The cars : Austin Montego development story

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

The Montego development story tells the tale of how the long-overdue replacement for the Austin Ambassador and Morris Ital came into being.

However, the Montego failed to realise its potential due to strong opposition in the UK fleet market, a general lack of quality and unappealing styling.


More convention from Cowley

Austin Montego

The Austin Montego had been taking shape at the Longbridge design office behind the Maestro as the larger saloon car it was designed to be. The need to develop a mid-sized saloon for BL’s 1980s line-up was desperate, thanks to the deaths of the Morris Marina-replacing ADO77, Triumph SD2 and short-lived TM-1 programme – the LC10-based saloon would be the only game in town.

It quickly emerged from the LC10 programme. The three-box saloon’s wheelbase was longer than the Maestro’s, but was to the original LC10 dimension (the Maestro’s was shorter because it had 2.4in taken out of it). Original styling ideas were very much as a booted LC10 – this would change as Project LM11 (as the Montego was known as internally) progressed.

Due to the fitment of the compact S-Series engine, the Montego was given a slightly lower bonnet line and a longer, more tapered nose. The major changes were to the front and rear of the car, where the styling from Roger Tucker’s saloon proposal was grafted onto the centre section of Ian Beech’s design.


LM11 styling models

As can be seen from this model, the LM11 saloon started off as a notchback LM10 – and, although it’s not an unpleasant design, it would have had a more limited market appeal than the car than finally hit the showrooms in 1984…

Montego prototype
A booted Maestro, pure and simple, and although this full-size clay model looks clean and appealing, there were doubts about the appeal of the car. Designers at Longbridge and Solihull were tasked with giving the car more presence on the road, thereby making it a true force in the medium sector of the market…
Montego prototype
The rethink resulted in a Roger Tucker design for the front and rear, which gave the car an entirely larger look. Note the rather clumsy rear side window treatment, Ambassador-style nose treatment and unaltered LM10 centre section… (With thanks to the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon)
Montego prototype
…but not before this fully-engineered model was produced. Note the Maestro dashboard, 13-inch wheels and smart rear lamp clusters. The rear end treatment is far cleaner and possibly more appealing than the rather fussy arrangement which was devised for the final model…
A further development of the LM11 - with clean looking side-window treatment.
A further development of the LM11 – with clean looking side-window treatment
Alternative frontal treatment was devised for the LM11, too – a much cleaner solution than the Maestro. The following three pictures were taken at the Longbridge Round House Studio in November 1981. The pre-Chris Greville Smith Montego LM11 front end design looks clean. (Picture Stephen Harper)
A flush grille for this proposal. (Picture Stephen Harper)
Is there a touch of Ford of Europe with this one? Stephen Harper is photographed with the full-sized clay model. (Picture Stephen Harper)
Is there a touch of Ford of Europe with this one? Stephen Harper is photographed with the full-sized clay model. (Picture Stephen Harper)
Montego prototype
The Roger Tucker/Ian Beech effort was given the nod, and developed into a full-size prototype – and then okayed for production in 1981… Roy Axe changed very little of this design, but the tweaks he made were certainly effective in tidying up this effort

LM11E, the estate version

Double-sided clay model more fully dressed up. Note the body-coloured C-pillar on this model. (Picture Stephen Harper)
Two tailgate proposals in one – these three photos were taken at the Longbridge Exterior Studio, November 1981. The two alternative studies for the Montego LM11 Estate by John L Asford (upright Volvo style) and Steve Harper (Mercedes-Benz fastback style, closest to camera). Double-sided clay model more fully dressed up. Note the body-coloured C-pillar on this model. (Picture Stephen Harper)
Further work on the double-sided model at the Kremlin, and it looks quite close to the final production car, save a few details. Steve ‘Topper’ Clarke taking sections of the clay model for draughting. (Picture Stephen Harper)


In the early days, it looked different to the Maestro, but at the same time because it was the product of two different designers, it was an unhappy mixture of ideas. Product Manager, Malcolm Harbour, said there was a real danger in adopting Ian Beech’s design as a basis for the LM11: the side doors with their pronounced scallops would influence very heavily the way that the saloon looked – and so it was thus.

