I was there : Austin Montego dealer and fleet launch

Austin Montego

I was Manager, Launch Planning and Special Events at Austin Rover Group at the time of the Austin Montego launch, and this gave me a unique insight into how cars were launched. In the 1980s the launch of a new car usually happened in three stages: the first was to present it to the media; second came dealers and fleet operators; finally, the car was launched to the public.

The press launch had to be far enough in advance of the public launch to give the monthly magazines time to get their copy written ahead of their deadline for the relevant issue. The dealer launches had to be timed so that they would be completed before deliveries of the new model started arriving in showrooms and the fleet operator events just followed on from the dealers’. The public launch was where the whole thing came together, but obviously it was the date of this that dictated when the other events happened.

In the case of the Montego, the public launch was fixed for 25 April 1984 and the date chosen for the first of four dealer presentations was 1 March with the fleet presentations following on through March. The location was Cannes, in the south of France.

Choosing where to do it…

Venues for launches were tricky, partly because of the criteria that had to be met. In the case of a dealer launch, we needed an auditorium that could seat around 375 people theatre-style so that we could get all of the Dealer Principals through in four groups. It also needed a stage big enough for at least one car and it had to be possible to get it through the doors onto the stage.

There needed to be space alongside for a decent exhibition where dealers would be able to sit in the cars and get to know them and usually there had to be access to a ride and drive route taking in a mix of types of road. We needed four-star hotel accommodation with around 450 rooms (allowing for dealers, staff, crew, directors and so on), ideally in one hotel, but definitely in no more than two and ideally not far from the presentation venue. Finally, we needed a room in which to hold a gala dinner and, since dealers often paid to take their partners with them, that needed to be big enough to seat around 800.

Put all of that lot together and there weren’t many places within the UK that were suitable for the Montego launch. The NEC was one possibility, but that had been used for various launches already, including the Triumph Acclaim in 1981, and it was felt that we couldn’t keep going back to the same place. Central London was out of the question because of the need for a ride and drive route while the outskirts such as the Heathrow area, had plenty of hotels, but a distinct lack of presentation theatres.

Added to all of that was the fact that we were going to be holding the event at the end of the winter when the weather in the UK can be very poor.

Why it’s good to go to the Med…

The good news was that it was possible to do such good deals on the Mediterranean coast at that time of the year that it wasn’t much more expensive to stage the event there than it was in the UK. Using such a venue also meant that the dealers would be prepared to pay more to go to the launch.

We had already used the Palacio de Congresos in Torremolinos for the Maestro launch in 1983 and the Sporting Club in Monte Carlo for the Austin Ambassador in 1981. There are many more possible venues around that part of the world today but, in 1984, the choice was much more limited.

I don’t believe that the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès in Cannes (below) would have been our first choice – for one thing the exhibition space had been converted from a car park so the ceiling height was low to the point of being almost claustrophobic. Then there was the problem of getting the cars into the auditorium and the fact that it was some distance from a practical ride and drive route. Even so, that is where we ended up.

The dealer shows were theatrical events and we always hired an outside production company to stage them. In the case of the Montego, we appointed Caribiner, an American organisation with offices at the World Trade Centre near Tower Bridge in London.

They knew us well, having produced the Metro, Triumph Acclaim and Maestro shows so the preparation period was no more stressful than most car launches. They had presented their proposals in May 1983 and I had been working with them throughout the summer and into the autumn. Unusually, there was a ride and drive at Gaydon in October for the agencies involved in the various stages of the launch, but the biggest problem that we had was availability of photographic cars.

These were always a source of friction because there were never enough of them and they were needed by several departments: PR needed to produce material for the media; the print production people needed to get all the brochures and other promotional material ready; sales training, service division, the advertising agency… the list of people who needed to get the cars into a studio seemed to go on.

Getting them pictured

Austin Montego press photo

Normally, we would have expected to be doing photography a couple of months ahead of the dealer launch which would have put Montego photography into late November or early December 1983. However, on 13 December, I was at Longbridge to see one of the photographic cars being rebuilt and commented at the time that ‘it’s unlikely to be good enough to photograph and the car at Cowley is as bad’.

