Blog : Facing my demons

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

Montego (1)

Long-term readers (and I really do mean long term) might recall that, in the earliest days of AROnline, when I was a little more critical about such things, two cars that really incurred my wrath were the Austin Allegro and the Montego. Both cars were instrumental in their parent company’s retreat towards oblivion, and both – in my opinion – could have been so much better.

We don’t need to go over old ground again with the Allegro – it ended up being a parody of Harris Mann’s original design idea, and today, it’s emerged as a great classic car. And why? Because character foibles count so much more than that car’s need to start every morning. As for the Montego, my main issues were that of its hideous styling – a confused birth and pre-launch facelifts were responsible for this – and its shoddy build quality. No matter how many positive road tests I read about its excellent chassis set-up and ample interior room, I couldn’t get over the fact that it had about as much showroom appeal as three-week old haddock.

The interesting thing is that, whenever I criticised the Montego, I was always met with a huge amount of correspondence from people who were ready to defend the old girl, and tell me that I’d got it wrong. They’d also spell out exactly why I was wrong, and why I was mad to prefer the Cavalier MkII. Fifteen years on, it was time to put this to bed – and, although I’ve driven Montegos in the intervening years, they’ve always been MGs instead of the cooking ones Ronnie Rep would ply his trade on the M1 in.

So thanks to Mike Humble’s generosity in letting me have a go, it was time to try his MINTego 1.6L.

Montego (4)
Nice typography on this late instrument pack – so much more appealing than the garish original

The first thing I should say is that Mike’s 1991 example has all the visual appeal you’re going to get in a Montego. So its paint finish is nice, and the shade of metallic blue is classy, while it also pairs well with the Tempest Grey of its lower flanks. Inside, it’s well-judged, too. The instruments look appealing, the seat upholstery is appealingly shaded and it’s a light, airy interior you’d be happy to spend time in. It also feels reasonably well-screwed together – quite an achievement, given I’d just stepped out of my similarly-aged Audi 90 (which, admittedly, has about 100,000 more miles under its belt).

Firing it up. and the S-Series busts into life, and sounds purposeful at idle. The driving position is good and the controls all feel well engineered – and, as we pull away, making allowances for its lack of power steering, it all comes across very well indeed. Riding typically English urban blacktop (broken, rutted and uneven), its softish suspension and well-controlled damping do a very impressive job of keeping it all under control – you can see that the talented Austin Rover chassis engineers have pulled another sweet-handling car out of the bag.

It’s far from perfect, though. Although it rides and handles well, the lack of body engineering means that the imperturbable chassis set-up’s good work is undone by the rattles, creaks and groans that come from the body. This impression of shoddiness continues with a dashboard that visibly vibrates at idle and a gearknob that vibrates at certain engine speeds. This particularly is a shame because the change quality itself is really sweet.

Performance is excellent for a larger 1.6-litre saloon, and it keeps up well with the traffic – any rep worth his salt would have been able to keep this in sight of the slightly more powerful Cavalier 1.6, while the lumbering 1.6 Sierra would have not seen where he went. So, again, it’s on the pace and money, and a real testament to the fundamental rightness of the woefully underrated S-Series engine.

Montego (2)
Beautifully-clean engine bay is a testament to Mike’s preparation of his car

When I return the car to Mike, I feel frustrated and vindicated in my earlier opinions of the Montego – with one or two provisos. Directly compared with a Sierra or Cavalier, it’s clearly the nicest handling and steering of the three, while the interior is pleasant, and performance is strong. But in that all-important showroom war, it would have been outgunned – the confused styling might have classic appeal now, but it was a long way from being slick and homogenous.

On the test drive, unless the salesman was canny, and pushed on the radio, it would have lost massive points for sounding underdeveloped, rattly and cheap. And in a new car, even with the lower expectations of the 1980s, this was not good enough.

