Tuesday February 27, 2018
When you have a meeting at Elstree Studios, it is essential to arrive in style. Your transport should reflect your hopes, dreams and aspirations – and that is why I was delighted to be chauffeured by Tanya Field in her 1994 Montego Countryman. From the moment when three passers-by regarded the handsome estate-car bodywork with admiration and uttered that familiar phrase ‘I have not seen one of those in years’, the day went brilliantly.
And the reaction of those gentlemen outside the studio gates is one that will be familiar to virtually any Montego owner. This is the Austin-Rover product that was almost ‘street furniture’ for so many years, a car that was as much a part of life in the 1980s and 1990s as early CD players or the comedy of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. It was also a crucial model in the history of British Leyland, for when it debuted on 25th April 1984, the corporation was in dire need of a four-door saloon to compete in the vital fleet sales sector of the market.
Any reader who recalls British motoring of 34 years ago will almost certainly remember the interest – indeed the excitement – in the press surrounding the Montego’s launch. The outgoing Morris Ital had, by that time, earned a reputation as honest and straightforward family transport but by the early 1980s it looked about as contemporary as Chicory Tip guesting at a Culture Club performance. Regardless of which version you ordered the new Austin’s lines belonged to a brave new world of ZX81 Spectrum home computers and a VCR in the living room.
A further point of interest was the badging. The MG Montego EFi was the first Octagon-logo car in this class since the demise of the Magnette Mk. IV in 1968 but the demise of the Ital meant that there were no more cars bearing the Morris logo. The famous name was briefly used on light commercial vehicles such as the Metro Van, but the launch of the Montego simultaneously marked the beginning and end of an era for British Leyland. The quite wonderful Salesman’s Training Programme film starring Robert Lindsay and Peter Egan emphasised the high specification with such fittings as the split rear seat ‘on the HL and above’. Even the L had height-adjustable seat belt mountings and in the early 1980s such fittings would have given the Montego that essential showroom appeal as well as being a revelation to anyone trading in their two-year old Ital.
The film also heavily emphasised the Montego’s main rivals in the essential fleet market – the Ford Sierra and the Vauxhall Cavalier. The GM offering had sold over 13,000 units in January 1984 alone and in the words of Keith Adams at www.aronline.co.uk ‘The Cavalier and the Ford Sierra (11,932 sales) were the leading contenders in the fleet market. They were sandwiched in the best-sellers list by the Ford Escort, the country’s favourite car with January sales of 16,577 and the BL Metro (11,115)’. Fortunately, the chaps at Autocar thought that their 1.6L was, in terms of ‘crispness and driveability’ streets ahead of its two main competitors and that the five-speed transmission was ‘slick and precise’.
By the end of the year the Montego line-up was enhanced by the rather handsome Countryman estate, a car that tempted not a few Volvo owners away from their 240 wagons, and was the winner of a Design Council award. April 1985 saw the launch of the ‘fastest production MG ever made’. The Montego Turbo had a top speed of 126 mph and could accelerate from 0 – 60 mph in under eight seconds – figures to impress the most aspirational of yuppie motorists. The Austin name was discontinued in 1987, although the non-MG Montegos were never officially badged as Rovers, and the very popular diesel versions were introduced in the following year.
The final Montego departed the Crowley plant in December 1994 and for almost two decades the tireless members of the owners’ club - https://maestro.org.uk/ - have helped to keep this increasingly rare car in the public eye. And from my own experiences at classic shows – and at major film studios – any version, be it a 2.0 Vanden Plas or a well-used and well-loved estate, is guaranteed to make an impression.