Autocar and Austin ran a design competition (rather less sophisticated that today's version) to design a 'sporting Montego'. What a shame such a car never became reality.
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.
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…