Despite the fact that it was in the nicest spec, the first Montego 1.6 I drove didn’t make as good an impression as I had wished. To quote my original review, the steering was heavy, the gearbox didn’t leave me overjoyed, and it just did not feel as good as I’d hoped.
I’ve driven a few 1.6 Maestros since, and they were enough to convince me I’d been wrong. The heavy steering must just have been a defect on that – accident damaged – Mayfair, and the gearbox seemed far more pleasant that I had recalled. So when Ed Davey asked if I fancied a spin in his late (for an Austin) 1.6L, it seemed the perfect chance to confirm that I’d been wrong. It didn’t – the gearbox in particular was the worst VW box I’ve experienced, and the rest of the package didn’t really measure up either.
I thus felt justified, with experience of 2 cars of different spec and year, in disliking the Montego 1.6. But in the middle of a conversation with 1.6HL owner Steve Worsley, I was told I was talking rubbish. Steve’s opinion was that it was a nice enough experience, and that I would have to try his car as proof my previous reviews and opinions had been unfair. I wasn’t convinced; Steve having bought his car from Ed Davey – mentioned above as the owner of the 1.6. In conversation with Ed I learned that there was scant difference in his opinion between the two cars as far as driving was concerned. My expectations of D87SMW were thus not as high as maybe it’s owner would have liked – though I was hoping I’d be proved wrong.
As a static object it certainly pleased. In rush-hour traffic in the centre of Manchester it drew the eyes of several passers-by, finished in Silverleaf with Osprey velour. There are also a couple of non-standard parts. Early prototypes had a chrome strip around the rear window which was omitted on production models. Steve has reinstated this, demonstrating the elegance this one small touch could have afforded the whole range. Wide MG alloy wheels also add to this air of elegance, and the overall effect is to make the car appear both younger and more expensive than it truly is.
I started the car, and with a slight prod to the accelerator heard the smooth 1.6 S-series thrum it’s way into life. I make no secret of my liking for the S series – it’s not uber-powerful but then it doesn’t power very big cars, it’s torquey for it’s size, smooth, and responsive. My experience of the VW gearbox in other applications had prepared me – it’s not great even when it’s a good one, but as far as they go this one felt smooth. Set off, and… what a revelation! The car steers well, feeling sharp without the weight or dead feeling I found in both the other 1.6 Montegos I tried. What makes this all the more surprising is the fact that Steve’s car is on wider MG spec alloy wheels, so by rights should really be heavier. Montegos are roomy cars for the taller chap – at 6’3″ I was grateful for it’s high roof and sensible driving position, whilst the high glasshouse and thin pillars offer near 360 degree visibility.
There was one fly in the ointment, though. I mention that the gearbox was smooth as far as VW boxes go. However, I’m still not entirely sure it’s of merit. The linkages in Steve’s were aligned so that what could be called the top of the gate – first, third, and fifth – were aligned slightly to the right of the bottom half. I would regularly slow, drop into first for a junction, and hit fourth on the way back up. Or hit second on the way down and miss first. The gearbox takes the edge of what proved to be an eye-opening experience and an event which made me reconsider the Montego 1.6.
Summary then? I’ve made no secret in the past of my love for the S-series, so the engine ticks a box. The gearbox – no. This is one example that is crying out for a conversion to the PG1 used in 2.0s – Austin Rover themselves took the hint in 1989 and started fitting the PG1 to 1.6 Montegos, so I can’t be the only one to feel the change is of benefit. The steering? Well, it’s an eye-opener. D87SMW disproved my first impressions, and it’s not often a car manages to do that.