For some reason I always had a bit of an affinity towards these cars, largely due to the fact that they seemed to be smiling with those light clusters. But much like the Maestro, it had purpose, it was innovative, and it was a car that refused to die!
The Austin Montego first started development life way back in 1977 under project code LC10 (Leyland Cars 10), as an intended replacement for the Morris Marina and the Princess. However, like many of the company’s promising projects, such as the Maestro and the Metro, it was shelved for years on account of the fact that British Leyland ran out of money! After a corporate bailout by the British Government, the company chose instead to prolong the development of these cars and instead simply give the existing Marina and Princess a facelift, resulting in the Morris Ital and Austin Ambassador, both cars notable for being unimpressively bland masterpieces.
However, this delay did give British Leyland a chance to tie up with Honda, and in 1980 launched the Triumph Acclaim as both the first Japanese/British hybrid car, but also British Leyland’s first consistently reliable product! The result was that both the simultaneously developed Austin Maestro and Montego could take some leaves out of Honda’s book and therefore improve the reliability. Styling came from David Bache, who
had previously had a hand in penning the Rover P4, the Rover SD1 and the Range Rover, and Roy Axe, who would later go on to style the Rover 800 and the Rolls Royce Silver Seraph. The lengthy development time of the car however clearly showed as the first sketches of the car were done back in 1975. Apparently when Roy Axe, who took over as Director of Design in 1982, saw the first prototype with the original design, he was so horrified that he suggested they scrap the whole thing and start over!
However, their combined design talent truly shows through with the Montego as in essence these are very handsome cars, with a long smooth body, a pleasing frontal alignment and design, and internally very capable and comfortable. Some novel features included were the colour coordinated bumpers that matched the rest of the car, and the wiper spindles hiding under the bonnet when parked.
Although many consider the Maestro just to be a hatchback version of the Montego, there were many features the Montego had that made it an all around better car. These included a new S-Series engine in place of the A-Series engine that dated back to the 1950’s, and a more practical and robust dashboard. Variations of the car included the stylish and luxury Vanden Plas, which was styled internally by the world renowned coachbuilder with lavish wood veneer and seating (thankfully not given a chrome nose, that would have been insane!), the sporty MG Montego which featured a higher performance O-Series Turob Engine and a revolutionary synthesised computer voice
that announced problems and warnings, and finally the Estate versions which were by far the most popular and received almost unanimous acclaim for their spacious interior.
The Montego was launched on April 25th 1984, being available at first as a 4-door saloon to replace the standard Morris Ital, but the Ital in estate form continued on until August, bringing an end to the 11 year old Morris Marina family. In October the Estate version was launched at the British International Motor Show. Initially things were looking up for the Montego, as mentioned the Estate version was lauded for its practicality, the MG Montego became the fastest MG ever built with 115hp to rocket it up to a top speed of 126mph at a rate of 0-60 in 7.1 seconds, and the Vanden Plas was a modest success for the business executive, as well as finding a home in the company car market.
Promotion for the car also helped to seal the deal with a fantastically choreographed advert where professional stunt driver Russ Swift, pretty much danced around a crowded car park in a Montego, doing reverse 180’s in gaps only a few feet wide, and driving the car on two wheels through a gap only a ruler’s length apart! Jeremy Clarkson would attempt to do the same thing 14 years later on one of his DVD’s in another Montego, again with the help of Russ Swift, which went well the first time, but not so well the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh time. Eventually the Montego was smashed in half by a large truck in a fiery explosion.
Sadly though, the honeymoon like with all good British Leyland cars was short lived, and soon afterwards the various faults and build quality problems became once again apparent. Although many of the features fitted to these cars such as the synthesised voice, the computer engine management and the redesigned dashboard were endearing, the main fault that these cars had were in the electrics, which would frequently go wrong. Some examples I’ve heard from early Montego owners have included the car failing to start, pressing the indicator switch only to blow the horn, or the synthesised talking lady never, ever, ever shutting up! Because of these problems the cars built up a very quick and poor reputation, added to by the poor construction of the actual car, with the colour coded bumpers being particularly problematic as they’d crack in cold weather.
