Montego : The case for the defence

Mike Humble stumbles upon an early Montego still in daily use and the memories come flooding back…

Montego: last hurrah of the BL four door saloon.

Today, during one of my sales visits, I came upon two cars from the 1980s of which I was a fan – I have owned two and driven dozens of one of them. One was a neglected Lotus Excel and the other was a B-Reg blue Montego 1.6HL.

No prizes for guessing the one of which I have had the most personal experience – suffice to say, it was the Montego which was still in daily use and, to be fair, the car wasn’t that bad in condition either. Sitting there in a barn on a concrete floor, it had every tell-tale sign that a ‘Montie’ resided there – various vintage engine claret spattered on the floor!

The car belonged to one of the engineering staff and had done for a good number of years I was told. Being the right side of 40 (only just) it seems like only last week the Montego came onto the market, ushering in a new era for BL of high technology and sharp angled styling. Brochures spoke of all sorts of wizardry like homofocal headlamps, LCD dashboard displays and some very clever, yet simple, ideas like height adjustable seat belts with anchorages that sprouted from the seat.

The Montego officially replaced the Ital but was a gulf apart from the elderly Marina-based four-door saloon. Sales staff would no longer be embarrassed by the pre-Iron Age suspension system that would lurch, bang and crash over anything but a billiard table smooth road – points, condensers, leaf springs and grease nipples were nowhere to be seen on this seemingly up to date car from Austin.

Simple yet so chronically out of date, the Ital died along with the Morris brand in 1984

Looking at the car on its merits only, with the exception of its plain and simple mechanics, the Ital in fairness, was a truly horrid car. Mind you, I owned one and, indeed, had a soft spot for both the Marina and the Ital. The Ital was the one car I owned which truly kept me busy at weekends. The Montego and its sister car launched the previous year – the Maestro – had the right ingredients to succeed and yet, in darts terms, missed the bullseye by a mile.

The Montego and Metro baffled me with their silly metric tyres – a total waste of money and resources, just like the Dunlop Denovo tyre some years before. However, in that case, at least, British Leyland had the common sense to make the Dunlop Denovo an optional extra.  The result was that, while your Fiesta or Cortina cost no more than average to re-shoe, the TD and TDX  rubber on the Austin cars cost much more, with little real advantage other than a much lower risk of  a tyre coming off the rim in the event of a puncture. They were sods to fit too – just ask any seasoned Tyre Fitter.

Anyway, through the eyes a 12-year old schoolboy, the ‘Montie’ seemed sleek, sharp and bristled with showcase features showing that Austin Rover could mix it with imported technology from the Germans and Japanese. The performance from the 1600 variant was totally superior to the gutless 1.6-litre Ford Pinto in the Sierra and was on a par with the quick Cavalier Mk2 with its OHC Family Two unit.

The known issues of broken crankshafts and vibration of the hashed up “R” series of the Maestro were history with the S series having a quality 8 web counterbalanced crank and strong block. Unless pushed to its limits, the S series, for all it being a most basic engine design, was a willing and smooth running engine vastly more thermally, fuel and power efficient than the rival 1.6 OHC Pinto unit in the Sierra.

Fuel economy was also equally impressive, with a figure not far away from the magical 56mpg at 56mph – all this from a five-seater saloon. Additionally, in true English tradition, the engines were biased towards the stroke rather than the bore and so offered good torque at low revs. What we had here then was a range a of high-tech and fuel-miserly saloons designed with the driver in mind – and with yearly servicing schedules. Success?  Sadly not!

Wonky electrics, the occasional engine fire, water leaks and even exploding oil filters wrecked the car’s reputation in no time. Motor magazine ran a 1.6L on a Long Term Test – I recently re-read that with sadness at the long catalogue of problems with patchy build quality and shoddy dealers, problems which dogged Rover right to the bitter end.