Austin Montego: those doors…

Because the doors from the Maestro were used, there was the need to add a sixth-light to accommodate the extra length. The problem was that the extra rear side windows were incorporated to look like an extension to the rear screen, like a huge wrap around swathe of glass.

The end result could not be happily integrated into the styling and this rear aspect no doubt spoiled what could have been a tidily styled Eurobox. The Montego was basically Ian Beech’s Maestro welded to Roger Tucker’s bonnet and boot! Harris Mann was the gentleman tasked with combining the different designs together.

He commented: ‘David Bache insisted on offering Musgrove these American-type schemes for the rear end – little opera and so on. We told him (Harold) Musgrove didn’t want anything like that but he insisted we do them for a presentation. When Musgrove walked in he completely blew his top and walked out again. David was a very free and easy character. I don’t think he liked Longbridge. He certainly didn’t spend very much time with us. We were told after each viewing what was required for the next one. There might be a month between the viewings, but David would rarely visit us.’

Goodbye to David Bache

As the LM10 neared production, the design and implementation of the LM11 went ahead. Whereas the Maestro was pretty much the product of one man, the LM11 Montego was not. David Bache left BL after being fired by Harold Musgrove in 1981 following protracted disagreements (‘the last straw was at a (Montego) styling review where Bache ignored several instructions to shut up from Musgrove – his last interruption was just that’) – and, when he left, the Maestro was a mere four months from production and therefore, its styling was fixed.

However, the Montego, was well advanced in its development and production engineering was also well under way, but the styling had yet to be finally signed off. When Bache’s successor, Roy Axe, took the reins at the head of the Austin Rover Design Department, he looked at the Montego and, quite simply put, could not believe what he saw.

In the eyes of this designer, new to the company, viewing the car as he was, with a fresh pair of eyes, Axe found the styling of the car fundamentally wrong – and pleaded for time to restyle the entire car. He was hamstrung because the company’s need to get the car into production was so great that Harold Musgrove would not allow him the time or money to modify the styling of the car in anything other than a superficial way.

Late changes overseen by Roy Axe

Axe did change the rear windows in order to make them seem less massive and also tided up the front end, and added clever plastic caps to the base of the side windows in order to lessen the dropping waistline featured in the Maestro – but that was it.

This situation may have made him unhappy, but he knew that there was nothing he could do: he knew that the car had odd proportions as a side-effect of being based on a smaller car. Worse than that, in Roy Axe‘s opinion, the Montego’s obvious ugliness was something else entirely.

‘My first remarks were that the design should be scrapped and the whole thing done again.’ – Roy Axe

Speaking in 2002, Axe made his feelings about the Montego abundantly clear: ‘I was stood in front of it and told that this model was over a year away and so I had a great opportunity to improve it if I felt it was needed! It is hard to know what to say in circumstances like this but my first remarks were that the design should be scrapped and the whole thing done again. This was not acceptable as the plan was well in place but there was room to tweak!’

Roy Axe later commented: ‘The car was 20 years old when it came out. I ought to have stopped it, but Ray Horrocks would have had to go back to the Government and tell them they had just screwed up in a big way and needed X more millions. He wasn’t in the mood to do that. But it was a car that should never have happened like that. It really shouldn’t. The company had invested millions in automated equipment to make this antiquated machine. It was tragic.’

Small adjustments make a big difference

Axe added: ‘The changes were really minimal as the doors had to stay as had the basic form dictated by the structure. I was able to improve the front and get rid of the Maestro look there, some improvements to the rear and by applying admittedly rather crude mounding to the waistline.

‘I was able to minimise the falling look in this area. The result was far from anything I am proud of but was the best I could do plus the chance to replace the fascia panel with a new one which could then be applied to the Maestro at a later date.’

The reality is, of course, that when the design of the Montego lost its way in 1981/82, Axe should have been given the chance (by delaying the launch of the car) to take charge of the project and give it a wheels-up facelift. As it was, his hands were tied and the car styling was frozen weeks after he joined the company and the die was cast – Austin Rover was hell-bent on getting the car on to the market for spring 1984.

Backed into a corner

‘The Montego was a good car,’ former Austin Rover Chairman Harold Musgrove told AROnline. ‘Roy Axe did an effective job tidying it up for production. He had more time to influence the Montego style. The interior was nice, with a new one-piece dashboard, and appealing-looking instruments – although you had to pay for an HL and beyond to get them.’

