Our Cars : Mike’s Montego – now we’re motoring… eventually!

Our Project Montego had a very shaky start in Mike’s care. But some serious spanner sessions seem to be paying dividends. It’s time to have some serious fun in a car that’s in a mint and boxed condition…

Words and Photography: Mike Humble

To quote Ol’ Blue Eyes: ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…’

A few weeks of Montego ownership have passed and, as yet. there are no real regrets. One or two acts of heritage but no real regrets. It would be pointless trying to compare the outgoing Project Rover 75 with the Montego as they prime examples of their BMC>MG timeline.

However, the obvious differences are the body rigidity of the current smoker over the Rover. The 75 genuinely feels like a tank in terms of structural engineering whereas the poor Montego has all the solidity and security of a wigwam. I also love the shut lines of the Montego – nothing really lines up anywhere, it’s not unusual as they were all like that. Actually, if I was just that little bit thinner, I could probably get into the car without opening a door!

Despite my own hectic schedule, some progress has been made with some items. The camshaft pulley seals have been replaced along with the camshaft carrier being removed in order to address the slight oil leaks that were starting. During all of this, I was staggered to find the original cambelt still in situ after 24 years and some recently-fitted spark plugs with gaps so small that you barely slide an atom though. The belt was no major headache, though – it’s a safe engine and the previous owner had kindly left a new spare item in the boot.

Just never allow the same thing to occur on a 2.0 model. You’ll need a dustpan and brush if it snaps along with AA Relay cover.

This cambelt was the very same item the car was fitted with back in 1991. As you can its starting to fray and it was so loose it came off the pulley by using just my fingertips!
This cambelt was the very same item the car was fitted with back in 1991. As you can
see it’s starting to fray and it was so loose it came off the pulley by using just my fingertips!

The wings, bonnet, bootlid and even the plastic capping that adorns the exterior door tops line up and align with all the precision of a drunken dart player but it’s not a real criticism – I totally love it warts and all – and, in all fairness, she’s amazingly original inside and out and, for a car with all the modernity of last year’s laptop, it’s all together, too.

No rust bleed in the rear quarter light paintwork, no broken door handles, no headlining drooping onto the rear seat passengers laps – even the anti-roll bar is still connected to the lower suspension arms. That said, after a week of commuting, it soon became obvious some moderate fettling was required to bring it up to scratch.

Despite some press-on driving, it was refusing to warm up – in fact, a blast up the motorway saw the needle barely move past the second white line on the dial and you could notice the choke kicking in and out not to mention the feeble heater output. The fluttery way it was running on part-throttle turned out to be the mixture being set even leaner than the air we breathe.

A quick twiddle on an emissions reader has cured this, but until the temperature issue was sorted, I wasn’t really be able to notice the difference in terms of performance or at the petrol pumps. Some Countryman walnut door trims were kindly donated by site AROnline reader, Neil Taylor, and look utterly fantastic against the blue interior – well, I reckon so anyway.

And here is where the trouble started. his is one seriously duff thermostat.
Here is where the trouble started. This is one seriously duff thermostat

It’s not far off being spot on, but you know how it is. You trust no one’s standards, except your own, and having gone through the car like a bad pint, there are one or two outstanding items on a pleasingly small list to attend to. The original wireless doesn’t do a very good job when you pop a cassette in, and it seems three of the four speakers are pretty much knackered.

The comedy badges stuck to the wheeltrim centres have been carefully removed and thrown in the bin whilst, on the subject of wheels, all four have been balanced, as there was a distinct wobble through the rim as you neared the legal maximum. Balanced wheels and wood trims aside, how has the Montego performed then?

Well, how was I to expect the Montego to behave itself from day one! It all went a bit wobbly while trying to deal with some of the simple items on my snag list – namely the cooling system refusing to warm through. Despite my daily battle to work, it simply wouldn’t run to temperature – in fact, the faster you drove it the cooler it ran.

The knock on effect is poor fuel economy as it takes longer for the electronic choke to switch off and, not only that, a defective thermostat can also do its best to damage the engine internals if left too long. I have known engines simply blow up owing to them running too cool when at the same time being pushed extremely hard.