It seemed that no two Montegos were the same. My father bought a Targa Red example when it was just a few years old, ran it for four years and – with the exception of a juddering clutch and minor top end oil leak – the car never missed a beat. However, a friend’s dad ran one too and it did nothing but dump oil all over the drive and constantly break down.

My own 1990 1.6 LX was as oil tight as they came and dependable, but a near neighbour ran an 1988 Mayfair which frustrated him to the point of near lunacy. Having myself driven dozens of Montego’s over the years, the earlier pre 1987 models especially, could be as different and chalk and cheese.

Montego Turbo: fast but fragile with entertaining road manners!

The MG Montego Turbo of 1985 was a really fast bit of kit, but as can be seen above, suffered from too high a ride height, alarming torque steer and bad turbo lag when first launched. Mind you, there again, the whizz bang first generation turbos of the 1980s all had a similar trait – ask any early 16-valve Saab 900 Turbo owner.

Once you were into third gear and above, the Montego Turbo just flew and flew. Sadly, though, cost cutting measures made sure the Montego never had that raw image of power, quality and speed that the Swedes captured so well. The Saab used Bosch fuel injection with the turbo, whereas the Montego Turbo’s under-bonnet view was ruined with its single, ancient SU carb.

Austin Rover’s engineering guys worked hard to reduce  the violent torque steer, but the Montego Turbo would never be sold in the numbers Austin Rover hoped and soon became known in the trade as a flawed gem. Today, they have a cult following. Total sales from 1985 to 1991 came to just over 7200 units, compared to well over 30,000 of its fellow 2.0 EFi stablemates.

Montego featured an LCD display that was vastly superior to the Maestro, but was soon deleted.

Yet, I had a fascination with the early 2.0-litre EFi, the LCD dash and display was far superior to the solid state Texet calculator affair in the MG Maestro. The nearby push button function panel had nice feeling pads whereas the Maestro had a nasty looking panel which was more akin to something from Radio Shack. Its voice no longer sounded like a drowning woman with a hair lip –  it really felt like the future, the future was here and it was a three-box shape.

The Montego 2.0EFi’s imitation Recaro seats were not quite the genuine article, as found in the Cavalier SRi and Manta GTE, but they were comfy, not over hard and trimmed nicely with plain velour on the bolsters while, in a tradition which was started with the smaller MG Metro and Maestro, red carpets and seat belts were fitted along with an MG logo moulded into the driver’s carpet heel pad.

The early Maestro had a strong prototype feeling inside with its woefully underdeveloped fascia. The Montego had a one-piece dash that actually felt of decent quality with soft action push-on push-off switches that had a nice damped action. Column switches that illuminated with fibreoptics and simple, yet brilliant height adjustable belts, front-wheel drive, remote boot release and as for that cradle method of removing the spare wheel? Ingenious, the Montego was a car that had some serious thought designed into it and, to drive, was better than any BL car that had come before. How and why, then, did it fail so miserably?

Cavalier SRi: it had that raw appeal and sold in numbers the MG Montego could only hope of.

Well, with regard to the car’s performance, handling and ride, accommodation, fuel economy allied with its impressive driver aids and features, upon its launch at least, the Montego was up there with its main rivals. Unfortunately, with the Montego, a reputation for fragility and dismal reliability once again reared its ugly head. It seemed that every aspect of design was flawed with issues of cracking bumpers, snapping door handles, oil leaks, electrical problems, suspension wear and even on occasion, serious fires wrecked the cars credibility from an early age.

However, one point needs to be remembered: the car was developed on a budget which was a small fraction of the size that both Ford or GM were accustomed to. Indeed, a Ford sales executive told me some years back about how amazed he had been by the amount of technology featured on both the Maestro and the Montego.

Dealers struggled to get to grips with what customers expected in a car as the 1980s progressed – many simply failed to match the car’s forward thinking, technology-based style. Honda was making inroads with its Accord and Nissan’s Bluebird was setting the trend with features and rock solid dependability.

