I drove an MG Maestro 1600 and it wasn’t rubbish

When I think about it, the MG Maestro played a hugely important role in my childhood. In fact, along with the silver Ford Capri 2.8i that regularly graced my short walk to school, the MG Maestro is one of the first cars I actually remember taking an interest in. For this impressionable young lad, the MG Maestro – introduced in 1984 – could have been the best car in the world.

I was reminded of this during a recent visit to the MG Car Club, which is celebrating 25 years at its home in Kimber House, Abingdon. Alongside such luminaries as the MG Abingdon Edition, MG ZT V8, MG B GT and MG Midget, I only had eyes for the MG Maestro, even if it was the unfashionable 1600 version and not the later and more desirable MG Maestro Turbo.

Having driven a number of the cars on offer, it was the MG Maestro that left the lasting impression. To say I met a hero and it didn’t let me down would be overplaying things, but my nine-year-old self would have been in his element.

You see, in 1984, the MG Maestro had it all.

MG Maestro: Talking Heads

The headline act was undoubtedly the so-called ‘talking dash’, which helped to elevate the MG Maestro from the pages of the motoring press to television news. My memory is hazy, but it could have been Frank Bough who was taken aback by this otherworldly development, as if a lady was living in the Maestro’s glovebox. In fact, it was little more than the prerecorded voice of Nicolette McKenzie, who was on hand to deliver timely and often unwanted information on the car’s health and wellbeing.

MG Maestro talking dash

Through a fair degree of pester-power, the MG Maestro also resulted in a change of shopping habits. Growing up in New Milton, Hampshire, we had a choice of three supermarkets: Safeway, Co-op and International (remember that?). At the time, International was running a sticker-based giveaway. In short, spend some money and the cashier would give you a sticker displaying part of an MG Maestro. Complete the jigsaw and you could win the car.

It was like a Panini sticker album, only without photos of Gary Lineker, Andy Gray and Joe Jordan. I would do everything in my power to convince Mum to shop at International. No matter that we didn’t have a snowball in hell’s chance of winning the car, I always believed we were only one shop away from having a car with a talking dash. We never did win.

MG Maestro: Groove Armada

I did, however, get my hands on a yellow MG Maestro. It was the Corgi version, complete with working headlights. Simply press down on the roof and the front and rear lights would illuminate. Fantastic. Although pressing down only served to create a deeper groove in the living room carpet. Sorry, Mum.

Talking dashboards, supermarket giveaways and Corgi models with working headlights. It’s little wonder I held the MG Maestro in such high regard.

MG Maestro 1600 blue

Back then, I had no idea that the MG Maestro was rushed into production, despite protests from the engineers. A piece on the ever-excellent AROnline paints a pretty dim picture of the early cars, with stories of unreliability, quality issues and poor management. Even Honest John Classics, which tends to be more balanced than others when it comes to British cars of this era, does little to lift the mood.

But this is PetrolBlog, where the underdog is king and the glass is forever half full. After a brief drive in an MG BGT (which left me feeling a little underwhelmed), my time had come to go for a drive with Nicolette. To go where Frank Bough had gone some 30 years earlier.

As I put the keys in the ignition, I was warned that starting could be a problem, especially when the car is hot. I’m paraphrasing a little, but these days you simply don’t hear things like “be aware that if you turn it off, it might not start again.” According to the MG Car Club, they did this from new. Ah, happy days.

MG Maestro: So Solid Crew

The first thing that strikes you is the gloriously futuristic (for its time) dashboard. It’s a sea of hard plastic and sharp angles, but your eyes are inevitably drawn to the Computer & Voice Synthesis and SOLID STATE display. Driving an MG Maestro is like driving Tron, circa 1982.

MG Maestro 1600 dashboard

In its day, the solid state electronic instrument panel was quite a big thing. It was the first of its kind on a British car and was controlled by two microprocessors. Aside from the trip computer, which looks terribly archaic alongside the Tron display, there are no moving parts. You’ll note the ‘convert’ button, which allowed Maestro owners to switch from mph to kph at the flick of a switch. Clever stuff.

Sadly, the dashboards could be wildly inaccurate and, perhaps true to form, could suffer from failure. According to Nicolette, I averaged 236.4mpg on my nostalgic drive through the Oxfordshire countryside. Who needs a plug-in hybrid?

It takes a while to get used to. Treat the MG Maestro 1600 like a modern-day hot hatch and you’ll be hopelessly disappointed. The twin-Weber 1598cc S-Series engine doesn’t offer the same lazy performance of today’s turbocharged units. It requires work to get the best from it.

The Volkswagen-sourced five-speed gearbox does everything in its power to stop you having fun behind the wheel. It’s like an automotive chastity belt, there to stop you from getting too carried away. Wiggle the gearstick and it’s hard to figure out if you’re in gear or in neutral. And occasionally you might just find second gear at the first attempt.

Driving an MG Maestro 1600

MG Maestro: Joy Machine

But like anything, you soon get used to the gearbox and learn how to get the best from it. Besides, there are other joys to be had here.

Take the engine, which is wonderfully torquey and offers a delightful raspy soundtrack. It simply encourages you to press on, at which point you discover that the rev counter is incapable of keeping up with your demands. No matter, you’re having too much fun to care.