But British Leyland didn’t give up on the Montego, and in the background designers continued to tinker with the idea of further additions and changes to the car. Throughout the period following its introduction, British Leyland began to be broken up by the Thatcher Government, with Jaguar being made independent, the various parts manufacturers such as UNIPART being sold off, Leyland Trucks and Buses being sold to Volvo and DAF, and eventually the whole outfit being reduced to just MG and Rover. The Montego has been credited with being the last car to carry the Austin name, the badge being dropped in 1988 with future cars simply being dubbed the Montego. This coincided with a facelift in 1989 and the re-engineering of the car to be fitted with a Perkins Diesel. In 1989 a new seven-seater estate model was created called the Montego Countryman, built to combat the rising trend of People-Carriers such as the Renault Espace, but still being able to perform as well as a regular car. This, much like the original estate, proved immensely popular, especially in France for some reason, which went on to be one of the Montego’s major markets.
In the early 90’s the Montego did start getting back some reputation, winning the CAR Magazine’s ‘Giant Test’ (all technical names I’m sure) when competing against the likes of the Citroen BX and the Audi 80. In fact the Rover Montego Turbo became a favourite with the RAF, and was used to whisk Officers across airfields as a personal transport. The Montego may have failed to outdo the Volkswagen Passat, but as for the British mob such as the Ford Sierra and the Vauxhall Cavalier, it was able competition. In fact when I was young in the 90’s a lot of kids I’d see dropped off to school would be in then new Montego’s because by this point the reliability issues had been ironed out following Rover Group’s return to private ownership under British Aerospace.
But by 1992 the car was very much looking its age and was in desperate need of a replacement. In 1993 the Rover 600 was launched which pretty much ended the Montego for mass-production then and there, but special orders for the car continued until 1995. The machines continued to be a favourite among Company Car firms, and a lot of the developments made in the Montego lived on in later Rover cars, primarily the 600 and the 75, which inherited its rear suspension which was often held in high regard. But the curtain did eventually fall for the official Montego production in 1995 as new owners BMW desired nothing more than to be out with the old and in with the new, with facelifts all around including a new Rover 25 to replace the 200, a new Rover 45 to replace the 400, and a new Rover 75 to replace the 800, and the original Range Rover was revamped into the absolutely magnificent Range Rover P38 in 1995. The Maestro too was axed and the Metro followed not long afterwards in 1999, with the classic Mini being killed off in 2000, only to be brought back to life the same year under BMW management after the breakup of Rover that year.
But like the Maestro, the Montego simply wouldn’t die, but unlike the Maestro, attempts to revive the car under bootlegged brands weren’t as prosperous. In India, the company Sipani Automobiles, notable for attempting to recreate British cars such as the Reliant Kitten but instead consistently turning out garbage, attempted to built a few, but folded
soon afterwards. In Trinidad & Tobago, a small firm attempted to sell their own copycat versions of the Montego, which were notable for their exceptional poor quality. But most famously was the attempt to recreate the car in China with the Lubao CA 6410, which yoked the nose of a Montego onto the back of a Maestro using a Maestro platform. Today that car is technically still in production as the Jiefang CA 6440 UA Van, but owes more to the Maestro than the Montego.
Today the Montego is a very rare car to find. Of the 571,000 cars built, only 296 remain, making it Britain’s 8th most scrapped car. Contributing to this, areas of the bodywork that were to be covered by plastic trim (such as the front and rear bumpers) were left unpainted and thus unprotected. In addition, pre-1989 models cannot run on unleaded petrol without the cylinder head being converted or needing fuel additives.
However, as mentioned, the Montego estate was a huge hit in France, and chances are you’ll find a fair number ambling about the countryside there. Malta too was another popular locale for the Montego, as well as many other British Leyland cars, including Marina’s, Allegros and even Princesses!
My opinion on the Montego? Like most British Leyland cars it had prospects and purpose, but lacked the desire to build good, honest cars. It was comfortable, it was handsome, it performed as well as a family saloon car should, it was spacious and very well equipped, and like many British Leyland cars, such as the Princess with its Hydragas suspension, it was innovative. If these cars had been built better and had some of the teething problems ironed out with the electrical systems, then British Leyland could have easily gone on to make the family car of the 1980’s. But like all pathfinders in the world of technology, they will suffer the full brunt of the problems they are most likely to experience.
People rarely remember the originals, only the one’s that perfected it…