The cars : Austin Montego 1.3 (1984-1989)

With the 40th birthday of the Austin and MG Montego approaching, Chris Cowin remembers the ‘base’ Austin Montego 1.3.

Introduced when the Austin Montego range was launched in early 1984, it would prove to be surprisingly popular in some export markets.


Montego Base – the bottom rung

Austin Montego Base

Commendably, Austin Rover at this point had abandoned the old deception of calling the base models ‘Deluxe’ or something similar.  So this was the Montego 1.3 – plain and simple.

Altogether, there were eight saloon models in the Montego saloon range at launch in April 1984: 1.3, 1.6, 1.6 L, 1.6 HL, 2.0 HL, 2.0 HLS, 2.0 Vanden Plas, MG 2.0 EFi. The Estate models followed in October 1984, while the Diesels only arrived in 1988.

Austin Montego Base

The 1.3 engine was only available in conjunction with the base specification, as a saloon, while the 1.6 (which Mike Humble talks about here) could also be ordered as a 1.6L or 1.6HL, and as an estate.

A no-frills approach

The base cars were deprived of side rubbing strips at first, which rather accentuated the slightly gawky appearance of the Montego saloon, as did the wheels and tyres, which were not the TD type fitted to other Montegos.

They were also deprived of a few other things found on more noble Montegos, including a five-speed gearbox (it was optional), power steering (it wasn’t optional, so tough), those TD wheels and tyres (optional), central locking, electric front windows, four speakers, tinted glass and rear seat belts.

You couldn’t have automatic transmission – but you could have metallic paint. So, did anyone order a base 1.3 in Cashmere Gold?

But opting for metallic would still have resulted in a rather spartan looking saloon, as these early base cars had an all-black plastic grille and lacked any of the chrome accents seen on posher Montegos.

None more so than the top-of-the-line Austin Montego Vanden Plas, which featured all the trimmings the Design Studio of Roy Axe could throw at it. That included chrome trim on the rubbing strip, window surrounds, door mirrors and handles with extra chrome on the bumpers, grille, exhaust pipe and leading edge of the bonnet. All of that was topped off with a monogrammed coachline and VP wheel-trims – in short, all the fancy frills the driver of a 1.3 could only dream of.

Thankfully, though, the base 1.3 was allowed to retain moulded body-colour bumpers (unlike the base Maestro), even if they proved terribly prone to cracking on early cars. This was an embarrassing problem which was traced to the very high temperatures used in the painting process.

Austin Montego Base
(Street) car named desire? An official press photo of the 1984 Austin Montego 1.3 saloon

A competitive field

However, if Austin Rover appeared to have taken a rather hair-shirt approach towards buyers of the base Montego, let’s not forget that something equally spartan could be found on the lowest rung of the Ford Sierra range, the base Sierra 1.3 also being a four-speed machine, as was the base Vauxhall Cavalier. Ford excelled themselves in making those early base Sierras look particularly stripped, with a unique black plastic front-end moulding.

Ford Sierra Saloon
Rivals for the Montego 1.3 included the ‘Sierra saloon’ as Ford called the base Sierra at launch in 1982 even though it was a hatchback

What you got for your money

Economy was the watchword with the base Montego models and an attractive retail price was combined with good fuel economy.

On the Montego 1.3, powered by the 1275cc A-Plus engine, fuel consumption of 52.9mpg was claimed at an unrealistic but officially measured constant 56mph with the four-speed box, which improved to 58.3mpg if you opted for the five speed. The equivalent figures for the base 1.6, powered by the S-Series engine, were 46.7 and 53.3mpg.

Anyone tempted to think what lay under the bonnet was rather dated was reminded how the ‘microprocessor-controlled carburettor’ stretched petrol through fine control of the choke – which could be problematic in service – engine idle speed and fuel supply during deceleration.

A-Plus engine
The 1275cc A-Plus engine under the bonnet of the Austin Montego 1.3. Much was made of the ‘electronic fuel management system’

And although the specification might appear spartan to some, these cars did include a lot of kit which was part of the Montego package, and which it made no sense to delete …

So, you got a locking fuel cap, heated rear window, remote boot release, rear heating ducts, head-restraints (without cushions), twin door mirrors (unlike the base Maestro) and halogen headlights.

