What’s left to be said about the Austin Allegro? It never met sales predictions, earned a terrible reputation in the press and with buyers, and its fame far exceeded its influence in the automotive industry.
British Leyland threw everything into making it a success, and yet failed dismally…
Austin Allegro: Goodbye market share
What is so very sad about this chapter of our story is that the Austin Allegro could have been a world beater. It had front-wheel drive, was the right size, came at the right time, was technically advanced and, most importantly of all, it replaced one of Britain’s most-loved and most-popular post-War cars: the BMC 1100/1300.
The development and conception of the Allegro, ADO67, was not seriously instigated until 1968. Today, such is the pace of progress that it would be unthinkable to leave a car in production for six years before thinking about its replacement.
However, BMC in the 1960s was guilty of neglect – work was underway on a revision of the ADO16 suspension system in order to improve its rather bouncy ride, combined with heavily revised bodywork by new stylist Roy Haynes and his team of Ford imports operating out of a new studio in the Pressed Steel Fisher factory at Cowley.
Hatching out the BMC 1100/1300
This design exercise was given the codename ADO22. Concurrent with this was the YDO9 project, which became the Australian only Morris 1500 and Nomad, the latter having a full opening tailgate. The YDO9 used the new overhead camshaft E-Series engine that had just gone into production at Cofton Hackett near Longbridge. The 1100 was easily BMC’s biggest-selling car and had won the hearts of countless British, European and Colonial motorists – it had become a national institution.
It is entirely reasonable to assume that a combination of the ADO22 and YDO9 design could have kept the basic ADO16 at the top of the sales charts with minimal outlay while BMC designed a replacement for both the Mini and 1100/1300 using the same floorpan design as envisaged under Roy Haynes’ masterplan.
Merger plans scupper ADO16 development
What did for this plan was the adverse media coverage BMC received during the credit squeeze that began in July 1966 and the subsequent merger with Leyland that became official in May 1968. In January 1967 BMC declared a £7.5 million half-year loss, mainly because of strikes, both internal and external, the depressed market resulting from the credit squeeze and the fact that BMC’s high-technology range depended on high volume to pay its way – in other words, the company had a low profit margin.
The pundits and analysts were soon in full flow on their typewriters, including those with the ear of the interventionist Labour Government of the day. According to the analysts and pundits, the problem with BMC was its lack of new models – note the emphasis on the word new. The analysts eulogised Ford’s methods at a time when the new Mk2 version of the Cortina had toppled the BMC 1100 from the top of the sales charts.
Industry watchers waited for the Ford surge in the sales charts to overtake BMC, but it never came. Ford’s range still lacked the all-round appeal it would have a decade later, and the Mk4 Zephyr/Zodiac executive car was not one of Dagenham’s finest cars. Of course, what the analysts conveniently ignored was that mechanically, the new Cortina was a facelift of the Mk1 introduced in 1962; just as the BMC ADO22 was intended to be.
A new sense of optimism
Following the Leyland takeover in May 1968, Donald Stokes claimed there were no new future models in development. He quickly identified the 1100/1300 range’s star was on the wane and, along with Harry Webster and George Turnbull, formulated a plan to replace ADO16 with separate, independently engineered Austin and Morris cars. This was in line with his plans for the two marques.
The Morris Marina was conceived and brought into production in the double-quick time of less than three years, and the conventional car fitted comfortably with Stokes’ notion that Morris cars should be straightforward Ford-fighters. Whereas Austin should be special – a producer of technologically advanced, tour-de-force cars. Initial small Austin thoughts by Harry Webster involved an ADO16 facelift – using a body styled by Michelotti. However, this agreeable idea was soon dropped in favour of an entirely new car.
On 12 June 1968, 500 BMC distributors crowded into the exhibition hall at Longbridge, for a question and answer session on their future with Sir Donald Stokes. He promised them a completely new model policy for the next five years under the direction of Harry Webster. Clearly any hope of a rehash of the ADO16 design had faded away by this point. In the mind-set of the time, new meant better.
