Blog : Happy 30th birthday, Montego

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

Montego Advert

Oh, how time flies! The cold realisation that today marks the 30th Anniversary of the launch of the Austin Montego hits home just how time’s moved on – and how, if events had been kinder, the company which made this car might well still be with us. Indeed, in a way, it feels apt that we’re marking this landmark on a less than sunny note.

It shouldn’t, though, because there’s actually quite a lot to recommend Austin Rover’s smart new repmobile for the 1980s. It was fast, efficient, roomy and genuinely could outhandle and ride its rivals from Ford and Vauxhall. However, in a sense, the Montego’s significance – for me – will be that it’s one of the many ‘nearly cars’ which defines so many ages of Rover Group and all of its antecedents.

The ingredients were pretty much there for company car success – for that’s what the Montego was; Austin Rover’s attempt to take command of what was the UK’s most popular market sector. It was offered with a range of engines that spanned 1.3-, 1.6- and 2.0-litres, and came in a variety of trim levels, from the lowliest L, through to the luxurious Vanden Plas and sporting MG. It traded punches with the Sierra and Cavalier in terms of prices and specification so, on paper, the newest kid on the black should have had our middle-managers queueing round the block.

Montego Interior

The story of the Montego’s gestation and subsequent production has been covered in minute detail on this site and it’s an intriguing tale of underinvestment, slipped timing, and missed opportunities. Its styling was completed by 1980 and yet, when new Design Director Roy Axe came on board the following year, he called for a complete redesign. That never came, and instead, we got new door trims, an updated dashboard and a lower nose. It was a pre-launch tidy-up that was effective at distancing the Montego from the Maestro, but as an overall design package, it lacked cohesion. And more importantly, it lacked buying appeal.

After launch, the car, which should have formed the basis of Michael Edwardes’ much-vaunted product-led recovery, pretty much stalled on the market. It was outgunned by the Sierra and Cavalier, but more importantly, Austin Rover could not afford to follow the two American giants in their price-cutting game that saw them almost dumping the cars on to the market.

The arrival of the estate in 1984 and the MG Turbo the following year added appeal, but not sales – the rebadging of the cars to lose their proud Austin nameplate in 1987 was pretty much an admission that it was over, even if Austin Rover tried chasing yuppies with the duotone models and slick advertising. This is a shame, because from this point, the Montego matured into a very good product. The build quality improved and the arrival of the Perkins Prima-engined version added efficiency, if not refinement.

However, Rover Group had gone aspirational by then, and this Austin hang-over had no place in its Anglo-Honda line-up. That the Monty survived until 1994 is testament to its stubbornness and appeal to those who wanted an honest saloon, with little pretension. The problem was – in the 1980s and 1990s, that’s exactly what people didn’t want.

Today, the Montego is climbing the classic car ladder and is gaining a significant and useful following. It has fans – many who are young – who just love its easy nature, tidy roadholding and the way it makes an anti-statement about driving on today’s roads. Those of us who were there at the time might consider it a bitter failure and find ourselves frustrated at how BL snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with the Montego, but future generations may well end up being a lot kinder to it.

Let’s hope so…

Montego HL

 

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

58 Comments

  1. I remember my parents going to preview the montego at our local Austin rover dealer in Brampton cumbria all them years ago I remember the poster they were given at the launch while they were there they bought a metallic green A registered maestro 1.6 hls worst car they ever bought every time it rained the front passenger footwell would fill with water took it back lots of times could not find where the water was coming from. But did not stop them buying more of them as the years went on.

  2. I think the Montego was quite a good looking car comparatively for the time. It’s aged well IMO and I’d like to find one in good nick to potter about in.

  3. I rerember back in the 90’s a work colleague had an early Montego estate. Vanden Plas too. The indicator lenses used to fall off as they were glued on in the factory. Apparently they were like hens teeth in the scrap yards as all the other Montego owners had been scouring the scrappies for indicator lenses too. It had a permanent oil leak too that couldn’t be fixed. Perhaps enough said.