That for me is the biggest disappointment with the Montego. It’s such a nearly car. It’s nearly brilliant, and undermined by silly faults. Mike’s example is absolutely lovely, and shows that the engineers and marketeers could give the Montego some appeal, with its nice colours and subtly revised interior. In reality, it should have been like this from the launch in 1984 – and, perhaps, had it been, the story might have been different. But when those changes started kicking in at the tail end of 1988, the game had moved on, and we were in the era of the Cavalier MkIII. And the Rover 200/400 was coming, of course.

Interestingly, like the Allegro, the Montego is a whole lot more appealing today as a classic car. It has charm and ability, and it evokes huge nostalgia in just about everyone who’s exposed to it. People do look at it – in a nice way – and, when cornered by them, you’ll be regaled by many ‘my dad had one of those’ stories, which is part and parcel of owning a classic car. For me, though, I stand by all of those original criticisms – the Montego wasn’t good enough, nor had it the requisite appeal, to attract aspiring buyers.

That makes it one hell of a frustrating failure in the story of BL’s downfall – and a great classic car today as a consequence.

Montego (3)
No sign of an Austin badge on this late Montego

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...

Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.
Keith Adams

21 Comments

  1. A much more balanced opinion on the Montego. I think I should add that the estate version was an excellent vehicle and was more competitive in its class than the saloon. Better looking, too.

    Allegro? Never.

  2. Well said Mike. My former company had 2 Monty Estates (the second was a 1.6LX) which was comfortable, fairly fast, well equipped and roomy. Mike Humble’s is coming along nicely.

  3. Back in the 80s Company Cars where far more prevalent than they are today and people usually ended up with what they where given rather than having the opportunity to have anything on the leasing list within a budget and CO2 rating. I can remember people in my network looking for new jobs if they ended up with a Maestro or Montego – who can forget the desperate soul on BBC’s A to B who ended up with a Maestro Clubman Diesel? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMCFeoR9oSg
    You can disagree that under the skin the Maestro/Montego where competent, so why did ARG just launch the cars, sit back and watch them fester on the market rather than develop them?

  4. Keith, you have this spot on. A bit of an enigma, more select than the main fleet brigade (although a bit of a problem for the volume sales of a rep mobile) but bland compared to the others around at the time Never driven one or wanted to.

  5. I remembered the 1.6 Montego being a far more pleasant drive than the contemporary Cavalier and Sierra. In its class only the excellent Peugeot 405 was a better handler. The advent of the Perkins turbo diesel version made the rest look silly. Decent cars- but my overwhelming memory is of rampant corrosion on bonnet, arches and doors. They never did get that sorted.

  6. Yes, the rear end styling was really all wrong. Early quality also poor, I understand. Agreed, it should have been a better contender. Its resultant low sales played a big part in the final failure of ‘the firm’.

    However, Keith, I can’t help but have a soft spot for Montego. I think it still has a certain visual appeal. The estate especially. An MG style rear spoiler also helps the saloons styling significantly. A ‘Roverised’ one such as Mike’s also looks much better. Their interiors, too, oozed quality compared to an earlier Austin.

    Going back to 1984, I remember thinking it was much less ‘frumpy’ than the Maestro. In the flesh, the opera rear window looks far better than in a side on photo although I do question the last minute revisions to it. Always liked the revised snout though.

    Overall, with the 88/89 improvements to quality and styling I think I’d have considered one.

  7. Perhaps BL/A-R/MGR were masters at forward planning and building great classic cars? 🙂

  8. As much as I hate to say it, they were terrible, terrible cars. I wouldn’t say no to a Maestro Turbo though….

  9. I had 3 Montego Estates (Montego mistakes as my young son said at the time) as company cars.

    Abiding memories: –

    On my grey G reg 2.0 SLI estate, the matt black coating on the trim around the windows was peeling off within weeks of delivery to reveal older style stainless/chrome whatever it was.

    My Flame Red J reg 2.0 GTI was my favourite. In the early days of this site, there were a lot of pics of a similar but MG badged car.

    My last one was a Midnight Blue 2.0 Countryman, which had alloys to look a bit like the GTI I would have preferred.

    On all of them, the material used for the bumpers was probably more brittle than the average ice cream cone.

    Performance of the 2.0 litre S series wasn’t bad at all.

