Mike Humble sticks his head above the parapet to come to the defence of the Austin Montego and its marqueless later versions.
After years of running and servicing the 1980s ARG midliner, he’s come to the conclusion there’s a great car waiting to escape its frumpy outer skin.
Austin Montego: defeat snatched from the jaws of victory
During one of my sales visits many years ago, I came upon two cars from the 1980s which set me thinking. One was a neglected Lotus Excel and the other was a blue B-registered Austin Montego 1.6HL. Suffice to say, it was the Montego which was still in daily use at the time and, to be fair, it wasn’t in that bad a condition either. Sitting there in a barn on a concrete floor, it had every tell-tale sign that a ‘Monty’ resided there – various vintage engine claret spattered on the floor!
The car belonged to one of the engineering staff and had done for a good number of years I was told. It still seems like only last week the Montego came onto the market, ushering in a new era for BL of high technology and angular styling. Brochures spoke of all sorts of wizardry like Homofocal headlamps, LCD dashboard displays and some very clever, yet simple, ideas like height adjustable seat belts with anchorages that sprouted from the seat.
The Montego officially replaced the Morris Ital but was a world apart from the elderly Marina-based four-door saloon. Sales staff would no longer be embarrassed by the pre-Iron Age suspension system that would lurch, bang and crash over anything but a billiard table smooth road – points, condensers, leaf springs and grease nipples were nowhere to be seen on this seemingly up-to-date car from Austin.
A world away from the Morris Ital
The Ital, in fairness, was a truly horrid car. Mind you, I owned one and, indeed, had a soft spot for both the Marina and the Ital. The Ital was the one car I owned which truly kept me busy at weekends. The Montego and its sister car launched the previous year – the Austin Maestro – had the right ingredients to succeed and yet, in darts terms, missed the bullseye by a mile.
The Montego and Metro baffled me with their silly metric tyres – a total waste of money and resources, just like the Dunlop Denovo tyre some years before. However, in that case, at least, British Leyland had the common sense to make the Dunlop Denovo an optional extra. The result was that, while your Ford Fiesta or Cortina cost no more than average to re-shoe, the TD and TDX rubber on the Austin cars cost much more, with little real advantage other than a much lower risk of a tyre coming off the rim in the event of a puncture. They were sods to fit too – just ask any seasoned Tyre Fitter.
Anyway, through the eyes a 12-year old schoolboy, the ‘Monty’ seemed sleek, sharp and bristled with showcase features showing that Austin Rover could mix it with imported technology from the Germans and Japanese. The performance from the 1600 variant was totally superior to the gutless 1.6-litre Pinto in the Ford Sierra and was on a par with the quick Vauxhall Cavalier Mk2 with its OHC Family II unit.
Competitive technology under the skin
The known issues of broken crankshafts and vibration of the hashed up R-Series of the Maestro were history with the S-Series engine having a quality eight-web counterbalanced crank and strong block. Unless pushed to its limits, the S-Series, for all it being a most basic engine design, was a willing and smooth running engine, vastly more thermally fuel and power efficient than the Sierra.
Fuel economy was also equally impressive, with a figure not far away from the magical 56mpg at 56mph – all this from a five-seat saloon. Additionally, in true British tradition, the engines were biased towards the stroke rather than the bore and so delivered good torque at low revs. What we had here then was a range a of high-tech and fuel-miserly saloons designed with the driver in mind – and with yearly servicing schedules. Success? Sadly not!
Wonky electrics, the occasional engine fire, water leaks and even exploding oil filters wrecked the car’s reputation in no time. Motor magazine ran a 1.6L on a long-term test. I recently re-read that article with sadness at the long catalogue of problems with patchy build quality and shoddy dealers, problems which dogged Rover right to the bitter end.
Variable, mostly poor-quality build
It seemed that no two Montegos were the same. My father bought a Targa Red example when it was just a few years old, ran it for four years and – with the exception of a juddering clutch and minor top end oil leak – the car never missed a beat. However, a friend’s dad ran one too and it did nothing but dump oil all over the drive and constantly break down. My own 1990 1.6 LX was as oil tight as they came and dependable, but a near-neighbour ran an 1988 Mayfair which frustrated him to the point of near lunacy. Having myself driven dozens of Montegos over the years, the earlier pre-1987 models especially, could be as different and chalk and cheese.