We were eventually given access to some cars, but I was warned that one of them had a clay steering wheel, meaning that it had been produced in the Styling Department to go on one of the styling bucks for signing off by senior management. There were other components in the cabin that I was told had to be treated with extreme care because there were no replacements available if they were damaged.

Studio photography was done early in January 1984 and we walked through the whole show with the company’s Directors in February finishing with a team made up of Ray Horrocks, Harold Musgrove, Mark Snowdon and others on 16 February. Two days later, I left home to drive to Cannes and start the onsite part of the task.

Truckers cause mayhem

Unfortunately the French truck drivers had gone on strike a few days earlier and had started blockading roads across France. This was to cause enormous difficulties over the next week or so. As the cars queued to get off the ferry in Calais at about 11:30 on that Sunday morning, I was given a photocopied map of the area and told that the main roads out of the town were blocked by trucks.

I was also advised to keep off the autoroutes because these were being blocked too. I began wandering around northern France, trying to find a route that would take me south, not an easy process in those pre-sat-nav days. I passed through various towns and was heading for Arras when the Police stopped me and told me that the route was blocked and I should go via Frévent.

I decided to head for Amiens and take a chance on the autoroute because it was going to take days to get to Cannes at the rate of progress I was making. Having negotiated three road blocks, one of which resulted in me driving across the middle of a traffic roundabout, I picked up the autoroute and reached the Péripherique around Paris at 6;00pm – about four or five hours behind schedule. I headed on south and managed to get past Lyon before stopping for the night and discovered that the team from 21 Shop (they would be responsible for getting the show cars on display) were already at the hotel I had chosen. I was up at 7:00am the following morning but it was snowing and I was worried about getting to Cannes so left before the 21 Shop guys were around.

1984 autoroute

The decision to get through Lyon proved to be a good one: by the time I left the hotel the autoroute through the city was blocked, but I arrived in Cannes about 11:30am and checked into the hotel. I called the office to let them know I had arrived and was told that the truck from the exhibition company, Modern Display, had crossed to Le Havre and was stuck on the autoroute.

I was told that the truck with the electrics for the presentation was in Cannes somewhere but nobody knew where and the location of the truck with the set on board was just as much of a mystery. In those pre-mobile phone days, knowing that a truck was somewhere in the area of Cannes was not a great deal of help in finding it so that it could be unloaded. I went to the Palais des Festivals and was told that the fire curtain in the auditorium we were going to use was broken and was stuck in the down position and we were supposed to be starting the set build the next day.

This show was beginning to shape up into a real humdinger.

Strikers almost scupper plans

The following day, Tuesday, a report came in from the Modern Display truck driver. He had been on the autoroute and been stopped by a roadblock. He turned back, intending to return to Le Havre and found that there was another blockage behind him so now he was stuck on the autoroute, unable to go anywhere.

In the meantime, Jim Lewis, who looked after the ride and drive activities, had called to say that he was travelling down with six enclosed transporters carrying the reveal and exhibition cars. They were stuck at Macon, north of Lyon but he expected to be able to move the next day because the CRS, part of the French Police force, were expected to arrive with heavy lifting gear and they were supposed to be moving the trucks blocking the road.

On the up side, the trucks with the set and electrics for the presentation had turned up, been unloaded and the Caribiner team had begun building the set.

The cars head to France

On the Wednesday I was told that some additional exhibition and reveal cars were going to be flown out from England on Sunday and then, on Thursday, the Modern Display truck managed to get back to Le Havre. It went back to England and all the kit it was carrying was flown out to Nice airport on Sunday, five days late. Meanwhile, Jim Lewis had managed to hire four vans, had transferred as much equipment as he could into them from the transporters, and the truck drivers had driven the vans across a couple of fields to get off the autoroute and were travelling to Cannes on minor roads.

That afternoon the road from Nice airport to Cannes was blocked and there were reports that the airport itself was running short of fuel and food.

All of this was pushing us seriously behind schedule, but there was absolutely nothing that could be done. It was just a question of sitting tight and planning for the fastest build any of us had ever seen as soon as the cars and the exhibition equipment turned up.

The cavalry arrives

Jim Lewis arrived on Friday with his convoy of vans, the drivers having been on the road for a solid 13 hours. That afternoon the blockade was lifted so now it was theoretically possible to move the trucks carrying the display cars that were still at Macon but all the drivers, except one, were now in Cannes. That one was told to get the truck carrying the Vanden Plas reveal car to Cannes as quickly as he could. He expected to arrive at 1:30am on Saturday.

