To conclude the 30th anniversary of Austin Rover’s family saloon, Mike Humble recalls a smile-inducing tale of Montego mayhem…
Those with intimate experience will know that older generation four cylinder BLARG power units ran, at best, with all the sweetness of lemon juice and the refinement of Lego trapped up your Mum’s Hoover Junior. Even the most fastidious of servicing with a 0.12 feeler blade will still result in a distinct but faint tap when idling an A+ or B-Series engine, it’s just how they are. There’s a great deal to be said for hydraulic tappets in lets say… a K-Series, they’re adjustment free for starters and despite what you may hear, the valve gear is very reliable, so long as you keep the oil fresh.
Setting tappets on a car fascinates many young mechanics nowadays and a lad not far from me is a third year apprentice in an Audi dealership. He spent 20 minutes chatting to me on my driveway last year as I wound the crankshaft round whilst setting the valves after replacing the head on an MGB operating to time honoured rule of nine. To say he was mystified would be an understatement. For the rest of us who remember Bonanza on the telly at Sunday tea time, setting the tappets comes naturally and formed part of the routine servicing on older Austin, Ford or Vauxhall engines.
Getting that bloody cork gasket to sit still while gingerly placing the tin rocker box onto the studs of your 1.3 Marina brings a smile to my face as I cobble this ramble together, and I remember the quiet “hurrah’s” in the service bay as we waved farewell to the pushrod engines. Of all the ARG power units of old school design; the good old S-Series comes to mind. When brand new, no two units would ever sound the same but one thing was always constant – they often had a distinct clattery noise when running at operating temperature akin to a slack or over gapped valve clearance. It’s no joke when I say that when these engines ran silently you knew it there trouble brewing under the bonnet.
This engine and the larger O-Series rarely required valve clearance checking as they had tolerances so large that German engineers today would roll around the floor laughing when reading the exact figures. At PDI time, you would have the bonnet up adding a little screenwash and the power unit would be slapping away, after a short while, you became deaf to it. In abbreviated motor trade slang it was known as “TADTS” which stood for: The All Do That Sir, other examples included a baulking reverse gear on a manual Rover 820 or juddering clutch on a 1.0 Austin Metro.
It’s not usual garage practice to turn away work, but when customers would query their ticky-tappy Maestro/Montego or Rover 216 engine, we would more often than not tell them it was normal… which, in fact, it was. Of course some people cannot be told and an acquaintance of mine back in the early `90s bought a pristine two tone red/ grey Montego 1.6 LX from auction when the Cavalier Mk3 was in full cry and Ford Mondeo had just been launched. Montego residuals went from poor to laughable at this time and you could bag a decent saloon or turbo diesel estate for next to nothing.
When I say this Montego was immaculate, I mean just that… a one owner car with full history and around 30 odd thousand clicks on the speedo – sold brand new by WH Brand of Whaplode Drove, Lincolnshire in 1990. The car was so good that I purchased it for myself around six or seven years later when it was still in fabulous condition, but at the time of his purchase I was into other things. The car had the usual Montego tick when it was running and said comrade asked me how the tappets were adjusted. After explaining the scenario of shims, micrometers, feeler blades et al, his eyes glazed over.
Doing the actual job itself is a bit of a faff requiring the removal of the cambelt, camshaft carrier, the camshaft itself, distributor cap and other pieces if clearance is required. The shims have to be measured with an aforementioned micrometer, the valve clearance gap before strip down has to be noted in order to select the right sized shim – and that’s if your dealer actually kept them in the stores as very few ever did. It was a damn messy job too as half a pint of engine oil would ooze from the cam carrier down the engine block as you slackened to 10mm carrier locating bolts, hence why ARG engineers built in such huge tolerances into production.
Anyway, getting back to topic, I told him that the engine sounded about right but he was having none of it – instead, he bought a Haynes manual, some feelers and set about doing the job – that didn’t need doing. A few us knew this would end up in tears as the chap in question although a bit of a “have a go hero” – watching him work was rather like letting a five year old loose on your Hi-Fi with a screwdriver. A week or so later I had one of those knock on the doors – you know the sort, the one that ends up with you getting mucky and putting right someone else’s cock ups for literally a few quid.
Lifting the bonnet, I was greeted with the fragrance of hot engine oil on manifold. The car idled quietly but rather poorly and was hoofing lube from the camshaft carrier. A brief conversation followed whereby he told me that he had got the valve clearances sorted by swapping shims around willy nillie. By now the oil leak that looked almost like an uncapped Aberdeen off shore rig and this was the end result of using instant silicone on the cam carrier rather than the special Loktite goo us fitters would use. In a nutshell, his labours were nothing more than lashings. What I can say is that it took most of a summer afternoon to get the engine to run properly and leak free.
When it was running somewhere near correctly the distant ticking was present, but that’s just how they ran, the S-Series was really little more than a re-worked Maxi engine done on a budget of around ten bob. In good tune, however, they gave a damn good account for themselves – a very basic but hardy engine in all honesty. Some pundits (including myself) respect the S-Series and have often wondered why ARG never adapted the 105bhp fuel injected version to fit as the difference in fuel consumption over the SU carb was tiny for the extra go on offer.
H31 VRP fell into my own incumbency a few years later where she ran lovely and gained a full set of Countryman walnut trims and front door tweeter speakers. In the end, I sold the car on to a friend of a friend who had just learnt to drive but sadly lived in a part of Northampton that made downtown Bosnia look like Beverley Hills. His neighbour was about as friendly as a Dundee nightclub bouncer with kids as wild as feral farm cats. Within weeks, the car had been keyed, had paint tipped over the roof and was broken into. It was scrapped within a year and I almost cried upon hearing the news.
Oh well, another perfectly usable hack went to the Austin dealer in the sky but I guess the moral of the story is that, when the phrase “they all do that Sir” is quoted, don’t always regard it as being showroom spiel for fobbing a customer off over a potential fault on a car.
When anything BL or ARG is concerned, it’s quite often the honest truth.