Your Cars : Graham Eason’s Allegro experience…

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Graham Eason runs Great Escape Classic Car Hire, and earlier this year bought a 1980 Austin Allegro to run on the fleet, alongside such greats as Austin Healeys and E-Types. Six months on, it seems that British Leyland’s baked bean is proving more popular than you’d think – and not just with Graham’s customers…

The beast...unleashed. Graham's Allegro adds a little light heartedness to everyone's day...
The beast…unleashed. Graham’s Allegro adds a little light heartedness to everyone’s day…

Buying an Allegro is not something you do on a whim. Although I admit I did. Because you don’t just buy an Allegro, you become an Allegro owner, which, however minutely, puts distance between you and mainstream society.

It shouldn’t really be like this. It’s just a car. Not a very good one, by most benchmarks, but in many respects not a terrible one. And yet the Allegro has come to represent the very, very worst of British car manufacturing, an oddball vehicle owned by oddballs. I feel I can say that because I am one. An owner, that is. The Allegro is a car whose very name provokes laughter even in people who have no interest in cars; for example, my wife.

I bought an Allegro because I hire out cars and thought it would be amusing to have one. A local car came up at a bargain price and so, in an alarmingly short time, I not only owned but had driven an Allegro – in daylight…

With 1.1-litres of raw power, it's no surprise that the Aggie is a big hit with customers...
With 1.1-litres of raw power, it’s no surprise that the Aggie is a big hit with customers…

Oh, how everyone laughed. My reputation for bringing motoring orphans back to Cassa Great Escape is well established – I like Saabs, the more of them the better – but the Allegro still shocked my colleagues. Between the laughter and tears there was quite a lot of swearing. My attempts to explain the rational basis of my purchase went unheard. Buying an Allegro, it seems, can never be rational. I began to feel like as modern-day Allegro aficionados must – misunderstood.

Few cars have attracted such approbrium. Drawing back the thick veil of subjectivity, it is actually difficult to understand why. The Allegro certainly looks odd – it was launched, it’s true, into a conservative world where ‘the French’ were considered exotic. Despite the well-documented compromises, its challenging looks were deliberately intended to set out its ground-breaking schtick compared to humdrum Fords and Morrises. But plenty of cars of the time looked worse.

Graham's not convinced that the Allegro looks good from any angle (I happen to disagree! - Ed)
Graham’s not convinced that the Allegro looks good when viewed from any angle (I happen to disagree! – Ed)

The Allegro was quirky, in a world that didn’t want quirky. The French were quirky, the British didn’t do that. So those looks and that square steering wheel were not well received. BL wanted the car to appeal to upwardly mobile sophisticates. But Britain, it seems, didn’t have many of those in 1973. Instead, the Allegro was bought by BL’s core market – middle England, customers welded to the company’s ‘buy British’ idyll.

With much against it already, as usual, BL served up a perfect own goal by failing to develop and build Allegros very well. With the benefit of hindsight we might question the wisdom of designing a relatively sophisticated car to be built in a distinctly unsophisticated factory. Whatever, the first Allegros were seriously underdeveloped and poorly made, variously suffering rust, popping rear screens and endless breakdowns. The rapidly developed Series 2 addressed most of these problems but by then its reputation had been sealed.

My Morrissey moment continued on closer inspection of the Allegro. I had bought a base model 1.1 Allegro 3, a one owner example in white with Sorrell interior – which is to say brown. Very, very brown. Bought new by a BL employee using the staff discount scheme (that is, 20% off), the car had only covered 31,000 miles. It had character in spades, which may have been what the owner used to apply the filler. He certainly used a brush to ‘repair’ the paintwork, using as close an approximation to the original white as Dulux could presumably muster.

Brown - or Sorrell as BL liked to call it. Acres of the stuff...
Brown – or Sorrell as BL liked to call it. Acres of the stuff…

For those unfamiliar with Allegro model development, the Allegro 3 was, cunningly, the third iteration of the car – the first was effectively a prototype tested by the customers, the second was the result of their helpful findings. Allegro 3 was an attempt to nurse the car into the 1980s with plastic bumpers, new rear lights and a bargain price (less than a Mini). And an advertising slogan ‘Allegro has more Vroom’, a witty play on the original ‘Allegro has more room’ strap line.