To be fair, there was little choice as by this time the Morris Ital was hopelessly out of date and the Austin Ambassador was selling in less than large numbers, and to delay the Montego any further would have been catastrophic for the company.

During this time, the Maestro was nearing production at Cowley. The factory had been enlarged at a cost of £147million and the new production line was installed, fully robotized, like Longbridge but even more advanced. The modifications to Cowley now made it one of the most advanced and productive in Europe – and Harold Musgrove was very public in his pride at the new factory.

Montego is launched – and it starts well

The Montego followed the Maestro onto the market 13 months later in April 1984. Launched in the South of France, the pleasant surprise for the less speculative parts of the motoring media was just how different the Montego was from the Maestro, when it did appear.

That a replacement for the Ital was desperately needed was emphasised in February 1984 when the sales figures for January were revealed. Vauxhall, GM’s UK arm overhauled BL for the first time. With 18.68 per cent of the domestic market, Vauxhall demonstrated that its Mk2 Cavalier, launched in August 1981, and others like the Astra were an unstoppable force at the time.

The Cavalier was the second best-selling car in January with 13,720 registrations. Vauxhall’s popularity, particularly in the all-important fleet car sector, had been largely at the expense of Ford, whose market share dipped to 28.1 per cent. The Cavalier and the Ford Sierra (11,932 sales) were the leading contenders in the fleet market. They were sandwiched in the best-sellers list by the Ford Escort, the country’s favourite car with January sales of 16,577 and the BL Metro (11,115).

LM11 the centrepiece of BL’s recovery plan

Speaking in March 1984, Brian Mahony, Austin Rover’s UK Sales Director, said: ‘LM11 is probably the most vital ingredient in the company’s recovery plans. It is pitched directly at Cavalier and Sierra. More and more, we are taking the views of fleet operators into our new product designs.

‘Those who have seen pre-production models have been impressed.’ Austin Rover was very optimistic about the new car’s chances in the market place. An unnamed executive stated: ‘Not having a Cortina or Cavalier in our line-up was like having one arm tied behind our back.’

The demise of the Ford Cortina, which had sold in bucketloads to the fleet market had created a sales opportunity for rival manufacturers to exploit. In no other country were two out of three cars sold to people who did not drive them.

Fleet sales vitally important to the Montego’s success

That meant 500,000 cars a year on the basis of 1983’s 1.79 million new car registrations. Their total value in 1984 was put at between £7000m and £8000m a year. The most attractive and, in normal times, most profitable sector of the fleet business was the medium or family saloon, generally reckoned to account for one in four of all cars sold in Britain.

Until 1982 it had been dominated for nearly 20 years by Ford’s Cortina. It became a legend in its lifetime and Ford’s fortunes in Britain were secure. It bestrode the car market like the cocksure winner it was achieving more than 30 per cent penetration, 10 per cent more than BL, its nearest rival. But behind the scenes at Ford’s Warley headquarters nerve ends were beginning to twang. Nothing drops down the charts faster than a car that has overstayed its welcome. The early warning signs were there for Cortina.

Ford had a shiny new model ready to replace it but king-making is a tricky business. Cortina had broken every sales record in the book and, in the words of one of Ford’s Detroit bosses, ‘It will be one son of a bitch to follow.’

Ford Sierra: starting pistol on huge price war

In September, 1982 the Ford Sierra was unveiled to the delight of the motoring press but coos of surprise from the public. The smooth contours of its jelly-mould outline were certainly eye-catching but not everyone liked it. ‘Of course,’ said the Ford men, ‘it is so different from anything on the market that people will need time to adjust.’

However, as days turned into weeks the queues at dealers’ showrooms did not materialize. So Ford resorted to an old but expensive ploy: offering substantial discounts to its dealers to enable them to sell the Sierra at cut prices, a not unheard of practice in the cut-throat conditions of the previous two years, but never for a new model.

And all the time the key fleet buyers, men disposing of millions of pounds worth of orders annually, were dragging their feet. The fleet men’s big worry was the effect of heavy discounting on the prices they would get when they disposed of their Sierras two years later.

