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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.