The cost of a thermostat and a bottle of Bluecol can be clawed back in less than a couple of months’ motoring, thanks to increased efficiency – and, with winter creeping up towards us, there’s no chance I’m smoking around in a car with anything less than a heater that kicks out less therms than a nuclear reactor core. Amazingly, the thermostat housing didn’t shear, crack or snap one of its bolts as per usual, and after the obligatory flush through with a hosepipe everything seemed to be okay.

Did you note the emphatic use of the word ‘seem’? I thought I had done an above average job that included changing many of the horrible hose clips and a thorough inspection of the hoses and the radiator.

However, unlike Ray Milland, I am not X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes – younger readers may need to Google that name.

As a result of corrosion and lack of use, once the car ran at a proper temperature one of the inlet manifold coolant pipes let go. The resultant spray of coolant was quite spectacular.
Corrosion and lack of use meant that, once the car ran at a proper temperature,
one of the inlet manifold coolant pipes let go. The resultant spray of coolant was
quite spectacular, but at least it failed on my driveway

A day or two of driving around resulted in a much improved idle speed and full running temperature being gained within a couple of miles. It was not quite K-Series fast, but around where it should be – but then ‘Heritage’ kicked in. Arriving home early one morning, I noticed the instantly recognisable smell of hot anti-freeze. A close shufti under the bonnet revealed a small leak from one of the coolant pipes on the inlet manifold – so I grabbed a flat-blade screwdriver from the boot and attempted to nip up the hose clip.

That was immediately followed by an orange fountain of spray and steam, as the pipe and stub sheared clean off the inlet manifold. The language that followed was almost as colourful as the liquid spewing around the back of the engine bay.

The inlet manifold is alloy, and the stub pipes are steel – and old age had called time, due to the thermal shock and increased pressure in the system. Once my panic had subsided, I thanked my lucky stars that this had not gone pop in the M23. It seems uncanny that, when my motors do decide to spit out a dummy, they tend do it outside the house.

My former G-plate 214 sheared a driveshaft right outside my house a little while back, some of you may recall. Obviously, the car was now well and truly disabled, but help came to hand as Rimmer Brothers still hold the replacement stub pipes on the shelf – all for an agreeable 56p+VAT+postage. They were promptly ordered online.

Amazingly these coolant stub pipes are still available from Rimmers. Easy to fit once the manifold is removed.
Amazingly these coolant stub pipes are still available from Rimmers Brothers. Easy to fit once
the manifold is removed

My local factors supplied the required manifold gasket, as I wasn’t going to chance trying to fit them in situ. I did once in a dealer environment on a 216 and never again would I try this job by not removing the manifolds – it took bloody hours. Amazingly, the rusted pipe came out of the manifold with the lightest of poking around with a small screwdriver, and the others came out with nothing more needed than a twist or two from a pair of stout mole grips.

Fitting the new ones is a doddle – just coat them with Loctite or similar, and hammer into the manifold using a long socket. Once the sealant goes off, you are left with a water-tight interference fit.

A bit of spannering later, and it was time to bleed to coolant – if only life was that simple, eh?

Firing up the engine revealed another problem – it was spitting from the exhaust manifold. Anyone with experience of a 1.8-litre EcoTec Vauxhall engine with a cracked manifold will know the gut-wrenchingly horrible noise. Once warmed through, the noise vanished, but either way there was a problem. So the whole manifold assembly was stripped down – again, once the engine had cooled down.

I was rather confused and miffed at the whole sad state of affairs, and refused to accept a cracked manifold, as all the bolts and nuts had been sympathetically tightened gradually and in order. Surely it must be something like a defective gasket, despite my checking of it before fitting?

A lack of attention to detail on my part meant the new manifold gasket sounded like a machine gun when the engine was fired up. Off came the manifolds... again!
A lack of attention to detail on my part meant the new manifold gasket sounded like a
machine gun when the engine was fired up. Off came the manifolds… again!

Well folks, I’ll put my hand up and admit blame here. Once the inlet manifold was removed (again!), and the exhaust manifold was moved clear of the head, I could see very clearly what was wrong. There was a chunk of the old gasket stuck to the very corner of the number four exhaust port on the cylinder head.

Not only that but you see where it had ‘printed’ its shape into the new manifold gasket, and there were the obvious ghost marks of leaking gas. Another manifold gasket was therefore required, just to play on the side of caution, and another day or two was spent with Montego sitting on the virtual naughty step.

My factor bloke thought it was quite funny, as his computerised stock manifest showed that the had sold more S-Series manifold gaskets in one week, than he had done in the past 15 years!

