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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.