History : The road to perdition – Part Five
In Part Five of this fascinating series, which originally appeared in Vehicle Engineer, AROnline Contributor Ian Elliott looks at the one of the turning points of the 1970s: the Austin Allegro…
To the silly Seventies…
WE left the story at the point that the Morris Marina had been launched, in 1971. It was another two years before the ‘advanced engineering’ counterpart from Austin appeared in May 1973. Developed under the code name ADO67, the Allegro, like the Marina, followed the Ford-inspired template of multiple engine and trim options to maximise its market coverage from (initially) two basic shells – the two door and four door.
This meant that it had to accommodate the very tall Maxi-type E Series power unit for the 1500 and 1750 models. In addition, the air-blending heater unit, common with the Marina, needed considerable depth within the bulkhead. Thus what had started off as a fairly sleek Harris Mann sketch of a sort of ‘mini-Mustang saloon’ ended up as a rather tubby, high-waisted car. The effect was compounded on its way into production by an unfortunate extra ‘chubbiness’ arising from panel–pressing ‘spring’. (When a steel panel is pressed, there can sometimes be a small amount of ‘spring’ away from the intended die shape. Tooling design can often compensate for this, by altering the shape of the dies so that the panel springs back to the intended shape. But it’s rather a black art…) It is surprising how very small changes in curvature on body pressings can make or mar the appearance of a car. (having said all this, one wonders how the Allegro might have been accepted in 2007, when very high-waisted, dumpy cars seem so fashionable).
In a conscious move away from the heavy and expensive subframes used by Issigonis and his team on the Mini and ADO16 (1100/1300) models, ADO 67 had its front suspension attaching directly to the shell, while a very simple cross-tube arrangement was installed for the rear trailing arm mountings. Despite the exclusion of Issigonis from the ADO 67 design process, it was decided to go ahead with an interesting second-generation version of the Moulton interconnected suspension. Instead of the rubber springing used for Hydrolastic, nitrogen gas springs formed the basis of the new Hydragas system. This sought to approach Citroen levels of ride comfort but with sharper handling and without the cost and complexity of powered height-adjusting oleo-pneumatics.
As with Hydrolastic, there were high levered loads within the mechanical elements of the suspension, to obtain adequate wheel travel from very compact, short-travel springs. These loads were elegantly contained within the rear cross-tube assembly, but had to be absorbed within the integral body structure at the front. MkI Allegros sometimes suffered road-excited ‘clonks’ from the front suspension pivot bushing, necessitating improved bush design on the MkII models.
An innocent change from the ADO16 specification led to high-profile disaster: whereas the ADO16 had used ball bearing rear hubs, Allegro, quite reasonably enough, adopted taper roller bearings. The big difference of course, being that the ball bearing housing was clamped up tight with 60 lb ft (pre-metrication) torque on the hub nut, whereas a taper roller must have no end-load on it at all. Any garage mechanic who assumed that ADO67 followed its predecessor in this respect could therefore put his customers in great danger.
One serious (but not fatal) accident caused by an over-tightened rear hub and consequent wheel detachment had the full BBC TV Panorama treatment, and the programme was repeated with unseemly relish. The eventual recall didn’t change anything mechanical, but simply added a small plastic ring around the hub nut, with a warning message for mechanics to check the workshop manual before trying to adjust the hub bearing. In modern computer vernacular it might have simply said ‘R.T.F.M.’ (Read The F******* Manual). Hindsight perhaps suggests that the company should have anticipated such carelessness.
Another piece of Allegro mythology relates to its body stiffness. In common with several contemporary cars of all makes, there were some stipulations about how the Allegro should be handled in operations such as jacking and giving suspended tows, etc, as it was quite easy to damage the body if stresses were applied in the wrong places. One of the things that Pressed Steel Fisher, BL’s in-house body engineering and manufacturing company, used to do was to test competitive bodyshells against their own handiwork.
A graph of beam stiffnesses measured by PSF for various bodyshells is interesting. It shows the Allegro shell having a figure of around 5.5 MN/m, much lower than the surprisingly high stiffness of the ADO 73 (Mk.2) Marina at 9.7 MN/m. However, it was still higher than the 5.2 MN/m of the contemporary VW Golf, the 4.7 MN/m of the Ford Fiesta or the 3.7 MN/m mustered by the Renault 5. These things are all relative…
One little-known story about the launch of the Allegro is that John Barber, then No 2 to Lord Stokes, gave a sudden order, a week before the public unveiling, to raise the launch prices of the entire Allegro range quite substantially. The number-crunchers within Austin Morris had spent months carefully working out the optimum pricing to gain acceptable revenue while being competitive with rival cars. To then have something of the order of £100 or 10% arbitrarily added, in one fell swoop, seemed to most of us an act of rank lunacy. The Product Planning Manager for Allegro, Roland Maturi, quickly set up an impromptu ‘Motor Show’ outside the Longbridge Kremlin. Examples of the new Allegro were placed alongside cars of comparable pricing, and John Barber was asked to view them, in the hope that he might be persuaded to allow the original pricing structure to stand.