My Allegro, because that is what it had become, was essentially solid and presentable with a good condition interior and sound mechanicals. The bodywork was ok, if somewhat homespun. So I drove it. In many ways, I wish I hadn’t. For most fellow motorists, someone who drives an Allegro is as much of a statement as piloting a Ferrari Enzo – if not, admittedly, communicating quite the same thing. I felt, let’s be honest, conspicuous. So I didn’t drive it very far.

I will declare an interest – I have always laughed at the Allegro. I like Alfas, cars with style and flair. Nobody could accuse the Allegro of exhibiting either of these traits. But I regretted my Allegro experience for other reasons too. Because it wasn’t that bad. In fact, in some ways it was quite good. By the lofty age of 45 one’s preconceptions tend to be carved in stone. So the revelation that the Allegro Wasn’t That Bad made me rather uncomfortable. The Allegro is spacious, reasonably comfortable, smooth riding and quite well built. Shock. And there’s one other advantage to driving it – you can’t see what it actually looks like. Because this really is not a good-looking car. It’s hard to find an angle that does look right. No matter, it is distinctive.

With the shock of preconceptions challenged behind me, I had another surprise in store. People want to drive the Allegro – as in pay to do so and as in actively choose to do so. Yes, the car has been popular with customers. Not, I’ll admit, with quite a lot of the customers who turn up to collect their E-Types and Jensens. They often laugh.

No, it is popular with a different group, deep-rooted car enthusiasts who are simply curious or besotted. I imagined that the Allegro would only turn a wheel on our corporate rallies as punishment for ‘enthusiastic’ drivers but it turns out some people, quite a lot of people in fact, actually want to drive an Allegro. Young and old have, while not quite flocked, certainly formed an orderly and polite queue to drive the car. None of them are laughing. They like the Allegro. They like its outsider status, its quirkiness. It’s a badge of honour to not just like but love a car that is so universally reviled. I can empathise with that – I like Dire Straits.

They also like the car’s nostalgia. After all, many may hate it but, back in the 1970s, lots and lots of people bought an Allegro. There was an Austin garage in every town so it was pretty much the default choice. Driving an Allegro now is a quick way – and a cheap one – to transport back in time to a childhood of brown Vinyl burning bare legs.

Unlike many cars we add to our fleet, the Allegro has pretty much hit the ground running. Apart from a minor electrical niggle it has covered long distances on hire without incident. Hirers come back raving about it, smiling even.

When I bought the car I intended to restore it – sort the rot and get it resprayed. But the more I lived with it the more I realised that all its dents and dodgy repairs were part of its character. Somehow a mint Allegro didn’t feel right. So it’s gone on the fleet exactly as I bought it. And customers seem to like that. One day I might relent and restore it, but for now that feels like whitewashing its history. And history, after all, is what an Allegro is all about.

Nice bum.
Nice bum.

After six months of Allegro ownership I would be lying if I said I love it. I don’t even particularly like it. But I do respect it. I almost admire it. It is simple and unassuming. It is a survivor. And who can really begrudge it that?

Anyway, if you fancy hiring the Allegro (and who wouldn’t?), you can do so here.

 

Craig Cheetham

A serial impulsive car purchaser, Craig has had his name on over 200 V5s over the past 20 years. 10 per cent of those have been either 800s or Austin Allegros, with between 10 and 20 cars usually owned at any one time. Started out as a local newspaper journalist then worked for car mags including Auto Express, Classic Car Weekly and Land Rover Owner. Worked inside the car industry for a decade as an employee of General Motors, now works for a news distribution agency. Home based, which is dangerously convenient for further irrational heap purchases. Lover of all makes of car since childhood, with a particular leaning towards Austin-Rover... Father of three boys, so hoping to spread the car love. Other passions include rugby union, travelling and eating out.

33 Comments

  1. I had tremendous fun reading this, as I learned to drive in an Allegro3 1.1L, complete with SuperVroom and discreet Vermillion paintwork. I went on to own another eight of them (in the days where people gave them away!), and happen to disagree with Graham’s view on the car’s appearance – with the exception of the Vanden Plas 1500, which even I find challenging (though would love to make my own estate version), I think the Allegro’s bathtub curves and rounded rump are actually quite appealing, and much more interesting than the three-box convention being dealt out by Ford and Vauxhall with the Allegro’s direct rivals. I never owned an unreliable Allegro and they were also a lot more durable than many of their peers, despite the ropey reputation. Happy Days!

  2. Pedant alert – the hire car link specifies that this Allegro has a 1.0 engine; which as any fule noes, was not offered in the Allegro 3.