The MG Montego Turbo of 1985 (above) was a really fast bit of kit, but suffered from too high a ride height, alarming torque steer and bad turbo lag when first launched. Mind you, there again, the whizz bang first generation turbos of the 1980s all had a similar trait – ask any early 16-valve Saab 900 Turbo owner.
Once you were into third gear and above, the Montego Turbo just flew and flew. Sadly, though, cost cutting measures made sure the Montego never had that raw image of power, quality and speed that the Swedes captured so well. The Saab used Bosch fuel injection with the turbo, whereas the Montego Turbo’s under-bonnet view was ruined with its single, ancient SU carburettor.
A truly flawed gem
Yet, I had a fascination with the early 2.0-litre EFi. The LCD dash and display was far superior to the solid state Texet calculator affair in the MG Maestro. The nearby push button function panel had nice feeling pads whereas the Maestro had a nasty looking panel which was more akin to something from Radio Shack. Its voice no longer sounded like a submerged woman – it really felt like the future, the future was here and it was a three-box shape.
The MG Montego 2.0EFi’s imitation Recaro seats were not quite the genuine article, as found in the Cavalier SRi and Manta GTE, but they were comfy, not over hard and trimmed nicely with plain velour on the bolsters while, in a tradition which was started with the smaller MG Metro and Maestro, red carpets and seat belts were fitted along with an MG logo moulded into the driver’s carpet heel pad.
The early Maestro had a strong prototype feeling inside with its woefully underdeveloped fascia. The Montego had a one-piece dash that actually felt of decent quality with soft action push-on push-off switches that had a nice damped action. Column switches that illuminated with fibre optics and simple, yet brilliant height adjustable belts, front-wheel drive, remote boot release and as for that cradle method of removing the spare wheel? Ingenious, the Montego was a car that had some serious thought designed into it and, to drive, was better than any BL car that had come before. How and why, then, did it fail so miserably?
So, why did the Montego fail?
Well, with regard to the car’s performance, handling and ride, accommodation, fuel economy allied with its impressive driver aids and features, upon its launch at least, the Montego was up there with its main rivals. Unfortunately, with the Montego, a reputation for fragility and dismal reliability once again reared its ugly head. It seemed that every aspect of design was flawed with issues of cracking bumpers, snapping door handles, oil leaks, electrical problems, suspension wear and, even on occasion, serious fires wrecked the car’s credibility from an early age.
However, one point needs to be remembered: the car was developed on a budget which was a small fraction of the size that both Ford or GM were accustomed to. Indeed, a Ford sales executive told me some years back about how amazed he had been by the amount of technology featured on both the Maestro and the Montego. Dealers struggled to get to grips with what customers expected in a car as the 1980s progressed – many simply failed to match the car’s forward thinking, technology-based style. Honda was making inroads with its Accord and Nissan’s Bluebird (below) was setting the trend with features and rock solid dependability.
The easiest analogy I can think of is this: to make the best cake, you need the right ingredients, but if you can’t cook, you’re half-baked. The Montego was the right car at the time, some of the right ingredients were there, but the car lacked development. It was taken out of the oven before the timer buzzed.
The background noise of failure
Events before its launch, countless managerial shuffles and re-organising throughout the whole group did a great deal to ruin the product-led revival that the former Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes had envisaged some years before. Austin Rover was battling against the world with the popular Austin Metro, but, as salesmen will testify, small cars equal small profit. Success in the mid-range sector was vital for Austin Rover to survive, let alone prosper, but the Montego was looking like an own goal before it could prove itself.
Mind you, the Ford Sierra was far from being a hit at first but, by the mid 1980s, keen pricing and vivid advertising made sure it quickly gained respect and racked up some formidable sales. Vauxhall had the same situation with the Cavalier – fast, frugal and a keen driver’s car – as a result, within 18 months of launch, the Montego and Maestro were dragging the company down rather than making it fly. ARG used what limited funds were available to shake up the Dealer Network and, where needs be, franchises were terminated.
