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Austin Montego (1984 - 1994)

Last updated 4 April 2013

 
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Model Timeline

January 1979
Development of the Montego begins

The Montego had been taking shape at the Longbridge design office behind the Maestro as the larger saloon car it was designed to be – the wheelbase was longer than the Maestro’s, but was to the original LC10 dimension (the Maestro’s was shorter because it had 2.4in taken out of it), but due to the fitment of the more compact S-Series engine, the Montego was given a slightly lower bonnet line and longer, more tapered nose. The major changes were to the front and rear of the car, where the styling from Roger Tucker’s saloon proposal was grafted onto the centre section of Ian Beech’s design. It looked different to the Maestro, but at the same time because it was the product of two different designers, it was an unhappy mixture of ideas. Malcolm Harbour reiterated the danger of adopting Ian Beech’s design for the LC10: the side doors with their pronounced scallops would influence very heavily the way that the saloon looked – and so it was thus.

Because the doors from the Maestro were used, there was the need to add a sixth-light to accommodate the extra length. The problem was that the extra rear side windows were incorporated to look like an extension to the rear screen, like a huge wrap around swathe of glass. The end result could not be happily integrated into the styling and this rear aspect no doubt spoiled what could have been a tidily styled Eurobox.

When Bache’s successor, Roy Axe, took the reins at the head of the Austin Rover design department, he looked at the Montego and, quite simply put, could not believe what he saw. In the eyes of this designer, new to the company, viewing the car as he was, with a fresh pair of eyes, Axe found the styling of the car fundamentally wrong – and pleaded for time to restyle the entire car. He was hamstrung because the company’s need to get the car into production was so great, that Harold Musgrove would not allow him the time or money to modify the styling of the car in anything other than a superficial way.

Axe did change the rear windows in order to make them seem less massive and also tided up the front end, and added clever plastic caps to the base of the side windows in order to lessen the dropping waistline featured in the Maestro – but that was it. This situation may have made him unhappy, but he knew that there was nothing he could do: he knew that the car had odd proportions as a side-effect of being based on a smaller car, but worse than that, in Roy Axe‘s opinion, the Montego’s obvious ugliness was something else entirely.

Speaking in 2002, Axe made his feelings about the Montego abundantly clear, ‘I was stood in front of it and told that this model was over a year away and so I had a great opportunity to improve it if I felt it was needed! It is hard to know what to say in circumstances like this but my first remarks were that the design should be scrapped and the whole thing done again. This was not acceptable as the plan was well in place but there was room to tweak! The changes were really minimal as the doors had to stay as had the basic form dictated by the structure. I was able to improve the front and get rid of the Maestro look there, some improvements to the rear and by applying admittedly rather crude mounding to the waistline, I was able to minimise the falling look in this area. The result was far from anything I am proud of but was the best I could do plus the chance to replace the fascia panel with a new one which could then be applied to the Maestro at a later date.’

The reality is, of course, that when the design of the Montego lost its way in 1981/82, Axe should have been given the chance (by delaying the launch of the car) to take charge of the project and give it a wheels up face-lift. As it was, his hands were tied and the car styling was frozen weeks after he joined the company and the die was cast – Austin-Rover were hell bent on getting the car on to the market for spring 1984. To be fair, there was little choice as by this time the Morris Ital was hopelessly out of date and the Austin Ambassador was selling in less than large numbers, and to delay the Montego any further would have been catastrophic for the company.

During this time, the Maestro was nearing production at Cowley. The factory had been enlarged at a cost of £147million and the new production line was installed, fully robotized, like Longbridge but even more advanced. The modifications to Cowley now made it one of the most advanced and productive in Europe – and Harold Musgrove was very public in his pride at the new factory.

April 1984
Montego launched

Montego range on display at the launch in 1984: It looked sufficiently different from the Maestro to be seen as an entirely new model, but different it may have been, handsome it was not. The MG Version shown at the front also sported a solid-state dashboard, like the top model Maestros, but it proved so unpopular, it was withdrawn from the model in under a year.