The reveal within a new model presentation was always the climactic moment: it was the first time the dealers would see the car in the metal and it was always designed to be as dramatic as possible using a combination of stage movement, lighting effects, music and dry ice vapour. In the case of the Montego, the reveal came towards the end of the presentation with the car being seen for the first time high above the stage on the left hand side from the point of view of the audience. It moved across the stage, descending slowly as it went and rotating until it got to the other side when it went back in the opposite direction until it came to rest about two metres above the middle of the stage.

All of the equipment to enable this to happen – it weighed about three tons – had to be installed by the Caribiner team and, once they had finished, the reveal car, a Montego Vanden Plas, had to be mounted on a cradle that was part of the mechanism. This should have been done about Thursday according to the original schedule in order to give the stage crew time to fine tune the reveal sequence and to rehearse it fully: it was now Saturday and the first group of dealers was due to see the first show on Thursday.

Building the exhibition

Michael Rodd (left) with Judith Hann and William Woollard
Michael Rodd (left) with Judith Hann and William Woollard on Tomorrow’s World

That was only part of it. There was also the exhibition to build. The designated exhibition space in the Palais was not suitable for our purposes so we were using space on one of the upper floors. That was fine when originally planned because we knew that we could haul the exhibition cars up the stairs from the front entrance of the Palais. On the new, truncated schedule, this became much more of a challenge and the first two were winched up the ramps on Saturday with the whole of Sunday being given over to getting the remaining cars in.

By this time we should have been able to rehearse the whole show in order to have it ready for the Directors to arrive but it was still being built. Michael Rodd (above), who was best known for presenting Tomorrow’s World on television, was linking the various individual presentations and he arrived on Sunday. The following day we started word rehearsals with some of the Directors and dealt with the inevitable script changes. That finished about 9:30pm.

On Tuesday, all the Directors were onsite for speaker rehearsals and they began revising scripts again – Harold Musgrove’s was rewritten completely and in the evening we managed to get a full technical rehearsal completed. This is always a messy job with the show stopping and starting while adjustments were made and sections were re-run. I always tried to make sure that the Directors didn’t see any of it because they would have started to get seriously worried that it wouldn’t be ready on time – and, if they were worried, my job became much more difficult. Fortunately, they had other things to do at the time we started the techs in Cannes.

Bring on the cabaret

Les Dawson, Roy Barraclough

While all of this was going on, the cabaret set also had to be built, lighting and sound organised and the cabaret rehearsed. We had Les Dawson, Roy Barraclough (above), the Roly Polys and Jackie Love (an Australian singer) for the cabarets.

The Rolys and Ernest Maxin, who directed these cabarets for us, arrived on Wednesday. They naturally wanted to rehearse and needed various things organised in the cabaret room but my primary concern was the presentation. We rehearsed the day one conference session and, according to my diary ‘it blew up in our faces’. I was fortunate and managed to get to bed at 2:30 in the morning. The Caribiner crew had to work through the night to get the reveal to the point that it should have been at had we had the cars in Cannes on time.

At 5:45am the following day we rehearsed again and this time it worked although not as well as any of us would have wanted. At least we had until 6:30pm for the overnight work to be consolidated and for the crew to get some rest before the first group of dealers arrived and settled down to watch the the Day One show. Fortunately, it went extremely well.

One down, one to go…

The following day we ran the second part of the show which, again, was very well received and, in the afternoon, I was finally able to give some attention to the cabaret. It was difficult because they hadn’t had as much rehearsal as they would normally have and such time as was available tended to be disrupted by noise as the catering staff laid up tables to get ready for that night’s gala dinner.

In fact, the cabaret was a stunning success. When I had told people at the office that we had the Roly Polys in the show the general reaction was that I must have been mad but as soon as they appeared the audience was clearly delighted. For younger readers, the Rolys were a dance troop composed of older ladies of what could be tactfully described as generous proportions. Mo Moreland, or ‘The Mighty Atom’ boasted that her waist measurement was identical to her height. Admittedly, she wasn’t that tall, but the fact that she, like all of the Rolys, could go up on point in ballet shoes was seriously impressive.