In particular, it was pointed out that some Allegro models would now be priced directly against their considerably larger Maxi and 1800 sisters in dealer showrooms. (e.g. Allegro 1500 4dr £1164/Maxi 1500 £1182, Allegro 1750 SS £1367/Maxi 1750HL £1355/1800 de luxe £1279). Barber refused to back down, however, causing great consternation, especially in Sales & Marketing, who stood to take the rap if Allegro sales targets weren’t met. In one very limited sense, Barber was proved right, in that surprisingly little comment was made about the prices of the new range. Since it was announced that the ADO16 1100/1300 would stay in production for the time being, it might not have seemed unreasonable that the new, larger and more highly-specified design should cost quite a lot more than the old model.
However, what we will never know is what Allegro might have achieved if it had started life at the ‘correct’ pricing level. Apart from being significantly more affordable from day one, it would have enjoyed a far better rating in terms of value for money, probably for the rest of its production run. Initial price at launch plays a very important part in public perceptions and expectations, as the company was to find on other occasions in the future. Had Allegro been priced more in line with the ADO16 it replaced, it might have stood more chance of matching its sales volumes too.
Comparing with the ADO16
In making comparisons between the ADO 16 and Allegro sales performance, however, it should be recognised that in the 1970s there was far greater, and growing competition for the business, especially in the UK. The Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Anthony Barber, had, without any warning to UK manufacturers, suddenly taken off the credit brakes, greatly increasing demand for cars. This created a platform for importers to fill the gap, which they did very eagerly. They were unwittingly assisted by the Austin Morris Sales & Marketing Director, Filmer M Paradise, who embarked on a policy of rationalising the huge A-M dealer network.
At the time he was quoted as saying “We don’t want the rats and mice of the trade representing us” when justifying the termination of many small dealers. Ironically, some years later, when he had re-joined George Turnbull to help run Talbot (formerly Rootes/Chrysler), he claimed in an interview that the real reason for trimming the A-M dealer network had been simply that IR disruption made it impossible to supply sufficient products to sustain all the outlets. Maybe the truth lay between these two poles, but there is no doubt that Austin Morris lost a lot of goodwill and sales in the longer term through the double-whammy of forcing locally-respected small dealers to take on other franchises, almost inevitably for imported cars. Franchising is, of course, a lot more complicated than implied here, but we are supposed to be focussing on product engineering, so we’ll leave it at that.
Within a couple of years, we were launching Allegro 2, a fairly comprehensive facelift and package of detail improvements. There had been some criticism of difficulty in entering or leaving the rear seats of 4-door Allegros – the shape of the rear cushion and positioning of the front seat belt reels obstructed passengers’ foot movement. I was told that the original production Allegro had inexplicably shifted away from the design package, and that some of the facelift changes were effectively modifications to get the rear passenger H-points back to where they should have been, or even further back, to improve rear legroom and access. (Ford had done something remarkably similar in the 1960s with the rear seat packaging of their MkIII ‘Z-cars’, although in that case, there was more fundamental engineering, such as a wider rear axle, involved).
Some sort of record for brevity of production run was set in 1975, when the Allegro Estate MkI range was launched at Easter, to be superceded by the MkII versions a couple of months later. This wasn’t intentional, just a combination of delays in the Estate programme and the facelift being brought forward as fast as possible. The styling of the Estate was distinctive (one unflattering description was “a Pigmy Hearse”) but no-one could argue against the package, the car having around the same plan area as the contemporary Vauxhall Chevette but with approaching double the cargo volume. The handy underfloor compartment, incidentally, was big enough to house a full size LPG tank, so you could have a conversion without compromising normal use of the loadspace.
If anything, the Allegro is today even more reviled than the Marina, but once again, its failings have been exaggerated beyond all sense. This was brought home to me when ‘Which?’ (Consumers Association) magazine, which never missed an opportunity to pour vitriol on BL products, actually once admitted that the Allegro made quite a good used car buy, having better than average durability. That was quite a shock, I had to sit down.