    I remember an Allegro estate with a VanDenPlas snout being advertised for sale in the South Wales Argus, with the classic line “No time wasters, please” – presumably because rather too many punters went to look at it just to laugh and take pictures. They have to make their own entertainment in Aberdare!

    I have never driven an Allegro, but was once chauffered from Derby to Dundee via Darlington in a 1500 Super. I remember it being comfortable and quiet.

  3. Allegro 3 had metro ‘A’plus engines in both 1.0 and 1.3.

    There was no 1.1 ‘A’plus.

    I remember screaming a 1.0 to Cowley on a factory course.

  4. Wait a minute… That’s not true 🙂 The early Allegro 3s came with the venerable 1098cc A-Series and were badged 1.1. I should know – I had two! They were identifiable by their stainless steel (rather than black plastic) boot badges and were those that predated the Metro’s introduction in 1980, so most are on V and W plates, though I have seen a couple of X plates that were no doubt languishing in dealerships until 1981…

  5. Seems everyone’s sort of right and some a bit wrong as usual.

    Early Allegro 3s certainly carried-on with the old 1098cc and 1275cc ‘A’ series engines from the Series 1/2 cars.

    It’s also true that the ‘A-Plus’ units were only made in 998cc and 1275cc and were ‘officialy’ introduced along with the launch of the miniMETRO in late 1980 – but BL had started fitting ‘A-Plus’ units into Minis/Allegros a few months before the Metro launch without telling, doubtless to help ease production change-over pressures.

    Basic Allegro 3 and manual Mini Clubmans gradually used-up the remaining ‘old’ 1098cc units before officialy switching to 998cc A-Plus engines.

  6. Love this concept and will certainly be hiring something at some point, possibly even the allegro, I do quite fancy the granny ghia x though I must admit, I’m slightly disappointed not to see an sd1 on the fleet though, or even a maxi (something which I seem to be developing a bit of a soft spot for these days)

    • Cheers. I did have a sd1 Vitesse a few years ago. It was quite popular but ridiculously fragile in terms of the interior. Anything it earned went straight back into it, so it had to go.

  7. A sorted car by 1980, and the Mark 3 always looks better than the original. However, for some reason, the bulbous looks always seem to remind me of a Staffordshire bull terrrier, another brand that has a bad name due to the pit bull, but like a good Staffy a loyal and dependable companion if looked after.

    • I’ve also liked the series 3 Allegros the best, it’s a shame BL couldn’t have got them his good 7 years earlier.

      My Aunt had one for most of the 1980s in Vermillion.

      It looks like a fair amount of the interior was shared with the Metro, especially the dash.

  8. Interesting comment from Glen above, here in New Zealand the Allegro was marketed as the “sturdy british bull dog”.

  9. I rather like the All-aggro estate, preferably in a decent spec with Pageant Blue paintwork. The only thing that put me off was the droopy stern and iffy suspension, which may have made for a smooth ride but was known to give trouble and was expensive to fix when it went wrong.

    Great article though.

  10. I’ve got a allegro, my impressions were pretty much the same, ie it really isn’t bad at all. Bone jarring ride aside of course, it really needs the displacers looking at.

  11. Im developing a worrying tendency to forgive BL of its sins these days, must get my rose tinted prescription checked soon!
    A VDP 1500 would be a nice addition to anyones garage, not sure about a base 1100 though and whats wrong with Dire Straits? Ill be listening to them on my way to work (not in an allegro though!)

    • Ah, 1100 is hair shirt motoring, very appropriate to the Allegro. Dire Straits – nope, nothing wrong with them at all. If there was a lot of my life would have been wasted!

  12. Anorak time! The very last update of the Allegro 3 in early 1981 included the change from the 1098 A series to 998 A+ on the L model. At the same time the models were all shifted upwards, base became L, L became HL and HL became HLS (HLS had no vinyl roof).
    The obvious external identifier of these models is the new Austin Rover badge on the centre of the grille.

  13. @ Dean, glad someone else notices the way an Allegro resembles a bull type dog. Like a bull terrier, Allegros proved to be quite robust and dependable if looked after correctly.
    Actually, with regard to when the 1 litre Metro engine replaced the old BMC 1100 unit in the Allegro, I believe it was January 1981. There was a group of recession special small family cars that came out at this time such as the Ford Escort Popular and the Vauxhall Chevette ES, an absolutely basic car that even lacked a demister. At least the basic 1 litre Allegro came with cloth seats as its Ford and Vauxhall rivals came with cheap PVC, which was awful.

