Technician’s Update : They all do that, Sir… No, they really do!

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.

Whereby adjusting valve clearances on a Mini or 1.3 Maestro involved half an hour with a set of feeler blades, 1.6 or 2.0 BL engines were somewhat different. S & O series units required plenty of time, labour and concentration with tools like a micrometer, a biro and notepad - as seen here. This is why ARG built in such huge tollerances into engine production.
Whereas adjusting valve clearances on a Mini or 1.3 Maestro involved half an hour with a set of feeler blades, 1.6 or 2.0 BL engines were somewhat different. S and O-Series units required plenty of time, labour and concentration with tools like a micrometer, a biro and notepad and varied size shims – as seen here. This is why ARG built in such huge tolerances into engine production

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.

The "S" series plant as seen here in 216 Vitesse form was not the first word in refinement. Not a bad plant if a little tappety at times - but that's just how they were. So if it aint broke... don't fix it!
The S-Series engine as seen here in fuel injected 216 Vitesse form was not the first word in refinement. Not a bad plant if a little tappety at times and prone to oil leaks – but that’s just how they were. So if it ain’t broke… don’t fix it!

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.

Mike Humble


  1. I remember as an apprentice the mechanic I was working with was given the job of adjusting tappets on a 1.7 ambassador helped him with it and that was that then 15 years later I had to do the same for the Head of school of the college I was working for on his ambassador used an old cam cover to make the jig to hold the cam in place for making the adjustments
    Happy days

  2. TADTS applies to the ford Valencia engines as fitted to most fiesta mk1 and 2 and even 3 and some Ka’s. I spent many an hour trying to get the holly grail of a whisper quiet fiesta 1.1L of 1978 vintage but alas it was never to be.
    Even at one point the whole rocker shaft split in two while on my way to a Christmas party in 1987, but being an engine from Brunel’s time I fixed it temporarily in the club car park went to the party and drove home.

  3. Ah yes MGBmarvel tool number 18G-1301A if i recall

    Though my practice was to remove all the buckets and line them in order, do the clearance check one at a time using hand pressure and that way you never had to mince about looking for one of the bearing retainer brackets that often as not were missingi in the kit.

  4. If you think that setting tappets on an “S” series is challenging, you should try a Rover P6 2000 / 2200 engine. The cam is torqued down by the cylinder head bolts, so in order to remove the cam to exchange the shims you either remove the head to also change the head gasket, or you remove the cam bearing caps one by one, each time replacing each cap with the appropriate spacers and torquing down again the head bolts. Of course you should do this in the correct order to avoid snapping the cam. Moreover this engine is using half inch tappet shims that are not shared with any other known engine.
    It’s not all bitter though, because if you get the clearances right the engine is (at least at low revs) quiet.

  5. Hillman Imp Coventry Climax. I hereby claim my free box of shims….

    After grinding the valves in on a tired Imp all the valve clearances were approximately nil. So, with the help of a set of feeler gauges, a disc sander and a set of files, we filed them down to the correct clearance. Well, they were expensive from the dealers!

    And yes, it did run properly afterwards.

  6. Somewhere in the shed I have that great tappet setting tool – Gunson? produced it and it comprises of a socket on a lever and a screwdriver on a knob that fitted through the socket and had a ratchet. Use the look up table for the number of clicks for an engine, loosen the locknut with the socket, turn the adjusting screw to give zero clearance and then back off using the screwdriver of ‘x’ clicks and then tighten the locknut using the socket.

    • That tappet adjusting tool, if my memory serves me well, was an SPQR tappet adjusting tool, I bought one in 1970 when I ran a Wolseley Hornet Mark One, and very good they were too I might add!

  7. If you think that this procedure was complex, try a Rover 2000 or 2200 ! And XK engined Jaguars are not much better, although you can at least remove the camshafts without disturbing anything else . The beauty is, though, with the Rover and Jaguar, that once done, they will last for aeons

  8. Imagine being employed in the service department of a Talbot garage, and saying the same to an annoyed Horizon or Alpine owner!

  9. I did read on a bangernomics side about someone who managed to get a Mk2 Cavalier estate to a very impressive mileage while doing a lot of their own engine work.

    The engine needed a re-ring at one point & developed a lazy tappet which only used to cause problems on winter mornings.

    Another 1980s Vauxhall with engine trouble was a Mk2 Astra with piston slap, mentioned on the same site.

  10. If you are interested in stratospeheric milages, the 2000 – 2006 honda 998cc 3-cylinder Insight hybrid, a good number have exceeded 450/500,000 miles on original engines, one car was over 700,000 until written off by a deer strike.

    The engine was a product of engineers using the best of everything, the bean counters did not have a say

  11. I had my heart set on replacing my MGZT with a one series cab until I looked

    on the internet,It makes truly shocking reading.

    I am of course referring to the BMW N47 engine,It makes an early KV6 look

    bullet proof.

    I am picking up my DS3 today.

  12. The 2300/2600 SD1 6 pot wasn’t much better either…..Buckets with shims & rocker arms with shims! All in one cylinder head! They did sound quite sweet when set. Surprised nobody has mentioned the old “cutting up feeler gauges” to make spacers to get the clearances right….a bodge undoubtedly but it did work…..

    I love hydraulic tappets although there is something “manly” about adjusting tappets…bit like cutting a piece of wood in half…..

  13. This article has made me feel a lot better. I had an ’86 1.6HL estate from new and it didn’t take that long until a friend came along for the ride one day and he commented on how much noise the “knockits” were making!

    It wasn’t a bad engine; it was torquey (for a 1.6), economical (43mpg was easily achieved on a run) and was, until it hit around 95,000 miles, reliable. At about that stage it started suffering from fuel pump failure – so much so that I took to carrying a spare one in the glovebox!

    It did, however, pee oil (which at least kept the engine bay rust free) and it loved to collect mayonnaise in the breather pipes.

    Not a bad engine, but it definitely required a sense of humour and was knocked into a cocked hat by the 2.0HL O Series engined Monte that replaced it in 1992….

  14. I loved both of my Montego. The first was a white over grey F plate saloon, which I bought from a friends Dad. One owner from new IIRC with service history. I used it to commute from Peterborough to Solihull daily for a couple of years, and when I chopped it in on a 214, it had done well over 100k, and the engine never missed a beat. The gearbox bearings were getting a little nosiy, but the engine was sweet. The second Monte was a 1990 estate in silver, which we bought when our first daughter was about 12 months old, as we needed a load lugger. It was also very reliable, and never let us down, other than when one of the coolant stub pipes disintegrated and sprayed coolant all over the exhaust manifold, leading us to bale out sharpish as we though the car was on fire! I always thought the Montego was a very honest car, and I certainly wouldn’t mind that K plate model in the picture now!

  15. I don’t remember these engines being that noisy back in the day. Not when you had Chrysler Alpines and knocking-camshaft ohc cortinas as a basis for comparison.

  16. S series certainly was a tough cookie, I cabbed a 1.6LX in the `90s it`s last week in service it covered 1800 miles bring it`s total to 265000 – same engine, never adjusted the tappets just changed the oil regularly.Top hose once split at speed & got v hot v quickly engine survived though. Had an ex police 2.0i as well (220000 miles in total) same deal, no adjustment, went like a rocket that one but always used 1 litre of oil every 1000 miles.
    Happy days looked back thru rose tinted glasses !!!

  17. If anyone’s interested there are 2 of those Gunson SPQR Clikadjust tappet adjusting tools on e-bay at the moment.
    The Gunson G4094 looks to be very similar, and still available new.

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