BLMC: Failing to appreciate what’s already there
In hindsight, we can see that British Leyland failed to appreciate that the ADO16 had what we now call ‘brand values’. For all its faults, such as its propensity to rust into horse droppings in the slightest rain shower, the ADO16 just kept on selling, with 1968 and 1969 being the peak years of production.
The new 1300 version sent sales rocketing to new levels, demoting the Cortina to second place, demonstrating that what customers really wanted was a better version of a tried and tested product. The ADO22 could have fitted the bill. To present those customers with something completely new was a risky strategy.
Harry Webster, interviewed in 1973, takes up the story. ‘When I arrived here from Triumph in May 1968, there was no sign of an eventual successor to any of the Issigonis-designed front-drive cars, unless you count Alec’s clever little ultra-simple Mini for Italy which, alas, had to be dropped because the market wouldn’t justify it. So the styling boys had a completely clean sheet of paper to start with, and I had a good deal of freedom on the engineering side.
‘On the other hand, the Maxi was about to go into production, with a brand new factory at Cofton Hackett ready to churn out the new overhead cam engine in quantity, and the old A-Series power unit still had a lot of life left in it. So there was no question of any major revision on the mechanical side. That left suspension, which I felt was a priority as the original Moulton concept had been overtaken in certain areas by more conventional designs, and of course the package itself.
‘I had some pretty firm ideas about what was wanted here. I was very keen on Sir Alec Issigonis’s original theory of compactness, but I wanted to see more of the cars overall length fully utilised instead of being taken up by air at the front and fins at the back.’
‘I’ve no fault to find with Issigonis’s ideas of interior habitability, nor with his theory that a stiff body is a safe one.’ – Harry Webster
He continued: ‘And of course my people had to think of the safety regulations, both actual and proposed. In our new car the length from toe board to rear seat is exactly the same as in a 1300: the extra few inches have gone partly into the boot and partly, together with the radiator, into the nose, so as to provide just that extra bit of crushability in an accident. The extra width, similarly, is in the doors, leaving room for some more side-impact protection. I’ve no fault to find with Issigonis’s ideas of interior habitability, nor with his theory that a stiff body is a safe one. The Allegro’s torsional stiffness is about 6000 lb/ft degree – one of the highest in the industry.’
In the light of this, the Allegro’s development progressed rapidly. Prior to the setting-up the enlarged Styling Department at the Elephant House at Longbridge, Harris Mann and Paul Hughes produced rival designs at Cowley for the ADO67, but Mann’s design was chosen for further work. Mann would become Austin-Morris’ Chief Stylist following the departure of Roy Haynes – who did not want to move from Cowley to Longbridge. Mann closely followed the design brief laid out by Harry Webster – the Allegro should have durable styling, and not be a follower of fashion. Avant-garde cars never followed fashion.
Video: Austin Allegro development
Nailing the Austin Allegro styling: Harris Mann
In 1973, Austin-Morris Chief Body Engineer Tom Penny gave the following version of the evolution of the Allegro’s styling. ‘The Allegro’s looks are the work of one man – Harris Mann, to be precise. Harris is our Chief Stylist. He came to us from Ford, and before that he was with, of all people, Duple the bus builders.
‘His proposal for the new car was one of four or five that we presented to the Board early in 1969. They walked into the big round building where the full-size mock ups were displayed, and immediately they fell for Harris’s car. After that they just left him to get on with it. The production version you see today is hardly altered in appearance from the original.’
The initial designs for the Allegro were rakish, curvy and stylish. However, the need for the car use existing engine/gearbox packages, as well as larger components from the BL parts-bin, resulted in design compromises being introduced.
