To mark the 30th birthday of the Montego, Russ Swift kindly offered to help cut the cake at the Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show. Mike Humble spoke to the man who did the stunt driving in one of TV’s most memorable car adverts ever…
The one thing about being the wrong side of 40 is just how fast time flies by. Can it really be 30 years since the 1984 launch of the Austin Montego and Rover 200 series? But, then, this year also sees the quarter century of one of the most important cars from the aforementioned stable – The Rover R8 model that burst into the marketplace among much acclaim in 1989. These things are longer ago than you’d think…
During my visit to the Lancaster Insurance Classic Motor Show, the lovely Tanya Field from the Maestro and Montego Owners Club offered to introduce me to a man I have followed since my school-days, the stunt driving and display team legend Russ Swift. Many of you will know Russ from his antics behind the wheel of the 1.6L Montego in the epic 1987 TV commercial – an advert that was not only award winning but vital in boosting the car’s credibility.
North-East born and bred, Russ was already well known in motorsport circles for his skills as a rally co-driver, which led to Auto Testing in dealer-sponsored Minis – a sport that seriously tests a driver’s ability when it comes to precision driving. He was there to cut the birthday cake for Montego’s 30th and he took a few minutes out to chat to AROnline about the advert that shot him to global stardom and his impressions of the Montego.
Russ, who is now into his sixties, recounted anecdotes of the Austin Montego with total recall and explained how the advert was created using clever camera work to disguise the ramps used: “Austin Rover shipped the cars up to Darlington, near to where I lived at the time, and they were prepared at Reg Vardy’s, with me making sure everything was ship-shape for the practice runs”. He told us with a grin that there were “quite a few” cracked bumpers as he perfected the parallel parking trick which appears at the end of the advert.
The commercial could not have come at a better time for ARG, as sales of the Montego were slipping and the recently launched 1.6 version of the 200-series was eclipsing both Maestro and Montego in sales terms. Austin Rover’s Kevin Morley was given the task of “sexing up” the car at the command of new boss Graham Day. The Austin badge was deleted from the bonnet and boot lid, some new colour schemes were launched and the superb TV advert came along, causing an upturn in sales, especially to fleets. So far as preparing the cars went, we asked Russ if anything special was required: “nothing trick was required really with the exception of a little more air in the tyres”
“It would be fair to say that I have a lot to thank the Montego for – in all honesty, my professional career really took off with that model and I have many happy memories of some great fun with this great car.”
An interesting factor does shine through – his infectious enthusiasm, and just how fond of the car he really seems to be… even after all these years. We asked him to expand: “It would be fair to say that I have a lot to thank the Montego for – in all honesty, my professional career really took off with that model and I have many happy memories of some great fun with this great car”. Russ not only featured in the TV commercial but also other dealer groups used the services of Russ and his son Paul for local dealer profile raising events that were not only good spectacles to watch but also ideal for pulling potential customers from their armchairs into the showrooms.
As a direct result, Russ was soon overwhelmed with enquiries to do his party piece for dealerships in the North East which were looking to capitalise on the National TV campaign at a local level and after featuring on BBC Look North, Russ soon became a household name. I asked him how it felt to be a star: “Oh, it was great fun and exciting” he replied with a huge smile, “my son Paul had a miniature Montego made so he could do his own tricks at my local dealership events – the crowd loved it.” And yet, despite his globe-trotting and fame, Russ is very laid back and a superb man to talk to about all things on four (or in his case, two…) wheels.
But it wasn’t just all about cars though. The Belgian stunt driver Gilbert Bataille had done a massive TV commercial for the Leyland Roadrunner and other brands wanted to be in on the two-wheeled action. Russ grabs a photo album and prods a finger at a picture of the AWD TL – an updated Bedford developed by a company founded by a Durham entrepreneur David John-Bowes-Brown. With a worried look on his face, Russ explained: “It was awful and unstable to drive to two wheels” shaking his head as recounts the pain “it almost gave me an ulcer through worry, it was such an antiquated design under the skin.”
He was contacted by Ever Ready to do similar stunts with the Leyland Roadrunner and almost point blank refused. After some consideration he decided to do it and recalls how amazingly the truck handled: “It was almost like a car and the stability of the Leyland was in a different league to the AWD, the Roadrunner was a cracking little truck with a steering and handling precision better than some cars.” I asked him what he preferred driving and without a moment of hesitation he tells me that it always come back to cars, something that goes right back to his days Auto Testing around disused Yorkshire cotton mills in a beaten up Volkswagen Beetle.
He was keen to point out that the Montego was nowhere near as poor as some of the media made it out to be: “I’m not biased about cars generally but I found it to have a great driving position, punchy and instant performance with very tidy handling – everything you need for display work. Austin Rover did remarkably well considering the budgets and pressure they were under.” A fair enough endorsement from Russ, but he also let it slip that he is on the look out for a Montego to purchase – are there plans to remake this epic TV commercial or is it plain old nostalgia?
Russ Swift now runs a well-established company specialising in precision driving and corporate driving events with his clients and business taking him all over the world. His son, Paul, also runs his own very successful display driving team, but despite his maturing years, Russ shows no sign of slowing down. Next week it could be Minis in Monaco, the week after it might be Subarus in Spain.
His skills are always in demand proving that, just like the Montego 1.6L, Russ doesn’t hang about!