The standard two-band push-button radio could be upgraded to a radio-cassette unit (with manual tune), as an option.

As mentioned above, the 1.3 model was never available as an estate – although one 1.3 Estate with a perplexing engine downgrade still exists on the road. There was therefore no direct successor to the preceding Morris Ital (and Marina) 1.3 Estates – few people seemed to mind, though.

Evolution

Come 1986. and both the 1.3 and 1.6 received side rubbing strips, a chromed grille and other touches which made them look less ‘stripped’. But the 1.3 was always firmly positioned as the ‘floor’ of the Montego range and in the UK most would have been bought by cost-conscious fleet buyers. There was never a UK market 1.3L or 1.3HL.

The specification evolved over time but in 1987 a five-speed gearbox was still an optional extra on the 1.3 and power steering remained unavailable, while the 1.3 models still made do without a cigarette lighter, to the chagrin of many a 1980s sales rep.

When the Montego range received a modest facelift in late 1988 the 1.3 saloon disappeared – at least from the UK market.

Overseas

However, some rather posher versions of the 1.3 were built for export – such as the 1.3 ‘Tweed’ limited edition sold in France for 1987, which recognized the French market didn’t expect a 1.3 saloon to have a poverty specification.

Austin Montego Base
Harris or Herringbone?  The French market Montego 1.3 Tweed looked inviting inside. Well, fairly…

The Tweed was available from November 1986 to April 1987 in a choice of Targa Red, Nightwatch Blue or extra-cost Silver Leaf. It had a five-speed box, ‘Tweed’ badging, wheel covers from the Maestro Mayfair, Tweed fabric, the split rear seat of the posher Montegos and bronze-tinted glass.

Italy also favoured a Montego 1.3 with an uprated specification, listing an Austin Montego 1.3 LS.

Austin Montego Base
Overseas (in this case Italy) the Montego 1.3 could be obtained in versions not seen in the UK

Alongside France and Italy, Portugal and Greece were countries where the tax system favoured small displacement engines, even in largish cars like the Montego, and unsurprisingly the 1.3 LS showed up there too.

Greece was a  ‘sedan’ market where hatchbacks were still rather disdained, and the Austin Montego 1.3 sold well, helping fuel a surge for Austin Rover which captured 6.6% of Greek new car sales for 1987. On the home market, the Montego 1.3 was a humble backwater of the Austin Rover range, but in Greece it was in the sales Top Ten (as was Austin Metro). So, although the Greek market was small, sales of 1421 Montego 1.3 cars for the year was equivalent to a week’s Montego production at Cowley – though, in practice, production for Greece would have been spread through the year.

An even more impressive 10.0% market share was recorded by Austin Rover in Portugal the same year – in penetration terms, that made Portugal one of the company’s best export markets worldwide in 1987, if not the best (although Montego can only take a bit of the credit). Like the Greeks, the Portuguese preferred their larger cars to come with a conventional boot and a low-displacement engine.

Supply of the Montego 1.3 to customers in such markets appears to have continued after its deletion from UK price lists, with a Montego 1.3 still available on the European continent during 1989.

Lionel Sentenac has helpfully provided French registration data which tells us 150 Montego 1.3 cars were sold in France during 1989, a year in which the 1.3 model was still listed in the French catalogue. These were probably ‘pre-facelift’ cars sold from stock, though so some French buyers ended up with a new Montego 1.3 that had been sitting around for a while, as a handful weren’t registered until 1990.

Who were these French people who decided the answer to their 1989 motoring needs was a Montego 1.3 saloon? They would mostly have been the sort of thrifty buyers attracted to the offerings of value brands – in other words, those who were looking for a lot of metal and space for their money.

Austin Montego Base
A surviving Austin Montego 1.3 in Greece – where they sold well

Sadly, even in Europe where it lingered a little longer, the Austin brand had been killed off by late 1988 and the Austin Montego had become simply the Montego from Rover Group – though badging sometimes took a while to catch up.

Some late 1992 to 1994 Montegos were badged and marketed in continental countries like the Netherlands, France and Spain as ‘proper’ Rovers, but that didn’t include the 1.3. So, a ‘Rover Montego 1.3’ with the Viking ship badge never set sail…

With thanks to Lionel Sentenac, Howard Thomas and Al Walter.

