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Austin Rover Montego

Published: 19th Oct 2012 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Austin Rover Montego
Austin Rover Montego
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Family Favourites

Montego may have been looked at as the A60 for the 80s, but this capable family ferrier was much better than that and deserved success

We’ve all heard about cunning car dealers turning the clocks back to grab a sale, but in the case of the Montego some traders actually wound the clocks on! One Midlands dealer recently spilled the beans after 20 years, speaking about the time that he was offered a batch of practically new, and still in their wrappers, G-reg Montegos, which had been kicking around the new car pounds for yonks. All of them had less than 10 miles on the clock.

The story goes that a large batch of cars were part of an employee car-buying scheme, but nobody wanted one, whatever the price, so they were farmed out to local Midland car traders at knock down prices.

This particular dealer realised that no one with half a brain, and an atom of sense, would buy a two-year-old car with no miles on the odometer without smelling a rat, so he hatched a cunning plan. He wound the speedos on anything between 7000-12,000 miles and got his staff to ‘rag the arse’ off the cars to put a bit of wear on them - they sold easily after that!

As you can guess, by 1992 Montegos had long gone the familiar route all old BL cars, but it was a different story when this modern Austin Cambridge was first introduced almost 30 years ago. Launched in 1994, the Austin Montego was the logical extension of the Maestro family, but larger and more upmarket. And, if truth be told, the press fairly raved about the car, which replaced the old Ambassador, itself a car better than its image deserved.

Like the Marina, Montego was aimed squarely at the fleet market, offering space, comfort and value to spare. But, unlike that re-bodied Morris Minor, the Montego was thoroughly well sorted and developed to cater for a new breed of company car and family motorist, who wanted more than just mere transportation. Plus Vauxhall and Ford had raised the bar with Cavalier and Sierra respectively. Small wonder that one magazine acclaimed at the time that “Fleet buyers and family men have never had it so good”. With Montego ARG (Austin Rover Group as it was now known) had a car it needn‘t apologise for. It was extremely smooth and comfortable but drove spiritedly as well – so long as you didn’t opt for the base 1.3 with its Metro engine and transmission; it was brisk but too buzzy with no provision for a fifth gear.

Best starting point was the homely 1.6, boasting the new Maxi-derived (S Series) engine and VW five-speed transmissions, which at £5660 or £6159 for the much better equipped L model was a tempting buy, especially if you liked to ‘buy British’. And, unlike the jelly-mould Sierra (celebrating its 30th birthday would you believe) the Montego looked like a ‘proper’ car that you didn’t mind being seen cleaning on Sunday mornings.

“Austin Montego – the car that puts the driver first” hailed the advert, which was going over the top, somewhat. Much more measured was Car magazine which said of the 1.6L; “The Montego does most things well enough and nothing especially badly,” adding that, when it came to generous cabin space for six footers, “it’s not like this in a Sierra.”

And, talking of space, the Countryman estates could embarrass a Volvo with their spaciousness, especially the MPV-like seven seat versions which one journal commented, “Looking like a smooth shouldered van, it‘s a clean handsome car, the Montego estate.” Add the trusty, lusty direct-injection diesel from the famous Perkins company, no less, and it was hard to find a car that was as frugal or sensible as a Montego, even in that oil burner had the refinement of a wire brush.

But, get this, in 1989 when the Austin label had been dropped and the car was just called Montego, Car pitched it against a Citroen BX, Peugeot 405 and even an Audi 80. And, guess which car won on merit, as well as price?

With a range of trims that also included the posh Vanden Plas name, it didn’t take long for the famous Octagon badge also to find its way onto the Montego, to create the modern Magnette sports saloon. After the shenanigans of the MG Maestro, with its fickle Weber carburetion, ARG sensibly only offered the 2-litre in fuel injected form (now with Honda transmissions). With 115bhp, it gave the Montego performance which would have trounced an MGC and had it for breakfast around corners. And, unlike the garish boy racer efforts of the last hot MGs (ZR, ZS and especially the ZT), the Montego was tastefully styled and looked very classy, especially in black. Perhaps not enough to woo a BMW 3 Series owner, it’s true, but a darn worthy effort that, at £7249, was still £11 (perhaps almost a thankful of petrol!) cheaper than the bog standard 316.