In 2002, Harris Mann explained the process: ‘We wanted to make a far more modern version of the 1100/1300, keeping the long, sleek look. Then a lot of other things affected it. A heater was developed at astronomical cost which was very deep. That had to go in. Then we had to put in the E-Series engine, which was more suitable for putting in a Leyland truck.’
Packaging compromises kill sleekness
This forced the bonnet line to be raised, making the glass-house shallower. The gentle curves of the initial design were also exaggerated, as it was felt by the Engineers lessons learned in packaging and panel-strength from the pre-ADO74-supermini concept known as Ant and nicknamed the Barrel-car could be incorporated. The wheelbase was only slightly lengthened over the 1100, but overhangs were increased in order to improve under-bonnet access and boot space, two major criticisms of the ADO16.
With the packaging and style compromised, the ADO67 was mutating into a caricature of Mann’s original design, ‘…so the whole car gained in height. That made it look shorter and stumpier. Thicker seats were added inside, which cut down on interior space. It was getting bulkier inside and out, and lost the original sleekness. That was what happened unfortunately.’
The body design was finalised by the BLMC Board on 19 September 1969 (at a cost of £21m) and this final incarnation was accompanied by a sense of unease, certainly by Harris Mann, who felt that his design had been corrupted too much by the Production Engineers. However, the Allegro’s design was okayed for production by George Turnbull and it was felt the offbeat styling was exactly what the Austin needed to be: a flag-bearer for the go-it-alone spirit that was prevalent in the company at the time.
Allegro suspension: From ‘lastic to ‘gas…
On the engineering front, Alex Moulton had developed the Hydragas to replace Hydrolastic. This system was an improvement over Hydrolastic, which used rubber as its springing medium; a more inconsistent material. Hydragas, however, relied on Gas and Nitrogen spring units, an advantage in terms of consistency.
Continuing the Hydrolastic tradition, Hydragas was interconnected front to rear, meaning roadholding was unaffected by the softer ride the new system afforded. In comparison with Hydrolastic suspension, the suspension units are smaller and cheaper to produce, damping is more adjustable, depending on the application and noise insulation is far better.
Who would have guessed that such was the soundness of this suspension system that it would be in use until 2002?
Existing power units used
The engine range was widened to encompass the new E-Series, complementing the venerable A-Series. Like the Maxi, the Allegro would be available in 1485cc and 1748cc forms, running the same in-sump five-speed gearbox – employing the rod linkage that had been introduced to replace the cable-operated linkage that hampered the Maxi in its early life.
News the Allegro was to use the E-Series was greeted with sighs of relief from the workers at Cofton Hackett. The new engine factory had been built to machine and assemble the E- and E6-Series engines, the expense deemed necessary in order to meet inflated expectations management had for the Austin Maxi. Unfortunately, the Maxi missed its sales targets and Cofton Hackett ran hideously under-capacity. The anticipated sales targets for the Allegro were generous and would make up the shortfall caused by the Maxi’s failure.
As the Allegro neared production, the Quartic steering wheel was added. Jeff Daniels recalled in his excellent book, ‘BL: The Truth about The Cars‘: ‘…in Spring 1972, George Turnbull brought back to the Austin Drawing Office one of David Bache’s more way-out design ideas, a steering wheel comprising of four curves joined together by four straight lines, similar to the shape of a television screen. It was something that had been incorporated on the aborted Rover P8 with good reason, but Turnbull felt that it was just the thing for the Allegro. Avant-garde and hi-tech was what the ADO67 design was all about.’
Quartic dreams in the run-up to launch
Back in 1973, Vic Hammond, Austin-Morris Chief Designer, Interiors, defended the quartic steering wheel. ‘For a start, it’s far from square. The usual circular form of the steering wheel is simply flattened out a little. We did it because we knew most drivers preferred a relatively small wheel, yet we wanted them to be able to see the instruments.’