That night, Mo sang Mr Wonderful, a song made famous by Peggy Lee. Each of the verses finishes with the line ‘Mr Wonderful, that’s you’. Mo was carrying a hand mirror as she sang and she used it to reflect the light from the follow spot out into the audience. She always zeroed in on the same man for the last line of each verse. By coincidence, he was the Chairman of the Dealer Council. After the show I told her it was an inspired choice and she said ‘Me duck, without me glasses I couldn’t tell whether it were a man or a woman’.

However, for me, the high point of the cabaret was Les Dawson playing the piano in his unique way with the dealers desperately trying to sing along with him. As always after these cabarets, the Directors and the cast gathered in one of the VIP rooms for drinks and to wind down so, again, it was around 2:30am before I got to bed.

A surprise call

The following morning I was woken at about 9:00am by a ‘phone call from one of the team to tell me that Lady Bide (wife of Sir Austin Bide, Chairman of BL) no longer wanted to go for a drive in a Montego. As my diary noted ‘I don’t suppose it had been arranged anyway’. We had all had more important things to worry about.

At least we had most of that day to recover because the first dealer group left in the morning and the second group arrived in the afternoon, ready for us to run through the whole programme again. This was the routine once the first group had been through: a group arrived and saw the Day One conference; next day they saw the Day Two conference, drove the cars, attended the gala dinner and the saw cabaret; on the third day they left and the next group arrived.

We were all well used to it and the toll that it took on us so we were less than impressed at the end of group three to be told that Mark Snowdon had decided we were all getting complacent and needed a pep talk. I think most of the crew were, like me, insulted. This was what we did; we took pride in making sure that every show was as good as we could make it and here was a Director who knew nothing at all about what was involved or how we worked telling us he thought we were getting complacent. Fortunately, he gave the job of pepping us up to Peter Johnson, the Sales Director, who knew us well enough to recognise the truth and he just told us what a great job we were doing.

‘Have you seen that new Montego? Gives a whole new meaning to the word crap’

Austin Montego

Then, during the cabaret for the second dealer group, Les Dawson dropped his bombshell. During his act he talked about cars and then said ‘Have you seen that new Montego? Gives a whole new meaning to the word crap’. Unfortunately, it lacks Les’s delivery when written down and when he said it almost all of the audience laughed. One of those that didn’t was Harold Musgrove. I was summoned to his table and told that, if Les said that again, he’d be on the next plane home.

I’d been dealing with comedians for long enough to know that if I told Les he shouldn’t say it, it would be like waving a sign at him with six foot high letters reading ‘Censorship’ in dayglo pink. It was the best way to make sure that Les would repeat the line, probably several times in each show. So I tried a different tack and suggested that he’d get a bigger laugh if he used the Sierra in the line.

It didn’t work. He repeated the line for the following two cabaret performances and on each night I was hauled in front of Harold Musgrove and told to pay Les off. But without Les, there was effectively no cabaret. Somehow I managed to keep him there until the end.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last show that I was to do for BL (or ARG as it was by then). I left Cannes on 14 March and drove back to England via Montreux where I looked at a venue for the next launch. I arrived home on Saturday 17 March. Less than a month later, I resigned in order to go freelance as a writer, a job that I was to do for the next ten years.

I’d had a great time at BL, handling all the dealer launches from the Rover 3500 and TR7 through to the Montego. I had been given a wonderful opportunity to learn and had been trusted to get on with the job, in the main with little interference. The people I had worked with were excellent and, in most cases, the shows were outstanding. It was one of those situations where I had been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

© 2022 Ken Clayton

If you were at the coalface and have a tale to share, please do get in touch!

Austin Montego rear view


  1. ken great story,i take my hat of to you to be able to have such confidence in selling these cars,the cars looked great on paper but build quality was shocking and as a MG montego owner to watch it burn to the ground at 3.00am due to some electrical issue.I thought it was just my car but talking to a friend who was a service engineer at a local BL garage he actually said this happened to a customers car as he pulled up to the service department for his annual service,lucky for him they put the fire out before it caused to much damage,they traced it down to the main battery cable it put me of BL for some time!!! i also had a a 2200 princess which was a good car i then swapped it for the later model 2.0 Ambassador which was a shocker i had a rattle in the door so got a mechanic to look and he found a can and half a sandwich!! he said the door panel had never been removed and assumed it was a factory fitted option no wonder we lost a great motor industry.