A programme of improvements and refinements along with service bay modifications went some way to making the car better for the customer, but problems including regular failing of wheel bearings, disgraceful gearchange quality on 1.3- and 1.6-litre cars, oil leaks and electrical glitches still hounded the car. The overhead cam engines of the 1.6- and 2.0-litre cars were willing performers but never were the first word in refinement – I’ll never forget CAR magazine‘s capsule description of the Montego:
For: Torquey Engines
Against: Talky Engines
Moving on from the Montego
Very soon it became apparent that the Montego was well below par considering the bullish marketing and personal statements issued by the then top ARG man, Harold Musgrove. The engine management system designed by Lucas was prone for making the temp dial misread and, without warning, the engine would go onto choke and hunt badly. Other electrical nightmares included wipers that wouldn’t park, its eccentric ‘double twitch’ action when on flick wipe or intermittent would cause premature wear in the wiper linkage, hence why you would see many a Montego with skew whiff wipers. Valve covers, especially on S-Series engines, would weep oil and often this would burn off on the manifold and downpipe giving a horrible smell in the passenger compartment.
There were some major problems in the steering and suspension area too, most fabled of all with the front wheel bearings. Over the lifespan of the Montego from 1984 to 1989, the front hub and bearing design was changed three times before a suitable solution, once again this only was the case with the 1.6-litre. You only had to bump the kerb or drive over a rough pot hole and it would be enough to ruin the bearing. Front shock absorbers had a very short lifespan – they would either knock or leak, sometimes needing to be changed twice a year, and it was not unheard of for the anti-roll bar drop link to snap off.
The problems didn’t end there either. The torquey nature of the engines made the Montego, on paper at least, an ideal towing car, yet the 1600cc version with its Volkswagen-sourced gearbox and clutch struggled to cope with the extra demand of towing, therefore clutches on these models were prone to overheating, juddering and premature failure. The Volkswagen Golf Mk2 with the same gearbox had a sweet precise gearchange, yet the 1.6-litre Montego had a cheap selector assembly that was cross braced onto the steering rack, this made for one of the most unpleasant gear change qualities of any car I have driven. One Montego 1600 I drove would baulk and clunk into gear accompanied with some nasty creaking noises – most unsatisfactory.
Best of the bunch: the 2.0-litre
The 2.0-litre cars, powered by the O-Series engine fared much better. In single-carb form, 102bhp was on tap and the long-legged fifth gear made for a pleasant drive at high speeds. Using the T5/AR or PG1 transmission, they had a lovely slick changing gearbox and beefier clutch, but non-assisted steering cars were heavy to manoeuvre at low speeds owing to the extra weight of the engine. Even so, though, the 1.6-litre outsold the 2.0-litre throughout the car’s lifespan. Braking systems differed over the 1.6-litre with the addition of ventilated front discs.
Many of the aforementioned problems were down to poor supplier quality, but also down a lack of testing and proving – it just goes to show how desperate Austin Rover really was to get the car out on sale. As dealers heavily discounted cars to gain orders, in the service bay, technicians were having a nightmare as once again the dealers and staff were forced to do the developments and modifications that the factory should have incorporated from day one.
A seasoned, time-served man I once worked with, who dealt with cars going back to BMC days, only recently told me that Montego service update bulletins from Austin Rover Service at Cowley would come through every week, sometimes on many pages with service bay modifications taking longer than the actual servicing at times.
Montego: its own worst enemy
I know an ex-ARG salesman in Suffolk, now retired, who back then, would do everything in his ability to usher customers into the smaller, less practical yet vastly better engineered Rover 213. He ran a small retail dealer where customer loyalty was the lifeblood and had a rival Ford agent nearby. Crazy yet true, within one year of the car’s launch, many ARG salesmen had little or no desire to sell the car that was planned to save the company. Needless to say it was not long before sales of the crisp Honda-based 200-Series eclipsed both the Maestro and Montego ranges, especially after Rover launched its bigger-engined brother, the Rover 216.
The Montego’s one and only major facelift came with the improved MY89 model range. At long last, the useless ageing and asthmatic 1.3-litre A-Plus model was killed off. Another welcome feature was the smaller engine gaining the excellent T5-AR gearbox of the 2.0-litre model, now known as the PG1. This transmission was robust and renowned for its accurate and slick gear change quality.