Bluebird: Japanese technology with Germanic reliability yet also built in the UK

The easiest analogy I can think of is this: to make the best cake, you need the right ingredients, but if you can’t cook, you’re half-baked. The Montego was the right car at the time, some of the right ingredients were there, but the car lacked development. It was taken out of the oven before the timer buzzed.

Events before its launch including countless managerial shuffles and re-organising throughout the whole group did a great deal to ruin the product-led revival that the former chairman Sir Michael Edwardes envisaged some years before. Austin Rover was battling against the world with the popular Metro range, but, as salesmen will testify, small cars equal small profit. Success in the mid-range sector was vital for Austin Rover to survive, let alone prosper, but the Montego was looking like an own goal before it could prove itself.

Mind you, the Ford Sierra was far from being a hit at first but, by the mid 1980s, keen pricing and vivid advertising made sure it quickly gained respect and racked up some formidable sales. Vauxhall had the same situation with the Cavalier – fast, frugal and a keen driver’s car – as a result, within 18 months of launch, the Montego and Maestro were dragging the company down rather than making it fly. ARG used what limited funds were available to shake up the Dealer Network and, where needs be, franchises were terminated.

A programme of improvements and refinements along with service bay modifications went some way to making the car better for the customer, but problems including regular failing of wheel bearings, disgraceful gearchange quality on 1.3 and 1.6 cars, oil leaks and electrical glitches still hounded the car. The overhead cam engines of the 1.6 & 2.0 were willing performers but never were the first word in refinement, i’ll never forget AutoCar magazine’s capsule description of the Montego –  For = Torquey Engines Against= Talky Engines.

Very soon it became aparrent that the Montego was well below par considering the bullish marketing and personal statements issued by the then top ARG man, Harrold Musgrove. The engine management system designed by Lucas was prone for making the temp dial miss-read and without warning the engine would go onto choke and hunt badly, other electrical nightmares included wipers that wouldnt park, its eccentric “double twitch” action when on flick wipe or intermittent would cause premature wear in the wiper linkage, hence why you would see many a Montego with skew whiff wipers. Valve covers, especially on S series engines would weep oil and often this would burn off on the manifold and downpipe giving a horrible smell in the passenger compartment.

There were some major problems in the steering suspension area too, most fabled of all with the front wheel bearings. Over the lifespan of the montego from 84 to 89, the front hub and bearing design was changed 3 times before a suitable solution, once again this only was the case with the 1.6. You only had to bump the kerb or drive over a rough pot hole and it would be enough to ruin the bearing. Front shock absorbers had a very short lifespan, they would either knock or leak, sometimes needing to be changed twice a year, and it was not unheard of for the anti-roll bar drop link to snap off.

The problems diddn’t end there either, the torquey nature of the engines made the Montego, on paper at least, an ideal towing car, yet the 1600cc version with its VAG sourced gearbox and clutch struggled to cope with the extra demand of towing, therefore clutches on these models were prone to overheating, juddering and premature failure.

The Mk2 Volkswagen Golf with the same gearbox had a sweet precise gearchange, yet the 1.6 Montego had a cheap selector assembly that was cross braced onto the steering rack, this made for one of the most unpleasant gear change qualities of any car I have driven. One Montego 1600 I drove would baulk and clunk into gear accompanied with some nasty creaking noises – most unsatisfactory.

The 2.0 cars, powered by the “O” series engine fared much better. In single carb form 102 bhp was on tap and the long legged 5th gear made for a pleasant drive at high speeds. Using the T5/AR or PG1 transmission, they had a lovely slick changing gearbox and beefier clutch but non assisted steering cars were heavy to manoever at low speeds owing to the extra weight of the engine. But even so, the 1.6 outsold the 2.0 throughout the cars timeline. Braking systems differed over the 1.6 with the addition of ventilated front discs.

