The new Montego A SPECIAL REPORT
Clifford Webb, our motoring correspondent,
Today Austin Rover launch the Montego, part of a £200m investment to win the fierce battle for sales here and abroad.
Clifford Webb, our motoring correspondent, reports on the car and the people who built it. Without an effective contender in the upper medium car sector for the past 20 years BL has been fighting a losing battle against the relentless growth of Ford initially and Vauxhall more recently.
As a senior Austin Rover executive put it: “Not having a Cortina or Cavalier in our line-up was like having one arm tied behind our back.”
The relief at having at last broken free to take on the competition with both fists swinging was so obvious at the press preview of Montego that Harold Musgrove, chairman and chief executive, became quite emotional: He said: “For the past three years I have had to sit and take it while our competitors took the cream. Yet all that time I knew we had a real winner in LM11 (Montego’s code name). Metro saved our bacon, Maestro pointed the way, ahead but Montego will unlock the door not only to bigger sales at home but also to help us to build networks in overseas markets.”
With Montego and Maestro Austin Rover has a formidable range of four door notchback and five-door hatch- backs covering the whole of the medium sector. Last year this sector accounted for more than 1 million sales in Britain or six out of every 10 cars sold.
The upper medium sector now being tackled by Montego was alone reponsible for 25 per cent of the entire market or more than 483,000 registrations. But by far the most significant aspect is that 60 per cent of the cars sold in the upper medium sector went to companies and fleet operators. It was Austin Rover’s very poor showing here with outdated Itals and Ambassadors that did the most damage to its overall penetration. No other market has such high proportion of cars going to business and professional buyers. It is no longer sufficient for a manufacturer to offer merely an adequate, reliable, competitively priced car, although that was what Ford did with the immensely successful Cortina for more than 20 years.
Today it is estimated that half of all fleet and company drivers in this sector have a say in the selection. Manufacturers must pay particular attention to their needs by offering a wide range at the right price. Austin Rover has long enjoyed the potential benefit of being the only 100 per cent British car maker. This has meant that it has figured prominently in the list of cars preferred by many firms. However, without suitable modern contenders in its line-up, it has not been able to capitalize on this enormous advantage and firms have reluctantly transferred their allegiance to imported makes.
Austin Rover still had to get the right appeal built into Montego. Market research has shown that buyers in its sector are looking for something a little different, not too way-out or the boss may have something to say, but different enough to give it character. Once upon a time the men at Austin Morris and Rover looked upon secret research clinics to test public reaction as being totally unnecessary. They were confident enough of their own expertise to be able to create demand for their product.
Those days have gone. Montego was “clinicked” extensively in Britain and the Continent from its earliest conception right up to the final signing-off for production. In addition, because of its importance to fleet buyers, representative numbers of them were invited to view prototypes and drive them. They were also among the first to be flown to the South of France to test early production models on the demanding mountain roads behind Nice and at high speed on the autoroutes.
Montego and Maestro are the result of a £210m investment programme which has allowed the company to build both cars on the extensively automated facilities at Cowley. The key to cost-effective production today is to make maximum use of parts common to as many models as possible and to assemble them in plants which are flexible enough to switch from one model to another to meet changing trends in demand. Austin Rover executives react angrily to suggestions that Montego is simply a Maestro with a boot.
It is not, but there is such a strong family resemblance that you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a Maestro chopped in two through the “B” pillar with a new back end grafted on. In fact 60 per cent of Maestro’s body pressings are used in the newcomer yet Austin Rover claims with justification that it has nevertheless created a distinctive identity. There is more to come from the same family tree. An estate-car version has already been developed and will probably be launched at the British Motor Show in October.
This one model alone will particularly please Austin Rover’s dealers, who have had to stand idly by while the new Sierra and Cavalier estate cars, not to mention a whole flock from continental and Japanese makers, scooped up the growing demand for well-appointed but competitively priced load-carriers. The eight-car Montego range with 1.3, 1.6 and 2 litre engines in various stages of tune and with four-speed, five-speed and automatic transmission options, will almost certainly be extended to over a dozen versions with the arrival of the Montego estate, together with the similar eight-strong Maestro range that gives Austin Rover the sort of drawing power its dealers have been yearning for since the halycon days of the much-loved 1100 range.
Montego at 14.6ft is 16in longer than the Maestro. It is also 4in longer than the Cavalier, 2in longer than the Sierra: In the fleet market the added security of a boot in which to lock samples is often the clincher that wins big contracts. But the boot serves another important purpose. It helps to make the car look bigger all round and there are plenty of fleet buyers who want the biggest possible perceived package to keep their reps happy when they pull up in the clients’ car park alongside the competition’s smaller but equally costly car.
Since October 1980 when Metro made its debut we have seen the Honda-designed Acclaim attempting to hold the line until Maestro came along in March 1983 and a year later Montego. An extensively redesigned Acclaim, almost certainly re-badged as a Rover instead of Triumph, is due out this summer. It will be followed in 1985 by Project XX, the up-market executive saloon designed jointly by Austin Rover and Honda and intended for simultaneous production in both countries. It will almost certainly carry Austin Rover’s banner back to the United States for the first time in many years and could be the cornerstone on which to build a new retail network in the world’s biggest car market.
But even with his two car plants, Longbridge and Cowley reaching a 10 year high last year, producing more than 450,000 cars, Mr Musgrove is determined not to put too many of his eggs into one export market, no matter how tempting the short-term gains. He knows that even when he reaches his potential capacity of 750,000 cars a year he will still not be big enough to aspire to import leadership in any major overseas market. By spreading his effort, particularly in Europe, he will also be protecting himself against unexpected market swings. He is equally adamant that he now has the model range to take on the best that Europe can offer.
And for a man who has looked forward to this day for six frustrating years, that is cause for becoming more than a little emotional.