Engines : S-Series

Another evolution of the E-Series engine, ARG’s S-Series emerged capable and strong, and proved a remarkably capable mid-range power plant after a false start with the R-Series ‘hybrid’.

Mike Humble tells the story of an engine killed before its time.

The forgotten mid-sized engine

Launched in 1984, Austin Rover’s new S-Series engine first saw the light of day in the Austin Montego, although prototype engines had been running as far back as 1981. The original idea had been for the Maestro to receive this engine back in 1983, but owing to a lack of cash, factory disputes and the technology not yet proven, it was decided to hold back until engineering were satisfied the engine was developed thoroughly for full scale launch.

With the launch coming up for the Maestro, BL knew it had no suitable mid-sized 1.6-litre engine, and had to work fast to come up with a suitable power unit, if it was to hold its own against Ford’s Escort and Vauxhall’s Astra. The Maestro was launched to the public with the R-Series 1598cc engine, that was simply an E-Series 1750 Maxi engine rotated through 180-degrees, mated to a Volkswagen gearbox, and bored down to a 1.6-litres configuration. The engines sported electronic carburettor control which regulated the idle speed and choke, along with an overrun fuel cut off, all contributing to improving fuel economy and driveability.

The R-Series was flawed in many aspects. Because the Maxi had a transmission-in-sump and the Maestro used the bought-in Volkswagen ‘box fitted end-on, the bottom-end of the engine became weak. Austin Rover overcame this by fitting a huge cast alloy sump that was an extremely expensive casting to produce, so much so that an insider commented that it contributed to 20 per cent of the total raw cost of the engine!

This reworked engine shared many similar features with the older E-Series engine, noisy timing chains, an appetite for burning, blowing head gaskets and one particular good trick of breaking crankshafts. Power outputs were 81bhp in single SU carburettor form and 103bhp in twin-Weber MG tune. The word ‘tune’ being loosely used, as these MG Maestros were notorious for poor running, overheating and forever going out of tune. In standard single-carburettor form, the engine had acceptable performance and economy, but was harsh when pushed. But this engine was at the end of its development and was seen to be nothing more than a stopgap. The car’s reputation was already suffering at a mere 18 months into its life.

Enter the S-Series in 1984

Launched in 1984, the Montego featured an all-new 1600cc S-Series power unit alongside existing 1275cc A-Plus and 2.0-litre O-Series engines. It sported modern day refinements such as electronic ignition and a belt-driven overhead camshaft. Great efforts were made to reduce service downtime. For example, its simple timing belt arrangement allowed a belt replacement in 30 minutes, no tools were required for air filter changes, and a major service could be undertaken under the bonnet using no more than five tools.

Performance was equal to Vauxhall’s Cavalier 1.6, and was simply streets ahead of the Ford Sierra 1.6. In Montego form 0-60mph came up in 10.9 seconds; more than 2 seconds quicker than an equivalent Sierra. Fuel economy was class-leading too with over 53mpg at the constant 56mph cycle – and even at a constant 75mph, the 1.6 Montego was capable of almost 40mpg. These figures were even more impressive in the lighter Maestro 1.6, which also received the new engine.

Many revolutionary technical features were included in this engine, such as electronic knock-sensing, programmed ignition, electronic fuel control and an ingenious pre-heater fitted to the inlet manifold (known in the company as the ‘hedgehog’ owing to shape of the heating elements) to reduce cold engine emissions and reduce the warming-up period. To combat the problem of mechanical harshness of the previous R-Series unit, Austin Rover powertrain engineers paid attention to developing a stiff bottom end of the engine, with generous bearing areas and an eight-web fillet-rolled crankshaft to eradicate harmonic vibrations that were the cause of some crank failures of the previous engine design.

Austin Rover continued the theme of long-stroke design, offering ample torque, and in BL tradition, it had both the inlet and exhaust manifold on the rear of the cylinder head giving the engine a clean and uncluttered underbonnet look. The single belt-driven camshaft operated bucket-type tappets with shim adjusters. Both the engine block and cylinder head were of cast iron, but the separate camshaft carrier was cast in alloy with two matching alloy valve covers.

The single SU HIF44mm carburettor was fitted with a smart looking polished alloy plenum chamber proudly sporting the Austin Rover Group wing logo. It was a sleek and slim looking engine that was a world apart in appearance of the big bulky Ford OHC Pinto used in the Sierra. One clever idea was the engine being a safe design (i.e., the valves did not come into contact with the pistons in the event of a broken timing belt), unlike the Ford CVH & Vauxhall Family Two OHC units.

Mid 1985 saw the Rover 213 gain his big brother, the 216. Though where the Maestro and Montego were fitted with a four- or five-speed VW gearbox, the S-Series was adapted to accept the slick-shifting new T5AR gearbox, as fitted to the 2.0 Montego (engineers thought the gear shift quality of the VW box to be too agricultural for a Rover. A four-speed automatic option was available on the 216.

