Why we love the… Austin Allegro
Michael Wynn-Williams on his dad’s Allegro Super, and why he owes his life to it…
I Dedicate My Life to…
…The Austin Allegro
This is an industry that arouses such passions in people that we cannot help but obsess about the superlatives: the biggest, the best, the most expensive, the first, the last. Each of us feels compelled to seek out the pinnacle of automotive achievement in whatever area our interest lies. Overall, though, the characteristic that probably arouses the most fanaticism is that of speed. We have the land speed record, of course, but that is not enough. We have 0-60 times, absolute top speed, bhp, torque, power-to-weight and just about any other measure that might make your own humble machine comparable with the supremos. However, we are all agreed on what constitutes the fastest car we have ever driven: it’s the car we learnt to drive on.
Not that initial experience showed much promise for me. Those from one-car families were taught to drive on something decent, something that you did not actually mind being seen in. It was my misfortune that my father had a second car that he used as a runabout; four wheels and an engine were all that where required. If only he had understood the need to nurture my potential then he would have ensured that I could have honed my skills on a GTi at the very least, but he was tragically blind to my talents. I had to learn to drive on an Austin Allegro.
It was not as if my father was a poor driver or anything. Far from tootling along at 25 miles per hour with a trilby hat perched on his head he used to dazzle me with the way his feet danced over the pedals. Not only that, he could accomplish this while steering, signalling, talking and even knowing what gear he was in. I was determined that one day I too would drive with equal style. Just, please God, not in an Austin Allegro. Ours was a particularly nasty example: a yellow blancmange on wheels with the interior a shade of brown you would fear to tread in. There was something about that car that made one feel so utterly worthless, a miserable speck of humanity condemned to eternal fogeydom. I remember I used to gaze enviously on those who were learning to drive on Cortinas and Cavaliers, even an Austin Princess would have been acceptable. But no, aged seventeen and I was driving like an old woman.
Perhaps my life would have been worth living if it had been a mildly interesting version. An Equipe would have been nice, or a 1500 at the very least. Tragically my humiliation knew no bounds for I was shackled to a 1300 Super. Super?! “Super” is what your granny says when you come third in the egg-and-spoon race at school. This was “super”, not as in “superpower”, but as in “superfluous”. I remember the sticky vinyl seats, the hard plastic fascia and the exposed painted metal. There was no radio, no rev counter and I distinctly recall that the speedometer only extended to 28mph. The one saving grace was that the gearstick had the gear positions and numbers clearly labelled. I found this deeply reassuring in the days before I condescended to take the driving seat.
Driving lessons on the open road were not quite the ordeal I had expected. The controls were light enough and it changed gear smoothly if the wand was waved around in general accordance with the chart. Visibility out the front was also quite reasonable with a good square bonnet and clear edges, although the back-end tended to disappear somewhere beyond the parcel-shelf. Where the Allegro really excelled for the learner driver was in hill starts, the clutch having a bite that crushed the rear suspension down to its very bump stops. It was not that the clutch was sharp or anything, quite the opposite, it was simply that the whole car seemed to rear up when the clutch was engaged. This relieved the poor learner of having to listen out for the drop in engine revs, hard to do when your right foot is trembling up and down on the accelerator.
|…my proud boast being that I could make its little
tyres squeal at every corner no
matter how gentle the curve
So for the new driver an Allegro was a placid partner on the learning curve. I had so few scares with this compliant little creature that even my enthusiastic use of the handbrake whilst the car was still in motion only ruffled my father’s feathers, the car itself simply stuttered to a halt. By the time I took the test I was perfectly in tune with its bovine gait and I drifted round the course as a Jersey cow munches its way round a pasture. My undoubted skill was recognised in an easy pass, the examiner barely able to hold back his admiration. He licensed me to tootle my life away, Man and Allegro in perfect harmony. For me though, it was a licence to unleash the hounds of hell.
I was utterly determined to punish that car for being born an Allegro, and moreover, to thrash it to within an inch of the scrapyard for being born to me. When I had the car to myself I treated all three pedals with equal disdain: each was either completely ignored, or was buried in the carpet. The little thing rocked like a ship in a storm as I span the wheel from lock to lock, a crazy-eyed Ahab hunting for that cruel white whale. I took it right to its limits, my proud boast being that I could make its little tyres squeal at every corner no matter how gentle the curve. I guess my father must have trusted that such sport was not possible in this stodgy carriage, but I was aiming to turn it into a blood sport.
That the fateful day would come was inevitable. A friend of mine lived about 15 miles away, a route that took in a mixture of country roads and a straight, fast B road. With few other road users this was an enormously thrilling drive. Each time I took the trip I shaved a little more time of the journey, each advance testing me that bit more. By now I was the master of this little animal, guiding it with an iron fist, and the time had come to combine all my skills into one glorious attempt to set the record. The road was dry and the traffic was clear as this yellow pest was sent tearing off into the English countryside. Stop signs were read as give way, give way signs were read as go faster. The tyres howled and the engine screamed. On only one occasion on this one-man rally did it nearly come to pieces, when in the middle of a magnificent power slide I was confronted by a slow moving tractor coming in the opposite direction. With the reflexes of a tiger I slammed on the brakes, only to send the car into a sideways skid straight for the oncoming tractor. With great presence of mind, which I could only put down to my natural talent, I took my foot off the brake pedal. The car lurched back on track and my racing credentials were proven. The whole trip took a phenomenal 18 minutes, any less would have been physically impossible, and it was entirely due to my driving skills. I was allowed luxuriate in that high opinion for nearly the whole afternoon.
After tasting the victor’s spoils of a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake, courtesy of my friend’s mother, I was ready for the return journey. The race had been won and the record was mine, but the intoxicating potion of victory and a car I did not pay for had got into my blood. This time, however, I took it beyond physical possibilities. The race was back on, and every twist in the road was an offence to my ambition. I thought I had judged the corner correctly, I thought I could cope with any challenge. But as the corner began to fight back I found I had to turn the wheel just a little bit more than I had expected, and then a little bit more, and then a little bit more. Next thing I knew my sweaty hands were scrabbling desperately with the wheel, my bowels had turned to clay and my brain was screaming louder than the tyres. I was certain the game was over, that I would have to explain to my father why his Allegro was now a wheelbarrow and wouldn’t it be better if I just died. All I could do was spin that steering wheel and hang on to it with a death grip.
Then the miracle took place, the miracle of Saint Allegro of Austin. In some way, by some great sorcery, the car actually managed to get round that corner. My brain was beyond comprehending it, there were 10,000 volts of terror running through it, but that car actually got me round the corner. It took up all of the road doing it, but without clipping the verge or flying into the ditch we made it beyond the apex and on to safety. I came to a petrified, pale-faced halt. Numbed, I tried to come to terms with what had happened. A few moments ago I had been Stirling Moss or Roger Clarke, beating that little animal into submission. Now I was the simpering fool, stripped of all my pride, carried safely through calamity by the same car that I had been abusing for so long. That pokey little car had saved my life.
So that was how I fell in love with the Austin Allegro. No longer squat and ugly, the styling physically changed before my eyes to take on that sharp, aggressive look that Harris Mann had originally sketched for it. Parked up it looked as tough as a little bulldog, clawing at the tarmac, ready to pounce. This car had shown that it was way above my miserable driving capabilities. Although I have had my own more powerful cars since, I have never attempted to beat the record it set. Say what you like about the Austin Allegro, you can’t knock the fastest car in the world.