CC has recently seen the MG Maestro, the hot hatch version of the Austin Maestro hatchback. In summary, a car with a solid and rational appeal on paper or spreadsheet but that failed to translate into the metal for a variety of reasons, and not just the usual BLMC/Austin-Rover reliability issues. The result was that it ultimately disappointed in the showroom and marketplace. But, what of the larger saloon version, the Austin Montego? The feature car, shot in Spain by kurtzos, is perhaps the best example of the Montego I’ve seen on the road for some years.
The Montego was launched exactly a year after the Maestro, in the spring of 1984, after an even more protracted and painful development saga than the smaller hatchback. Remember, the Maestro was derived from the Montego, not the Montego from the Maestro, but that car came a year earlier. Have I or BLMC confused you yet?
The good news was that the Montego was the right size to take on the market-leading Ford Cortina; it was a sound configuration (front wheel drive, competent suspension, reasonable price, newish engines, quite spacious, big boot) and had a good range of trim levels and other options. The bad news was the styling – it was described in CAR magazine as having been styled by “a committee that hadn’t met”. That was untrue – but it was styled by two people about six years apart – one at the Austin-Rover design centre in Canley, Coventry in 1976, and one at Longbridge in 1982. But they did meet.
The first styling exercises for the Montego (also known as LM11) had been done in 1976, and were representative of their time. Then came the decision to develop the LM10 Maestro from the LM11, ahead of the saloon version. This implied a problem BL had had before – using the doors from one car for another, supposedly different, car. It was the Landcrab and Maxi again, but with that distinctive concave curve in the centre of the doors, influencing the front and rear quarter styling as well.
In practice, this is perfectly possible for such a conversion – after all, at that time, most saloon/hatchback pairs, such as the Ford Sierra, Vauxhall Cavalier (GM J-car), Renault 9 and 11 (Alliance and Encore) or the VW Golf and Jetta used the same doors–but crucially, usually on the same wheelbase. The Montego had a wheelbase of 101 inches, 2.4 inches longer than the Maestro, and consequently the doors that fitted the shorter hatchback were arguably too short for the larger saloon, and undeniably too short for the longer saloon glasshouse. Hence, the awkward third window, aft of the relatively thick C-pillar on the Montego. Many methods of incorporating this were tried and it wasn’t until BL’s new Director of Design, Roy Axe, arrived from Chrysler in 1982 that the problem was resolved. Sort of, just.
Roy Axe had made his name at the Rootes Group, which he had joined as an apprentice in 1955 and where he had become director of design at the age of 29. In 1976, he went to Chrysler in Detroit before being tempted back to the UK by Harold Musgrove, Austin-Rover’s Chairman, six years later. Musgrove by this time had the view that Austin-Rover had a fully competitive manufacturing capability and needed to improve the products to match. He also had an infamously poor relationship with David Bache, Axe’s predecessor, and the designer of the Rover SD1 and 2000, effectively firing him in 1981.
Axe actually saw the Maestro and Montego on his first day at work in early 1982 and recommended that the designs be totally revised. Such action was not possible by then, and the Maestro had to go into production as it was.
Still, Axe was able to some remedial work on the Montego–he put a capping along the door window line to visually raise and level the window line and lifted the third-window sill to match. This was to hide one of the Maestro’s weakest points – the dropping waistline, which dropped as it went rearwards, in a manner opposite to the more fashionable wedge shape. But it still wasn’t by any means a great-looking car.
The Montego estate was much better visually, as it had a specific rear door frame and a very different third side window treatment.
One other crucial thing Axe was able to do for the Montego was to create a much better interior and fascia for the car, which acted to separate it from the Maestro probably more than the exterior styling. This was actually the first of several successful interiors for Austin-Rover, and was arguably more attractive than the equivalent Vauxhall or Ford interiors.
Engine-wise, the Montego had a range of transversely mounted 1.3-, 1.6- and 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines, with end-on four or five speed gearboxes. The 1.3-litre was really an entry level special, powered by the venerable A series. The 1.6 was the core of the range, with the new Austin-Rover S series engine, linked to a VW gearbox. The 2.0-litre was the O series, from the BL Princess and Ambassador, linked to a Honda gearbox. With fuel injection, it created the MG Montego EFi, which achieved almost all that could have been reasonably hoped for it in terms of image boost. It was certainly fully competitive, as a driver’s car or in showroom appeal, for the similarly configured Ford or Vauxhall products, and the red car, a 1990 MG Montego 2.0i, shows the attraction is there.
The MG version, at least initially, featured a digital dashboard, similar to the MG Maestro. It was in the spirit of the 1980s, and added some showroom glitz, but not a lot of public acceptance, and was quietly dropped within two years.
So, when the Montego arrived in 1984, to replace the awkward Austin Ambassador and the very dated Morris Ital, it should have been quite a strong package, maybe hampered only by the exterior styling. However, there was a problem. Two actually.