In the summer of 1972, senior technical writers from the British motoring press were invited along to Longbridge to see the Allegro and offer their opinions on the new car. As this exercise was held pretty much at the end of the Allegro design process, there was very little that the assembled journalists could suggest to Austin which would effect a great change to the car. They were unanimous in their distaste for the Quartic steering wheel. To say that they were also underwhelmed by the ADO67’s design, would be an understatement, principle criticism being it lacked style.
‘We did the Quartic wheel because we knew most drivers preferred a relatively small wheel, yet we wanted them to be able to see the instruments.’ – Vic Hammond, Austin-Morris Chief Designer, Interiors
Austin management intended to win approval from the motoring press by offering journalists an inside track on the development of the Allegro. Unfortunately, as a PR exercise this backfired, because even a small change, such as the removal of the Quartic wheel, could not be implemented.
The managers who let journalists into BLMC before the launch of the car must have known that it would have been difficult to implement suggestions so late in the day – which makes their decision seem all the more curious. The result: the press felt their suggestions had been ignored (which was not true, even though their wishes could not be met) and any goodwill this event may have generated was lost.
Allegro impresses… for about three minutes
The Allegro was launched in May 1973, and the new small family car’s launch timing was perfect. Maxi had failed to make an impact on the market and ADO16 sales were fading (Morris versions had been discontinued to make way for the Marina). The Ford Cortina, once a rival to the ADO16, had grown significantly in size and the new Mk3 was having teething troubles – so the new car was launched with an air of optimism. The Allegro had been developed thoroughly and BL management believed it would be a great success.
At launch, Longbridge was producing around 1100 to 1200 Allegros per week, giving what BL management claimed was the best launch of any of the company’s cars to date. BLMC claimed it had built up a stockpile of 10,000 cars ready for sale to the public, and hoped for an 8-10 per cent UK market penetration.
Also at launch, one of the two ADO16 production lines had been switched over to Allegro assembly and, when the weekly production rate reached 2500, the other line would be switched over to the Allegro.
By early 1974, BLMC hoped to produce in excess of 4000 ADO67s per week. The company claimed that buyers wanted more refinement and 1500cc engines and that the ADO16 1100/1300 could no longer satisfy this market. George Turnbull said: ‘We have tried with the Allegro to be all things to all men. That is a tremendous brief for our Engineers but we believe we have succeeded. The C-sector is expanding all the time and with this approach we are spanning the widest area of that sector with the minimum investment.’
‘I’ve driven the Austin Allegro at all the stages of its development and I’m absolutely convinced that they’ve got a car here which is quite outstanding in its class and its type. The car, we believe, will appeal to European tastes as a whole.’ – Lord Stokes
Lord Stokes stressed to the BBC the importance of the Allegro to British Leyland in May 1973: ‘It’s very important because this covers the middle range between the 1100 and 1750 where the bulk of the business is, and it’s also a car which we think will appeal not only to the sophisticated British public but to the sophisticated European public, which of course is very much greater now that we’re in the Common Market. The car, we believe, will appeal to European tastes as a whole.’
Defending the Quartic steering wheel
His Lordship stated elsewhere: ‘We set our Engineers, our Designers, a challenge. I’ve watched it from all stages of development. I’ve driven it at all the stages of its development and I’m absolutely convinced that they’ve got a car here which is quite outstanding in its class and its type.’
And Harry Webster defended the quartic steering wheel yet again: ‘It really is the technically correct shape for this particular car because the instruments are so positioned that you can view them straight through the steering wheel. It’s a very comfortable wheel to hold and the angle of the wheel has now been flattened out so that it comes down to the natural way. It seems to have fitted into the vehicle as an interesting shape.’
A week after launch BLMC was already claiming they had sold the first two years of Allegro production. Was this really true or a PR exercise?
But the testers weren’t convinced
Road tests were not unkind, but it could not be ignored that the 1100 and 1300 Allegros were 10 per cent more expensive and, in terms of performance, it was also slower due to greater weight. Autocar magazine generously summed up the 1300 Super: ‘There is no doubt that a lot of thought and development has gone into the design of the Austin Allegro and it is bound to be a very popular new model.