Many of the aforementioned problems were down to poor supplier quality, but also down a lack of testing and proving, it just goes to show how desperate Austin Rover really were to get the car out on sale. As dealers heavily discounted cars to gain orders, in the service bay, technicians were having a nightmare as once again the dealers and staff were forced to do the developments and modifications that the factory should have incorporated from day one.

A seasoned time served man I once worked with who dealt with cars going back to BMC days, only recently told me that Montego service update bulletins from Austin Rover Service at Cowley would come through every week, sometimes on many pages with service bay modifications taking longer than the actual servicing at times.

Smaller and less practical than the Montego - Dealers steered customers into the superior quality 213

I know an ex ARG salesman in Suffolk, now retired, who back then, would do everything in his ability to usher customers into the smaller, less practical yet vastly better engineered Rover 213. He ran a small retail dealer where customer loyalty was the lifeblood and had a rival Ford agent nearby. Crazy yet true, within one year of the cars launch, many AR salesmen had little or no desire to sell the car that was planned to save the company. Needless to say it was not long before sales of the crisp Honda based 200 series eclipsed both the Maestro and Montego ranges, especially after Rover launched its bigger engined brother, the Rover 216.

Both the 1.6-litre S- and 2.0-litre O-Series engines were torquey, but rough at revs.

The Montego’s one and only major facelift came with the improved MY89 model range. At long last the useless ageing and asthmatic 1.3-litre A-Plus model was killed off. Another welcome feature was the smaller engine gaining the excellent T5-AR gearbox of the 2.0-litre model, now known as the PG1. This transmission was robust and reknown for its accurate and slick gear change quality.

A whole host of improvements – including a totally new engine management system, brilliant multi-density foam seats, repositioned switchgear and the ability to run on lead free fuel without modification – breathed new life into the Montego. The diesel, which used an engine which was jointly developed with Perkins entered the Guinness Book of World Records for fuel economy, was not the first thing in refinement but it was strong and would take a good hammering.

Oddly enough, the Montego Estate went on to be the best-selling family estate car in the UK and soon outsold its saloon brother considerably. The Sierra Estate never really caught on and, be honest, how many Cavalier Mk2 estates did you ever see? Yes, the Montego Estate sold very well, especially in diesel form.

1989 Montego facelift saw quality and engineering improvements

The facelift of 1989 was really the last time the car ever got improved. By this time Rover was pre-occupied with the R8 and it seemed the Montego was living on borrowed time. Such a shame the company never got to grips with corrosion problems.

The rear wheelarches were notorious for going grotty, thanks to a cost-cutting lack of sealing the inner and out arch panels after welding and painting on assembly. They went all grotty around the front and rear screens subsequently costing the company a few pennies in warranty claims.

Rover MDi / Perkins Prima: Noisy but seriously thrifty, very robust and held in high regard to this day.

In all, the Montego never really went on to prove its worth even though the post-1989 models drove very well and became reliable cars. Most of the previous faults were banished to history. No longer did you have to replace your front wheel bearings as often as you changed your razor blade or replace the gearlinkage half way over a box junction in Friday evening rush hour traffic but sadly, the nicknames such as Rustin Mont Wont Go or Monty No Go never went away.

Rover seemingly found its Mojo as the 1990s progressed but the Montego carried on living in a quiet corner of the Cowley plant with the saloon latterly being only built to fleet order and the Estate being the only volume Montego available in the end. Its rivals went through never-ending revisions and updates, but the poor old Montego only ever gained one new engine – the Perkins Prima.

The run out-model was the Countryman, offered only in 2.0i or 2.0 diesel estate form. Rover added a dash of walnut inside along with a leather steering wheel and seven seats. Some Dealers were still being asked for this model some time after deletion and keen pricing of unsold stocks saw the last of these cars snapped up quickly. The ever-persistent problem of corrosion and the recent Scrappage Scheme have almost removed the Montego from the roads of the UK – but, like the one I fell upon in South West London, one or two have a loving owner.