First, the car had been in development since 1976 and had been benchmarked against the 1976 Cortina Mk 4, then the 1979 Cortina Mk 5 and the 1975 Vauxhall Cavalier Mk1 (Opel Ascona B). But in 1981, the Cavalier Mk 1 was replaced by the Cavalier Mk 2 (Ascona C) with front-wheel drive (and which was a hit), and in 1982 the conservative Ford Cortina was replaced by the avant-garde (visually very, technically a bit) Sierra. So a car that would have been well able to hold its own against the competition for which it was designed was left looking late for the party, and was saddled with the Maestro association and image.
Poor quality from Cowley didn’t help. For some years, RAC and AA (the British equivalents of AAA) breakdown patrols referred to the motorway hard shoulder as Montego Bay. A bonnet that opens on its own at 70 mph is not a great feature, as one of my friends will tell you.
Secondly, there was another Montego competitor to consider: In July 1984, Austin-Rover launched a new compact Rover saloon, known as the Rover 213 and 216, to replace the Triumph Acclaim, and based on the third generation Honda Civic, although with some Rover engines and more Rover input than the Acclaim. This car was alongside the Montego and Maestro in the showroom, and if you felt the home-grown cars had awkward styling, a less than great impression for solidity or a dull image, then maybe the Rover would suit you better.
Within three years it was clear that both the Maestro and Montego were saddled with an unfortunately pedestrian image, and Austin-Rover responded by producing more appealing versions, using the old technique of additional equipment for showroom appeal and better value. In 1987, revised Maestro and Montego models were launched, resplendent with “duotone” paint that echoed the theme of the Rover Sterling (Sterling 825) luxury saloon.
The marketing of these cars was directly attempting to attract a more youthful clientele, and led to one of the most memorable advertisements of the 1980s. Austin-Rover was finally grasping the spirit of the decade.
At this time, Austin-Rover also accepted that the Austin brand was a positive barrier to sales and so, to the disgust of the dealers, stopped badging the cars as such – all the cars being called by their model names only. The Austin name had such a negative image that in 1988 serious consideration was given to rebranding the Montego as the Rover 400. This was never proceeded with, as the R8 Rover 400 (partnered with the Honda Concerto) was nearly ready, but in many European markets it was badged as the Rover Montego. Many versions were sold with a trim level name rather than a letter or number, such as the featured blue car, a 2.0 litre Mayfair seen by kurtzos in Madrid, Spain.
Any promotion of the Maestro and Montego finished around 1990, as the R8 Rover 200 and 400 became available, but the cars continued to be available until late 1994, when BMW stopped production of them. BMW Chairman Bernd Pischetsreider was allegedly surprised to hear from journalists in early 1994, at the time of the BMW takeover of the Rover Group, that the Maestro and Montego were still being built. By then they were selling in small numbers predominantly to large fleet customers–police, the utility companies and the military–and were being assembled in an almost hand built way in a dark corner of Cowley. In a swap for Longbridge producing the last Morris (an Ital) in 1983, Cowley produced the last Austins.
The Montego should be recognised (apart from the gearbox) as the last all-British mid-range saloon, and deserves a footnote for that. But also, it gets a footnote for the being ultimately a disappointment.
Partly this was due to the image, or rather its relative lack of a strong image, such as that personified by the 1981 Vauxhall Cavalier; partly it was the Maestro association; and partly it was the car itself. Any early reputation for poor reliability will often stick, fairly or unfairly, and the Montego certainly had one.
The estate car did gain a compact Volvo image, almost, and was available with a third row of rear-facing seats and the perhaps the first 180-degree sweeping rear window wiper. But, all in, it was probably only fairly sound rather than great.
A diesel engine came eventually, and there was an MG Turbo version in 1985, with a great appetite for front tyres. This was proclaimed as the fastest MG ever, the fastest car in its class and took a lot of Austin-Rover’s attention and marketing effort, with the car clearly seen as an important image builder for the brand, and a sign of renewal for the whole company. They were certainly trying.
All in, in 10 years over 570,000 Montegos (and over 600,000 Maestros) were built in the UK, and perhaps 500 remain in the UK. Personally, I think it deserves a higher survival rate, but I can understand I am again in a minority.
One part of the Maestro and Montego story that is worth looking at is the cars’ afterlife. Clearly, Austin-Rover were tempted by Fiat’s and Renault’s success in selling a retired product to a less well developed market, so when UK production finished, the Maestro tooling was sold to a Bulgarian business. The venture was not a success, as only around 2,000 cars were assembled, from kits shipped out of Cowley. Amid tales of skulduggery, alleged corruption and the selection of a Skoda, the deal unravelled and the kits ended up back in the UK, and some of the cars intended for the Bulgarian market were assembled in UK, by an independent company, as late as 2001.
The Montego was sold on to Sipani in India, in a deal that may have been intended to match the transfer of the 1955 Morris Oxford series II to India in the late 1950s, a car that has only just gone out of production. However, volume production never commenced, reaching only a few hundred cars before being abandoned, and the Montego ended up, along with the Maestro, in China, with the design being owned by Etsong and now the First Auto Works.
Variants of both cars are still being built, though spotting the Longbridge – Canley styling has become harder. That may not be a bad thing.