  4. My former company had 2 Monty Estates (1.6 base, then 1989 1.6 LX). Both were pretty nippy on the motorways and the trim on the LX was rather good. Neither presented any major mechanical problems that I recall, despite achieving high mileages.

    The Montego saloon always looked better at the front. The boot shape should have been designed to complement the front wings… should have listened to Roy Axe.

  5. The Montego saloon had a very shallow boot, one suitcase and gameover, some Americam friends arrived at Heathrow, offered a Montego at hiring office, their luggage simply would not fit, they left with a Fiat Uno, the Uno swallowed all

  6. I had one of the last Austin badged/ British Leyland era Montegos and it was dire. I had a Rover 213 S before this which was completely reliable, but my 1.6 L Montego was completely the opposite. It leaked oil, the water pump failed, it overheated in traffic, the build quality was rubbish and finally the alternator blew early one morning. After six terrible and expensive months with this car, I was glad to get rid of it.
    Sad thing is the post 1988 cars were far better and if I had the money, I would have bought the turbodiesel.

  7. I had a post-facelift F reg ’89 model for my first car. 1.6 S series and 5 speed ‘box. At the time I was 17 and I drove the thing bloody hard, getting through cheap front tyres every few thousand miles. It only ever let me down once when the cam belt broke but it wasn’t a big deal as it’s a ‘safe’ engine the S series.

    Hugely underrated car in my opinion…I miss F69 SLY ‘the beast’.

  8. @ 9 You bought the better generation of Montegos. I have heard from people who bought them from 1988 onwards that the reliability was a lot better. Certainly as the Montego improved, the reliability of its biggest rival, the Sierra, really went downhill. ( Late eighties/early nineties Fords were rubbish and it was nice to see Rover really take them on).

  9. Had one as a hire car in about 1991, (i know this sounds like the article but…)it felt quick. handled well, big on the inside & thought it looked good.

    But oh my, the interior build was appalling, enough to put me off the whole car.

    Shame as it could have been a cracker, but thats a line that gets used a lot with AR cars.

  10. I have nothing but fond memories of the Montego. It was back in May 1985 when I first became acquainted with one due to my Father buying a six-month old MG Montego EFi from a manager at Austin Rover Group. Back then employees of Austin Rover Group could sell on their six month company cars to people who were claimed to be ‘relatives’ and it usually meant you could save about £2,000 off the list price of a brand new example by buying a used example that was either six months old or which had covered 10,000 miles; whichever had occurred first.

    In the three years my Father had it as his company car, this B registered MG Montego EFi clocked up a further 81,000 miles with complete reliability. Its digital dashboard and voice synthesiser were always a topic of conversation with others intrigued by the technology. When coasting down a steep hill in fifth gear it would display over 200 MPG!

    I got the opportunity to have some pre-17 year old driving lessons (on private ground) in it about two months before it was sold. Compared to my Mum’s Vauxhall Chevette the Montego was a doddle to drive and master clutch control on. We were all saddened when it was eventually sold and replaced by a Rover 820i (itself a very reliable car).

    Still missing the Montego my Mum decided to buy a second-hand 1986 MG Maestro EFi the following year which was more practical for a dog-owning family. That one was just as entertaining, although I did miss the feature of the digital dashboard and voice synthesiser, and I was eventually able to officially learn to drive in it. Upon passing my test, my enthusiasm remained loyal to MG Maestros. But the love affair had really been started by my Father’s Targa Red MG Montego EFi which was undoubtedly a sleeker and more stylish proposition than the Maestro. RIP, B760 BOP (aka “Effie”).

  11. @10 yeah you’re right, the latter cars were better out together. Mine was also rustler than any 8 year old car had theright to be. But I still loved it and compared to my mates contempory Escorts’s and Astra’s it was far ahead.

    I should also say I followed it up with 2 Maestros while at Uni A.K.A the beasts 2 and 3.