‘Compared with the much older Austin 1300 it is a big step forward in all respects and we would like to think that much of our criticism stems from the test car being a very early example to move down the line at Longbridge. Apart from its advanced engineering, the Allegro comes with a very complete list of standard equipment and in 1300 Super form offers very good value for money.’
If this sounds like a ringing endorsement of the product, it must be remembered road tests were more circumspect in their criticism of new cars back in 1973, but disappointment at the 1750 Sports Special model was more obvious.
‘British Leyland have done well not to give the SS a phoney GT label because its performance for a small car with close to 2.0-litre engine is not particularly sporting or special, and certainly not in the category of a Grand Tourer. We were particularly disappointed that the 1750 could not match the acceleration and top speed of cars like the Fiat 124 Special T, the Datsun 180B, the Hillman Hunter GLS, the Renault 16TS, the Triumph Dolomite and especially the Ford Cortina 2000 and Vauxhall VX 4/90, which must surely be its real competitors. Whilst it offers other things to offset the performance deficit, we wonder whether sporting buyers will reckon they are getting enough.’
Principal criticisms were levelled at the lack of rear seat legroom (it was no better than the ADO16) and weak performance and brakes on the A-Series models. The gearchange action in the E-Series version was vague and notchy (one wag likened it to stirring a bag of marbles with a knitting needle). The quartic steering wheel was overlooked as a marketing gimmick, and the styling was politely consigned to the ‘make your own mind-up’ school of thought.
Styling – love it or loathe it?
Actually, the issue of the styling cannot be left at that. The looks of a car and the image it conveys are utmost in the eyes of prospective purchasers – if a car looks right, faults can be overlooked but, if it looks wrong, then its customer appeal is undermined. Which ever way you look at the Allegro, it is ugly – the nose is undefined and the grille/headlight treatment is so much narrower than the width of the car it consigns to make it look over-inflated, especially from the front.
Spen King described it eloquently: ‘I remember when I first saw the clay of the Allegro – I was horrified and wanted to look away! It looked like a caricature of Henry VIII, with little features and a big, bulging face.’
The sides of the car, so convexly curved, serve to heighten the impression that the Allegro looks pregnant. Wheels that failed to fill the arches adding to the overall impression it was a blob of a car. It is easy to criticise the styling, and looks are always subjective, but in terms of a mass-market car with serious sales ambitions, it is impossible to think of a post-War car so universally condemned on its styling alone. What is more distressing about this situation is it could have been so different.
It could have been rescued…
As seen in early styling sketches of the ADO67, its design could have ended up sharp and attractive – someone who wielded enough influence should have stopped the development juggernaut at Longbridge and said, ‘Hey guys, have you seen what is happening to this car?’
In fact, people did try: ‘Myself, and one or two others, tried but John Bacchus, thought I was being too fussy,’ said one insider. ‘In fact, part of the problem stemmed from misjudged ‘spring’ in the panel pressings – because the final pressing tends to deviate a little from the designed shape because of a small amount of ‘spring’ after being released from the die, the tool designer may try to compensate for this by altering the shape of the die. But if he over-compensates, it can have the opposite effect to what was intended. Hence the slight “cottage-bun” re-entrant curve effect on the rear quarters. Also, the waist rails on the doors tended to hump a bit, instead of being a flowing straight line. The attitude was “it will have to do.”
‘On the Princess, probably as a reaction to Allegro, the opposite happened – panels that should have had a subtle curve on came out too flat, giving a ‘tinny’ and insubstantial look.’
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory
What confounds this even more is that the 1100, as styled by Pininfarina, had pre-empted small car fashion by a decade, and cars such as the Volkswagen Golf and Alfa Romeo Alfasud had shown crisp, angular styling by a big-name Italian Designer was what buyers wanted. The only thing to be said in favour of the Allegro’s styling was that it couldn’t be mistaken for anything else.