The all-round visibility is great and the sense of involvement is all-encompassing. Show the MG Maestro 1600 an open road and it’s like showing an open field to a dog. In town and in traffic, the MG Maestro has the potential to be a pain to live with. But on a country road, it’s as enjoyable as any other hot hatch from the period. Right place, right time, etc, etc.

There’s feedback from all directions: through the steering, through the pedals and even through the supremely comfortable seats. It’s only the inadequate brakes that stop you from throwing caution to the wind. It’s easy to see why so many hot hatches of this era had a brief encounter with a hedgerow.

After an hour with the unfashionable MG I felt fulfilled. My inner nine-year-old revelled in the experience. The red pinstriped, red belted and red badged MG had lived up to 30 years of expectations. It just goes to prove that while everyone will have an opinion on a car, you can only make up your own mind when you’ve driven something for yourself.

MG Maestro 1600 front

MG purists may bemoan the existence of the front-wheel drive cars, but they represent a period in the famous marque’s history. The execution could have been better, but hot hatches were exactly what MG needed back in the 1980s.

Thanks to the MG Car Club for allowing me to see what I could have won in the International supermarket sweep. Credit must also go to the Maestro’s owner, who has the dedication required to keep such a lovely example alive. This MG Maestro 1600 deserves to live on. Fun car.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

9 comments

  1. October 21, 2015
    David Milloy

    I’ve got a soft spot for the Maestro. Yes, it’s frumpy and certainly wasn’t as well screwed together as it might have been, but it has a character that’s redolent of a particular (better, in my view) place and time, now lost forever.

    It’s fair to say, however, that there may have been a time when I wasn’t so well disposed towards Maestros. My disdain had nothing to with the car, however, but resulted from certain events that occurred in the year of its launch.

    To set the scene, it was June 1983 and I was spending the the weekend with relatives in Stirling. Having spent an enjoyable day larking about in his black Allegro, my second cousin, the same age as me (that being 18 in 1983), decreed that we should hit one of the town’s top nightspots (not that it had much competition) that evening. I immediately assented, whereupon he dropped his bombshell: the venue for our planned entertainment (a bog-standard disco, or was it the other way round?) had a house rule that required male customers to wear a tie. That shouldn’t have been a problem, but I hadn’t taken a tie with me and the timing of said decision meant that I didn’t have time to nip out to the shops and buy one. What to do?

    Ultimately, my options came down to either borrowing a tie from my second cousin (his collection of which ran to all of two examples) or from his father. Having informed my second cousin that I would be grateful for the loan of his second tie, he beamed happily and presented me with an official Austin Maestro tie that had been issued to him by the dealership he worked for. It says much about his father’s collection of neckwear that I plumped for the Maestro tie, even though it meant that I would hit the town looking for all the world like Trigger’s* younger, less fashion conscious, brother.

    Gawd knows what the young ladies of Stirling made of it, for we never actually managed to gain entry to said nightclub. Once the bouncers had stopped laughing (which wasn’t the work of a moment), they politely invited us to sling our hooks. My recollection is hazy, but I seem to recall one of them muttering something about trying again when it was panto season. It took a while for my youthful self-esteem to recover from that one…

    *Trigger being the legendarily daft and perenially unstylish character from ‘Only Fools and Horses’.

    Reply
  2. October 21, 2015
    Ben Day

    That dash is fantastic. That was the future that never arrived. Didn’t the Astra GTE and Fiat Tipo also have them in the 80’s? Perhaps I’m mis-remembering.

    Reply
  3. October 21, 2015
    David Milloy

    Not sure about the Tipo, Ben, but I can confirm that the mark 2 Astra GTE had an electronic dash: http://www.performance-car-guide.co.uk/images/L-Astra-GTE-Dash.jpg

    Reply
  4. October 23, 2015
    Darren Leslie

    In the mid eighties, my family were looking at moving down to the south coast from High Wycombe. Unfortunately, my Dad had ‘bumped’ his Audi 80 (a red B2 GLS from 1979 no less) and was kindly given a succession of BLs finest as courtesy cars. The one that stands out was a Maestro, as I recall a Vanden Plas, which had the talking dash. How me and my brother laughed as my Dad continuously shouted at the car to shut up….

    Reply
    • November 4, 2015
      Gavin Big-Surname

      Ha! I can imagine your dad shouting at the car!

      Reply
  5. November 3, 2015
    Matthew

    Great article! Over the years it has become popular to make fun of cars like this and conclude that they are all that was wrong with the Brirish car industry, etc, etc.

    But here is someone who has driven one, loved it and has not been afraid to praise it for all its virtues.

    I have one of these cars in the same colour as the one in these pictures and I occasionally get asked by friends why I keep it. I reply that they wouldn’t be asking that if they drove it. Not only does it look great and have that fantastic dash that still works, ever last LED, but it is a hoot to drive.

    Well done Gavin, I salute you.

    Handbrake on, high engine temperature!

    Reply
    • November 4, 2015
      Gavin Big-Surname

      Thanks for reading, Matthew.

      As you say, it’s fashionable to mock cars like the MG Maestro. And cars like this are easy targets. I prefer to make up my own mind, but only having driven something for myself.

      I really, really enjoyed my time with the car. Came back buzzing. It was easily my favourite car of the day.

      Rather envious of you!

      Reply
  6. January 2, 2017
    Suzy

    I think It looks quite modern this maestro Not frumpy at all.
    I wouldn’t mind one of these it looks real nice and the dash board is futuristic looking.

    Reply

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