On 19 May 1984, we took Austin's new affordable family saloon for a spin. And although it's hardly fondly remembered now, we were quite pleased with the Montego

Last week, I was looking through the classifieds to find a semi-exciting used car for which I could afford the insurance. No luck. “I’m sick of driving my awful 206,” I said, exasperated. My dad looked completely outraged. “What the hell are you complaining about? When I was your age, I had to drive a Montego! Now that really was awful.”

So, intrigued by his uncharacteristic lack of nostalgia, I headed to the Autocar archives.

The Austin Montego, as you well know, was a four-door family saloon launched by British Leyland (BL) in 1984 as a replacement for the Morris Ital and Austin Ambassador, and a rival to cars such as the Ford Sierra and Vauxhall Cavalier. The 1.6-litre version would have cost you £6,159 back then, equivalent to £18,300 today.

In 2017, similarly priced rivals would include the 1.6-litre diesel Skoda Octavia (£19,000) and Vauxhall Insignia (£17,999).On 19 May 1984, we subjected it to the famed Autocar Road Test.

We’d already driven a pre-production model on 28 April of that year, with mixed feelings; although we’d praised its “refinement, acceptable performance, good ride quality and interior comfort,” we were disappointed by some niggles, including “a lot of wind noise, an uneasy rubberiness to the steering,” and irritating build quality issues.

However, having privately acquired a car for testing, rather than one of BL’s press fleet, we were happy to report that things were much better, with only a few minor issues that could easily be sorted by the dealer.

“In the car’s crispness and driveability, our car was streets ahead,” we began.

We achieved an average top speed of 99mph, just short of the official 102mph, and a 0-60mph time of 11.9sec, one slower than BL’s claim. It was “still impressive against its direct competition, the Vauxhall Cavalier 1.6GL (12.0sec) and Ford Sierra 1.6L (13.0sec)", though.

“Tight the engine may have been after just 1,500 miles, we were impressed by the smooth revving way in which the new 1,598cc S-series unit delivered its power,” we commented.

The car’s Volkswagen gearbox was “slick and precise, nicely weighted, and particularly impressive in the way the dog-leg second-to-third shift can be snatched, with a smooth, straightforward action.”

The ratios were well set-out, too with fifth allowing “sedate, relaxed cruising at the legal motorway limit with the engine purring over at 3,150rpm, close enough to the 3,500rpm peak torque speed to ensure good cruising economy,” but also “shudder-free cruising through 30mph suburbs”.

Fuel economy looked to be another plus for the Austin owner. “With electronic engine management, Weslake-type head and lightweight construction going for it, the S-series engine should be an efficient and therefore economical unit,” we said, reckoning that the Montego looked good for 35.0mpg.

BL also looked to have fixed the issues of our pre-production Montego, with this car “impressing us with its lack of wind noise and general levels of mechanical refinement.” Only above 70mph did “any trace of obtrusive wind noise develop”.

Engine noise was also well insulated, and could “hardly be heard at all when cruising with top gear engaged.” Transmission whine was also absent.

Road noise, however, was an issue. “While the suspension is compliant enough to soak up uneven surfaces, the tyres can be heard distinctly pattering over small sharp irregularities, and there is a constant background roar from anything other than the smoothest motorway surfaces.”

Still, we reckoned the Montego had “better than average levels of refinement, so that long-distance cruising is not needlessly tiring.”

The car’s steering was far crisper than we’d previously experienced, “although it felt a little dead around the straight-ahead,” with zero offset, as in Austin’s Maestro hatchback. No power assistance was available on 1.6-litre Montegos, making steering heavy at parking speeds but pleasantly light and responsive with good feel on the move.

In corners, you got predictable understeer, but this was well contained by the trailing arms/transverse beam suspension, which resisted body roll well. This made for pleasingly neutral cornering at moderately fast speeds.

The brakes were also remarkably progressive; not very good with a touch of the pedal, but very good with 20lb of pressure.

Inside, the Montego was impressively roomy. Our test car was dark blue on the outside, while the upholstery and trim was in a variety of dark browns, “a rather sombre combination.” Yet it remained “light and airy thanks to the high roofline and big glass area”.

