Around the World : The Leyland Italia years

We all know about Innocenti’s work, and how the products it sold were closely based on BMC’s model catalogue. However, the story of the Leyland Italia years is one that’s not told anywhere near as often – Chris Cowin puts right that wrong with his account of Leyland Italia.

Things could only get better after BL’s Innocenti sell-off, and they did. Chris takes a look at Leyland Italia in the late-1970s and early-’80s.

Leyland Italia: the untold story

Things looked bleak for British Leyland in Italy in the mid-1970s. As recounted in the Innocenti story, there had been a bold strategy to transform the company into a significant player in the Italian car industry. Leyland Innocenti (for four years a wholly-owned subsidiary of British Leyland) had launched the Allegro-derived Innocenti Regent and also the Bertone-designed Mini 90/120 hatchback. However, against a background of economic crisis, the operation foundered and losses stacked up. British Leyland sold Innocenti (to De Tomaso) in 1976 and was forced to virtually ‘begin again’ in terms of serving the Italian market.

After 1976 Innocenti and the now separate Leyland Italia were essentially competitors, but many (if not most) Innocenti dealers in Italy continued to handle the Leyland models as ‘dualled’ dealerships. There was still ‘friendly cooperation’ between the two concerns. Innocenti did not have a distribution network outside Italy, but the Innocenti 90/120 hatchbacks were distributed through the BL Dealer Network in seven continental markets beyond Italy, until 1982 in some cases. (They were Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and – more briefly – Spain).

In Italy itself, the classic Mini was not marketed by Leyland in the late-1970s, except for the Clubman Estate. This meant the traditional round-nosed Mini was absent from the Italian market between 1976 (when Innocenti stopped making them) and 1982, which gave the Innocenti 90/120 hatchbacks more of a ‘clear run’ on their home market.

Innocenti vs Leyland Italia

Both of the above measures would have boosted production volumes of the 90/120 hatchback at Innocenti, helping to ensure that car was viable. Looking at the bigger picture, this was in the interests of BL as those 90/120 cars used a high proportion of UK-sourced components, including engine and gearbox.

Visitors to many Italian dealerships would therefore have found a range of Innocenti and Leyland cars which complemented each other rather than competed. The bulk of Leyland Italia volume was concentrated on the Mini Clubman Estate and Allegro, with other models selling in small volumes in what was essentially a ‘small car’ market, and only being found at larger dealers.

The Clubman Estate had been largely absent from the Italian market in the early-1970s (because Leyland Innocenti preferred to offer the Innocenti ‘T’ Mini Estate), but once introduced it became quite a hit for Leyland Italia. It was seen as a ‘lifestyle’ vehicle, something picked up in advertising which read ‘Not just a car, more a way of life’. Milan dealer Koelliker retailed a posh retrimmed version in the spirit of the Wood & Pickett Minis, and Clubmans were cars frequently spotted in the posher neighbourhoods of Italian cities and towns.

The Clubman’s lasting legacy

When the author worked in Italy in the 1990s (when Rover was doing well) some Italian car executives traced success all the way back to the Clubman: “the best thing they ever did”. With the Clubman saloons essentially unknown in Italy, ‘Clubman’ was taken to mean ‘Estate’ (long before that became the norm on the BMW MINI). Italian demand was probably a reason the model lived on for a while alongside the new Austin Metro, with the ‘Mini HL Estate’ powered by the 998cc A+ engine replacing the 1100cc Clubman estate in production in 1980.

In Italy the ‘HL Estate’ retained the ‘Clubman’ name as the Mini Clubman 1000, remaining available until the end of 1982. This was in contrast to France where the model was dropped in 1980.

Italians were offered the 998cc A+ engine in the Mini 1000 Clubman during 1980-82, a car known elsewhere as the Mini HL Estate

The Austin Allegro also did better in Italy, marketed by Leyland Italia from 1976 onwards, than it had done as the Innocenti Regent during 1974-75. It helped that the Austin Allegro was available with an 1100cc engine, while Innocenti had chosen to build the Regent in only 1300/1500 versions. This, combined with competitive pricing, helped the Allegro reach more cost-conscious consumers in a market where cars were taxed heavily based on engine displacement.

Most Allegros sold were 1100 models (including an Italian specific 1100HL never offered in the UK) and, when the Allegro 3 in turn saw its 1100cc versions replaced by the 998cc A+ unit in 1980, Italy received a well-equipped Allegro 1000HL and 1000HLS. Again, both models which were never offered in Britain.