At the same time, the S-Series engine was offered with fuel injection in the 216 Vanden Plas EFi and Vitesse models. They used a Lucas-engineered system similar to the type fitted the 2.0-litre O-Series injection cars. These were only car in the Austin Rover range to use a 1.6 injection S-Series. This fuel injected engine offered decent performance with the smallest of penalty in economy, in fact on the urban cycle the injected 216 was more than 2mpg better. Why this uprated engine was never fitted to the Maestro and Montego remains a mystery.

The first major update of the S-Series was launched at the 1988 motor show, and with hardened valve seats could accept unleaded petrol. The main feature was a revised and up to date modular engine management with diagnostic fault code storage combining all under bonnet electronics into one unit as opposed to the original two. This system was known as ERIC, which stood for Electronically Regulated Ignition and Carburetion. Designed as a joint effort between Rover and Motorola at the Gaydon technical centre, this new type of learning modular ECU became the basis of all future Rover management systems, and was an excellent reliable system finally putting to bed earlier reliability issues.

On the road and in the bays

At its initial launch, the 1.6 was lauded in its performance, fuel economy and ease of repair. Some might say that it very nearly could have become the ideal engine, certainly from a mechanic’s point of view. The whole idea of the Montego was to appeal to the fleet buyer as well as the man on the street, and on paper this new British saloon was looking like a very attractive proposition being fast, roomy, nimble and very economical. But as history has shown time and time again, the car and its engine gained a reputation (slightly unfairly) for unreliability and poor quality.

As mentioned earlier, the S-Series was designed to be simple, economical and easy to work on. It was very much designed with a service technician in mind. On the other hand, Austin Rover made some silly design features that in some cases flew in the face of the other really innovative ideas and features that were part of this engine – and gave the power unit a reputation that never really went away.

It was notorious for oil leaks from the camshaft carrier and valve covers, and the engines tappets would always sound noisy even when within tolerance. The top end of the engine would make a nasty rattle through oil starvation if pattern fit oil filters were used – left ignored, this caused horrendous wear to the camshaft and its carrier. The crankcase breather system was also a poorly designed affair, mounted on the bottom of the front of the sump. This would cause the system to block because of cold air coming through the bumper grille caused condensation in the breather can giving symptoms similar to a blown head gasket because the oil filler cap was also part of the breather and would readily block up with mayonnaise type sludge.

The main problems of oil leaks from the top end of the engine were caused by the face to face fit of the cam carrier to cylinder head joint. These two parts had no gasket fitted; instead the sealing was done by a non setting gasket compound that often was not applied correctly on assembly. Also, the oil gallery in the cam carrier was sealed by a single 8mm O-ring. These were found to be non compatible with oil on early engines resulting in the ring hardening and cracking causing a massive oil leak, left unattended would contaminate the timing belt and cause it to snap.

A typically oil-stained S-Series Maestro.
A typically oil-stained S-Series Maestro.

Other issues included faulty ECUs on earlier cars that caused the choke to stay on and give poor running; faulty crankshaft position sensors that gave misfires and limited revs. Another major problem was the left hand cam cover was prone to crack, owing to the stress of the manual fuel pump being bolted to it.

Most of these issues had been resolved by 1988, but by then the game had moved on. The Maestro, Montego and the S-Series engine were living on borrowed time following the launch of the highly successful revised 200 and 400 range using state of the art K-Series and Honda D-Series engines. Looking back, the S-Series wasn’t a bad engine by any margin; its reputation was tarnished by the motoring press from day one never giving Austin Rover a chance to prosper, something that continued to the very end. What a lot of people don’t realise is that the engine and the Montego were developed at a cost of 1/5th of the cost of developing the Sierra and the Mk2 Cavalier.

Having owned both 1.6- and 2.0-litre Montegos, I still can’t decide which was the better unit. The 2.0-litre was tough and gutsy, but thirsty, but the 1.6 sounded nicer, was only marginally slower but gave superb fuel consumption. Looked after and serviced correctly, these engines were capable of 200,000+ miles, I regularly would see later fleet Montegos with silly mileages still running sweetly.

Keith Adams


  1. In the 70s I owned a Viva 1256cc and it also suffered from that mayonaise sludge in the rocker cover & filler cap – especially in winter months, but not as bad in the summer.
    I would have thought all manufacturers would have sussed this problem with their engines by the late 80s – obviously not.

    Having said that, all engines are complex to varying degrees so we cannot expect a faultless designed unit, even now.

  2. This article suggests the S Series wasnt related to the E or R. It was very much so. The S Series was a major redesign of the E. Elements of the upgarde found their way into the R as an interim solution for the Maestro launch. You do wonder mind why BL bothered with this engine at all, given that only a few years earlier they had developed a 1.7 litre version of the O. As the O in 2 litre form easily sat in the Maestro/Montego hooked up to a VW or Honda end on transmission, why didnt they also use this development know how to slot in the 1.7 instead of starting from scratch with the R/S? – No doubt the convoluted internal politics that seemed to consume BMC/BL/AR etc right up to its death in 2005 had a hand.