The Quartic wheel helped alienate customers further and, although Austin quoted sound reasoning behind the choice of such an offbeat item, the truth was people didn’t like it – it may have enabled unhindered visibility of the instruments, but unless you were sat in an Allegro 1750 Sports Special, there were never enough dials to fill the binnacle.
Her Majesty’s Police force placed an order for 657 Allegros to be used as Metropolitan and Panda cars around the time of the car’s launch. The police Allegros replaced the Morris Minor and, in the role of Panda car, were judged very successful. It was noted by the press Quartic wheels were being removed – it wasn’t as if the Quartic wheel was bad, just that it didn’t suit the Police way of driving (so it was explained by embarrassed officers). Thankfully, this butt of many jokes lasted less than two years before being consigned to the gimmick bin.
Goodbye Quartic wheel, hello estate and VP 1500
The following year heralded the Estate version. If people thought that the saloon version ugly, the Allegro Estate came as an even greater shock. Practicality was never in doubt, with its flat load-floor and large luggage area. Unfortunately, it displayed the same tail sagging behaviour under load as the ADO16 estate. But if people thought they had seen the pinnacle of quirky with the Allegro and its estate variation, they had not counted on the Vanden Plas 1500.
The Allegro was treated to the same Vanden Plas make-over given to the ADO16: a leather interior, wooden dashboard, sumptuous interior fittings were added throughout (including polished walnut picnic trays being added to the front seat backs), and the traditional VP radiator grille. Vanden Plas’ Managing Director, Roland Fox, actually styled the front end after seeing a prototype of the ADO67 in the early 1970s, citing the Daimler Double-Six as an influence.
Given the design constraints he worked under, there was little room for experimentation, but when asked why a lower grille arrangement could not be used, Fox insisted the protruding snout afforded a ‘proper view’ from the driver’s seat and that was what his customers wanted. However, while the ADO16 had an attractive shape which lent itself perfectly to badge engineering, the Allegro did not, and the final arrangement was almost universally criticised.
So, in 1974, and against all better judgment, Leyland wheeled out the Vanden Plas 1500 (it was never called an Allegro).
The Vanden Plas was even more ugly than its more humble brethren, quite a feat in itself. The Vanden Plas version sported a round steering wheel – British Leyland said the quartic steering wheel was something Vanden Plas customers did not want. In the end, the Vanden Plas 1500 was bought by a small number of loyal customers, although it always made a handsome profit. Today, it remains a cult car, and most still survive.
Selling the Austin Allegro to Europe
The Allegro finally went on sale in continental Europe in March 1974. Quite when the penny dropped and BLMC realised that the Allegro was not going to sell in the numbers expected of it is difficult to ascertain. The Oil Crisis of 1973/74 had depressed the car market, but on 28 April 1974, came the announcement that BLMC was pruning the Allegro range of three of its 12 models. These were the two-door models of the 1300 De Luxe, 1500 De Luxe and 1750 Sport. Contrary to BLMC’s expectations, it was the smaller-engined 1100 and 1300 models that were proving more popular with the public.
In the first three months of 1974, it came seventh in the list of best-selling cars in Britain – that was a modest performance compared with its predecessor, the 1100/1300. Production at this time was running at only just over half the weekly capacity at Longbridge of 4500 to 5000 units. In May 1975, British Leyland announced it was to close their largest and most modern car painting plant at Trentham, Longbridge, Birmingham, as the £1.5m facility was operating at only one tenth of its installed capacity. It was completed just two years previously to handle up to 4500 Allegros a week.
It was reported at the time that Allegro production had peaked at 2500 per week, and was by now down to 2000 per week. By this time, production of the Volkswagen Golf was running at 10,000 per week. By November 1978, the weekly production of the Allegro had dropped further to 1000 per week when BL announced a further 25 per cent cutback in output.