Vauxhall, not Austin Rover makes hay

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2

The solution for many was to turn to Vauxhall’s Cavalier, (above) launched a year earlier and making a name for itself with a new high-performance but still economical engine in a modern front-wheel-drive layout. In contrast Ford stuck to Cortina’s old front engine and rear-wheel-drive concept for the Sierra, insisting it was the proven layout for easy maintenance.

The industry shook its head and whispered that Ford Europe was short of the funds needed to develop a front-wheel-drive job with a new engine because it was having to support its hard-pressed US parent. Ford was not going to loosen its grip on such a lucrative market easily. It hit back with fleet discounts of around £600 for every Sierra bought and threw in a lot of demonstrator models. Vauxhall had been waiting too long to get its feet under the fleet table so it, too, offered discounts of hundreds of pounds a car.

A full scale discounting war broke out with first one side upping the ante and then the other. In September 1981 when the front-wheel-drive Cavalier was launched the General Motors company held a little over 8 per cent of the fleet market. At the end of 1983 it was claiming 16.5 per cent and within the crucial medium sector was holding a remarkable 25-30 per cent.

Ford vs Vauxhall – the fleet market view

John Pugh, Vauxhall’s Fleet Sales Manager, was quite insistent that there has never been anything approaching Cavalier’s impact on fleet buyers.

‘They are a notoriously conservative bunch where new cars are concerned preferring to sit back and let someone else iron out the bugs. That did not happen with Cavalier. Right from the start they took to it and they have been buying it in increasing numbers ever since.’

Ford replied: ‘As the market leader for a long time, we appreciate more than anyone else that our competitors can only make progress at our expense and there is no way we are going to take that lying down. We shall increase our efforts even further,’ was how a company spokesman summed it up.

‘It’s a bloody battlefield’

Commenting on latest trends in the fleet and business car sector, Tony Semper, Ford’s Fleet Development Manager, said: ‘The true cost of running a fleet of company cars is more apparent than ever now because inflation has been reduced so significantly. As a consequence the growth of specialist fleet management companies has slowed up.

‘They are still widely used, however, for their leasing expertise by the middle-sized companies who do not have the resources to support their own in-house fleet administration department.’

One big fleet executive said: ‘It’s a bloody battlefield with nobody taking any prisoners. They’ve thrown away the rule book on business etiquette. Some of the salesmen who come here are nervous wrecks. They say the pressure is so great to get sales they have no alternative but to get down in the mud with the competition. The battle between the market leader Ford and fast-improving Vauxhall for the lion’s share of the fleet market for medium cars, represented by their Sierra and Cavalier models, is one of the most bitter confrontations we in Britain have seen for a long time.’

How would the Montego compete on such a playing field?

‘Those two are not taking many prisoners and that means give away prices, follow up services and five-star attention,’ was how the Fleet Sales Manager of a rival manufacturer put it. This, then, was the business climate that the Maestro and Montego had to compete in.

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 bullishly stated: ‘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. Metro saved our bacon, Maestro pointed the way ahead, but Montego will unlock the door not only to bigger sales at home but also help us to build networks in overseas markets.’

As explained before the Montego incorporated a slightly longer wheelbase, a lower bonnet line and stretched overhangs at the front as well as the rear. The range of engines was also vastly different to the Maestro’s incorporating the following engine range:

Displacement Type Power output
1275cc A-Plus 69 bhp
1598cc S-Series 86 bhp
1994cc O-Series 100 bhp
1994cc O-Series EFi 115 bhp

Montego’s big improvements over the Maestro

Where the Montego differed from the Maestro was that the O-Series engine was used in conjunction with the brand-new, Honda-designed PG1 gearbox, described as a ‘gem’ by Autocar. The new arrangement resulted in a far more pleasant gearchange than the obstructive VW-sourced box in the smaller models.

It has never really been explained why the VW gearboxes in the lesser Maestros would prove to be so inferior to those of their German cousins, but the weakness was certainly not evident in pre-production testing.

Between pre-production and production, VW changed the synchromesh design – to a new ’Konusring’ design. This change and not the linkage, as many people mistakenly believed, was the cause of the Maestro’s obstructive gearchange quality. There was a suspicion, never proven, that VW might just have given BL the worst of the new units.