  2. It seems a lot of things worked fine on the CAD screen, but not in execution. A recurring problem in British industry. I liked driving Montegos, but never owned one.

  3. These stories are marvellous – I do hope that there are more of them. The reference to Les Dawson’s purposely off-key piano playing made me laugh out loud – I remember it well. He used to encourage audiences to ‘sing along’, but they were usually laughing too much to do so.

  4. That was brilliant, these insider stories are great, and long overdue, to get a very detailed insider view on how a launch takes place is amazing, and the nearest I think most of us ever had was the TV show, When Rover met BMW, and they launched the 200.

    If you have more stories about the TR7 and especially the Rover SD1, please, do let us have some great reading, it is the people that we don’t know about that seem to have some of the greatest stories…. And for a comedian to bemoan something is usually a great achievement, and for Idiot Musgrove to moan about it shows he had not common sense or sense of humour.

    If you do have more stories I look forward greatly to reading them,

    • @Jon Mower:

      Quote: “And for a comedian to bemoan something is usually a great achievement, and for Idiot Musgrove to moan about it shows he had not common sense or sense of humour.”

      I don’t think it is fair to call Harold Musgrove an idiot because of Les Dawson bemoaning the Montego. We have to remember Mr Musgrove was under intense pressure from the Conservative government in the early 1980s to return Austin Rover Group to profitability as soon as possible and become self-financing. If he didn’t, then he probably realised his position would be under threat while he would have have been aware Mrs Thatcher was keen to sell off all and sundry through privatisation, which would not guarantee the autonomy of the company long term. He never came across as a natural or approachable PR person for Austin Rover Group, while the Montego was the last example of an all-new, entirely home-grown product competing in one of the most competitive market sectors. In addition, the motoring press through publications such as What Car and Autocar were increasingly less supportive of Austin Rover Group and its products and were quick to point out the company’s poor reputation for quality and reliability when reviewing its models. The company, its products and Mr Musgrove were under the spotlight and quips about a crucial new product, in his view, would likely do little to encourage customer confidence when they needed to rebuild market share.

  5. Agree with these comments – for me one of the best stories ever on this site. Please do let us have more of them! Whether the car was good or bad isn’t material to the story – it’s the activities and the people that make them a good read.

  6. I went to the launch of the Austin Allegro – the dealers were all hyped up at a hotel near Heathrow – they introduced the arriving car from the side of stage – dry ice started – fanfare – and then everyone heard the sound of a starter motor being continually turned over – it all went quite for a few minutes – dealers mumbling between themselves and then three guys pushed it onto the stage – the All-agro was a problem from the start.

    • Fortunately I wasn’t involved in that event – I was still at Lode Lane in those days. When I took over responsibility for car launches I tended to shy away from reveals that relied on a car’s engine starting exactly on cue.

  7. It was a privilege. He was a lovely man in my experience. This was at the time when his wife, Meg was ill. For various reasons, the dealers were in 2 fancy hotels on the sea front and I was with the crew in a hotel in Rue du Canada. Les and his wife were in that hotel along with the Rolys and Roy. Les’s agent heard that he was in the crew hotel and demanded that he be moved to one of the hotels that the dealers were in. I talked to Les about it and he said that he’d rather stay with us because if he was with the dealers he’d be ‘on’ all the time. I had a few dinners with Les and Roy before they went on and found both of them very easy to get on with.

  8. Fantastic story. Would love to hear some tails of the Press Launches, which must have had a few Roy Lanchester moments…

  9. Mentioning choosing a venue for a vehicle launch reminds me of a story I read about the launch of a revised range of Leyland tractor in the 70s.
    The event was scheduled for February and as BL had an assembly plant joint venture in Izmir, somebody suggested Turkey as a suitable venue at that time of year .
    One of the managers reportedly said “Torquay! What a great idea!”
    So the launch was held in Torquay…

    • Thanks for the memory Bill. It sounds entirely credible, especially if the person making the suggestion had a Brummie accent 🙂

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