W201 than the German-born Austin Rover designer managed with LM10, but they still lift the Maestro beyond the ordinary.

    When the Montego arrived a year after the Maestro, Roy Axe was commended for the ‘last minute rescue job’ he had done on the unhappy LM10 series. Looking back 33 years on, the Maestro looks the most resolved of the family.

    1. Little wonder the Maestro made it in as DTW’s 20th best car ever. Did I make a mistake? Maybe it ought not to be on the list.
      Halfway through I couldn’t decide if the list was ironic or not.

    2. I’ve never had a sound explanation as to why Metro was proritised. Surely the larger car would have been a more profitable one, which at the time was surely a matter of life and death for BL. The car’s styling was frozen as far back as 1975 according to some accounts!

      It’s tempting to imagine what we’d have had if LM10 had launched first – I’m imagining around 1980 or so. No thermoplastic bumpers. No electronic carbuettors. No Nicolette McKenzie. No LCD soundsysyem. I think the car’s reception and especially that of its styling might have been somewhat different.

      I’m rather minded to defend the Maestro. I traveled in several versions at various times and was always struck by the amount of space and light there was in the cabin. They rode well too. My father had a succession of Erika-era Escort company cars in the 1980’s and a trip in the back of a relative’s Maestro at the time was a revelation. Actual legroom and suspension that did more than just show up for the laugh. Erika may have been a little sharper to drive – the early ones were a bit of a hoot, but LM10 would have been a more relaxing companion.

      I’d concur that Beech/Bache’s styling for the Maestro has aged rather well.

  5. Maestros were pretty rare in the Netherlands, so were English cars in general in the ’80s, I don’t think the turbo ever made it to the continent. My most vivid memory of the Maestro is from a book, Time Moore’s You Are Awful (But I Like You): Travels Through Unloved Britain. His was not a turbo fortunately, that would have spoilt the story.

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