During the 80s, the hot hatch was king, but saloons still wanted to be fun and so a power game ensued. In 1985 ARG simply turbocharged the MG O-Series engine for a ‘thrilling’ 150bhp. Frightening, more like it, because even though the chassis was extensively modified, its unruly behaviour when the turbo kicked in, sending the car whichever way it fancied at the time, was a worry… so much so that one report said that, until a chassis rethink (it did happen in ‘86) to cure its “full bore and cornering edginess we cannot recommend this MG.” This was surprising as that same well known monthly heaped praise on the car’s ability just months earlier (and, to be fair, revised its verdict once ARG had retuned the chassis). Then, as now, the slower, sweeter non-turbo MG Montego remains the nicer car, but if you wanted to give those fl ash sods in a BMW, or a Cossie driver, a surprise, then few dished up nicely chilled revenge like the Montego Turbo. But, oh for a limited slip diff! Rust and unreliability eventually ruined the Montego. RAC patrols apparently used to call the M6’s hard shoulder ’Montego bay’ (remember the 1970 hit of the same name, by Bobby Bloom, which even included the lyrics “the keys to the MG will be in his hand!”). However, the Montego was a popular choice with the municipals, especially the Army and RAF, who used them as discreet, dependable staff cars, even if the inconsistency of the panel gaps – especially the rear doors – could be alarming, and the forces certainly didn‘t want the infuriating digital dashboard and voice control.

Naturally, competition got tougher all the time, from the Brit’s many rivals, but what finished off the model were the vastly superior alternatives from ARG itself, and then the Rover Group with more than a little assistance from Honda, with the capable 400 and the 600.

You don’t see many Montegos at classic events and, with so few around, you aren’t likely to either. Like virtually everything BL had a hand in since the 1970s, Montegos have just faded from memory. They still make bargain daily drivers that are cheap to buy and run and parts aren’t generally a problem yet either. It was, and still remains, an honest-to-goodness family hack that does what it says on the tin – a bit like the BMC A60 range really but much, tastier.

When the car was the star

Don’t the late ‘80s and early ‘90s now look so remote, a time of Montego patrol cars in the late episodes of ‘Bergerac’, top line VDPs in ‘Boon’ and (from the same team), a jam-stripe liveried 1.6 in ‘I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle’. But in truth the Austin Rover Montego never made much of a screen impression and was forever doomed to lurk in the background of ‘Prime Suspect’, ‘Inspector Morse’ – or any other ITV series with moody cinematography and a tenor sax on the soundtrack. It was the sort of hack that you’d expect Jack Frost to drive – perhaps a beaten up 1.6L estate?


It was the year George Orwell wrote about and the one we all feared… and 1984 rarely disappointed

In sport

Everton beat Watford in the FA Cup, the Russians and 13 other countries boycotted the US Olympics, which saw American Carl Lewis net four Gold medals equalling Jesse Owens tally. Host France won the Euros, beating Spain.

In the charts

were Hello from Lionel Riche, I Feel For You from Chaka Khan, Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got To Do With It and Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. However, the one we all remember was the very fi rst Band Aid single Feed The World (Let them know it’s Christmas) from assorted leading UK artists at the time.

In the news

21 people were shot dead and 19 injured in a branch of McDonald’s in California by James Oliver Huberty. Also, a 760-year-old wing of York Minster, the largest medieval Cathedral in Britain, was gutted by a fi erce fi re, started by lightning.

In India

hundreds died from the effects of toxic gases which leaked from Bhopal Union Carbide Factory near the central city of Bhopal. Motown icon Marvin Gaye was killed by his father, at age 45, after an argument.

It was the year that the mobile phone was invented by Nokia originally called Mobira). The company’s Talkman (right) was the world’s first transportable phone. So, we can all thank Nokia for the subsequent pleasure of being contactable 24-7, can’t we?

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