Structurally-improved dashboard for the Montego

Even though the Montego was based on the Maestro, it received a different (and structurally more sound) dashboard. This one-piece affair was far less prone to rattles and squeaks, and so it was inevitable that it would find its way into the Maestro. (Photograph supplied by Rene Winters.)
Even though the Montego was based on the Maestro, it received a different (and structurally more sound) dashboard. This one-piece affair was far less prone to rattles and squeaks, and so it was inevitable that it would find its way into the Maestro. (Photograph supplied by Rene Winters)

More variance from the Maestro was in the Montego’s new dashboard and interior. The accommodation was broadly similar, but improved in quality and design over the Maestro. It would be fair to say that the new dashboard was an improvement, but the new style of seats was merely different, not any better.

In much the same way as the Maestro story of a year before, the car simply did not make a huge impact on the market. That is not to say that the Montego was a bad car – far from it in fact, but the Montego just did not have much in the way of appeal to the private buyer or his company counterpart.

Both the Montego and Maestro suffered from the familiar story of build quality niggles which one might have assumed Austin Rover should have succeeded in beating by this point in time. Unfortunately, the first few long-term tests published by the UK car magazines reported tales of woe and the Montego, especially suffered from electronic maladies. No big deal in the grand scheme of things, but when you are trying to rebuild an image, the last thing that you want to hear.

Montego: Weak sales from the start

Just like the Maestro, the Montego soon fell victim to the resurgence in industrial action that was occurring throughout BL. On 10 May 1984, 40 Cowley trim workers went on strike, bringing Montego production to a halt. Also hampering both the Maestro and Montego was the vicious price cutting war going on. An example of this is in the first 20 days of May 1984, when Austin Rover’s UK market share fell from 21 to less than 14 per cent.

The Times reported in its 24 May issue, ‘Mr Sam Toy, Chairman of Ford of Britain, responded to pressure from his dealers on 4 May and returned to the price war he quit eight months ago. Bonuses of up to £350 a car have enabled dealers to offer Granadas and Capris at up to £1500 below list prices, with up to £1000 off Sierras.

‘Ford dealers reported an immediate increase in showroom traffic. In the past ten days Ford’s market share has increased from 25.3 per cent to nearly 27 per cent and is still climbing. Austin Rover is also suffering because of the resurgence of Japanese cars this month after a poor start to the year. In the first four months the Japanese took only 8.3 per cent of the market compared with their voluntary ceiling of 11 per cent. So far this month they have taken more than 12.5 per cent.’

Montego affected by strike action

Then on 5 June, the sacking of a forklift driver led to a strike of drivers who ferried components around the Austin Rover empire. This led to lay-offs at both Longbridge and Cowley and the halting of production. The dispute was disastrous for Austin Rover, which hoped to capitalise on a strike in the German components industry crippling the continental factories of Ford and GM.

An Austin Rover executive was quoted as saying, ‘Until this happened. we were poised to make a real killing with the Americans short of cars during the build-up to the August bonanza.’

The drivers’ strike collapsed on 14 June, but it had cost Austin Rover 20,000 cars in lost production, worth about £100m. In August, Austin Rover called Union officials into Cowley to impress on them the need to end the series of unofficial strikes that had hit the plant, which had lost 2000 cars in disputes in the fortnight following the factories summer holiday.

Cowley issues, but more staff taken on

Unfortunately, disputes continued to afflict Cowley and, by mid September 1984, Maestro and Montego production was again at a standstill in a dispute that lasted around ten days. Hot on the heels of this came the Austin Rover pay dispute of November 1984, which cost the whole group another two weeks’ production of all models. A firm stance by Chairman Harold Musgrove saw the strike collapse.

By the end of 1984, Austin Rover announced it wanted to recruit another 200 workers at Cowley to boost production. A sign that things were not going to plan appeared in The Times of 29 December 1984. ‘BL has told the Government that if the steady improvement of its Austin Rover group is to continue, in the face of a growing challenge from General Motors of America, more public funding will be necessary to develop the next generation of new cars.

‘The warning is contained in the BL Corporate Plan covering 1985 to 1990, which has just been submitted to the Government. The news will come as a shock to Government supporters who thought that the taxpayer had made his last contribution to a company which has received £2.3bn of state aid since 1975. The final tranche of Government aid was drawn by BL 18 months ago. Since then Jaguar has been sold for £297 million, and the profitable Unipart subsidiary is expected to be privatised next year.’

