Flag Flying for Austin-Rover
On the highway of Britain’s failed motor industry, after the sign post for ‘What the hell were they thinking’ sits BL’s Montego, on life’s hard-shoulder
I can hear my mother now, ‘if we all liked the same thing life would be a pretty boring place’, true enough but can any model boasting such achievements as the UK’s ‘most scrapped’ ever be considered a classic? In common with another predecessor the Allegro (now only slightly rarer on the todays roads) the Montego was another case of should have, would have and could have. British Leyland had struggled to gain a major stake in the fleet market and considering their contenders it was really no surprise company buyers opted for the Sierra or Cavalier options. The Ital and the Ambassador couldn’t prise the country’s ‘reps’ from their Ford’s and Vauxhall’s; being dated at launch, didn’t help their cause.
ARG (Austin-Rover Group) needed something new and following some Government assistance plus the reasonable success of the Metro they launched an assault on the fairly new hatchback market. The Maestro (LC10) programme had begun in the late seventies alongside the LC11, a saloon version that would become Montego. ARG rushed the Maestro into production, first with the consequential calamities that occur when poor reliability and build quality combine. So, did they learn their lesson when it came to Montego, you bet they didn’t. Again ARG engineers pleaded for more time to get it right but management needed the car on the showroom floors and after six years in the planning time was up. Launched in April 1984 under the banner ‘the car that puts the driver first’, the Montego showed initial promise given Maestro appeared 12 months prior, surely some of its failings would not be repeated? The S Series engine led the 1.6 level and with a comfortable interior, spacious cabin plus ample boot space the Montego should have brought fleet buyers flocking to BL’s door. October’s motor show in 1984 also enjoyed the MG badged version, the Vanden Plas and what many believe to be the most promising model, the Montego Estate.
Ground Hog Day
Once again it would be build quality and poor reliability that hampered early production, causing a high level of customer dissatisfaction. ARG’s failure to find cures in a timely fashion left a stain on Montego’s character that would be everlasting and profound. Painted bumpers minus large areas of paint, the cars ability to consume wheel bearings at an alarming rate, weak front shock absorbers and trunks that filled with water. Doors that didn’t fit, head gasket failure, oil pumps that didn’t pump and the cold start auto choke that wanted to operate permanently, plus many more. Most of these faults weren’t addressed promptly and at factory level, so the models reputation suffered early and unnecessarily. The 1.6L two tone version aimed at the company reps enjoyed its own TV advert, the soft rock music included the lyrics ‘can a little bit of what you fancy do you harm?’ the company car buyers thought it could. Top end versions received the ‘state of the art’ instrument panel with synthesised voice instructions; firm and precise from the lady known as ‘Nicolette’ included constant door open warnings when they were shut and low fuel warnings once the car had already ceased, after running out of fuel. What history doesn’t report in such detail is that come the late 80s many issues had been resolved and by 1994 What Car was able to state ‘Austin Rover's once 'great white hope', Montego matured into a very decent car — but nobody noticed.
David Geere was one of the company car drivers that covered the miles daily, a circulation representative in the newspaper industry. The Montego offered several benefits David required, a 5 speed gearbox, plenty of space and home-grown. ‘I always try and buy British wherever possible, always have done and I have only ever owned one foreign car’ stated my host with pride. Registered by Henly’s of Ewell 24th
November 1986, David found his 2.0HL at a Sussex dealer in 1991, the previous owner from Surrey had covered 28k and kept the maintenance records up to date. As a rep David was used to being supplied transport that would have been a management decision, starting with a 100E’s onto every mark of Cortina. ‘When the Montego came out I thought ‘yes’ this car is the answer to Ford and Vauxhall’ David explained and admitted being hopeful his company would deviate from their normal car purchasing policy and buy Leyland, they didn’t.
A career change allowed the purchase of the Montego which immediately required a new wheel bearing. The original faulty design had been superseded and 25 years and 62k additional miles travelled the infamous Montego humming noise has failed to return. No doubt this Austin Rover has enjoyed far more TLC than most; the figures of surviving Montego’s are shocking with just 56 showing (DVLA) as taxed currently. Six of those are 2.0 HL examples, incredible considering 571,457 Montego’s were built overall. Hopefully a few more survived abroad as Montego was retailed under the name Sipani Automobiles in India whilst the French enjoyed the Estate versions. Some were shipped to the far east and the first MG badged estate car in Montego form was sold exclusively in New Zealand.
Retirement allowed David to indulge in another passion, classic car shows and although his 2.0 HL is showing 80k miles it barely looks 8k. ‘It’s my passport to the classic show scene and therefore has to be right, so in 2012 a company called Body Care performed a lovely respray. Everything else is original and the attention the car receives is amazing mainly because many folks can remember travelling in one’ David pointed out. Certainly the superb condition of this 30-year-old ‘rep mobile’ draws interest, inside and out the presentation is showroom quality and one should remember the HL enjoyed those extras the base model drivers could only dream off. Seating was finished in a softer crush velour which matched the door cards and thicker pile carpets completed the more luxurious feel. Radio-cassette with front to rear balance plus electric door mirrors with heated glass and light adjustable instrument panel for the interior. Whilst outside the addition of chrome door handles, side mouldings and bronze tinted windows allowed this model to stand out from the L version. Door opening and closing are minus the ‘tinny’ rattles and the seats, are as I remembered, really comfortable.
Transported back to a time of ‘Top Gun’ the movie, fuel at £1.86 per gallon and the World Cup in Mexico, 1986 was a busy year for Austin Rover with plans to sell the group to Ford cancelled in February. The announcement of plans to loose Austin and rename Rover Group came in June, prior to the joint venture with Honda being signed in July. My chance of a run-out in the Montego was gratefully accepted but proved some things don’t change, the carburettor fuelled engine loses its lumpy idle once warmed up and on the move the four cylinder is smooth and quiet. Clutch is firm but not heavy as is the steering and the gear change is slick and precise and it is a nice way to travel. So, as with the visual appearance the driving experience belies this ‘Midlander’s age’. If, and it’s a big if, you can find a nice example, most 80s cars from British Leyland still represent good value for money, across the range from Metro to Rover Sterling bargains are still available.
Survivors from the period have earnt their classic status and examples the quality of David’s Montego can surely only increase in desirability and value.
View from the Pilot…….
David Geere shares his thoughts on preserving and enjoying the Montego.
Why do we elect to support one particular make and indeed model as our classic choice, is not always evident? For me, the Montego was BLs great hope at the time back 30 plus years ago. 25 years of ownership has not in any way disappointed. It runs sweetly today as it did when it was first acquired and never left me stranded. It is quiet, comfortable and reasonable fuel consumption, a classic car that can keep up with the traffic. The rust is easily kept at bay with an annual squirt of an anti-rust fluid (and not allowed out in the rain!). Monty is kept mainly for the car shows and as Grant’s research reveals, is only one of 56 examples on the road thus is a surprising sight to many who thought they had all gone. I also have a 1993 LXi 2.0 litre saloon with only 1,800 miles on the clock and the development put into this model is significant. Improved built quality, fuel injection and other developments transformed it into a car that indeed matured into a thoroughly decent motor. Long may these examples live on.
Austin Montego 2.0 HL 1986 Specification
- Four door/five seat saloon/FWD
- Engine: Four cylinder 1994cc, 103bhp with 121ft lbs torque
- Gearbox: Five speed
- Fuel: 50 litres
- Length: 14ft 6in Width:6ft 3in (inc mirrors)
- Kerb Weight: 2295lbs/1040kgm