  10. Hated mine, it was a rust ridden, unreliable monster, completely the opposite of the Rover 213 I had previously, which was better looking and totally reliable. I don’t think the styling is awful, though, just conservative and staid against something like a Sierra, and the estate looked good.

  11. The Montego achieved the impossible, it was far worse than the wrongly criticised Austin Ambassador and Maxi it replaced. At least these were fairly reliable, distinctive cars with a fantastic ride and massive interior space. The Montego saloon was a dull looking car, like a Datsun Bluebird without the reliability, and when it came right, the market had moved on.

  12. More of a replacement for the Ital & Ambassador.

    The Maestro was more of a replacement for the Allegro & Maxi, & had the same early years trouble that the Montego did.

  13. @ Richard 16378, I think the Montego was sadly lacking in many areas. It didn’t have a hatchback option, its predecessor model was a hatch and the Maxi was a pioneer in this respect for British cars in 1969, there was no diesel for five years, and it looked dated when it arrived on the market. Also add in the chronic unreliablity, rust and terrible build quality and the car was doomed to fail. It might have got better as production went on, but the Montego was flawed from day one.

  14. I remember one of the Montego models had a dashboard dials that looked like they were printed on graph paper..

    • IIRC the later Mk2 Cavaliers (& maybe other 1980s Vaxhalls) also had a grid pattern to the instruments.

      • All of em from 84 to the 89 model year facelift had the grid typeface on the dials.

        Post 84 Metro and Maestro did too and even the Rover 213 / 216 followed suit. Quite possibly to add a hi-tec feel to the interior maybe?

      • I too recall the “graph paper” dials and must remind everyone of the thankfully short-lived two-tone colour schemes of the bodyshell.
        Tackiest feature (there were many) o9f the 80s: colour coordination, cars with Colgate white bumpers, Colgate white wheel trims, spoiler / door mirrors, door handles, every detail in the the same glaring white. matching the socks of 1980s Essex boys,

  15. I had 2 mg montego s. First was a flame red 2.0 I on an f plate, which I paid £2000 for in 1995. It was roomy, comfortable, reliable and looked fantastic with the cross spoke alloys and red paint work. I owned it for 6 years, 2001, and it only let me down once with a blocked injector. I sold it to an MG enthusiast who was going to get the car resprayed because the red paint was fading by then. Next one was an H reg Brg 2.0i, in immaculate condition bought for £2000 again. Again it served me well until 2005. Excellent family car and brilliant all rounder with many fond memories. Very underrated sporty family car. Very much missed.

  16. The first new car that I ever chose for myself was a dark blue 1.6HL Montego estate. It was 1986.

    This is a view from someone that bought these cars new at the time.

    Austin’s generous discounts meant that the alternatives were only a MkIII Escort estate, or a MkII Astra estate, of which there was no comparison! Even if I’d looked at the sweet driving Cavalier at the time, it’s worth remembering that the MkII saloon and estate were never that good looking, while the front end of the Montego is still a handsome looking thing to this day.

    I really liked that car, right up until it simply exploded with rust from around 4 years old! I replaced it with a lightly used and pristine 1988 2.0 HL estate, which was a wonderful car.

    What annoys me every time that I read it is that the post 1988 “Roverised” cars had “much improved quality which should have been there from the beginning”. Nope, they were much worse!

    The newly standard sunroof robbed all important headroom, while the seat cushions were lowered and thinned to try and compensate, making them much less comfortable. The door trims were greatly cheapened from the old HL spec and above. The seat trim was garish and the cloth and padding deteriorated rapidly in use. The classy interior of the old HL and above was a thing of the past. The plainer instruments looked cheap and the radios, having changed from the original and very nice electronic tune Phillips units, were very cheap and nasty. The only improvements were that they would take unleaded fuel, they had smooth rear lamps and there was a (very noisy) diesel.

    By the time that the ‘88 car needed replacing, I wouldn’t consider a newer Montego, the 800 was too narrow inside (thank you Honda!) and the fastback lacked the interior space of the estate. That’s when I moved on to XM estates.

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