On a personal note, I ran two Montegos. The first one was a 1993 diesel estate which had well over 250,000 miles on the clock when I bought it from a collegues Hyundai dealer for small change. I drove that thing for six months with a blown head gasket before it seized on me outside the house. After removing the head, replacing the radiator and water pump, it went to run and run without a murmur. It was sold on to a work colleague, who scrapped it with almost 290,000 miles – and that was only after another vehicle hit it.  The car was as rough and ready as Ozzy Osbourne’s vocabulary, but I loved it so much!

Rough round the gills but refused to die: my old '93 DLX

After the diesel estate, came a 1991 1.6 LX, which had been traded in for a vehicle I can’t remember. It was in such good condition that I bought it and ran for a few months treating it to to some walnut trims from a Countryman and a reflective boot trim as fitted to the earlier, facelifted Montego.

The engine was bone dry to look at and, for a saloon with a smallish engine, delivered very good fuel consumption. On the whole, I liked the S-Series engine as it was simple to work on and nice to look at. I wonder what a K-Series Montego would have been like – some may say unreliable – but, if anyone has experience of the prototypes produced at the factory, please let me know what they were like.

There we have it, then: the Montego became a decently reliable car – especially the diesels – but, as was the case with many ARG cars, it was renowned for lacking development from the start. Sadly forgotten and left to fend for itself by Rover until BMW came on board, the Montego, in my opinion, could and should have had the potential to be a life-saver for Austin Rover.

It was reported that when the CEO of BMW arrived at Cowley, he was dumbfounded to find the Montego & Maestro still in production, when asked his views on these aged cars still being in volume production the reply came with an abrupt “not for much longer”. After what seemed an eternity in production, the Montego was killed off in 1994. The last saloon ever built was a 2.0 DLX and is part of the National Heritage Collection at Gaydon.

Defeat, once again snatched from the jaws of victory.

Mike Humble

About the Author:

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade. Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

15 Comments on "Montego : The case for the defence"

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  1. Hilton Davis says:

    Thanks for sharing your detailed stories about Montegos, Mike. My old firm, as mentioned previously, ran two Monty Estates in the mid/late 1980s and both were relatively trouble free despite their high mileages. The second one, a 1.6Lx in two-tone, was a nice looking car and rather comfortable.

    I was at the opening of Nissan in 1986 and, in the factory, they had on display a Bluebird saloon alongside a new Montego and a new Sierra. That was presumably done to highlight Nissan’s build quality at the time…

  2. Mike Humble Mike Humble says:

    @Hilton Davis
    It was also known that, soon after build up commenced at Sunderland, the Quality KPI was better than on an equivalent product assembled in Japan.

    The Montego on the whole became a decent car as said, but its styling, which was okay on launch, soon dated more quickly than a laptop. Unfortunately, as a result, the Montego and Maestro became “journeyman” cars or “also rans” – residual values plummeted like a stone in a bucket with only estate cars having any real kudos in the market place.

    Cars with GSi or Vanden Plas trim were a lovely drive and smelled great with leather but ARG soon lost out to the Ghia and trims of Ford and GM.

    A real shame!

  3. David 3500 says:

    I learned to drive on an MG Montego EFi – a 1984 B-registered example which was originally owned from new by an employee of Austin Rover Group based at Cowley. Downhill in fifth gear, the digital trip computer advised that it was doing nearly 200mpg! A very fast and reliable car to drive and I loved the voice synthesiser too.

  4. Hilton Davis says:

    @Mike Humble
    I agree Mike – that was a feather in the cap for the new Sunderland UK factory. They’ve come a long way since…

    I also agree with you about the Cavaliers and Sierra. The Cavalier always seemed to find more favour with fleet buyers. Many would prefer a Cavalier SRi to an MG Montego – a shame really.

    I love reading your anecdotes.

  5. Ianto says:

    The Montego was a looker in its time, but it dated very quickly when Ford and Vauxhall moved the game on.