Anyway, as you might imagine, I was getting rather fast at removing the carburettor and manifolds. With dogged determination, I was hell-bent on finally getting this damn car to run for once and for all. Let’s have the next problem then shall we?

Just as the work was about to start, I realised I had no spare carburettor gaskets, nor did I have any suitable paper or a cornflake box to hand. I could have used sealant, but the SU system doesn’t like this when idling, owing to the smooth port of the airflow becoming hampered by the sealer being squeezed out of both sides of the downdraught. Sounds bonkers, but very much true…

A quick call to Dunsfold Land Rovers and a fast drive over the county line into Surrey, saw me relieved of just short of a few quid – but my dilemma was sorted. Or was it?

Thanks to a re-seal of the cam carrier, new valve cover gaskets, new cam pulley seals and a thorough de-grease the engine now looks almost like new. It seems to be staying oil tight too!
Thanks to a re-seal of the cam carrier, new valve cover gaskets, new cam pulley seals,
new fuel pump and a very thorough de-grease the engine now looks almost like new.
It seems to be staying oil tight too!

Finally, the manifolds were checked and double-checked, inspected and cleaned. In went the coolant, and on went the engine and soon everything was looking good. Loads of heat was coming through the blowers and there were no coolant leaks or smells under the bonnet. Once again things seemed to go horribly wrong, as the car neared the point of the cooling fan kicking in.

With no warning, it started to cough and splutter almost like fuel starvation – but behaved normally if you tickled the throttle linkage. I even tried tapping the side of the carburettor with the butt of a large screwdriver – a good SU fettling tool if there ever was one – but it was having none of it.

Well, as you can imagine ‘er indoors was bombarding me with loving helpful consoling words that included: “I bloody said you were simple for getting rid of the 75, didn’t I?”

Almost admitting defeat, I even rang around a few contacts fishing for advice and fitted a new fuel pump all to zero effect. Taking the car out for another road test and during another fit of coughing and spluttering, I totally lost my temper with it and floored the pedal while waiting at some traffic lights.

The engine screamed so loud I was scaring old ladies and small children with a racket that could be heard 20 miles up the road in Guildford! ‘That’s bloody queer,’ I thought. The car was now idling as normal. Just to confirm this, I headed for the bypass for a quick thrash at speed. Swinging onto the driveway, the car was purring like a kitten.

Clearly what had happened was some dirt or whatever was causing a blockage in the carburettor – possibly disturbed by my removal of said item and throwing it into the boot.

As Big Chris from Lock Stock would say, ‘it’s been emotional,’ but I have every confidence the car will now settle down to a decent level of reliability. One lesson needs to be taught to anyone who picks up an ultra-low-mileage retro nail, and that is to gently bring it into daily service by taking nothing to chance. My cambelt affair was unforgivable, in all honesty, and goes to show how many people forget that all servicing and all consumable parts require replacement – not only by distance, but by a time scale, too.

I remember an old instructor at technical college explaining about timing belts, and replacing them regularly in a rather unorthodox manner. ‘It’s not worth the risk,’ he said. ‘You wouldn’t make love using a 10-year old condom.’ He went on to summarise that if you did, all parties involved would be well and truly f****d. He had a way with words, did Walter.

Anyway, as I type, touching wood, it’s now running amazingly well, and never fails to be a conversation piece in car parks and petrol stations. Other drivers even slow down when overtaking me for a good look. The last car I drove to have the same effect on other motorists was a Jaguar F-Type.

Roy Axe will be looking down from upon high with a big smile!


Mike Humble


  1. A good read Thank you, Much more enjoyable than reading about new cars. ( soft touch plastics and electrically operated head-rests and lane assist-borrrring ).
    That’s a thing timing belts. Literally nobody changes them at all..At least not in banger terrority moneywise.£500- £1000 bracket.
    In fact because of this I went for a timing chain engine. A Skoda 1.3.
    Also I wrongly assumed that timing chains were rare. But the Corsa has used them and so does the Toyota corolla 1.4
    Also you’re lucky to have a safe engine.
    So I guess the moral of the story is either factor in the cost of replacement when buying a second hand car Ad try get the price down accordingly.
    Or do some research on the make and model/ year and buy a car with a timing chain or safe engine.
    Or else buy a car that was looked after..sadly these are few and far between.
    Almost every car I’ve owned has been a money pit.
    So much so that I’m a non believer in what is a “good car”.

