Concepts and prototypes : Austin LM14/LM15 (1978-1981)

Austin LM14-LM15

In a week when we’ve been marking the 40th anniversary of the Austin Ambassador, it seems natural to ask the question: why was it in production for such a short period of time? It’s a fair question and one that hasn’t really be answered fully… until now. So, what’s the missing piece of the jigsaw? Step forward, the Austin LM14/LM15 programme.

We’ve already featured this car briefly in the Meet the LM family story, but it’s interesting to revisit this Maestro/Montego derivative as it could well have been a more successful addition to the range than the company had predicted when it was conceived in 1978. The concept was called either LM14 or LM15 depending on which product plan you were reading – but, in all instances, it was pitched above the LM11 Montego.

As is very obvious from the accompanying images, the LM14/LM15 was a five-door fastback that made use of the centre section of the Austin Maestro (LC10) and like, the Austin Montego, would have occupied the upper-medium C/D-segment. When the LM14/LM15 appeared in the 1978 Austin-Morris Product Plans, it was anticipated to hit the market in 1984-86, which would explain the investment being put into the Ambassador – it could have ended up living on to 1986…

From the wooden mockup in these images, the LM14/LM15 certainly looked the part, arguably ending up as the best-looking member of the LM family. With its sloping fastback and large tailgate, there was a family resemblance with the Rover SD1, and in 1978, when planned, its principal rivals would have been the Chrysler Alpine and Volkswagen Passat.

When LC10 was conceived in the mid-1970s, it was anticipated that the launch would take place in 1980-1981. However, that time frame slipped because the Mini Metro (LC8) programme was prioritised over it, and development resources were so thin by this time, Austin-Morris could only handle one major programme at a time.

That put the Montego, Montego Estate and LM14/LM15 programmes back further, making the need for the Ambassador all the more pressing – not least to maintain volume production at Cowley. But that leaves the question as to why the LM14/LM15 was cancelled in early 1981, especially considering its more upmarket positioning than the Montego (the base model LM14/LM15 was to be a 1.6-litre car, not 1.3-litre like the Maestro and Montego).

Firstly, we can assume that the LM14/LM15 didn’t progress very far, aside from its entry on the Austin-Morris product plan. We’ve never seen any full-sized clay models of it, nor have any of AROnline‘s contacts any recollections of working on it. Roy Axe confirmed that the Montego saloon and estate were the only variations heading for production when he arrived in late 1981. Therefore, we can confirm it was canned earlier in 1981, possibly in 1980.

Undoubtedly, the reason for that would have been the lack of resources in general at the time, and the concentrated effort being put into the arrival of the Maestro and Montego – with the benefit of hindsight, though, it was an unfortunate decision to make.

In August 1981, the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 was launched, and the five-door version soon established itself as the best-selling model. That was followed by the Ford Sierra in September 1982, which until the Sapphire’s arrival in 1987, was available as a five-door hatchback and estate only. In both cases, with hatchback and saloon bodystyles offered, all buyers’ desires were covered. Offering the Montego as a (questionable-looking) saloon ended up closing off a significant section of the buying public.

Chalk it up to another opportunity missed…

Keith Adams
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24 Comments

  1. I thought that WAS an Alpine at first! Quite a lot of front overhang but otherwise looks well proportioned, more so than Maestro or Montego anyway. Arguably could have replaced Maxi, Marina and Princess in one go and got to the fleet market at same time as Mk2 Cavalier and ahead of Sierra.

  2. You can see why you would not do it, once the decision was taken to move the Montego up from being the “notchback / estate” variants of the Maestro they were originally conceived as, it would have been squeezed between the Maestro and Montego estate, offering the same interior space by sharing the centre section of its sisters and offering a inbetween luggages capacity. Noting that the car would have retained the “awkwardness” of the Maestro / Montego thats Roy Axe plastic embellishments would have been only partially successful in concealing.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head! Costs probably canned it too as there was hardly any cash at BL, and a fourth body would probably need more press tools which are the largest expense.

      • Very true

        Recalling Thatcher’s autobiography on the funding of brining the Maestro and Montego to production, the sums did not add up anyway despite the efforts of Ray Horrocks to bluff the politicians, Thatcher was well aware of the reality that BL simply had no way to sell the volume to be able to compete with Ford and Vauxhall on price, because whilst they had a strong dealer network in the UK still the sales network on the continent had evaporated over the previous decade. She described BL as a low volume business making and selling high volume products.

        The Chancellor Geoffrey Howe was leading the case against giving them the money, but Thatcher and Tebbit pushed it through the cabinet knowing that the cars could never hope to be viable, but filled the gap for the UK component industry while they brokered a deals with the Japanese.