  12. I remember coming back from near Lichfield one night in our Rover 3500 (P6 model) in the mid-eighties on the A5 going to Rugby, (where we lived). Wife was with me and we had been doing some more work on my Jaguar Mark 2 rebuild. It was somewhere before where the road passes between Hinckley and Nuneaton, with the night literally as black as ink, I suddenly noticed a rather distressed-looking chap waving wildly at us from the roadside. I was doing about 60, so took some time to stop and then slowly backed up. Wife said she thought he was in trouble, so we did stop rather than just passing by. The poor chap had seen us stop and ran after us. Of course there were no mobile phones in those days, you were on your own !!

    Yes, he was in a new Montego with his wife and new baby, and all the car electrics had COMPLETELY failed, no lights, no ignition, absolutely nothing ! He was on his way back to London, so we took him and his wife back to our house in Rugby where some hours later he arrived with a hire car. A week later a really lovely bunch of flowers arrived.

    And that is my sole involvement, ever, with a Montego !!

  13. Error
    Should read
    “we took his wife and baby back to our house…..”

    Why is there no edit facility on this forum ?

  14. The Montego showed much of what was wrong with BL/ Austin Rover inconsistent product planning and parts bin design. The Montego had three engines and they were all completely different.

    The A series, the R&S series and the Perkins Prima diesel, good though it was. There was nothing in common with design or components commonality between any of them.

    Vauxhall and Ford in comparison tended then and now to have common engine ranges that share design and components.

    The Montego was much delayed by the time it hit the market and the opposition by that time had moved on. Vauxhall with their FWD Cavalier and Ford with the mechanically dated but top selling Sierra cleaned up in the fleet market

    Roy Axe was not impressed with what he saw and that says it all really. He made some superficial changes but the die was cast.

    It was yet another car that scared the punters off with poor build quality and rust. It did though mature into a steady but never spectacular car with a roomy estate that pioneered the extra back row of seats.

    I did quite fancy the MG Montego EFi in black. One of my parents neighbours had one and it looked very smart.

    I don’t expect there are very many left these days.

    Happy Birthday Montego!

  15. For a ‘product led recovery’ it really wasn’t good enough. Montego should have been a separate design, not an extended Maestro. It should have been available in saloon, estate AND hatch. Did Edwardes really think Montego would conquer the fleet market. Its appeal just wasn’t wide enough.

    The above said, I liked the ‘Monty’. I remember at launch thinking it was much more stylish than Maestro. I didn’t really think it was an ‘awkward stretch’. To be honest, I think the rear is much better in the metal than in pictures. The front was far sleeker (than Maestro), and the interior was streets ahead – not just the dash but the door cards too.

    Often surprised you don’t see more estate versions still about, well looked after – especially the Countryman.

    ….. 30 years since launch. Almost frightening!!!

  16. We had three. A 1988 duo tone that was rusty at 4 years old, a 1990 duo tone that was much nicer. It was the facelift and I counted 20 visual differences from the 88 model. The engine was much smoother for some reason and the gearbox was the Honda instead of the VW. In 1992 came the dog and the estate (with power steering whoopee). That went all the way to 1999 and 110000 miles. No problems other than the usual brakes dampers etc. However I am not sure it survived much longer as the slls to floor seam was showing rust. Problem was there was no Rover to replace it so I bought that other high depreciatior that was a sound vehicle namely the Fiat Marea Weekend. Worst vehicle in thr JD Power survey but did 80k in 5 years with no problems at all.

  17. I had a “Roverised” 1.6 SL and loved it, cost me £275 off a mate , it was an F reg.

    Did not cost me a carrot to run and had loads of interior room.

    I miss it, I really do.

