When I think about it, the MG Maestro 1600 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.