The Montego followed the Maestro onto the market 13 months later in April 1984. Launched in the South of France, the pleasant surprise for the less speculative parts of the Motoring media was just how different the Montego was from the Maestro, when it did appear.

Speaking in March 1984, Brian Mahony, Austin Rover’s UK sales director, said, ‘LM11 is probably the most vital ingredient in the company’s recovery plans. It is pitched directly at Cavalier and Sierra. More and more we are taking the views of fleet operators into our new product designs. Those who have seen pre-production models have been impressed.’ Austin Rover was very optimistic about the new cars chances in the market place. An unnamed executive stated, ‘Not having a Cortina or Cavalier in our line-up was like having one arm tied behind our back.’

Where the Montego differed from the Maestro was that the O-Series engine was used in conjunction with the brand-new Honda designed PG1 gearbox, described as a gem by Autocar. The new arrangement resulted in a far more pleasant gear change than the obstructive VW-sourced box in the smaller models. It has never really been explained why the VW-gearboxes in the lesser Maestros would prove to be so inferior to those of their German cousins, but the weakness was certainly not evident in pre-production testing.

Between pre-production and production, VW changed the synchromesh design – to a new ’Konusring’’ design. The change had negative effects on the Maestro’s gear change quality and it was this, and not the linkage, as many people mistakenly believed. There was a suspicion, never proven, that VW might just have given BL the worst of the new units.

Even though the Montego was based on the Maestro, it received a different (and structurally more sound) dashboard. This one-piece affair was far less prone to rattles and squeaks, and so it was inevitable that it would find its way into the Maestro. (Photograph supplied by Rene Winters.)

Even though the Montego was based on the Maestro, it received a different (and structurally more sound) dashboard. This one-piece affair was far less prone to rattles and squeaks, and so it was inevitable that it would find its way into the Maestro. (Photograph supplied by Rene Winters.)

More variance from the Maestro was in the Montego’s new dashboard and interior. The accommodation was broadly similar, but improved in quality and design over the Maestro. It would be fair to say that the new dashboard was an improvement, but the new style of seats was merely different, not any better.

In much the same way as the Maestro story of a year previous, the car simply did not make a huge impact on the market. That is not to say that the Montego was a bad car – far from it in fact, but the Montego just did not have much in the way of appeal to the private buyer or his company counterpart.

Both the Montego and Maestro suffered from the familiar story of build quality niggles that one would have assumed by this point in time, Austin Rover would have succeeded in beating. Unfortunately, the first few long-term tests published by the UK car magazines reported tales of woe and the Montego, especially suffered from electronic maladies. No big deal in the grand scheme of things, but when you are trying to rebuild an image, the last thing that you want to hear.

October 1984
Montego estate was launched

At the same time (Motor Show 1984), the Estate version of the Montego also appeared and it has to be said that this was a successful piece of design, not being hampered by the same design compromises as its saloon brother.

The awkward glasshouse and long overhangs of the saloon ceased to be a problem with the estate version as it was modified so that it incorporated nicely integrated rear end styling. Practicality was excellent, having a well-sized boot and unusually for this class, the option for an extra row of rearwards facing seats – just like a French car, in fact. As a result of this successful transformation into a load carrier, the Montego estate received a Design Council award.

August 1987
Running changes and the end of the Austin name

After extensive market research, it was found that the Montego was saddled with an unfortunately pedestrian image, so the marketing departments worked on producing more appealing cars. The 1.6L and 2.0Si Montego were announced in 1987, resplendent with ‘duotone paint that echoed the theme instigated by the Rover Sterling.

The focus of the advertisers was aimed at these cars in an attempt to attract a more youthful clientele – one such advert depicting a Montego 1.6L crashing through a showroom window in order to demonstrate just how quick off the mark and how good its stereo was to a couple of sales rep-types. Kevin Morley and his team of marketing gurus fancifully went Yuppie chasing.

One of Graham Day's yuppie chasing models, this one being the 1987 Montego 2.0Si. Basically a very competent car, but saddled with styling and image that did not appeal to the Yuppies Day so wanted to court.

One of Graham Day's yuppie chasing models, this one being the 1987 Montego 2.0Si.