  14. Over here in Holland I had a 1977 series II 1300 Special (Havanna brown/black vinyl roof)from 1979 to 1986. The car was more refined and nicer to drive than most of its competitors, e.g. Opel Kadett, Renault 14 or a Datsun Cherry. The Datsun may have been somewhat more reliable but as we all know, part prices for Jap cars were (and are)ridiculously high. People made jokes on the quartic steer (which the series II didn’t have) but as soon as they got a lift they were impressed by the car. Its interiour was by far much more luxurious than its competitors. Fuel consumption for those days was efficient and the BMC A engine never let you down. During the years a few of my friends also bought an Allegro and the only issue I experienced was the front suspension. I soon found out this was a problem of wrong maintenance and not using a proper torque wrench. But, and now I remember, this was not the only issue, also the thermic relay for the radiator fan had a relatively short life.
    Rust was never an issue, presumably because the LHD versions came mainly from the BL assembly plant in Belgium.
    In my dreams I hope to find a nice 1300 Special, but as we know Allegro’s are as rare as hen’s teeth, especially LHD ones

  15. I’d very much like to take an Allegro for a spin – for a bit of nostalgia and to judge if it really was that bad.

    I think the Equipe is many ways the best looking Allegro. The huge side stripe is a bit questionable but I think the black trim and grille look fine.

    I don’t think it looks that bad in the right trim, colour. Its bulbous looks have aged well.

    I can remember an older school mate who’d passed his test driving round in a metallic blue 3 1750 HL (or was it HLS by then?). I can remember actually quite liking it.

  16. Ah, my Dad bought a brand new Allegro 3 1.1 in 1980, in Russet Brown. ‘MDH 257V’ from memory, which seems to have lasted until 1991 according to the DVLA. I spent many-an-hour trapped in the back of the 3-door on family days-out. The beige Nylon seats were quite an upgrade after the black vinyl of its predecessor (an Austin 1300 Mk3) which used to heat-up to what seems like atomic levels in the sun, particularly for an 8-year old kid in short trousers.

    I well remember lusting after the twin headlamps of the top of the range Allegro, but Allegro 3’s all had the front ‘air dam’, which I thought was pretty racy stuff. Can’t say I appreciated it at the time, but I’d be tempted to rent one just to relive the memory.

  17. My mother in law had 3 Allegros in succession, all bought at about 18 months old , and all were very nice cars indeed . It was a shame that the looks of the Allegro brought it such contempt , because the car was refined , economical and reliable and actually very pleasant to drive . If you got into a contemporary Ford Escort ( rwd or fwd for that matter ) the Ford felt like a bag of nails by comparison

  18. My first car was a 1980 W plate, Russet brown 1.3L Allegro, which I ran for a little over three and a half years, until the front suspension tie rod pulled out from its anchor point (on a bend in Peterborough), and the car had to go. It was reliable, economical, comfortable, and taught me a lot with regard to basic car maintenance, including how to set valve clearances! It was also a lot of fun to drive, especially in the wet, where it was very very easy to end up sideways at extremely low speeds – great fun! I always coveted a VDP model, after seeing a metallic blue one at a local dealers, and falling in love with the walnut dash, leather seats and the walnut drinks trays in the back-absolute class!

  19. Great article. Was pleased when announced Allegro had been bought for hire, glad it’s become part of the ‘family’ so to speak.
    My first car was a series 2 1.1 and I loved it, I actually wanted an Allegro and bought it from a colleague to learn to drive in (a family friend was a retired professional instructor).
    Once it was completely mine (I.e. Passed my test), I used to snigger when on damp mornings my neighbour would come out to go to work and jump into his mk2 Escort. His engine would just turn on the starter (car was well serviced), and taking ages to fire up, when at the same time I barely turned the key and my A series engine fired up straight away (literally did fire up on a flick of the starter!). I always waited until his Escort started up before driving away just to be sure he didn’t need assistance 😉

  20. Series 3 was actually a good car by the standards of the day, I recall at the launch Car magazine commenting as “Shock Horror, the Allegro is actually a rather good car”.

    Having said that, I suspect that if you had an ADO16 on the fleet that would be in greater demand.

  21. Can someone explain to me why it was comparatively so much more heavier for its size against the larger car that replaced it, Maestro.

  22. My late dad used to refer to most cars made at Longbridge as “grey porridge”. Like the author he was a huge Alfa fan but strangely only bought Fiats and Lancias.

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