Interview : Montego stunt driver Russ Swift talks to AROnline

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…

Sporting his Austin Rover tie at the wheel of the oldest Montego to survive, Russ Swift took a few minutes to talk to AROnline about that famous advert.
Sporting his Austin Rover tie at the wheel of the oldest 1.6L on the road, Russ Swift chatted with Mike Humble about ‘that’ very famous TV commercial during the Austin Montego’s 30th birthday party at the NEC

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.

Russ also went to to stunt drive bigger vehicles including AWD Trucks and this Leyland Roadrunner.
Russ was also requested to stunt drive bigger vehicles for AWD Trucks and Leyland (seen above) – replicating the same trick Gilbert Bataille performed back in 1984

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!

Mike Humble


    • I always understood at least one of those scenes to have been filmed at International House, the office block forming part of Elmdon Trading Estate in Solihull, near the NEC and Birmingham International Airport. The information came from staff at the building, which I used to visit in the early 1990s as managing agent for the landlords. At the time Rover Group leased International House and also three industrial units on the development. However I haven’t watched the adverts to check the accuracy of this claim.

  1. I must say that he was enjoying him self on the montego stand, and was more than happy to talk recollect the golden days of the Montego.
    And he was more than partial to some cake, or so I’m led to believe….

  2. Working in ARG Marketing, I had one or two contacts with Russ, a great guy. One which he might be embarassed to be reminded of was a demonstration event in Godiva Square, Coventry, c 1984. Russ was showing off his Autotest moves in a cut-down Mini, in between crowd barriers. For some reason, one of the policemen supervising the barriers chose to stand on the action side of the barrier. Russ had a momentary snarl-up with his gear selector, having come to a pause facing the policeman.He inadvertantly got first instead of reverse, and just tapped the policeman’s legs. Flustered, he tried again – and did the same! I was standing behind the barrier opposite, next to the Chief Constable, who scoffed “I told the idiot to stand behind the barrier!” The best thing was that the whole performance was captured by Central TV cameras. Somewhere, there’s one those big old U-matic videotapes that we recorded back at base with the hilarious news bulletin on it…

  3. I remember reading an interview with Russ years ago, where he mentioned selling an ex-stunt car with a low mileage for the year, but tyres more worn on one side than the other due to the stunts.

  4. I had the massive privilege to be driven by Russ around the RAC rally course in Wales one year. I was one of several corporate guests of (I think) Pirelli who laid on a couple of Toyota Previas to ferry us between stages. Russ was driving one of the Previas and a one eyed ( I kid you not ) ex rally driver was driving the other.

    They had the keys to the back gates to the stages. We would leave one stage as the last rally car finished, then leap-frog the next active stage and go to the one after that. They would stop on the side of the road, open up a gate into the woods and then drive like stink up the actual rally course to a prime viewing spot. Most of the time against the ‘correct’ direction of traffic so heaven help us if there was a rally car coming the other way. Previas make good rally cars !

    In between stages we would tend to be on the right hand side of the road most the time overtaking all the traffic going to the next stages – including a few of the rally cars themselves.

    It’s almost unbelievable when I look back; even at the time it was hard to get anyone to believe I’d spent the day being driven around RAC rally stages by Russ Swift.

    Great guy ! Does anyone know who the one-eyed ex-rally driver would be ? He said he’d lost it when a shotgun back-fired on him.

  5. How did they manage to maintain drive to the single wheel while the other is airborne?
    Did they lock up the differential?

    • Yes, I’ve seen other interviews with him where he says the diffs have to be locked before doing the two wheel stunt.

  6. I remember the advert and think the voiceover was by Keith Barron? I think the tagline used was “The new Montego 1.6L – watch out for it” I think the sexing up of the Monty was a good idea at the time and they looked more sporty particularly in white/anhracite two tone and white wheels.

    Of course as documented here, the Rover 200’s were eating into Montego sales which proves what a good car the SD3 was.

  7. Ive got an old copy of What Car? from Aug 1981 featuring a Shell advert from a much younger Russ Swift , milkman and driving test expert. Just opposite the start of 3 way comparison between a Ford Cortina, Toyota Cressida and Morris Ital Estate, Not surpringly the Ital came 3rd but it did have 1.7 lire engine compared to the 2 lire of it’s rivals and was a £1000 cheaper, £ 1000 price difference being a big thing in 1981.

  8. MM
    Russ recently did a display at the MINI factory for an Associate event.
    The diff is locked on the car doing the two wheel stunt, the one he performs to Queen’s “Don’t stop me now” has a bit of tape over the handbrake release button. Other than that the cars are standard.
    As Cliff says he is a great guy, very friendly, especially when packing people into the car before his stunts, always gives them a sick bag!

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