A whole host of improvements – including a totally new engine management system, brilliant multi-density foam seats, repositioned switchgear and the ability to run on lead free fuel without modification – breathed new life into the Montego. The diesel, which used an engine which was jointly developed with Perkins entered the Guinness Book of World Records for fuel economy, was not the first thing in refinement but it was strong and would take a good hammering.
Coming good in the end
Oddly enough, the Austin Montego Estate went on to become the best-selling family estate car in the UK and soon outsold its saloon brother considerably. The Sierra Estate never really caught on and, be honest, how many Cavalier Mk2 estates did you ever see? Yes, the Montego Estate sold very well, especially in diesel form. The facelift of 1989 was really the last time the car was improved. By this time Rover was preoccupied with the 200/400 (R8) and it seemed the Montego was living on borrowed time. Such a shame the company never got to grips with corrosion problems.
The rear wheelarches were notorious for going grotty, thanks to a cost-cutting lack of sealing the inner and out arch panels after welding and painting on assembly. They went all grotty around the front and rear screens subsequently costing the company a few pennies in warranty claims.
All in all, the Montego never really went on to prove its worth even though the post-1989 models drove very well and became reliable cars. Most of the previous faults were banished to history. No longer did you have to replace your front wheel bearings as often as you changed your razor blade or replace the gear linkages halfway over a box junction in Friday evening rush hour traffic. Sadly, though, the nicknames such as Rustin Mont Wont Go or Monty No Go never went away.
A quiet later life
Rover seemingly found its Mojo as the 1990s progressed, but the Montego carried on living in a quiet corner of the Cowley plant with the saloon latterly being only built to fleet order and the Estate being the only volume Montego available in the end. Its rivals went through never-ending revisions and updates, but the poor old Montego only ever gained one new engine – the Perkins Prima.
The run out-model was the Countryman, offered only in 2.0i or 2.0 diesel estate form. Rover added a dash of walnut inside along with a leather steering wheel and seven seats. Some dealers were still being asked for this model some time after deletion, and keen pricing of unsold stocks saw the last of these cars snapped up quickly. The ever-persistent problem of corrosion and the Scrappage Scheme have almost removed the Montego from the roads of the UK – but, like the one I fell upon in South West London, one or two have a loving owner.
Mike Humble’s Montego adventures
On a personal note, I ran two Montegos. The first one was a 1993 diesel estate (below) which had well over 250,000 miles on the clock when I bought it from a colleague’s Hyundai dealership for small change. I drove that thing for six months with a blown head gasket before it seized on me outside the house. After removing the head, replacing the radiator and water pump, it went to run and run without a murmur. It was sold on to a work colleague, who scrapped it with almost 290,000 miles – and that was only after another vehicle hit it. The car was as rough and ready as Ozzy Osbourne’s vocabulary, but I loved it so much!
After the diesel estate, came a 1991 1.6 LX, which had been traded in for a vehicle I can’t remember. It was in such good condition that I bought it and ran for a few months treating it to to some walnut trims from a Countryman and a reflective boot trim as fitted to the earlier, facelifted Montego. The engine was bone dry to look at and, for a saloon with a smallish engine, delivered very good fuel consumption. After that, I ran a factory-fresh 1.6LX nicknamed Mintego in 2015-2016, which you can read all about here. It was boringly reliable and an absolute joy to run.
On the whole, I liked the S-Series engine as it was simple to work on and nice to look at. I wonder what a K-Series Montego would have been like – some may say unreliable – but, if anyone has experience of the prototypes produced at the factory, please let me know what they were like.
Conclusion: they served me well
There we have it, then: the Austin Montego became a decently reliable car – especially the diesels – but, as was the case with many Austin Rover Group cars, it was renowned for lacking development from the start. Sadly forgotten and left to fend for itself by Rover until BMW came on board, the Montego, in my opinion, could and should have had the potential to be a life-saver for Austin Rover.
It was reported that when Bernd Pischetsrieder, the CEO of BMW, arrived at Cowley he was dumbfounded to find the Montego and Maestro still in production – when he was asked for his views on these aged cars still being in volume production the reply came with an abrupt ‘not for much longer.’ After what seemed an eternity in production, the Montego was killed off in 1994. The last saloon ever built was a 2.0 DLX and is part of the National Heritage Collection at the British Motor Museum at Gaydon.
Defeat, once again snatched from the jaws of victory…