“The driving position is immediately comfortable,” we praised, “with an ideal seat-steering wheel-pedal relationship.” The front seats were reasonably firm, with plenty of fore-aft adjustment.

Equipment was also generous, even on the fairly basic L trim level we tested, with a “good quality stereo/radio/cassette player”, “internally adjustable door mirrors, full carpeting, cloth seating and soft rooflining”. We were also pleasantly surprised that L had height-adjustable seatbelt mountings.

Although through-flow ventilation “appeared to be non-existent”, the four-speed fan and heater proved to be effective,” and could be directed to demist the windscreen, onto the passengers or into the footwells.

In the rear, there was adequate head and leg room, even for tall adults, while three people sat abreast wouldn’t have been too much of an issue.

The boot was most impressive, however: “this is what the Montego is all about,” we said. “It is capacious, at 18.4 cu.ft bigger than most of its opposition,” while it also had two generous underfloor storage compartments.”

So, to me, that sounds like a pretty well-rounded, decent car, although my dad and all of my colleagues here at Autocar Towers who’ve ever driven one are vocally and vehemently opposed to such a statement…

Our Verdict

Vauxhall Insignia

The Vauxhall Insignia is only small details away from rivalling the class best

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Comments
33

26 January 2017
I had a white MG version and despite the flaws that was a very nice and characterful car- Hmm those were the days...

We killed our own car industry because we lusted after the foreign pretty maids... n the mean time I have seen the true patriots of these foreign brands continue to support their own in their home market..

Australia is going the same way too.. I truly hope America does not continue, and realise that once GM (almost gone) Chrysler (Fiat dependant) and Ford (strong enough) continue to be stabbed in the back by its home market with the trojan horses brought in by greedy businessmen that they too would no longer have a car industry....

26 January 2017
Years of chronic underinvestment and poor management killed the UK car industry and it's telling that of the US big three the only one doing 'ok' in your opinion is product led Ford.

Patriotism is all well and good but the buying public isn't going to buy an inferior product simply because it's from the home market and by the 1990s Rover group products were just outclassed by the continental competition. It seems Australia failed to heed this lesson.

5 February 2017
Jon 1972 wrote:

Years of chronic underinvestment and poor management killed the UK car industry.

Dont forget the overly militant unions, they were also responsible for killing the majority of British industry, not just the automotive one, and are now trying to do the same with the NHS and education.

26 January 2017
Did my apprenticeship on these, from 1987, so have got very fond memories of them and the Maestro's. I may be wrong, but I don't remember a GL model though? I thought they were L, HL, HLS, Vanden Plas & MG, until being realigned when they took the 'Rover' name? I took my old Turbo Diesel Countryman estate down to Spain a few times with 5 of us and a roof box and managed 50mpg, which was incredible for any car back then, let alone one with over 100k on the clock. Not a favourite on most peoples list, but deserved more praise than it got (and more investment too!)I'd have another if I had the room, but the garage is already stuffed with another 'nostalgia-mobile'!

26 January 2017
stumpys182 wrote:

I may be wrong, but I don't remember a GL model though? I thought they were L, HL, HLS, Vanden Plas & MG, until being realigned

You are not wrong. The level of accuracy in Autocar's journalism these days is pretty low

26 January 2017
Paul73 wrote:
stumpys182 wrote:

I may be wrong, but I don't remember a GL model though? I thought they were L, HL, HLS, Vanden Plas & MG, until being realigned

You are not wrong. The level of accuracy in Autocar's journalism these days is pretty low

The article doesn't mention the Monty in GL form, it refers to the Cavalier GL....

26 January 2017
Unless it has a German or Ford badge, cars don't seem to be fondly remembered which often contrasts to their reviews and road tests in their day. Volvo also suffers as does Vauxhall.

26 January 2017
The above comment is aimed at cars of the same time period as this montego.

26 January 2017
Funnily enough, my other Nostalgia-mobile is a Volvo 740 Wagon! Fully restored, with 1989 music cassettes the only sound aloud! Even has an emergency ice hammer on the dashboard!

26 January 2017
Ahh, the old Montego - there is still a diesel countryman estate around my area, complete with rusty wheel arches! I remember the MG Turbo Montego, seriously rapid, and described as a "torque steering, hedge seeking missile"

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