Fixing the bugs: Allegro Series 2
Problems which became evident in the first couple of years resulted in a hasty facelift, announced in October 1975. The interior was upgraded, and more equipment added. A shuffling of rear panels released more rear passenger legroom, and adjustments to the Hydragas suspension improved the ride quality (stiffer suspension was used at the front in tandem with softer spring rates at the rear). Criticism of the Allegro’s driveline snatchiness were also partially rectified by replacing the synthetic engine mounts with rubber ones, and adding two vertical dampers to the front mountings.
Autocar magazine summed-up after its test of the Series 2 1750HL: ‘Perhaps the handling inadequacies would not be so noticeable were the Allegro to fulfil some other role with distinction. Its performance and ride could make it an ideal small luxury car, but here, too, it falls down, thanks to poor seating and rather insipid interior styling. So it is a car without a role; cars like the VW Golf LS and Alfasud Ti outsmart it as small sports saloons, while others such as the Citroën GS have the style and comfort the Allegro lacks.’
Still the Allegro sold sufficiently well, but the major obstacle to sales was the styling, and there was by then no more money left in British Leyland’s coffers for a re-body. Crisis in the Corporation meant taxpayers’ money was being used sparingly, and any meaningful development of the Allegro was further down the list priorities than it ought to have been. From June 1978 the Allegro was also assembled at BL’s plant at Seneffe in Belgium and many were imported into the UK, but it continued to be sold throughout the 1970s and into the ’80s, its styling resolutely unchanged.
… and Series 3
The Austin Allegro 3 was launched in 1979. Again, the styling was titivated by a wide range of new colours, new lights, plastic wheel trims, new radiator grilles, wraparound plastic bumpers and a natty front airdam. This model incorporated some very real technical improvements, especially in the area of fuel consumption – a factor very relevant in 1979. It also received a stylish new dashboard and uprated interiors.
The result was a pleasant-to-drive Allegro, all models were well-equipped and well-and-truly sorted: in other words, it developed into a capable car. If nothing else, the competence of the Allegro 3 proved the Development Engineers at BL had earned their money. Disappointingly, sales continued their downward spiral until it it was replaced, unmourned, by the Maestro in 1983.
Topping and tailing the range
Interestingly, it was towards the end of the Austin Allegro’s production run that the two most bizarre versions saw the light of day. The first was the Equipe model, which appeared in July 1979. This was a two-door version of the 1750HL, painted boldly in bright Silver with day-glo orange ‘Starsky & Hutch‘ stripes and porous alloy wheels – guaranteed to leave the unsuspecting owner with four flat tyres in the morning.
Austin-Morris touted the Equipe as a rival to the Alfasud Ti and the Golf GTi. In some ways, it was a vastly underrated car, but the styling additions and colour choices were somewhat misjudged – even though today, it’s a highly prized slice of retro. The Allegro Equipe never became a permanent addition to the Allegro range but, then again, it was never intended to – acting as a car to generate much-needed showroom traffic during the dark years.
There was also the Austin Allegro 1.0. This version came about as a result of model and engine rationalisation in the BL range following the launch of the Austin Metro. When the Mini Clubman was dropped, so was the 1100cc A-Series. Austin decided to drop the 1.0-litre version of the engine into the Allegro, rather than make the 1275cc version the base model. Quite why this was done is unfathomable, but needless to say it offered no economy advantage over the 1275cc version.
The end for the Austin Allegro finally came in March 1982, a full year before its successor, the Austin Maestro reached the showrooms. Sadly, the Maestro was also stylistically challenged, showing that BL had learned nothing from the Allegro.
The bad Austin Allegro urban myths begin
So the Allegro bombed on the market. Very quickly, it became the focal point for the sad national sport of ‘Leyland Bashing’, scare stories quickly circulated around the press about shortcomings in the Allegro. Most famously, the Allegro’s lack of structural integrity led in extreme cases to the rear window popping out when the car was jacked-up.
