Today we posit something of a counterfactual. What if Maestro had preceded Metro?
Picking over the bones of long dead car companies is one of the more futile pastimes one can engage in, but in the case of British Leyland, it’s irresistible. So many factors contributed to the British car giant’s demise however, that to single out one area is to grossly over-simplify the larger, more nuanced, and far more depressing picture.
A former Jaguar engineering director once told me that BL’s senior management were in his words, ‘not of the first order’ and given their respective track records, both during the latter stages of the BMH period, in the years leading up to BLMC’s collapse in 1974, and during the post-Ryder era, it’s difficult to refute this assertion.
Frustratingly, BL in its myriad forms was blessed with many talented conceptual engineers and stylists, none of whom were particularly well served by the those at senior boardroom level.
The current DTW series (which I urge you to read), detailing the gestation and political background behind the 1981 Triumph Acclaim is a telling parable highlighting the path-dependence which had taken hold at Longbridge and just how far behind best industry practice BL’s senior management, product planners and production engineers appeared to be.
In 1983, BL finally announced their C-segment contender, a car which was tasked with not only building on the success of the LM8 Metro, but also to replace two existing models, while siring a three volume replacement to the ‘much-loved’ Morris Ital.
The senior management line was that while the Metro had saved the company, the Maestro and its LM11 sibling would make it self-sustaining. But while small B-segment hatchbacks (and the Metro was small by class standards) are good for scale, they are not and never were profit centres for car businesses, the margins earned on them being vanishingly thin.
The roots of these far-reaching decisions lead back to the torrid wake of BLMC’s 1974 annus-horriblis. It had by then become abundantly clear the Maxi was never going to pay its way and increasingly apparent that the even more expensively developed Allegro was also failing to meet projections. Yet at the same time, the antediluvian Marina confounded almost everyone by being perhaps BL’s strongest product, remaining a best-seller far longer than anyone had a right to expect, or indeed the concept could realistically support.
According to the excellent AROnline profile, the Maestro was believed to have been initiated around 1975. The following year, a styling competition, lead by BL design chief, David Bache, saw proposals from amongst others, BL’s Harris Mann and Ian Beech. With Bache’s enthusiastic backing, BL management approved the Beech proposal, yet it wasn’t until 1978 that LM10 was signed off.
Immediately prior to BLMC’s collapse, the ADO88 project had been greenlighted by BLMC’s John Barber, management having wrung their hands since the late-’60s over how to replace the Mini at the bottom of the range. And while it was obvious that a supermini was required to bolster market share, surely there were bigger, potentially more lucrative fish to fry?
Set to launch in 1977, the ADO88 programme slipped owing to BL’s descent into a financial and labour-related abyss, with Michael Edwardes appointed to kill or cure. The following year, following a styling review, the decision was taken to carry out a hasty reskin, leading to a revised product code (LM8) and launch date, reset to 1980.
It’s obvious that BL, nationalised and fiscally impoverished in the wake of the calamitous SD1 programme hadn’t the resources to develop both model lines simultaneously, but nevertheless it’s tempting to suggest that the wrong car had been prioritised.
Had LM10 reached the market around 1979/80, shorn of the gimmicks which were added to give a warmed-over design a little pizzaz (body coloured bumpers, digital instrumentation, electronic carburettor etc…), BL would have had a competitive, albeit stark-looking piece of contemporary product design with a good deal more market appeal than the dated-looking product they launched in 1983.
Matters of build quite naturally would have remained – a perennial BL issue, partially due to poor labour relations, partly because BL’s production engineers seemed incapable of designing cars which were straightforward to assemble accurately and especially due to the poor quality of bought in components (a UK-industry bugbear for decades). Indeed, even the VW-sourced gearboxes fitted were rumoured to have been sub-standard.
Would a 1979/80 launch have made a palpable difference to the BL business? It’s difficult to say. But at the time, the UK market was crying out for a modern competitive domestic C-segment hatchback. One thing is fairly certain, it would have been a more profitable product which may have given BL a fighting chance to make good on their promises. As it was, it arrived late, undercooked and certainly by 1983 was not viewed as a stylistic trendsetter.
A further question centres around whether the early advent of LM10 would have obviated the need for the Acclaim? Possibly, which is not to say an alliance with Honda was unnecessary. However, what BL desperately needed was Honda’s powertrain and production-engineering expertise – there being no shortage of talented and resourceful conceptual engineers at Gaydon – what they lacked above all, was money and direction.
There was little conceptually wrong with the Maestro. Spen King had dictated a resolutely conventional design, and in this he was probably correct. The market wanted little else. BL’s engineers did the best they could under the circumstances. However, it could be argued that BL’s product planners either couldn’t or wouldn’t see beyond their obsession with reinventing the Mini.
By 1980, BL desperately needed a miracle, something the Metro couldn’t deliver. When the Miracle Maestro finally arrived, it couldn’t either.