1985 begins, Montego stalls from the grid

By the end of 1984, the Montego had only sold 34,700 cars since its launch – disappointing at best. Then, in August 1985, came the bombshell – Austin Rover announced that 200 assembly workers were to lose their jobs, and a further 740 transferred to enable production at the company’s Cowley and Longbridge factories to be reduced by 10 per cent. At Cowley, weekly output of Maestro and Montego models was reduced from 2200 to 2025 and from 2500 to 2200 respectively.

In reality it was a tacit admission that the dream that Austin Rover could remain a volume producer of bread and butter cars was over. Needless to say, the sales performance of the Montego on the UK fleet market soon established it as a distant third place in the medium saloon market, behind the offerings of GM and Ford. This pattern of sales was also mirrored by the Maestro in its own market sector, so it is fair to say that the sales figures expected by Austin Rover management (approximately 4000 cars per week) were never met.

The sad thing about this performance is that the Maestro and Montego never actually matched the Allegro and Marina of a decade before and no way were the new pair of cars worse than their distant relatives. It seemed that people bought the Allegro and Marina because they were products of the British carmaker, whereas these same people ten years hence did not buy the Maestro and Montego because they were products of the same manufacturer. The shame of all this was that the Maestro and Montego were far, far better cars in relation to their competitors than their forebears.

Austin Montego estate is launched

Austin Montego estate

At the British Motor Show in 1984, the Estate version of the Montego also appeared and it has to be said that this was a successful piece of design, not being hampered by the same design compromises as its saloon brother.

The awkward glasshouse and long overhangs of the saloon ceased to be a problem with the estate version as it was modified so that it incorporated nicely integrated rear end styling. Practicality was excellent, having a well-sized boot and, unusually for this class, the option for an extra row of rearwards facing seats – just like a French car, in fact.

As a result of this successful transformation into a load carrier, the Montego estate received a Design Council award.

Design tweaks and the end of Austin

One of Graham Day's yuppie chasing models, this one being the 1987 Montego 2.0Si.
One of Graham Day’s yuppie chasing models, this one being the 1987 Montego 2.0Si

After extensive market research, it was found that the Montego was saddled with an unfortunately pedestrian image, so the Marketing Department worked on producing more appealing cars. The 1.6L and 2.0Si (above) Montego were announced in 1987, resplendent with duotone paint that echoed the theme instigated by the Rover Sterling.

The marketing people focussed on these models in an attempt to attract a more youthful clientele – one such advert featured a Montego 1.6L crashing through a showroom window in order to demonstrate just how quickly it got off the mark and how good its stereo was to a couple of sales rep-types. Kevin Morley and his team of marketing gurus went Yuppie chasing.

Montego diesel and turbodiesel arrive

In 1988, the first diesel-engined Montegos began to appear – a range that would eventually blossom into a full one, comprising of turbo and a normally-aspirated versions of both the Montego and Maestro by 1990.

Perkins, based in Peterborough, England, was responsible for the development of these highly advanced Prima engines – and it is no surprise that they were greeted with some enthusiasm on the UK market.

The first application of the Perkins MDi/Prima engine actually came in 1986, with the Maestro van, but initially, it was considered too rough for passenger car consumption, so remained in a lengthened development programme for a further two years. These engines were loosely based on the BL O-Series unit, but were heavily modified, which employed Direct Injection technology. One must wonder why it took over four years for the cars to receive a diesel engine.

Why was Perkins chosen?

The answer lies with the fact that, during the early development of the Maestro, the hope was that the company would buy in a unit from Volkswagen. When that idea failed, Austin Rover approached Perkins, and asked them to develop something suitable for passenger car usage.

British Leyland had formerly been playing around with diesel Morris Marinas and Princesses in the mid-’70s, but the power unit employed in the Montego and Maestro was much more sophisticated in its design and a far cry from these earlier efforts.

Development dragged on because the two companies needed to ensure that the engine was refined enough for use in passenger cars: the DI engine is inherently less refined than its indirect counterpart and much work centred on the design of the combustion chambers and engine block.

