After the 1973 fuel crisis and subsequent recession, British Leyland was on the verge of collapse. It was saved by a Government takeover, a nationalisation, in 1975. This enabled the company to continue the process of rationalisation, and develop a new range of models, under the banner of ‘Leyland Cars’. The first of these was ADO88, the Mini Metro, launched in October 1980. This was a supermini to rival the Fiesta and Polo. It also proved to be the saviour of the company, capturing over 10% of the UK market. In 1976 the development of a new range of light medium cars began, with a view to replacing the Austin Allegro (1973) and Maxi (1969), and the Morris Marina (1971).
Thus the project, codenamed LC10 was born, a lower medium FWD hatchback in the Golf mould (LC=Leyland Cars). The style that was developed (in 1977) reflected the influence of Rover-Triumph as well as Austin Drawing Office (ADO) designers. Indeed there was a plan for a smaller version of the Rover SD1, codenamed SD2, to replace the Triumph Dolomite, and LC10 inherited the David Bache sculpted swage down the side, as seen on the SD1 and the Range Rover. The project was also led by a Rover-Triumph man, Malcolm Harbour, as Austin people concentrated their efforts on finalising and productionising the Metro. Benchmarks were set to surpass the best of the competition in terms of comfort, space, versatility, driveability and handling (for example, it had to out corner the AlfaSud).
As the LC10 project progressed it was decided to develop a full range of medium cars from the one platform to save costs. The two models would have to compete in the lower and upper medium sectors, against the Ford Escort and Cortina. The cars were now codenamed LM10 and LM11 (LM=Light Medium as opposed to SD=Specialist Division). LM11 would become the Montego.
At a viewing at Longbridge in 1977, Ian Beech’s hatchback and Roger Tucker’s notchback were favoured. The idea was always to give the notchback a bigger look, and to achieve this Tucker’s front and rear ends were added to Beech’s passenger cabin to form the basis of the Montego. Development of the Montego continued at Longbridge while the Maestro was taken to Solihull.
Roy Axe (ex-Rootes and Chrysler) later replaced David Bache as chief stylist at BL and was none too impressed with the styling of either LM10 or LM11. A year away from production, the Montego was wheeled into a viewing room and Axe was asked what he thought of it, ‘My immediate reaction was to ask if it could be stopped, only to be told my answer was “unacceptable” and that Austin-Rover were committed to the car. There was a fair bit of time spent trying to smooth it out’. Over the months that followed the bumpers, the lamp configuration at the front and rear, the bonnet and the rear screen were all changed.
The finished product, based on the Maestro floorpan but with a couple of extra inches in the wheelbase, shared about 60% of its bodyshell pressings with those used for the Maestro. This appreciably bigger new car was available only as a ‘three box’ or notchback, four door saloon. It incorporated a massive 18.4 cu ft of luggage space at the back. Unsurprisingly the basic mechanical setup of Montego was shared with its smaller sister car. Steering, brakes and suspension were unchanged from the Maestro. The original eight model range made use of the same 1275cc, 69bhp A-plus series unit used in the Maestro, a new 1598cc, 86bhp S-series unit based on the R-series Maestro engine, and an updated version of the O-series in 2-litre form, with a new light alloy head in which the inlet ports were paired instead of alternating with the exhaust ports.
Moving inside, the roomy new saloon benefitted from improved passenger accomodation over the Maestro; most obvious being the new design of dashboard which eliminated most of the squeaks, rattles and faults of the earlier Maestro’s more angular design.
Just over a year after the Maestro’s successful introduction, came its near relation, the Montego, in April 1984, at a press launch staged in the South of France. Although they could find plenty to praise, the press could be less than enthusiastic about the Montego from the outset. “Motor” magazine became acquainted with the new model by taking their MG out on an 1800 mile marathon across France. Whilst the cars packaging, practicality and reliability were well liked, build quality came into the line of fire. “The windscreen leak, stalling when cold, rough engine idle and poor fit of the door trims experienced on our MG were flaws and inconsistencies which we would not expect to appear in production.” Sadly their car was not to prove unique in this respect.
Often criticised by the motoring press of the time, the conservative styling of the Montego initially won it sales over Ford’s adventurous new “jelly mould” Sierra design which wasn’t to everyone’s tastes in 1983/4. Fleet sales were an area in which the Montego contested fiercely and with much success, although it still struggled to compete in this market against such strong competition as the well engineered and popular Vauxhall Cavalier.
Once again the range included an MG version. The 2-litre O-series engine used in the MG Montego combined a programmed electronic ignition system with Lucas L-type electronic fuel injection, giving a quoted 115bhp at 5500 rpm as opposed to only 102 bhp when fitted in lesser models with a carburettor, and with a top speed of 115 mph. The MG Montego was well specified, too. Standard features included a deeper front spoiler, along with a boot mounted one. The interior was given the same red bias as the other MG saloons with colour keyed seat belts, seat piping and carpets. Central locking, electrically operated front windows and a four speaker stereo radio/cassette system were also standard fitments.
