Once again we drive down Shattered Dreams Parkway, and this time Mike Humble wonders for a while about the car that was earmarked to be the all conquering saloon of its time that promised the earth and delivered hell.
If a car could ever be as far from the name in terms of the image and mental picture of the word, then surely Montego is it. Oh, but thinking again, maybe our dear friend Morris Ital ranks as another failure in terms of matching the car to aspiration – Ital being as Italian as a fish and chip supper whilst waiting for a bus – in Stoke – in the rain. But was the Montego actually a bad car or was it just poorly executed? That last word is quite fitting for some people. Either way, the Montego was to be the dying breaths of British Leyland and should have done so much better.
Heralded as “the car that puts the driver first” Montego, on paper at least, had every winning ingredient to go to war with the Cavalier and Sierra. A spacious interior, a huge boot, the promise of good economy and favourable performance were all there for the taking. The only problem was that owing to a cock up in the kitchen, someone fiddled with the knobs on the oven and the end result turned out to be half baked. So why single out the most popular model for some light hearted and nostalgic ribbing and why not the awful 1.3 version? Because it was meant to be the mainstream top selling model in both retail and fleet.
Well, simply because of the staggering amount of time it took Austin Rover to get the damn thing to be a solid reliable car that behaved itself. To be really fair to dear old Monty, ARG engineers begged and pleaded with sales and marketing for a little more time to get the wrinkles ironed out – in the same vain as they tried with the Maestro. Right from launch, some truly dreadful tales of woe became known from problems with its engine management system developing psychotic tendencies, disgraceful customer satisfaction levels and a whole myriad of other misery.
Early build quality tended to make cars like the FSO 125p look Bavarian in comparison as drivers glumly looked down at their hand holding a snapped door handle in mid winter. Those sleek colour coded bumpers were produced wrongly thus causing huge cracks and peeling paint just by looking at them and front shock absorbers would wear out at a rate faster than a disposable razor. Should you have been unlucky enough to traverse a deep pot hole or mount a kerb with zest, the chances are you would find yourself waiting at Dutton Forshaw for your front dampers or wheel bearings – or both, to be replaced.
In fact, it took two or three attempts to finally calm down the famous Montego front wheel bearing problem. And even then was only really solved in 1989 after standardising the front hubs and gearboxes with the 2.0 version using the decent T5/PG1 developed for Austin by Honda. Those wheel bearings were truly prone to failure and it was not uncommon for them to overheat and almost weld themselves into the swivel hub resulting in a very expensive repair. Main dealers would always keep bearings and hubs on the shelf and one main agent I had extensive personal experience with – Henlys Northampton, would go through two or three sets a week in the heyday.
You soon knew when your bearings were gone as your car imitated the noise of a child’s humming top as you gained speed allied to a worrying vibration felt through the steering wheel. And what about Austin Rover trying to re-invent the wheel – quite literally with those damn metric Dunlop TD tyres? They had failed with the Denovo ten years earlier so why try again? Bloody awkward to remove and fit as well as being as expensive, they were more of a hindrance than any value to the customer – if they were that brilliant then why did no other manufacturer cotton on and try the idea on a grand scale.
Shockers, bumpers and bearings were only the tip of the Iceberg and general reliability was nothing short of awful. The patrol guys of the AA and RAC nicknamed motorway hard shoulders as “Montego Bay” thanks partly to misbehaving under-bonnet electrical components causing regular breakdowns. A particularly good Montego party trick was detaching its gear linkages when waiting to turn right, manoeuvring in busy car parks or tight spaces owing to tight synchromesh rings of the VW sourced gearbox and a poorly designed under floor selector mechanism that bolted onto the steering rack.
The 1.6 S-Series unit had a pedigree going back to the late 1960s. It too suffered plenty of quality related issues like cam cover gaskets that point blankly refused to seal, engines that sounded top end rattly even when in good fettle and a dismal breather system that would deposit handfuls of mayo like sludge into the oil filler tube in cold weather. The latter could often be diagnosed wrongly as a blown head gasket but left unchecked in a worst case scenario could cause the oil pump to fail or rupture its seals. Other horrors included a hopeless auto choke system that would often switch off then come back on again once hot giving poor starting, sooty exhausts and excessive fuel consumption.
But just to prove how poor the quality could be at Austin Rover and its suppliers, one of the best (or worse) faults the engine could be known for in early guise was faulty oil pressure release valves. The well-known publication CAR magazine ran a 1.6 HL on long term test that even now many years later, makes me cringe in horror. There was a batch of faulty pressure valves fitted to the Montego 1.6 that caused their test vehicle’s oil filter to explode on more than one occasion – laughable now but back then utterly unforgivable and a huge slap in the chops to Austin Rover.
The car was so poor in the long-term test that it provoked a response from ARG boss Harrold Musgrove who apologised at length for the poor performance from the car, the manufacturer and the dealer – the car even came with poorly repaired accident damage at the point of delivery. Once the Rover 213 came into the showrooms, dealers would try to place potential Montego customers into the new joint Honda produced pocket sized Rover – a plan that worked as the 200 soon eclipsed the Montego in sales numbers. Once the word got around about the dealers lack of confidence in the car, Montego’s residual values dropped quicker than a falling boulder.
If time and sanity allowed, I could extol further about the wipers that would fail without warning, the boot that turned into a kiddies’ paddling pool after a downfall, rampant rust, poor external plastic trim, twitching and ticking speedometers or front indicator lenses that would fall off if you slammed the bonnet too hard – is it any surprise that Cavalier and Sierra just walked away hand in hand many a loyal Austin customer. By the time the Montego was treated to a whole raft of engineering and technical upgrades including an intelligent and reliable engine management system and vastly tightened up quality, it was past its sell by date selling purely on cost alone.
But was it a bad car? Well, on reputation most certainly but as mentioned, it should have done so well. Drive a well built and sorted car even today and they don’t really disapoint. They are smooth, reasonably refined, have good use of interior space and the gutsy 1.6 has a decent turn of speed. But one very important lesson was learnt from the Montego, it was simply not acceptable to allow such an under-developed car to be launched into the market. The failure of the Montego and Maestro became blood on the hands of the sales and marketing executives and top brass who insisted against many cries from engineers to rush these cars into the showrooms – they should have been put on trial for this massive waste of money and lost custom.
One of my own Montego memories was becoming the parts manager for a small retail dealer and enquiring about a dusty cardboard box full of dashboard temperature clocks and speedometers. My trusted colleague informed me they were warranty returns that never went back to Cowley – there must have been dozens of them on that dark dusty shelf. I also recall an estate spending two weeks in a body shop having wheel arch and sill repairs being completed under warranty – all on a car less than two years old. We loaned him an R8 414 for the duration and a couple of days later he called by to say “keep the bloody car… I’m having this”.
In summary, the early Montego 1.6 was too criminally under-developed and hopelessly unreliable to pose even the slightest threat to Ford or GM throughout its 10 year lifespan. Only the diesel estate became a model of note towards the end with the Countryman Turbo D almost becoming a cult classic Monty. Such a bitter shame for such a vitally important car that on launch and in theory… promised so much!
Engine: 1598cc S-Series OHC with SU HIF44 carburettor with electronic control and Lucas programmed ignition (Motorola / Rover E.R.I.C management from 89)
Max Power: 86BHP
Body: 4 door saloon or 5 door estate
Transmission: 4 or 5 speed manual with 3 speed automatic option
Produced: Austin Rover Group Cowley
Timeline: 1984 to 1989 (pre-facelift)