    • In the 1970s the British Marina and then the Princess were given the B series instead of the new E4, as capacity of the E4 was expected to be taken up by the Allegro and Princess, the B series then being replaced by the O series.
      In the 1980s the 1.6 Maestro/Montego get updated versions of the E4 instead of the newer O series engine.

      I’m sure there’s a logic to this, but I’m struggling.

  3. I’ve always wondered why a 1.8 version of the S/0-Series (with 16v along with the M/T-Series) was never made, since there was a large gap between the 1.6 S-Series and the 2.0 O-Series engines as well as given the reliability issues of the 1.8 K-Series.

  4. It’s a terrible shame that so many people within AR (et al historiam percurrens) seemed to be pulling in different directions. Just imagine the size of the parts bin available, you do wonder if the people at the top ever called a meeting and asked, OK, how many different engines, between 1600cc and 2300cc are we making at the moment? Surely not more than 1

    Instead each and every part of AR (et al historiam percurrens)seemed to want to develop their own parts, from door handles to dash board fixings, time and money would be spent developing their own bits and pieces.

    There is though 1 exception, an example of what could have been achieved – the Land Rover Disco.

    The odd thing is, whilst going around the Tatton classic car show, I saw more Morris marina door handles on Kit cars and stuff like TVR’s than I saw fitted to the AR (et al historiam percurrens)cars that were there.

  5. “This fuel injected engine offered decent performance with the smallest of penalty in economy, in fact on the urban cycle the injected 216 was more than 2mpg better. Why this uprated engine was never fitted to the Maestro and Montego remains a mystery.”

    …The reason is because the Efi inlet manifold was too long to fit between cylinder head and bulkhead in those cars. On the Rover 216, the engine was placed much further forwards allowing it to fit.

  6. A 16-valve version of the S-series – referred to internally as S16 unsurprisingly – was proposed for introduction in the late 80s as the sister engine for the K-series for R8 but development costs stopped it in mid-1986 and Rover negotiated supply of the D16 engine from Honda instead.
    The design had progressed to the stage where a package layout was available but I’m not sure how far the physical side reached.

  7. Surely a 1600cc could have been made within the Maxi’s long life replacing the 1500 with the twin-Carb 1750 as flagship? Any issues would have been sorted before Maestro xx

  8. I find it baffling why this engine wasn’t ready for the launch of the Maestro in 1983, considering the styling and much else was signed off in the late 70s, and they knew they needed a 1.6 engine

    There was plenty of time to have a 1.6 engine ready for 1983, whether an E or O series variant.

    • I was surprised that the O series was 100cc too large even in it’s short stroke version, which I think was due to BL thinking that company car standards would grow faster than they did.

  9. The S-series was 20kg lighter than the O-series (E-series 151kg, O-series 172kg, B-series 180kg), so not adding an extra 20kg to the Maestro’s weight would have given better fuel economy and improved the handling. Also, a 1600 O-series would have had very tall pistons and very large valves (or required smaller valves and shorter block). But I suspect the main reason for developing the S-series was to utilise the Cofton Hackett engine plant, rather than to have to boost O-series production, when that was probably forecast to be taken up with 2-litre engines for the Montego and Sherpa.

    • Interesting however read a comment by Robert Leitch at AROline – “Blog : S-Series, the missed bargain?” mentioning the weight of the S-Series was roughly about 125kg (though he concedes it is not an entirely clean comparison.

      “Weights as follows – possibly not an entirely clean comparison:

      ARG S series – 275lbs
      Honda D series SOHC – 235lbs
      Honda D series DOHC – 249lbs
      Rover K series – 215lbs
      Rover T series – 380lbs
      Austin A series – 275lbs”

      Have seen weight figures for the A-Series fluctuate quite a bit from as low as 113-120kg to as high as 150kg, which makes for an interesting comparison with the lower/higher figures for the S-Series as well as the E-Series engines considering the latter were commonly perceived as being even heavier / tall (especially the E-Series whereas the S-Series was much compact compact as seen in the Montego) compared to the already relatively heavy A-Series.

  10. My former employer had 2 Montego 1.6 Estates with the S engine (a 1985 then 89 model). As I remember both were good performers on the open road and I don’t recall any oil leaks or other such issues. When he retired, my colleague bought the 1989 version from said employer. It lasted quite a few more years

  11. My dad had 2 1.6 Montego’s, a 1987 White on Grey L with the white wheel trims that did 130,000 without issue until I stupidly crashed it in late 1990 6 months after passing my test. His replacement one was 1991 metallic blue LS which lasted until 1997 and did 225,000 miles with nothing more than service parts. The engine was never stripped and it only had the clutch replaced once in that time, was still running in fine fettle when he sold it.

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