Long-term readers (and I really do mean long term) might recall that, in the earliest days of AROnline, when I was a little more critical about such things, two cars that really incurred my wrath were the Austin Allegro and the Montego. Both cars were instrumental in their parent company’s retreat towards oblivion, and both – in my opinion – could have been so much better.
We don’t need to go over old ground again with the Allegro – it ended up being a parody of Harris Mann’s original design idea, and today, it’s emerged as a great classic car. And why? Because character foibles count so much more than that car’s need to start every morning. As for the Montego, my main issues were that of its hideous styling – a confused birth and pre-launch facelifts were responsible for this – and its shoddy build quality. No matter how many positive road tests I read about its excellent chassis set-up and ample interior room, I couldn’t get over the fact that it had about as much showroom appeal as three-week old haddock.
The interesting thing is that, whenever I criticised the Montego, I was always met with a huge amount of correspondence from people who were ready to defend the old girl, and tell me that I’d got it wrong. They’d also spell out exactly why I was wrong, and why I was mad to prefer the Cavalier MkII. Fifteen years on, it was time to put this to bed – and, although I’ve driven Montegos in the intervening years, they’ve always been MGs instead of the cooking ones Ronnie Rep would ply his trade on the M1 in.
So thanks to Mike Humble’s generosity in letting me have a go, it was time to try his MINTego 1.6L.
Nice typography on this late instrument pack – so much more appealing than the garish original
The first thing I should say is that Mike’s 1991 example has all the visual appeal you’re going to get in a Montego. So its paint finish is nice, and the shade of metallic blue is classy, while it also pairs well with the Tempest Grey of its lower flanks. Inside, it’s well-judged, too. The instruments look appealing, the seat upholstery is appealingly shaded and it’s a light, airy interior you’d be happy to spend time in. It also feels reasonably well-screwed together – quite an achievement, given I’d just stepped out of my similarly-aged Audi 90 (which, admittedly, has about 100,000 more miles under its belt).
Firing it up. and the S-Series busts into life, and sounds purposeful at idle. The driving position is good and the controls all feel well engineered – and, as we pull away, making allowances for its lack of power steering, it all comes across very well indeed. Riding typically English urban blacktop (broken, rutted and uneven), its softish suspension and well-controlled damping do a very impressive job of keeping it all under control – you can see that the talented Austin Rover chassis engineers have pulled another sweet-handling car out of the bag.
It’s far from perfect, though. Although it rides and handles well, the lack of body engineering means that the imperturbable chassis set-up’s good work is undone by the rattles, creaks and groans that come from the body. This impression of shoddiness continues with a dashboard that visibly vibrates at idle and a gearknob that vibrates at certain engine speeds. This particularly is a shame because the change quality itself is really sweet.
Performance is excellent for a larger 1.6-litre saloon, and it keeps up well with the traffic – any rep worth his salt would have been able to keep this in sight of the slightly more powerful Cavalier 1.6, while the lumbering 1.6 Sierra would have not seen where he went. So, again, it’s on the pace and money, and a real testament to the fundamental rightness of the woefully underrated S-Series engine.
Beautifully-clean engine bay is a testament to Mike’s preparation of his car
When I return the car to Mike, I feel frustrated and vindicated in my earlier opinions of the Montego – with one or two provisos. Directly compared with a Sierra or Cavalier, it’s clearly the nicest handling and steering of the three, while the interior is pleasant, and performance is strong. But in that all-important showroom war, it would have been outgunned – the confused styling might have classic appeal now, but it was a long way from being slick and homogenous.
On the test drive, unless the salesman was canny, and pushed on the radio, it would have lost massive points for sounding underdeveloped, rattly and cheap. And in a new car, even with the lower expectations of the 1980s, this was not good enough.
That for me is the biggest disappointment with the Montego. It’s such a nearly car. It’s nearly brilliant, and undermined by silly faults. Mike’s example is absolutely lovely, and shows that the engineers and marketeers could give the Montego some appeal, with its nice colours and subtly revised interior. In reality, it should have been like this from the launch in 1984 – and, perhaps, had it been, the story might have been different. But when those changes started kicking in at the tail end of 1988, the game had moved on, and we were in the era of the Cavalier MkIII. And the Rover 200/400 was coming, of course.
Interestingly, like the Allegro, the Montego is a whole lot more appealing today as a classic car. It has charm and ability, and it evokes huge nostalgia in just about everyone who’s exposed to it. People do look at it – in a nice way – and, when cornered by them, you’ll be regaled by many ‘my dad had one of those’ stories, which is part and parcel of owning a classic car. For me, though, I stand by all of those original criticisms – the Montego wasn’t good enough, nor had it the requisite appeal, to attract aspiring buyers.
That makes it one hell of a frustrating failure in the story of BL’s downfall – and a great classic car today as a consequence.
No sign of an Austin badge on this late Montego