    • Toyota VVTi engines (though oil consumption and starvation is a greater issue than timing) and GM Saab 4 cylinders are all chains.

      Chains can go too though, although not as regular as a belt.

      When I had the Alfa GTV twinspark, the recommended belt change interval from Alfa/Fiat was 60k, the forums recommended closer to 30k. (Alfa/Fiat later followed this recommendation).

  2. Mike, after all your efforts, I must say that you now have a truly fantastic motor!!

    What car could possibly say AROnline better?!

    It must now be close to mechanical perfection and it looks almost 1991 showroom.

    I want it !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Wireless tuned to 97.3. . Someone’s been listening to the acidic tones of Steve Allen!

    I saw the car pottering around Leafy Horsham on Saturday, the gleam, the gleam!

  4. A useful tip when buying a car like I did recently. Looking at the service book I noted it was due for a 6-year service – cambelt time and quite costly. So I used this against the seller, do the service or discount the car. Anyway, the Montego looks great and I agree about the wood. I actually liked the Montego (at least with pas) and had several. xx

  5. Was the previous owner, John Pollard, not aware that the cambelt was the original ?!

    I always liked the Roverised Montego interior – those superb seats, classy door cards, high quality switchgear in an already pleasing dashboard architecture. ….. and, yes, the wooden trim does look good!

    The small exterior mods also went quite a way to making it look ‘Rover’ as opposed to ‘Austin’ .

    • TBH Dave …. no I wasn’t aware of the Cam Belt age. Is it a world record?! 🙂

      Sadly, the previous owner passed away last year and any service history went with him. His widow found lots of receipts, but most of them appeared to be replacement batteries every couple of years!

      In the short time I had Monty I collected various service parts parts but no time to fit them all. A new Cam Belt was one of the bits passed on to Mike … so glad he fitted it!

      For those still interested in Mike’s previous Project Rover 75, it continues to drive well. Particularly with the new Clutch and metal Slave fitted. The (original Rover) one was biting far too near the top for my liking. The chap that fitted it remarked what good condition the car is in.

      I’m currently collecting various Rover 75 Moonstone Green panels (drivers door, front wing and front bumper) to replace the ones on the car. Prior to Mike/Neil’s Project ownership the car had been damaged and repaired but with awful paint matching. From different angles they gradually changed colour … from some it weirdly transforms itself into Wedgewood Blue! Rather than get them all resprayed I’m intending to simply replace the panels.

      And while the front bumper is off I’ll be fitting front (and rear) parking sensors too.

      The Monty was great, interesting, but the 75 is a much smoother drive.

      (Mike …. speak again soon)

      Cheers all

  6. Thanks for the uodate mike, I really like your style of writing. I’m no real fan of the Montego, little style or substance for me. Despite this the technical updates are interesting and informative.

  7. I recently paid a nice Central European chap to change the timing belt on Robocolt. Gearchanges are now smoother, as the engine timing is better controlled. Who knows how long the old one had been in place – though a colleague tells me of a friend who ran a Mitsubishi for TWELVE YEARS without any servicing. The end, when it came, was spectacular.

  8. PS very nice interior.
    Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard, I doubt that Roy Axe would smile at any Montego – unless it had just been loaded into a crusher!

  9. The closest I’ll get to experiencing a Montego, being located in the States. Your update really puts one “in the driver’s seat”. Thanks.

    BTW: I saw “X-The Man With The X-Ray Eyes” as an 8 year old on a drive-in double bill with “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies” [Another title to Google]. Pretty horrific to watch at that age.

    Always enjoy ARO and the contributions, posts and of course the cars.

    Best to all of you,

  10. Despite Mike’s busy schedule, he still manages to put in a lot of work on his cars. I agree the wood trim gives this Montego a more Rover “quality” look. The later Monty’s without Austin branding did have more to offer.

  11. Mike, I was stopped waiting at my road end today when a late Montego Estate drove by. Hardly what you could call tidy, but it did make me smile. I stayed put watching that once familiar tailgate disappear into the distance. The guy waiting behind me was just a fraction annoyed!! Aye, I do like my Montegos !!

  12. Owmed a Montefo Diesel for close on 6 years. Found it to be quick, comfortable and a hoot to drive. Non PAS but had no problems manouvering. Outdragged quite few sports cars.

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