The Austin Allegro 1300 Special, a version never offered on the British market, had a great deal more showroom appeal than most UK versions. Chris Cowin takes a closer look…
The poor old Austin Allegro has long been the butt of jokes, and few would disagree the original cars launched in May 1973 were deserving of criticism. But Leyland responded, introducing the 1975 Allegro 2 range which incorporated many improvements. The Quartic steering wheel was consigned to history and rear passengers had more legroom.
However, progress didn’t stop there. Most Allegros for the European continent were assembled at Seneffe in Belgium and, by the late 1970s, that plant was turning out an Allegro which offered a lot of equipment for the money and, from some angles, looked rather good.
A ‘song for Europe’?
The Austin Allegro was conceived as British Leyland’s ‘car for Europe’, but a combination of design stumbles, quality glitches and bad luck resulted in sales volume on the European continent falling far below forecasts drawn up in the optimistic days of the early Seventies. Nowhere was that more a concern than at Seneffe, British Leyland’s Belgian assembly plant, which had started assembling the Allegro in 1974 for the continent and by 1975 had become a two-car plant assembling only Minis and Allegros.
The recession in European car sales of 1974/75 was one reason the Allegro failed to make inroads, as better established rivals like Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen discounted heavily to retain market share and volume. It had been hoped Allegro would conquest new customers and replicate the European success of the Mini, but by 1976 that was looking a forlorn hope. Even in improved Allegro 2 form, the chubby Austin lacked the appeal needed to lift Leyland’s continental European sales to the lofty levels set as targets in the 1975 Ryder plan, intended to ‘save Leyland’.
What to do?
Little could be done in the short-term to change the core design of the Allegro. The lack of a hatchback is often cited as a failing though at the time, this was much less remarked upon. Alfasud, Citroën GS, Peugeot 104 and even the Fiat 127 were all launched with conventional boots, so the Allegro was in good company even if an opportunity had perhaps been missed.
But Seneffe was adept at concocting special versions of the existing cars which differed from the British market specification, and the Allegro 1300 Special would become one of the best known of these, along with the continental Mini 1100 Special (which was a regular model unlike the UK version). In simple terms the Allegro 1300 Special married the economical 1275cc A-Series engine (with four-speed gearbox) to the luxury trim package which British customers could obtain only in conjunction with the larger E-Series engine (in 1500 and 1750 form).
There’s no denying the Allegro 1300 Special was very well-equipped for a car in this segment. The driver gripped a leather wheel, instrumentation included a rev counter and passengers were cosseted by velour seats with headrests and an armrest in the rear. Tinted glass combined with sports wheels, a standard vinyl roof, twin exterior mirrors and black bootlid trim to make this a very smart Allegro. In all but a few details the specification list mirrored the expensive (and rarely seen) British-market Allegro 1750HL.
Reversing lights and heated rear window were included in a package that suggested Leyland had learned something from the success of the Japanese with their ‘everything thrown in for the price’ marketing strategies. Yet under the bonnet the 54bhp A-Series promised fuel economy and kept the car in a low tax bracket in France and Italy especially: two countries which would soon become Leyland’s biggest export markets globally and where engine capacity was taxed heavily.
The Allegro 1300 Special, launched in 1977, was soon accounting for a good proportion of Seneffe’s Allegro production. The appeal of the package was allied to competitive pricing, helping explain how the Austin Allegro sold rather better than some might imagine on the European continent in the late 1970s. It was an also-ran in its market segment admittedly, but not a non-runner. Keen pricing helped, the estate (with few direct competitors) found friends, and the 1300 Special played a role.
Seneffe assembled a total of 150,000 Austin Allegros during the car’s lifetime and, although some (from 1978 onwards) were sold in the UK, the bulk stayed on the continent. That’s a major reason why (as discussed elsewhere) export sales for the Austin Allegro exceeded 200,000 cars rather than the 25,000 figure often cited. The Seneffe-built cars, with approx. 75% British content, were ‘manufactured in the UK and exported in kit form for overseas assembly’, so they count as British car exports.
Lone wolf or team player
In the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and some other markets the Austin Allegro 1300 Special joined a range of Allegro models (Italian publicity shown above). In Italy especially, the bigger-engined Allegros made little sense so the Allegro 1300 Special was the poshest Allegro Italians could buy. In earlier years Innocenti had built its Regent version of the Allegro but it found few customers, in part because only 1300cc and 1500cc engines were offered. When the Austin Allegro was introduced to Italy in 1976 the 1300 was the biggest rather than smallest engine offered, pricing was more competitive and sales picked up.
However, in other countries, the 1300 Special became the only Allegro you could buy. This was the case in Germany by 1979, where the Allegro had become a very marginal car with most dealers only selling a couple annually.
There was more to come
British tourists on the continent might have noticed how Allegros on the road appeared better-equipped than most of their British brethren. But the difference became more marked from the autumn of 1978. That’s because Seneffe switched to a four-headlight nose on all Allegros assembled at the plant (including the base 1100). These were still Allegro 2 cars, and would be for the following year. British market Allegro 2 cars only ever came with two headlights.
This design change brought with it a new matt black grille, combined with central Leyland roundel (picture below and at top of article). This was effectively a facelift and, on the 1300 Special, it worked rather well. This would have generated a dollop of new interest in the Allegro, with these 1979 models expected to hold the fort until the more substantially revised Allegro 3 range was launched on the continent for 1980.
The “four-lamp” Allegro 2 1300 Special is quite a head-turner, many of them coming with eye-catching metallic paint. It’s a matter of opinion, but to the author’s eye the four headlights work much better above the slender chrome bumpers of Allegro 2 than the bulkier bumpers of Allegro 3.
Allegro 3: All change
With replacement still a distant prospect, Leyland revised the Allegro range again in the autumn of 1979. A new instrument panel, chunkier bumpers and new rear lights were among the highlights of the Allegro 3 models. In the UK, the four-headlamp arrangement appeared but only on the top HL trim level (later re-christened HLS). But for the continent, all Allegros were fitted with four headlights as had been the case since mid-1978.
Another change was the British introduction of a model combining the top trim level with the 1275cc engine. The Allegro 3 1.3HL finally allowed British Allegro buyers to obtain a package comparable to the Allegro 1300 Special, while bringing an end to that example of continental exceptionalism. Seneffe continued to assemble Allegros but the 1.3HL model was substituted for the old 1300 Special.
The Brits and the continentals were no longer divided on this issue although Italy would receive an Allegro 3 1100HL, and later a 1000HL/1000HLS (as they called them). Neither of those were sold in the UK – where the 998cc A+ engine replaced the 1100 for 1981, but was only available in the base model Allegro.
A strange denial
Why were British buyers denied the 1300 Special? Good question. The answer is probably something to do with a desire to keep the E-Series engine family (also used in Maxi & Princess) in production in viable volumes. Very few continentals could be persuaded to buy an Allegro 1500 (and almost none the 1750 which was rarely even offered). But in the UK customers could be found for E-Series powered Allegros, and their numbers might have dwindled if the 1300 Special had been there to tempt them away.
Oddly enough, the Morris Marina was offered as a special edition in 1978 (the 1.3 LE Coupé) combining a trim level similar to the range-topping GT with the 1275cc A-Series – but, when attention turned to a special edition Allegro, the result was the Special LE, with the 1500cc E-Series engine rather than the A-Series.
Could having lots of those (ever so slightly sexy) 1300 Specials on our roads have shifted perceptions of the Allegro in the 1970s?
With thanks to Stefano Dusse and Vidar Eriksen.