        So I doubt brining another variant as you say needing more press tools and as I note above brining little to the table its sisters did not already bring, would have made

        • Ford UK and Ford Cologne as well as Vauxhall and Opel had started to share entry-ticket and even production tools, Opel and Ford were selling all over the EU, they probably could cut prices in the UK where BL could not.
          BL did not capitalize on their Spanish and Portuguese partners to build and sell cars, the UK was too “fresh” in the EU, Fiat failed with Seat too but Renault and Peugeot-Citroen did well. Chrysler did not have time to capitalize on Barreiros before Peugeot made a good job with it, GM developped the Corsa plant and Ford the Fiesta plant.
          Despite the French and German Unions did not agree, Spain provided and is still providing high volumes – at the beginning with very severe percentages of localization and export. At that time Nissan purchased Ebro but decided that they would keep Sunderland instead now.

          • @ Dave, so did car buyers, who were unwilling to buy a brand that was known for such poor quality. I doubt anyone who had spent a large sum on a Rover 2600, or whose company had bought it for them, was prepared to give a car that had given them plenty of grief a second chance. Most likely their next car would be a Ford Granada, if they wanted a British badged car, or increasingly a Volvo, Audi or BMW. Also private buyers after suffering a rotten experience with an Austin would have been tempted over to their local Datsun or Toyota dealer.

  3. My obvious (?) question is…is it LM14…or, actually, LM15?
    See last three quarter rear picture’s number plate!

    • I see it’s been updated – thanks. I guess it begs the question that ‘surely any Strategic Product Plan should have been clearer. re LM14 or 15?!’
      (unless one of which designated a diesel, for example?)

      • It also leads one to speculate whether (however unlikely) the 3-door Maestro hatchback and the (Citroen Visa Cabriolet-like) 4-door Maestro cabriolet proposals had their own LM codes.

  4. Good looking car, rather resembles the handsome Chrysler Alpine, but there was no money to develop it further in the late seventies as British Leyland was struggling to stay alive and most of the development funding was going into the Metro. Also by 1980, the company decided that its family car would be a saloon and estate as this was what a large part of the market wanted.

  5. Small correction : the Ford Sierra was available as an estate from 1983. It was a saloon version that didn’t appear until 1987 (as the Sierra Sapphire)

  6. Would LM14 (or what appears to read LM15 as mentioned above – which elsewhere seems to denote a FWD SD1-replacement project that preceded the 800/XX) have been a significant sales boost along roughly the same lines as the Perkins Prima diesels helped revitalized sales for both the Maestro and Montego, or would the range have still fallen victim to the price war between the Vauxhall Cavalier and Ford Sierra (not helped of course by the range’s late arrival and styling)?

    Speaking of the LM family would also be interested to know if any sketches or modular model exists of the elusive LM12 coupe proposal that at one time was considered as an expedient MG Coupe?

    It can be viewed as another missed opportunity, OTOH it can also be argued that what became the Princess/ADO71 (that happened to be launched in the same year as the Chrysler Alpine / Solara) should have been Montego/LM14-sized from the beginning instead of a much bigger and heavier car.

  7. To my eyes the car is ill-proportioned with the rear door too short and the overhang at the front too long. If it had been produced it would have looked bad alongside the Alpine which, despite its other faults, was at least completely coherent from a styling perspective. The competing front drive 5-door Cavalier was also attractive from a styling perspective and I think this car would have flopped.

    • It’s desperately ordinary but that may have worked in its favour. There was a lot of resistance to the Sierra remember, and I’m convinced that the Princess’s styling wasn’t a hit with with everyone. It certainly wasn’t with me, but then I wasn’t of an age to be buying so my opinion hardly mattered. Maybe they could have dressed up the production version a bit to enhance its appeal. As long as they avoided own-goals like the Montego’s rear glass.

    • Agree, it was destined like the Montego to suffer from the high roof line of the Maestro whereas the Alpine / Solara had a lower roof line than the Horizon, the same being the case with the Cavalier v the Astra Mk1.

  8. Absolute madness. Instead of rushing the Montego to market in 1984 Roy Axe should have been given time to facelift it and launch in around 1986 with this hatchback variant – properly marketing the Ambassador in the meantime to fill the gap. What where those horn-rimmed spec leather patch waring idiots smoking in their pipes?

    • I actually thought the Ambassador had a fair amount of life left and was selling 28,000 cars a year, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the company, who wanted a car that could sell over 100,000 a year like the Cavalier and have a similar range of engines. Also the Ambassador was never exported and Austin Rover were looking to export the Montego in large numbers. If the car had been developed properly and netter made, then this could have been the case, but Austin era Montegos had lousy quality and reliability and the car’s sales fell away after a good start.

  9. It looks ok, and would have sold a few units, but it’s not obviously upmarket of the saloon Montego, and doesn’t look like a premium product. And if the car is good enough, it will sell. Peugeot sold lots of 405s despite it not having a hatchback option, as the Montego’s problems were far deeper.

    And there’s something awkward from a marketing perspective about having 2 obviously very similar hatches in the range – LM10 and LM14, both sharing the same doors, windscreen etc. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the Montego had been given its own unique styling, after all the Astra and Cavalier were different cars even if they are clearly related under the skin, the 405 wasn’t just a saloon version of the 305 etc

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