  6. Ianto says:

    @David 3500
    The voice synthesiser was somewhat reminiscent of the one on a Sinclair Spectrum.

  7. Richard Kilpatrick Richard Kilpatrick says:

    I’d much rather have an MG Montego to drive – I’ve driven an SRi 130 and had an MG Montego 2.0i and I much, much preferred the Montego in almost every respect.

    That’s in the context of driving… um, I think, a new Peugeot 306 and the last of my CXs when I had the Monty (think that was swapped for a Skoda Rapid) whilst the SRi 130 was when I was in full Vauxhall-obsessed, FE-Victor/VX1800-owning, Manta-driving, Chevette-reminiscing mode.

  8. Paul Taylor Paul T says:

    I used to hanker after an MG Montego Turbo but, alas, that never happened.

    I did own a Vauxhall Cavalier SRi, but with the far superior (according to those in the know) 1.8 litre engine. The SRi 130 2 litre was apparently a let-down in comparison.

    I still trawl eBay looking for that elusive MG…

  9. Richard Kilpatrick Richard Kilpatrick says:

    I know my Manta’s 1.8 OHC engine felt a lot sweeter (with a nice Weber carb and setup by the local rally racers – C40 TSH went on to be a Practical Classics staff car for a short while in the care of Nick Larkin) than the 2.0 GT/E I considered replacing it with half-way through my ownership.

    I never did like the CIH engines much, but what I’d probably have really liked was a Manta with a 2300 slant four in it.

    I’ve never really liked FWD Vauxhalls of any flavour, which is probably part of the problem!

  10. Barmy Fred says:

    The “torquey/talky engines” comment appeared in Car magazine’s “The good, the bad and the ugly” back pages. (It still seems a most reasonable comment though!)

    And the 1.3 engine punched WAY above its weight in the Montego. Coming from a 1.6 Montego, it wasn’t much different to drive and still held its own in normal driving on all roads…

    I also had no trouble with the clutch on my two Mk I 1.6s – despite comedy towing such as an MG1600 on a 400kg trailer for several hundred miles behind my 1.6 saloons (“suggested 85% weight limit” – what’s that then?). The clutch is also less painful than those of the great majority of its contemparies to replace anyway (the Cavalier Mk II is the exception), as the clutch is “inside out” and there’s no need to remove the flywheel (still a gearbox-off job though, like the rest except the Cavalier).

    Also the gearchange quality is “variable” between cars, admittedly, but once one gets used to it it’s fine – it’s a case of adapting to the car and not expecting it to be like a brand new ‘un and thus devoid of any faults (a.k.a. character?).

  11. Ryan says:

    Your comment about the salesman discreetly directing customers to the more reliable 200 made me smile. I can remember going to an agricultural show with my dad when he was considering a Montego. The local ARG dealer had a stand there. Dad poked and prodded over a Montego for a while, until a salesman walked over, nodded at the 213 next to it and said, “So, you like the wee Rover, then?”

  12. David Dawson says:

    The rear window could look OK but, oh dear, that beige base model in the background…

  13. Gav says:

    Something curiously appealing about AR base model cars in unloved colours these days (to me anyway) Must be medication time again!

  14. Richard16378 says:

    I used to think the Montego looked good in beige & a lot of early buyers also though so.

  15. Tony Evans says:

    My pal Rich ran a Monty diesel estate for mega-miles until it died from terminal rust with about 150,000 on the clock. He often reminisces about how good it was with 55mpg a reality on long trips and the carrying capacity.

    Must admit that it would be a Cavalier Mk2 for me, hatchback with the early 1.8i (as mentioned above better then the later 130). One of my friends saw 132mph indicated on the clock of her company Cav 1.8CDi – I saw 125mph indicated on it when I drove it.

    TBH the Monty saloon always looked awkward with the strange protruding back window. The estate was a bit of a sleeper, especially in one of the higher spec diesel versions and many people hung on to theirs grimly.

    Another BL story of what might have been.

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