Of course this made good copy, but this only happened as a result of injudicious use of a trolley jack – Engineers, in their panic, marked these areas underneath the Allegro with high visibility tape, but the damage had been done – and the story went national. Austin should have seen this coming – during filming for its launch advertisement in a quarry, one Allegro was badly bent when enthusiastically ‘yumped’.
There was the far more serious problem of wheels dropping off the car, due to a design of wheel bearing that, although superficially similar to the ADO16, was in fact totally different, requiring significantly less tightening of the bearing nuts (i.e., the bolts had to have zero pre-load, which any Engineer will tell you involves the practice of ‘nip up and back off’).
Austin Engineers quickly addressed this potentially lethal problem, by fitting a plastic collar with a printed warning not to tighten the hub nut without referring to the manual. However, accidents ensued, and although BL was not considered at fault for them, it lost an unpleasant product liability court case in 1977 – adding heartbreak to the widespread adverse publicity the company were receiving.
Leyland bashing steps up with All-aggro mania
It seemed the tabloid media gleefully reported every failing and, very rapidly, people found they had more and more reason not to buy this car. Not many cars reach the public level of awareness that the Allegro did in its day; it even managed to pick up its own nickname: ‘All Aggro’.
Fortunately for British Leyland, the relative failure of the Allegro on the British market was propped-up by the success of the Marina, but it is true to say that the contraction of Leyland’s market share coincided with the increased popularity of imported cars and the rise of Ford in the UK. In Europe, the Allegro sunk without a trace.
Innocenti, once happy partners of BMC in Italy, built its own Allegro (as they did with the Mini and ADO16), called the Regent, but found it so unsaleable to the car-loving Italians that it was dropped after barely 18 months.
In conclusion… such promise, never realised
Had the Allegro been more appealing, properly built and sold in the numbers expected by Leyland management, the story might have been very different. But to succeed in doing that, Austin would have needed clearer and more focused leadership. What actually happened was planners concluded the Corporation needed a bigger and better ADO16, without actually understanding how the game was moving on.
Unfortunately for British Leyland, a policy of go-it-alone resulted in a car diametrically opposed to what the market wanted. The Allegro possessed no hatchback, because the 1100 did not have one. But why is this so? It would appear there was a blinkered approach to car design in the Corporation at the time and no one was able (or prepared) to accept that, between 1970 and 1975, there would be a wholesale shift in the buying patterns. Small cars were getting more sophisticated, and buyers demanded style, class and… the practicality of a hatchback.
The Allegro had none of these.
Thrashed by the opposition
The Austin Allegro also failed to compete in the more traditional centre ground of the UK market. Part of the reason was the centre of gravity had shifted upwards with the launch of the Cortina Mk3. The signs had been there for some time: each subsequent Cortina grew over predecessor – and, with this enlargement, came increased success. Ford had been successfully predicting the increased affluence of its buyers and built cars tailored to their needs… By the time Vauxhall had introduced its new (1.3- to 2.0-litre) Cavalier in 1975, the standard for this market was set.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see why the Allegro did not continue the immense momentum built up by the ADO16 juggernaut – it was less desirable. It is not so easy to say whether its failure resulted in the collapse of British Leyland. Had it been a success, then maybe the inevitable disintegration might have been postponed, but the cold hard facts are the rot from the 1960s was too far advanced for a collapse not to have happened. Mini made little money, ADO16 was never developed fully, Maxi missed its targets, and the Dealer Network was a messy, shambling organization unchanged from the BMC era.
The Allegro cannot be held solely culpable, despite what the media likes to say – there were far too many other issues within the company that needed addressing. But it is now seen as a symbol of all that was wrong with British Leyland in the early- to mid-’70s. The Allegro may have caused a sales collapse, but the disintegration of its maker was already inevitable.
That this collapse happened at all is a major British tragedy…