Thursday September 21, 2017
One of the most enjoyable journeys I have ever experienced in a classic car was in a friend’s late-model Montego Countryman to Elstree Studios. Anyone can arrive at such a venue in a hired stretched limousine, but I think being chauffeured in the Rover Group’s finest shows a particular sense of style - especially if said car was eventually parked by Dame Judi Dench’s private bay.
The Montego is not a ‘forgotten car’ but it is an often overlooked one, for back in April 1984 it represented a quantum leap over its Morris Ital predecessor. The brakes, suspension and steering were from the Maestro, but the Montego was an appreciably larger car with vast separate boot. The three-box styling was a major selling point for the fleet market at that time, especially as the Sierra Sapphire would not appear until 1987, and there was a model for almost every pocket, from the 1.3L to the Vanden Plas.
Some of us of an age to remember TVS, the ZX81 Spectrum and the days when Channel Four actually screened decent programmes may also recall this splendidly naff commercial. Even more hilarious is this sales training film starring Robert Lindsay and Peter Egan, which is not only far more entertaining than your average episode of Emmerdale it illustrates how Austin-Rover hoped their new model would appeal to business customers.
In the autumn of 1984 Austin Rover unveiled the Montego Countryman, which was to receive a Design Council award, and proved to be the perfect choice for motorists who required estate-car versatility without a Volvo 740-style price tag. 1985 saw the 150 bhp Montego Turbo with its Garret T3 blower and top speed of 126 mph that made it the ‘quickest MG production car of all time’; here, Noel Edmonds presents an uber-1980s promotion from the Gaydon proving ground. In 1987 Motor tested the Montego Turbo opposite an Alfa Romeo 75 Twin Spark Velcoe and found it to be ‘faster, roomier and free of the annoying quirks that still mar Alfa ownership’.
Unfortunately, despite the Montego’s many strong points, from the MG’s verve to the seven-seater practicality of the Countryman, but there remained too many build quality issues. There were the additional sales challenges of a vaguely ‘middle-aged’ image and so in 1987 the Austin badging was dropped and some ‘yuppie’ duotone paint schemes were introduced, although the 1989 introduction of a diesel engine option probably made more of a commercial impact.
The last Montego, in Countryman guise, left the Cowley plant in late 1994; earlier that year BMW’s Bernd Pischetsriede was allegedly amazed to find it still in production. One problem was that the styling of the saloon, if not the estate, dated rapidly. It could be argued that the Maestro and the Montego should have been developed and launched before the Metro, as the light-medium/medium market sectors were more commercially important than the supermini sector. As it was the Ford Sierra and the Vauxhall Cavalier Mk. II were already well-established by the time the car that was ‘designed for living’ made its debut.
For the past 18 years, the Montego has enjoyed the support of a loyal owners’ club and they do attract attention both at car shows and on the road. I can certainly bear witness to the latter, for on approaching the studio gate three EastEnders cast members pointed at it, one remarking ‘I thought they had all gone now’. So, if you want to make a real impact but lack the overdraft facilities for a Rolls-Royce Phantom, the Countryman can still be acquired for reasonable money…