December 1988
Montego Diesel and Turbodiesel introduced with some styling tweaks

In 1988, the first Diesel engined Montegos began to appear – a range that would eventually blossom into a full one, comprising of turbo and a normally aspirated versions of both the Montego and Maestro by 1990. Perkins, based in Peterborough, England, was responsible for the development of these highly advanced Prima engines – and it is no surprise that they were greeted with some enthusiasm on the UK market.

The first application of the Perkins MDi/Prima engine actually came in 1986, with the Maestro van, but initially, it was considered too rough for passenger car consumption, so remained in a lengthened development programme for a further two years. These engines were loosely based on the BL O-Series unit, but were heavily modified, which employed Direct Injection technology. One must wonder why it took over four years for the cars to receive a diesel engine.

The answer lies with the fact that during the early development of the Maestro, the hope was that the company would buy in a unit from VW. When that idea failed, Austin Rover approached Perkins, and asked them to develop something suitable for passenger car usage.

For the 1989 model year, the Montego received its first serious facelift. Although there was no money in the coffers for that badly needed re-body, the '89 Montego did receive some very worthwhile improvements. This fuel-injected 2-litre GTi model was an attempt to take a share of the performance saloon market that - at the time - was being dominated by the Cavalier SRi and Sierra GLSi. (Photograph kindly supplied by Rene Winters.)

For the 1989 model year, the Montego received its first serious facelift. Although there was no money in the coffers for that badly needed re-body, the '89 Montego did receive some very worthwhile improvements. This fuel-injected 2-litre GTi model was an attempt to take a share of the performance saloon market that - at the time - was being dominated by the Cavalier SRi and Sierra GLSi. (Photograph kindly supplied by Rene Winters.)

British Leyland had formerly been playing around with Diesel Morris Marinas and Princesses in the mid-’70s, but the power unit employed in the Montego and Maestro was much more sophisticated in its design and a far cry from these earlier efforts. Development dragged on because the two companies need to ensure that the engine was refined enough for use in passenger cars: the DI engine is inherently less refined than its indirect counterpart and much work centred on the design of the combustion chambers and engine block.

The trade-off in refinement is considered worthwhile because the potential for economy from this design of engine was tremendous. The wait was considered worthwhile by customers keen to purchase a British middleweight Diesel, as the Maestro and Montego diesels gained a following with enthusiastic owners who liked the excellent potential for economy and performance. They were, however, considered to be far inferior in terms of refinement to the PSA Indirect injection diesel rivals, such as the Citroën BX and Peugeot 405.

Late model Montego 2.0 Turbo diesel, shows how little the style of the Montego changed throughout its life. The Perkins developed Prima engine shown right was a highly frugal direct injection unit that offered good (for a Diesel) performance, excellent fuel economy and questionable refinement.

Late model Montego 2.0 Turbo diesel, shows how little the style of the Montego changed throughout its life. The Perkins developed Prima engine shown right was a highly frugal direct injection unit that offered good (for a Diesel) performance, excellent fuel economy and questionable refinement.

At the same time the diesel models were rolled out, a subtle facelift for the Montego was also premiered. Incorporating a new radiator grille and smoother rear end treatment, the upgrade significantly improved the car’s visual appeal without costing the company an arm and a leg. It had been envisaged that it was to have been a much more far-reaching facelift (new body panels were designed, as well as the incorporation of the M16-Series engine), but these plans were quietly dropped as work with Honda on the R8 and R9 pressed quickly ahead.

December 1994
Montego ceased production

It was telling, however, that upon buying Rover in 1994, Bernd Pischetsrieder was reported to have been surprised to find out that both cars were still very much in production – he had assumed that they were products of a bygone age. Needless to say, that situation was reversed rapidly – the Montego and Maestro it was ‘built in the corner of the Cowley Body Plant in ‘V’ Building as the original assembly area in the Cowley South Works had been sold off by BAe a year earlier. The bodies were pushed along by hand along a ‘make do’ one off type production line, on a virtually cottage industry basis by this time,’ as Nick Chung put is. Soon after the BMW takeover, the last Montego Clubman Diesel left Cowley in December 1994.

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