Austin Allegro 3 models in Italy included a 1000HL and a 1000HLS in 1981

As illustrated, an Italian Allegro 1000HLS would have come with quad headlights, plush seats and a vinyl roof, all unheard of on the ‘economy special’ 998cc Allegro sold at home. It should be added that all Allegros sold in Italy came with quad headlights from late 1978 onwards, which is when Seneffe (where Allegros for Italy were mostly assembled) started fitting them universally, beginning with the final Allegro 2 models. The Allegro 1300 was also available, including an estate, but the Austin Allegro 1500 and 1750 never reached Italy.

The rest of the Austin range in Italy

The Clubman (Estate) and Allegro were then successfully finding customers in Italy, but what of the other Austin-Morris models of the 1970s? The unusual history in Italy, with Leyland Innocenti attempting to offer a streamlined range in the early 1970s, and with sales skewed towards smaller cars anyway, resulted in several models being denied to the Italian car buyer. The Austin Maxi was briefly offered, but had disappeared by 1972 when Leyland Innocenti merged the product ranges offered by Innocenti and the (previously separate) British Leyland. It never reappeared on the Italian market. The Landcrab BMC 1800 had been available in the past, but the Mk3 1800 and 2200 were never introduced.

The Morris Marina was not launched in Italy, and nor was (perhaps thankfully) the Morris Ital – those television adverts which show an Ital on Italian plates whizzing around Tuscany are actually a bit of a fib. However, the Princess was introduced, although for tax reasons only the fourcylinder models were marketed. Anecdotally, this didn’t go well, with Italians not being seduced by the style of Harris Mann’s wedge, and the car being a struggle to sell.

In 1978, Leyland Italia was also offering a selection of the broader range although, as in many other export markets, it was a trimmer list than in the UK. The Triumph Spitfire 1500 and TR7 were listed, and the Dolomite as Sprint only. The Rover 2600 and 3500 (but not 2300), Jaguar XJ6 4.2 and XJS also appeared. Land Rovers and Range Rovers always had a niche in Italy, as did the Sherpa.

The Metro turns the tide

Leyland Italia’s sales skyrocketed in the early 1980s and that success was largely down to the arrival of the Austin Metro and the Triumph Acclaim. The Metro was aimed straight at the heart of Italy’s car market and its timing was perfect, for a continental launch in 1981 saw the new Metro arriving just when FIAT’s contender, the FIAT 127, was reaching the end of its life and looking tired, as was the original Renault 5.

Helped by Metro, sales for 1981 topped £100m, a 73% increase on the figure recorded by Leyland Italia in 1980 and a six-fold increase on the dark days of 1976. The Metro had a good start and was selling at the rate of 1500 a month, helping cement Italy’s position as one of BL’s two principal export markets in the early 1980s alongside France.

It’s a sobering thought that British Leyland, a decade earlier perceived as one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers, had by the early 1980s (with America and most other global markets abandoned) retreated to exporting just 20% of its production, with France and Italy (which both took around 30,000 cars annually in that period) being the most important destinations.

Honda completes the picture

‘Drive in the name of pleasure’ – Triumph Acclaim. It’s 1982 but the Acclaim is still presented as a product of “Leyland” in Italy.

The company’s export performance also received a shot in the arm from the cars developed in the joint venture with Honda, the first of which was the Triumph Acclaim. This again was a hit in Italy, where imports of Japanese cars were severely restricted and there was a form of pent-up demand. Launched in Italy in early 1982, it helped sales leap 16% to 32,000 for the year, giving BL 2.2% of the Italian market.

Fiat had tried to block imports of the Acclaim on the grounds that it counted as a Japanese car and therefore should be covered by Italy’s restrictions, but this attempt foundered in part because it was pointed out the planned Alfa Romeo/Nissan ARNA car, and indeed the Innocenti hatchbacks (which switched to Daihatsu engines in 1982) had similar levels of Japanese content. With its body pressed from British steel at Cowley, the Acclaim had just enough UK content to count as a British car when the calculations were made, and therefore had unrestricted access to EEC markets like Italy.

That engine switch to Daihatsu is evidence the link between BL and Innocenti was now a thing of the past (although many dealers continued to be dualled). But Leyland Italia, as the operation was still called, was performing strongly. The round-nosed Mini would make a comeback while the Rover 2400SD Turbo (Rover range advert below) with its Italian (VM) diesel engine was well suited to Italian demand. Metro continued to sell well helped by additional models such as the Metro Surf, launched in the summer of 1982.