  18. I had 2 mg montego s first one was a 1989 red 2.0i. lovely to drive, commanding driver position, loads of room and more than adequate power. Had it for 6 years and all I had go wrong was a blocked injector!! Really reliable, comfortable and I thought was excellent build quality (thousand times better to drive than Dagenham dustbins and harsh ride Vauxhalls). 2nd one was a 1991 brg mg 2.0i with the same qualities, it was immaculate and believe it or not turned heads. Both were killed off by rust-montego=rust, once rust got hold of the arches and sills it didn t take long to take it s toll. fond memories of the montego, especially mg s. Havn t seen one in years.

  19. My parents looked at getting a Montego TD in 1991 to replace our aged Jetta 1.6D, Both my uncle and my late grandfather had owned Maestros and gave positive reports. My parents then received that months Caravan Club Magazine in which they had savaged the poor car in one of their tests. Worst for this, Worst for that, the list went on and on. The final straw was their claim that it wouldn’t even tow a caravan onto a Cross-Channel Ferry. So the money went on a Renault 19 GTD. Probably less rusty but it had plenty of its own issues.

    Weirdly the Caravan Club awarded ‘Towcar of the Year’ to the 416 GTi, a car not exactly known for its torque or good mpg……

  20. @22, The caravan club must have been on acid, even in normally aspirated form they could pull houses down, they was just noisy those prima diesels.

  21. Montego was a great car, especially when Roverised. Like Francis above, we too had a 1.6SL, White Diamond over Tempest Grey with white wheel trim. That really was a much loved car! It was Dads company car, and we were to buy it at the end of its term, but it was stolen just before its term came up. I still miss you G597MFM.

  22. Only ever drome Montys on hire, usually a 1.6L IIRC. Loads of room and decent handling but never impressed me. Always felt that they were slow and lumbering compared to the Mk2 Cavalier that I occasionally drove on business. Also, the Cav was far nicer inside compared to the creaking and groaning that came from the Monty dash as the badly secured panels chafed each other. Cavalier 1.6 engine was far livelier than the Monty.

    A friend had a late model diesel estate and held on to it for years and said it was the best car he ever owned. It was certainly comfortable and spacious if a little noisy and the interior was better built than the hire ones that I had.

    So there you go,a bit of a Marmite car. I would have the Cav any day, my friend Richard would have the Monty.

  23. I sold them new in early 1986 and remember having to arrange three brand new un registered showroom cars all in Apporto red metallic and all VDP models Montego, Maestro and Metro, the Montego was so bad on paintwork it had to go away for a total repaint before display!.
    A Montego 2.0 HLS was the last car I broke down in around 1989!

  24. the mgs were really fast my brother had 2. the vdp leather seats were very impressive indeed, well designed and comfy!!

  25. The consensus seems to be the Austin cars weren’t very good, but the Rover ones, particularly the diesels, were far better.

  26. My first company car was a Montego which had an awful rustling noise when the interior fan was increased. One day I noticed there was a wrapper on the inside of the dashvent and with a pair of tweezers extracted and found a pasty wrapper with the sell by date matching the date the car was manufactured. I wrote a letter to Graham Day of Austin Rover sent with the pasty wrapper, imagine my surprise that a couple of weeks later I received a letter from him saying that they do not encourage eating food on the line and accept his sincere apologies for this incident.

  27. Happy Birthday Monty! My wife and I had 4 between us. All diesel estates and all started with about 45k on the clock and we sold them when they got over 200k. Fantastic cars for economy and reliability and big miles with the family. How ever hard I drove, I could not get less than 50 mpg. Wish I still had one.

  28. On one my ex-workmates bought an L reg TD estate one of his Dad in 1999.

    He was impressed at how good the MPG was compaired to the VW 1600 estate he had before, even with 7 people on board.

  29. Agree with @10. I ran an E reg Sierra 1.6 estate and an F reg 1.6 Montego estate, and the Montego was a far nicer car in every respect. My Dad had a 1.6 Cavalier estate of similar vintage and there was no comparison – it was tiny and the trim was far cheaper in feel. But … my Montego was three years old and already rusting.