The trade-off in refinement is considered worthwhile because the potential for economy from this design of engine was tremendous. The wait was considered worthwhile by customers keen to purchase a British middleweight diesel, as the Maestro and Montego diesels gained a following with enthusiastic owners who liked the excellent potential for economy and performance. They were, however, considered to be far inferior in terms of refinement to the PSA Indirect injection diesel rivals, such as the Citroën BX and Peugeot 405.

The facelift-that-wasn’t arrives

Austin Montego development story
For the 1989 model year, the Montego received its first facelift. Although there was no money in the coffers for that badly needed re-body, the ’89 Montego did receive some very worthwhile improvements

Around the time the diesel models were rolled out, a subtle facelift for the Montego, known as the 88.5MY, was also premiered. Incorporating a new radiator grille and smoother rear end treatment, the upgrade significantly improved the car’s visual appeal without costing the company an arm and a leg.

It had been envisaged that it was to have been a much more far-reaching facelift (new body panels were designed under the codename AR9 (below), as well as the incorporation of the M16-Series engine, but these would not bear fruit as a consequence of 1985’s financial upheavals.

And yet, it did come close to becoming the Rover 400-Series, as was regularly predicted in the press at the time. According to Technical Apprentice, Nick Chung, who served at Cowley between 1985 and 1989, the groundwork had been more than prepared. He said: ‘The Roverisation process affected the Montego not only by deleting the Austin badge the previous year. By the time of the first serious facelift ‘88.5MY’ (Model Year) pre-production process, build cars that were in S-Block, Cowley South Works, in August 1988 all had ‘ROVER 400′ badges on. The 1.3-, 1.6- and 2.0-litre variants were to be named 413, 416, 420 and 420i. This was, however, never adopted because of the R8 version the following year.’

What became of Project AR9, then?

The far-reaching facelift proposal had been watered down as a cost-based decision. During 1985, Austin Rover had been undergoing a process of Roverisation. First, the promising Montego-replacement AR16/17 programme dropped its Austin branding.

As 1985 wore on, it became clear that there were future funding issues at Austin Rover, and the project lost it impetus. Harold Musgrove also confirmed that, until 1986, the favoured Montego replacement programme was one as part of a joint venture with Honda. With that policy in place, any serious development of the Montego was scuppered.

Although the Montego was underperforming on the market, and profits from this car were sadly lacking, it was considered competent enough by senior management – who were being hamstrung by the lack of funding now coming from the Government – to soldier on into the late-1980s with a facelift, along with the AR16/17’s M-Series engine option. The project officially died in November 1988, according to a report in The Engineer magazine.

Overtaken by Rover – towards the end

The Montego was now selling in its final form – and, as many owners and drivers would confirm, these later models with their updated dashboard and Rover 200-series seats were how the car should have been launched in 1984.

Harold Musgrove concluded: ‘It was the case – again – that the Montego was so much better than BL products from the past. It took buyers time to catch up with the new reality. But it suffered from that image, and many buyers had already decided that they would never buy an ARG product – based on past experiences.’

Killed off by obsolescence and BMW

The Montego was not forgotten just yet. The company considered that it still had an important role on the market, fighting the Vauxhall Cavalier and Ford Sierra for those all-important fleet sales. The marketers, who ensured that public profile remained high, using the medium of advertising most effectively, threw money at the car. The development also continued in earnest – small modifications ensured the Montego remained competitive, but it is fair to say that the competition did begin to leave the it behind by the late-1980s.

In both cases, the car would stay in production for as long as it would be viable to do so. The Cowley plant required the volume and, as the Rover brand was relentlessly moved upmarket by management, the ex-Austin models would remain a useful antidote to that, with their cheap prices and utilitarian image.

However, it was telling that, upon buying Rover in 1994, BMW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder was reported to have been surprised to find out that the Montego and Maestro were still in production – he had assumed that they were products of a bygone age.. Needless to say, that situation was reversed rapidly – the Montego and Maestro were being ‘built in the corner of the Cowley Body Plant in ‘V’ Building as the original assembly area in the Cowley South Works had been sold off by BAe a year earlier. The bodies were pushed along by hand along a ‘make do’ one off type production line, on a virtually cottage industry basis by this time,’ as Nick Chung described.

Soon after the BMW takeover, the last Montego Clubman Diesel left Cowley in December 1994.

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

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