The talking dashboard set it apart, but the competition had better designs and engines, says

It would be an Arctic heart indeed that didn't warm to the MG Maestro 1600 after listening to Matthew Semple. It's his fourth Maestro and, at £295, the cheapest so far. "It came with six months' tax, too", he adds with the relish you'd expect for such a useful bonus at the poverty end of the classic car spectrum.

For this isn't just any old Maestro picked from the 605,411 made between 1983 and 1994, but one of the iconic ones – an early MG edition with the so-called "talking" dashboard. You don't have to be an anorak to remember this innovation either; a similar car featured in its very own storyline in early episodes of Channel 4 soap Brookside, intriguing mums and grannies nationwide.

"This car had an all-digital dashboard in the days before we even had such technology in our answering machines", Matthew says, with the sort of enthusiasm a modern teenager might gush about a new iPod. "It was quite an achievement for British Leyland and its partner Smiths Industries, because all the dash lights are LEDs and the voice alerts are completely digital".

The Maestro is regularly lampooned as one of Britain worst-ever cars, but the digital dash in Matthew's car is testimony to its longevity. The car may be 22 years old but every electronic feature still works, down to the voice of actress Nicolette MacKenzie whose synthesised alerts warn about pressing issues like failed lightbulbs and low fluid levels. She sounds like a rather camp Stephen Hawking, but she does her stuff as the 1970s electronics boffins intended, while the on-board trip computer can still spiel out statistical data about your journey. The man-made fibres and plastics of the car's interior, faded to weird greys, mushrooms and browns, haven't aged so well, but the MG's red seatbelts are still as garish as the day they were installed at BL's Cowley plant.

The bar-room jesters, by the way, are wrong. The Maestro was far from being a bad car. While its oddly chiselled contours and scalloped sides rob it of much elegance, this was a roomy and practical family chariot, mid-way between a Ford Escort and a Ford Sierra in size. Thanks to well-sorted, all-round coil-spring suspension, road manners were good, and there was a wide choice of engine and trim options. The car, under its LC10 codename, was championed by Sir Michael Edwardes as he struggled between 1977 and 1982 to haul BL back to viability. It was conceived as a simple, conventional front-wheel drive model, avoiding the costly and weird rubber or gas suspensions used in the Mini, Metro, Maxi and Allegro. The straight-talking tycoon had to beg for the funds to develop the Maestro, and its Montego saloon spin-off, from a sceptical Margaret Thatcher.

The trouble was, by the mid-1980s, the benchmarks were hurtling skywards. The Maestro may, in truth, have been no worse than some French, Italian and South Korean offerings, but it was still nowhere near its Japanese rivals for build quality. And then there was the second generation Volkswagen Golf, a brilliant all-rounder with no obvious downsides, except its entirely justifiable higher price.

The Maestro suffered bad engines. The basic 1.3-litre engine owed its roots to pre-Second World War models, while the larger one – as found in the MG model – was BL's new 1.6-litre R Series, and that came with a slew of its own maladies.

"The car's biggest problem was that dealers couldn't set up the Weber carburettors properly – they were used to the SUs on older Austins", Matthew explains. "I don't think BL trained them properly because, as long as the carbs are okay, the car will run perfectly".

The company's solution was to withdraw the MG after just 15,000 had been sold, thoroughly re-think it, and relaunch it in 1985 as the MG Maestro EFi. Under the bonnet was now a cracking fuel-injected 2-litre engine, the talking dash was ditched, and the car became a credible sports saloon, albeit one whose prospects crumbled in the face of the awesomely accomplished Volkswagen Golf GTi; the final MG Maestro tally was 47,914 in total.

For many, the best Maestros were among the last, which came with an excellent direct-injection 2-litre diesel engine. In this form, introduced in 1990, the car represented a top-value, good-quality, commodious and frugal package. However, despite being available until 1994, the Maestro had missed its window of opportunity.

However, as if to prove there's life in the old dog yet, the entire Maestro production line was snapped up by Chinese entrepreneurs. It's now manufactured in the Far East and sold as the Etsong. Proof of its popularity in China is sketchy, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Maestros (now with Toyota engines) are occasionally encountered in the maelstrom of Chinese traffic. British Maestro owners wishing to see their cars to a ripe old age may well be grateful for a Chinese parts lifeline – replacement front wings, for example, are already scarce, says Matthew Semple.

The MG Maestro 1600, moreover, is now a cult classic. Several will be on show at the annual MG Saloon Day on 3 July at Stanford Hall, Lutterworth, Leics, when owners of cherished MG Metros, Maestros and Montegos get together to bemoan the decline of Britain's indigenous motor industry, but to admire its robust survivors. If you see Matthew Semple and his car, he'll be delighted to demonstrate that talking dashboard for you.

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