The future looked bright with Maestro and Montego on the horizon. There would be more “Italy specific” cars like the five-speed Austin Maestro 1.3HLS which combined a 1275cc A+ engine with the electronic “talking” dashboard and had chrome exterior trim borrowed from the Maestro Vanden Plas. However, by that time, “Leyland Italia” had evolved into Austin Rover Italia, and the “Leyland” name, which lingered on longer in Italy than Britain in car advertising and in showrooms, was allowed to fade away.

Rover (SD1 Series 2) advertising in Italy, where the 2400 Turbo Diesel sold well.
Rover (SD1 Series 2) advertising in Italy, where the 2400 Turbo Diesel sold well
Chris Cowin

11 Comments

  1. Weird how Italians didn’t like the Regent but liked the Allegro. Was it priced lower? It’s a shame the allegro didn’t come out originally looking like the s3 as it looked a smarter better looking motor.

    • Innocenti tried to position the Regent in quite a “premium” slot and priced it accordingly. It came only with a twin carb 1300 or twin carb 1500 engine which reflects that positioning. But that didn’t work out well – not helped by Italy suffering serious economic problems in 1974/5.
      The Austin Allegro that came after was, by contrast, more aggressively priced by Leyland who were trying to “buy volume” in continental Europe to a degree in 76/77. But the most crucial difference was that the Allegro came with an 1100cc engine which attracted less tax in Italy, and that accounted for the bulk of sales, with an 1100HL (not seen in the UK) being marketed and later, as discussed above, an Allegro 3 1000HL & 1000HLS with the A+ engine.

      • Same applied for the ADO16 derivatives before, but in contrast to the Regent it went quite well. The IM3 was positioned very well above FIAT, the direct competitor was the Lancia Fulvia (also with a 1.1 litre engine). It might – as mentioned – have worked out much better for the Regent to be offered with the 1100 cc option from the start.

  2. Very interesting, I hadn’t realised the Allegro had been sold in Italy after the Regent didn’t go down well.

    • Yes – the Austin Allegro had a “value” positioning in late ’70s Italy: priced head-on (or undercutting) FIAT. In the early ’70s Leyland Innocenti had more upmarket aspirations for the Regent – which the car itself struggled to live up to, despite various design tweaks compared to Allegro and peppy engines. The timing was dreadful (just like Leyland Australia’s P76 it was launched on the cusp of the 1973 “fuel crisis” and recession), and (as Keith has explained in his Innocenti Regent article) the Alfa Sud could do the same job, better.
      An interesting nugget I picked up from former BL European sales executive Jan Thoenes is that Leyland Innocenti (then headed by Geoffrey Robinson) tried very hard to export the Regent to other continental European markets, hoping it could be an upmarket, sporty “Italianate” flagship for the Allegro range in places like the Netherlands. (That was exactly the role Innocenti’s Mini Cooper 1300 & Mini 1001 were playing in the Mini line-up in such markets). But none of those countries agreed to import it, so it remained confined to Italy, expensive and unloved.
      The post-1976 Austin Allegro, available with a smaller 1100 engine, available with two doors (& estate), and priced to sell, found customers in Italy who would never have considered a Regent.

  3. The ride-height of that Italian Allegro at the head of this feature makes me think someone got a bit carried away with the Hydragas pump-up machine! Or was something lost in the settings translation?

  4. Just a small note: the Acclaim adv slogan (“Guidare nel segno del piacere”) should be translated as “Drive in the name of pleasure” more then “Drive the symbol of pleasure”.

    Worth to mention, in the Rover adv, the word pun “Le AutoNobili” which merges the word “Automobili” (= cars) and “Nobili” (= plural for noble).

  5. No surprises the Italians took to the Metro, it was ideal for city driving and in one of the lowest tax bands. The 127 might have been the dominant supermini in Italy, but the Metro was more modern and bigger inside and started to steal sales from Fiat. Also having a population nearly as large as Britain and a similar standard of living, particularly in the North, meant Italy was a lucrative market. An added bonus was sales of the Rover 2400 SB, a premium product, and diesel versions of the Land Rover that proved popular with the Carabinierii.

    • The Metro seemed to sell fairly well in quite a few European countries, I certainly remember seeing a few on holidays in the 1980s – 90s.

    • It was well timed as many of the European rivals were a bit long in the tooth. I imagine things got tougher after 1983 when the Uno, Supercinq and 205 arrived.

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