BL baby that defied

the odds

Austin Montego

I HAVE a great admiration for the Austin Montego because it is a car that just refuses to die off.

With the help of a truly superb band of enthusiasts, the Maestro and Montego Owners' Club this last hurrah for the famous Austin name is still the pride and joy of classic car events.

Although scrappage and being run into the ground by the banger brigade cut numbers of survivors to a worrying degree there are still some prize examples around, confounding the critics who slated the car on its introduction in 1984.

True, the Montego had its problems in a highly competitive market dominated by Ford and Vauxhall but it did have a charm all of its own.

The Montego was produced by the woeful British Leyland concern until 1988 and then by the Rover Group until 1995.

It was a replacement for the rear-wheel-drive Morris Ital and front-wheel-drive Austin Marina.

On its launch, it was sold as an Austin and also an MG and was the last new car to be launched with the use of the Austin marque.

Early Montegos suffered from the poor build quality and reliability issues that dogged BL in the early days.

But its technology was ahead of its time, notably the solid-state instrumentation and engine management systems, but the "talking" dashboard fitted to high-end models (and initially used to promote the Montego as an advanced high-tech offering) was prone to irritating faults and came to be regarded as something of an embarrassment by BL.

This feature was discontinued after a short period. There were also problems with the early sets of body-coloured bumpers which tended to crack in cold weather at the slightest impact.

In all, 436,000 Montegos were sold in the UK between 1984 and 1995. In August 2006, a survey revealed that the Montego was Britain's eighth-most scrapped car of the last 30 years, with just 8,988 still in working order.

Some pre-1989 models fitted with the A and S-series engines could not run on unleaded petrol without the cylinder head being converted or needing fuel additives. This led to many owners simply scrapping the cars, as leaded petrol was removed from sale in Britain after 1999.

The car was launched to the UK Press in the south of France and I was present, remembering it to be something of hard-sell presentation.

Sweeping along the Cote d'Azure, my launch example failed to gain admiring glances from the locals and this set the stage for the overall perception of the poor old Montego which failed to pull its manufacturer's image back into the thumbs up zone and is remembered more as a workhorse than a style statement.

It did, however have a degree of celebrity appeal because the late Princess Diana is said to have owned one.

But the Montego did have some saving graces in that the 1.6 and 2.0 versions were remarkably lively, but the 1.3 is best not talked about.

It was also fairly comfortable and did have a following, but it could not hold a candle to the Ford Cortina.

Some versions became very rare, especially the seven-seat Countryman Estate. Hearselike it may have been but it was by far the best looking Montego.

Its looks sparked research in the R&D department into a lifestyle estate version with a spare wheel mounted on the tailgate, but nothing came of the idea.

By 1994 when it was all over for the parent company Rover, the last Montego, a Clubman diesel left the Cowley plant on the BMW takeover to close the book on a last link to the famous Austin name.

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