Another piece of technology that came with every new MG Montego (but curiously not the Vanden Plas), whether you liked it or not, was the electronic instrumentation combined with a trip computer and voice synthesizer. The concept was much the same as the system fitted to the early upmarket Maestro models, but twice as complicated with such features as a vehicle map accompanied by announcements informing the cars occupants of doors not closed properly and bulb failures. This system was particularly short-lived on the Montego, however, with many potential buyers being pleased by the return of conventional analogue instruments by the end of 1984. So short was the production run that surviving examples featuring the digital instruments are now something of a rarity.
There were mixed feelings about the MG version of the Montego. Motor’s initial test concluded ‘The few flaws had not marred our enjoyment, but we are not convinced that the Montego is such a suitable candidate for the MG “personality change” as were the Metro and the Maestro. The rorty acceleration, fussy, low-geared cruising and even the car’s extrovert appearance seem at odds with what is essentially a roomy, comfortable and practical family car.’
Announced a year after the launch of the initial range was “The fastest production MG ever”. The MG Montego Turbo quickly silenced its doubters with a top speed of 126 mph and a quite startling 0-60 time of a quoted 7.3 seconds. The 150 bhp produced by the 2 litre engine, was achieved by means of a Garret T3 turbocharger with an air to air intercooler fitted between the turbocharger and carburettor. Suspension had to be uprated from the standard Montego EFi setup to maintain the optimum level of handling balance whilst retaining a good ride quality. The, not only quick, but well appointed MG Montego Turbo (with such additional features as electric/heated rear view mirrors and electric rear windows) was considered good value for money. A new example in January 1987 cost £11,396.
The estate version of the Montego first appeared at the 1984 motor show, and has probably been the most successful model ever since, right up until the end of production a decade later. It even won the instant acceptance of a motoring press, that Austin-Rover must have felt was difficult to please, not to mention a Design Council award. Initially launched as a five model range, the Montego estate with its well sized load area soon won the favour of families across the UK. Whilst obvious rivals were the Vauxhall Cavalier and Ford Sierra estate derivatives, Austin-Rover’s offering trounced the opposition by offering the option of an additional row of ‘occasional’ seats making the Montego estate a seven-seater. This excellent practicality in a handsome load carrier made the Montego estate a real winner.
Despite the success of the estate, the Maestro and Montego were still not making the profit needed to fund the development of further new models, as Michael Edwardes had envisaged would happen. In fact, Austin-Rover continued to make a loss and had become something of an albatross around the neck of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government of the time. Harold Musgrove was replaced by Graham Day, and in 1988 Rover Group was finally privatised by being sold to British Aerospace.
A marketing led Graham Day went to great lengths to establish the reasons why the Maestro and Montego were not selling in the numbers anticipated. Research concluded that the cars had been given a pedestrian image by the car buying public. The marketing department’s response to this was to introduce a number of new models such as the Montego 2.0 Si, and ‘duotone’ paint was also born in an attempt to attract a more youthful market. Just look at how the style of the marketing of the car changed during this period, both in the sales brochures and in television adverts. The underpowered 1.3 litre Montego was soon phased out, a small engine in a relatively heavy car did not impress potential buyers.
One other factor that was not seen as being compatible with the more upmarket new image that Rover Group wanted to give the Montego was its Austin branding. The ‘Austin’ Montego quietly ceased to be, late in 1987, and although we can say with some certainty that the Montego was the last Austin car, ending over 80 years of Austin production, it is unfortunate that we will probably never come to know the identity of the last Austin to leave either Longbridge or Cowley.
Also something of a success story were the diesel engined models, introduced in 1989. The 2-litre O-series based engine, developed jointly by diesel specialists Perkins and Rover, powered four Montego models – two saloons and two estates. The direct injection diesel engine had appeared at first in the Maestro van, but the addition of a turbo raised power by 30% to 80bhp and torque by 25% to 116lb ft. At the same time the Montego benefitted from its first major facelift including a new instrument pack and centre console giving a softer look to the interior. Externally the car gained a new grille similar to that on the Rover 800 of the time, smooth rear light clusters replacing the original ribbed design and a new set of wheel trim designs giving the car a more modern edge.
When BAe sold Rover Group to BMW, Bernd Pischetsreider’s response on learning that BMWs new acquisition was still building Maestros and Montegos was inevitable. Montego production continued at Cowley up until late 1994 when, along with the Maestro, it was discontinued. The last fleets of Montego saloons went to the Ministry of Defence. The last models available to the public were the ever popular Countryman estates. Even in 1994 many were disappointed by their demise.
Numbers are for Cowley-built cars only.
Austin Rover Web Resource – Maestro & Montego pages. If it’s detail you want, look here.
Men and Motors of ‘The Austin’ – Barney Sharratt 2000 (ISBN 1-85960-671-7)
Making Cars at Cowley – Gillian Bardsley 2006 (ISBN 0752439022)
MG By McComb – F Wilson McComb 1998 (ISBN 0-85045-598-7)
Michael Edwardes: Back from the Brink – Michael Edwardes 1983 (ISBN 0-00-217074-4)
Complete Catalogue of Austin Cars – Anders Ditlev Clausager 1992 (ISBN 1870979265)