Austin Montego Base
End of the line: The Montego 1.3 saloon which appeared in some continental catalogues for 1989 was a pre-facelift saloon, still badged as an Austin, even though that brand had been phased out
Chris Cowin

21 Comments

  1. Mmmm the delights of the base model. Did these sell to private buyers in the UK? I know from my Ford background that Fiestas did, but get bigger and there was less private sales and more company purchases. My grandfather had a 1.6 L Cortina as his company car and that was a luxury at Philips Pye.

  2. At least by 1984, buyers of base model family cars no longer had to endure the joys of vinyl seats and rock bottom equipment levels where something like a glovebox wasn’t even standard. The base Montego, Sierra and Cavalier at least had a radio fitted to make driving more bearable and fabric seats as standard, but otherwise these were bargain basement cars aimed at fleets or buyers who just about afford a new family car. Go up to an L model and you had a radio/ cassette, five speed transmission and possibly a sunroof as standard.

  3. I’ve learned a lot reading this article… thanks. My company had a red Montego Base 1.6 Estate (C Reg) which was actually quite comfortable and performed decently. However It was replaced in 1990 by a facelift 1.6LX estate which in comparison was a much better car in appearance & spec. Nice light blue metallic

  4. Some manufacturers in Europe offered large cars with small engines for tax reasons. It was possible to buy an Opel Manta with a 1.2 engine which made a 1.3 Capri look powerful and the Mark 2 Granada was available in some markets with a 1.7 engine that made the car struggle to reach 90 mph. Over here, small engined larger cars were mostly used as entry models for the fleets or for people who were desperate to have a family car and weren’t bothered about poor performance.

    • In 1983 I drove a Cortina 1.3 hire car on Shetland which was very sluggish compared to the 1.6 versions I was used to. I guess the 1.3 was the Valencia / Kent engine?

      • @ Hilton D, very possibly as the low sales of the 1.3 Cortina and Sierra wouldn’t have justified the car being fitted with the CVH from the Escort. A decent enough engine in the Mark 2 Escort and fairly trouble free, but the heavier Cortina and Sierra bodies would have made motorway driving a real chore. I suppose on Shetland with only single carriageway roads, the 1.3 would have been enough.

        • Right Glenn, due to the size of Shetland and the road network, small engined cars would suffice. I was only there a few days for work. Cortina’s tended to be the workhorse of my company’s car fleet until the Cavalier MK2 then Volvo 240 estate appeared.

    • @ Glenn Aylett. Later MK2 Granadas were available with a 1.6 engine, God knows what they were like to drive! Similarly, MK1 & MK2 Escorts were available with a 0.9 engine, MK2 & MK3 Cortinas were available with a 1.1 engine and even stranger, you could get a MK1 Transit with a 1.3 engine!

  5. I never liked the early flush wheel trims on the mid range Montegos anyway, so the base model with its Maestro wheels doesn’t look too bad.

    Any 1.3 4sp Montego would be a bit grim, but then just a generation earlier most Renault 12s had a less powerful 1.3 engine, and nobody thought them excessively slow for a “family car”.

  6. The story of the 1.3 estate can be found on the swearily named old car forum with a beige background, known by some as AS. It seems like the original owner was a high-mileage driver, who wore out the original 1.6 engine and then decided a 1.3 was their best option for a replacement. Because; economy.

  7. I had a 1.3 Montego. I was a typical young family man with two young childeren and a hefty mortgage to consider. I moved on from a dog eared multi owner Maxi. The Montego had an honest simplicity and nice styling features, notably better than Ford’s Sierra with body coloured bumpers and the ends of the dashboard that blended neatly with the door trim. The A+ engine was smooth and sweet and definitely the best of all the previous versions of the A series I had owned before. I remember the good exhaust design which had been an expensive achilles heel on my Maxi(s). After years of family motoring, finally the ecu failed and replacement cost more than the car was worth. I moved on to a nippy Fiat Punto sx but had no regrets about the Montego.

  8. As a child who had to bear the abject misery of a proper communist-spec 1982 miniMertro City during the 80’s, I can only marvel at the joy that would be bestowed on the occupants of one of these Montegos in comparison.