  30. @ 33, Just not good enough and problems with the Austin versions meant sales fell away and when it really improved in 1989, it was too late, a fate that befell its predecessors the Princess and the Maxi, they matured into good cars, but it was too late.
    Wonder if the Montego was fitted with Honda engines, it would have been a lot better car.

  31. i think the engines were good enough, the torque in the o series engine for towing was fantastic as was the diesel!!!
    i always liked the ADVANTAGE version with the white wheels. again the roverised version nice looking car IMHO,,,

  32. I quite like the Montego / Maestro Styling. to me it was something between the Honda/Rover ballade and the Rover SD1 – 800 series cars, filled the gap nicely 🙂 alex

  33. I never knew that it was not very successful. There was a time when I used to see them everywhere. I was also once seriously perplexed by seeing an early Montego badged as a MORRIS

  34. I had a 1988 White MG Montego which was one of the best cars I ever had. Bought it from Kennings in Lichfield (to replace a Rover 216 Vitesse that had been stolen and written off) with 33,000 miles and part exchanged it a few years later for a Fiesta XR2i when it had done over 110,000 miles. We went every where in it and it never once let us down. All I ever spent on it was regular servicing and tyres. Still miss it.

  35. My Dad had four Maestros and three Montegos. The first Montego, a VP carb came from Kennings in lichfield. AS I remember it was a nice car, but the EFI would have been nicer. The best one was the last, a 7 seat 1.6LX extate from near the end.

    The saloon was a bit bland but the estate was a truly excellent vehicle; it was more competitive against other estates than the saloon was against Ford and Vauxhall and the like.

  36. I had 3 Rover era 2.0l petrol (7 seater) estates, a dark grey SL, a bright red GTI and a midnight blue Countryman as company cars. The GTI was easily my favourite and I was sorry to see it go. But they stopped selling them so I had a Countryman with alloy wheels as the next best thing.
    You may recall that the Austin era cars had chrome/alloy trim around the windows. Rover era cars had black. I remember that the black “paint” was peeling off the bright trim of the SL from new.
    I don’t think anyone has mentioned the bumpers. To say they were brittle is an understatement. Someone “touch-parked” the red GTI and its front bumper shattered…

  37. My father as company car buyer had the joys of dealing with an Allegro that went through 6 gearboxes in 9 months (the wrong one was fitted at first, too long, and the drones just looked at the part number and replaced it). The chances of us owning a Montego were precisely zero (1981 was an A plate Cavalier SRi which is still going, 83 a Cavalier CDi, 85 a Carlton CDi and then the Renault 25). The VDP in gold always looked nice – and you’ll be fighting off ecomodders with a stick for those dinnerplate alloy wheels.
    There are still a few around here, usually the late diesel estates, which arent that noisy when theyre in motion – at idle some of them required ear protection to be worn at all times.

  38. My brother had the normally aspirated direct injection Perkins diesel in the Maestro van, probably the same as the Montego I cannot think of a worse engine when it came to repairs, the garages hated them, it was a day and half of work to remove the head, and a day to replace it such were the number of parts to remove. We could change an escort head gasket in about 2 hours, but 2 and a half days for the Maestro
    Checking the tappet clearance, another nightmare, the camshaft was not captively held in place, it was sandwiched between an upper and lower casing you really needed the upper half of a scrap cylinder head, modified by cutting loads of holes to gain access while taking readings.
    The Perkins diesel was prone high wear rate in the the valve guides , hence lots of exhaust smoke, the diesel injectors were prone to leak, they were sealed by compressed of copper washers.

    The Perkins Prima diesel, what a piece of junk!

