MG Maestro 1983 exterior

Austin Maestro | Cars that were ahead of their time

Austin Maestro | Cars that were ahead of their time

A massive buzzword at the moment in the realms of tech is Artificial Intelligence or AI and as is always the case with these things, it’s bleeding into the automotive world.

We can count a number of cars released or updated this year with ChatGPT baked in, allowing you to have a semi-casual conversation with your own car. Of course, voice controls have been in cars for a while, going back to the early 2000s and those early Mercedes systems.

But would you believe us if we told you that cars capable of uttering spoken words can trace their lineage some 20 years further back… to British Leyland? No? Well, believe it.

Doing its best KITT impression all the way back in 1983 was the Austin Maestro, in Vanden Plas and MG trim, which actually featured a number of interesting innovations. Among the laminated windscreen, electronic engine management system and digital speedo was of course, the voice synthesis warning and information system.

Didn’t put your seatbelt on? The Maestro would quite literally ‘tell’ you. Likewise if you’d turned the engine off and left the lights on, or if the oil or coolant needed topping up – a shoo-in for a BL car, surely…

It’d also warn you of low-ambient temperatures and to watch out for ice, or that your brake pads needed to be checked, or if the door was open, or… you get the idea. You could also prompt it to tell you things, like what the time was, your trip distance, or the amount of fuel you’d used (for that journey or what your average was).

The voice was a real person, too; a New Zealand actress by the name of Nicolette McKenzie, who in addition to giving the Maestro a voice, has starred in Under Suspicion and The Merchant of Venice, to the 2017 PlayStation 4 game Horizon Zero Dawn. Now there’s some association game gold.

We understand that every vehicle is unique, which is why our Agreed Valuation policies take the true value of your classic car into account.

No, you couldn’t talk to it, which is the direction all voice systems in cars took as they became popular over the past 20 years but truthfully and honestly, the Maestro’s voice system really is the long-lost progenitor for the ChatGPT integration in your new Volkswagen Golf.

At the time the Maestro was actually received strangely well for a British Leyland product, slightly fusty styling notwithstanding. It was practical and of course festooned with gimmickry. But it’s of how the car held up post-delivery, as with much of what Leyland produced, that let it down. The digital dash plagued the car with electrical issues and the engines had baked-in problems. The Maestro famously took six years to develop, yet was somehow still rushed.

Of course, the voice system is as much a gimmick now as it was then, and the important bits – how a car is actually put together and how dependable it is – are as much a reason the Golf is well into its eighth generation as they are a reason British Leyland, Austin and the Maestro, are automotive footnotes. All the same, the novelty of the Maestro and its trinkets fascinate still, some 40 years on.

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