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.
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…