    I’ve always loved base models though: the, now rare, Rover 214S launched in 1990 was a fabulous thing and, like these Montegos, enjoyed the in-built quality but without any of the gizmos.

    • @ P6 John, the early eighties had some real poverty spec cars, mostly from British based manufacturers, who saw base models as ideal for fleets or to try and get people into showrooms who could just about afford a new car. There was the ultimate in miserabilism, the Chevette ES, a special edition of the Chevette that sold for under £3000 in 1981, considered the benchmark for cheap cars then, that was able to sell at this price by having nothing as standard, not even a rear demister, and only being available as a three door hatchback. Typically it came with vinyl seats and an interior heavy on bare metal and cheap plastic. I can only ever remember seeing one Chevette ES, compared with the more numerous minimalist offerings from Ford, whose Popular badge meant a similar equipment level to the Chevette and often the smallest engine available. The Cortina never had a name for its base model, just Cortina 1.3 or 1.6, but you could buy it with two doors to save money, thpugh at least by 1981 it had a rear demister, fabric seats and a lighter to give sales reps a bit more comfort on their travels.
      Later on, the really nasty nase models seemed to give way to cars that were more bearable for drivers and passengers, and sometimes special editions with a similar price to a base model with names like Quartz or Club were offered that had a radio/ cassette and sports wheels added. Also the Japanese invasion and buyers wanting better value for money from European cars meant even the cheapest models by 1986 or so would have a radio or cheap radio/cassette, clock, lighter and seats with headrests as standard.

      • The ultimate in misery spec in early eighties was the Fiesta 950 popular. Non recliner vinyl seats one door mirror one sunvisor anon electric window washer, a rubber foot button. No parcel shelf. And so little soundproofing, you could hear the petrol slopping about in the tank.

        • The miniMetro City was also devoid of anything you could remotely describe as luxury and even many “essentials”: no heated rear window, no rear wiper, non-reclining vinyl seats, no head-restraints, no radio, no glovebox, no parcel shelf, no passenger mirror or visor, no reversing lights, no door pockets, no side repeaters, no clock, no fag lighter, no clock, no rev-counter, nothing. It did have carpet though, which was slightly capitalist.

          • I don’t remember my Mum’s Metro having any model badging, but it at least had cloth seats door pockets & a parcel shelf.

            The headlights were those recessed ones with a bit of extra plastic around the edges, rather than the flush fitting ones the higher spec ones had. The indicators were in the front bumper. I did wonder how these changes saved any money.

        • @ Rob, a truly nasty little car that struggled even on the slightest hills and if you fitted a radio, you couldn’t hear it above 60 mph. I wonder if Ford and FSO swapped notes on how to make cars completely miserable and unpleasant for buyers on a budget as the Fiesta Popular had the same level of non equipment as the FSO 1300. Mind you, you could move up the range and buy a Fiesta L with an 1100 cc and a few more comforts, whereas the buyer of the FSO 1300 had the same trim level and grinding engine as it was all the company could afford to make.
          OTOH Lada’s importers were always more savvy and knew how to sell their cars better. There was a fair sized factory at the importer’s headquarters in Bridlington where the cars were rectified before sale, luxuries like radios and cloth seats were fitted, and the company started to offer five speed transmissions on some of their models that made driving a bit quieter and better for long journeys. Actually I did become quite a fan of the Riva for a time as it was a lot better than I expected and the five speed transmission made motorway journeys quite bearable, and it could easily mix it with Western cars in the third lane.

      • My company had a couple of Cortina 1.6 base estates… mk3 & 4, No rear wiper, rubber flooring rather than carpets, no radio as standard, vinyl seats etc. The run out 1982 base model had fabric seats and contract type carpets though!

  9. I had a 1.3 Montego from 1987-1991 and it provided comfortable, economical, reliable transport. However there was one oddity: I had the 5-speed version and its speedometer over-read by 15%. Once I realised this and learned that I had to set the indicated speed as ’80mph’ on the motorway, it went fine and got me to destinations on time. However it seemed a bizarre fault – I assume that either the final drive ratio or else the gearing of the speedometer must have been wrong.

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