  39. I have had quite a few Montego’s since 1988 and still have 3. A black 1988 MG Montego Turbo, a red 1984 MG Montego efi with digidash undergoing restoration and a blue 1984 MG Montego efi with digidash. The only one left on the road. Great cars and very underrated. I had nicolette who did the voice in the talking dashes in me car sunday. Very chuffed indeed

  40. I am also treasurer of the maestro & montego owners club so see many of these cars about. Lots of enthusiasm and cars that are now treasured

  41. There was a 30th anniversary celebration at Cowley on sunday organised by Tanya Fields. Very enjoyable day with a range of now very rare Montego’s and Maestros

  42. I remember driving a few Montego hire cars back in the 80s and on the whole they where every bit as capable as a Sierra or Cavalier. The main reason the car failed was because it landed right in the middle of the battle for market supremacy between the Sierra and Cavalier. Ford and Vauxhall flung everything they had at these cars to gain all important fleet sales. Austin Rover simply couldn’t afford this level of support for the Montego and fleet sales sunk without a trace.

  43. Had they been fitted with engines out of the Honda Accord and had some of the quality control that went into the Triumph Acclaim, then maybe the Austin Montego would have really cleared up as the Acclaim was hailed as a huge success in a class where British Leyland were struggling in the early eighties.
    Instead we got the asthmatic A series and the S series for most cars, the S in particular being notorious for oil leaks and overheating. ( I’m not alone in this as we were talking old cars in the pub and someone had the same problems with their 1.6 Montego, plus the usual awful electrics).

  44. @48 Francis – I disagree completely. I’m on my third vehicle with the PSA DV6 engine and all have been totally reliable. The PSA TU petrol engine is another story.

    @50 Julian – that’s brilliant if it’s true.

  45. In late 1987 my Dad hired an Montego estate when his Cavalier was having a collapsed wheel bearing replaced.

    We took in on a fairly long drive with a fair amount of luggage & it managed OK, thought my Dad wasn’t impressed with the road handling & it was a little tricky to cold start.

  46. I well remember the earlier Montegos, they were truly horrible cars. Whilst at uni I got a summer job as a delivery driver for Swan National car rentals. We had Cavaliers, Sierras and Montegos. The Cavaliers were well put together and fast, the Sierras were also well put together but not such a good drive as the Cavalier. The Montego was shit, poorly put together, bits of trim falling off, it also felt cheap compared to the others. The instruments looks cheap and plasticy, the switchgear felt fragile, the gearchange was poor compared to the others (before you blame the VW gearbox, the gearchange in VWs at the time was good), the carpets were also much cheaper than the others. The wipers also used to do some odd tricks too. I also remember once going to overtake a lorry, dropped it down a gear and went, then on checking my rear view mirror all I could see was black smoke. The lorry had completely disappeared. This continued for the next mile before clearing. Never knew what caused it.
    Mind you the Montego did have good brakes – which was more than could be said for the Ford Orion, they could be scary!
    Swan National had Maestro Montego and Metro on their fleet and all were poor when compared to the offerings from Ford and GM. I think they stopped using BL shortly afterwards. BL had by this time become incapable of designing and manufacturing competitive cars.
    After a hard days work thrashing these cars I would get back into my own 1963 MG 1100 and drive her gently home. The 1100 was more refined and a better drive than any Metro.

  47. Oh just looking at the picture of the Montego dash reminded me that the radio was also cheap and crap and in some of them the speedo would make a ticking noise. Bit like a 1980’s Marina, the fleet manager may have been persuaded to buy one batch but no repeat order.

  48. I remember the Montego well I had two my first one was terrible the starter motor kept jamming and had to carry a hammer to free it then the heater died. So it went to the action I bought another same year 1987 1.6 HL in cashmere gold I live in Cornwall and drove to to Glasgow and back in 1997 with no fuss or bother when any rust came through I sorted it.

    She finally did not like that LRP petrol and the stepper motor and ecu were talking different languages but for 3 years I loved that car. Still miss D431 SBW rust in piece old friend.

  49. Next year will be the 40th anniversary of the Princess. This I’ve always found a far more interesting car than the Montego and, of course, donated the O series engine to the 2 litre version.

  50. My father had two from new the first a 1986 2.0HL which he wrote off and its replacement a 1987 2.0 si – the first suffered from new with rust the second seemed better!

    C307MEJ and D730PEJ where are you now?

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