Around the World : Austin Allegro in France

Chris Cowin looks at the history of the Austin Allegro in France, which spanned eight years and three series of Allegro.

This car was intended to sell in big numbers on the continent in the 1970s. And with France and Italy being British Leyland’s biggest continental markets, the French were expected to buy a lot. So, how did things go?  Well, they could have gone better…


Roule Britannia? The Austin Allegro in France

Austin Allegro in France
Roule Britannia? In this 1980 UK advert for Allegro 3 the copy-writers were rather creative, implying the Austin Allegro was a hit in France

Somebody in British Leyland France could clearly pull strings, because the French dealer launch of the new Austin Allegro in mid-1974 took place on the prestigious Esplanade des Invalides in the heart of Paris (below).

This prestigious location would also prove to be the backdrop for a very similar event for the new Renault 14 two years later, and it could be argued those two cars had quite a few other things in common.

Rewind to the Allegro’s launch, and thanks to former British Leyland France employee Marc Aumonier, we can see that the cars were all painted yellow, with dealers from all over France driving one home.

The French dealer launch of the Austin Allegro – 1974. Photo: Marc Aumonier
Austin Allegro in France
The French dealer launch of the Austin Allegro – 1974. Photo: Marc Aumonier (pictured left)

Great expectations

In the early 1970s the private-sector British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) had ambitious plans to double its continental sales volume from the 250,000 of 1971 to 500,000 by 1975 and the performance of Allegro in France would be crucial to that.

This was a new model in the heart of the market, with the tariff barriers of the past being progressively swept away now Britain was in the EEC, and with a huge pool of existing customers to draw on. For the Mini was a success in France, as elsewhere, and it was hoped many French Mini owners would trade up to an Allegro.

The Seneffe plant in Belgium, which started assembling Allegros in 1974, was ready to supply as many cars as France and other countries demanded. Those Seneffe-assembled Allegros had approximately 75% ‘UK content’, so they still counted as cars manufactured in Britain, despite being exported in kit form for overseas assembly.

Austin Allegro in France
Allegro saloons for the continent were assembled at Seneffe in Belgium, where the Belgian dealer launch took place in 1974 – pictured

It’s fair to say those early plans were seriously blown off course by the severe recession which hit all European countries in 1974, with the effective bankruptcy of BLMC occurring in tandem. During 1974 and 1975 established players, like Renault, were discounting heavily to maintain production volumes, making life difficult for a new entrant hoping to poach their customers, like the Austin Allegro in France.

British Leyland was rescued by the UK Government in 1975 and the still-new Austin Allegro, which was still at the heart of the range and sometimes referred to as the company’s ‘Song for Europe’, was inevitably central to the new 1975 Ryder Plan. That plan aimed to at least double British Leyland’s car sales in continental Europe from the 200,000 of 1973 by the 1980s.

Lord Ryder believed British Leyland’s productivity and capacity utilisation could be lifted to internationally competitive levels, and its losses stemmed, through such growth in production, rather than through making people unemployed and closing plants.

Ryder, whose forecasts were used to justify the state rescue of British Leyland, didn’t split his projections for the continent by model. However, given the composition of demand, and what British Leyland was planning to build, the Austin Allegro was clearly expected to do the heavy lifting. And to sell in big numbers in France.

The opportunity was there if the product was right. One in five cars sold in France in 1975 were imports, led by Ford which sold 50,000 cars to the French that year, Fiat which sold 43,000 and Volkswagen which sold 36,000.

The initial range – 1974

In contrast to the broad UK line-up (of 12 models at first) a streamlined three-car Allegro range was introduced in France in 1974. The range was comprised of the 1100 two-door, 1300 four-door and 1500 Special four-door.

Austin Allegro in France
Early advertising ‘Escape the dreary’ emphasised bright colours in combination with Allegro’s fresh design. The 1300 (all three cars pictured) qualified as a ‘7cv’ in France

Bright colours featured heavily in early advertising, which suggested the new Allegro offered a chance to get away from the ‘dreary’ offerings in that market segment.

The long delay between the UK launch in May 1973 and the launch in France, as well as other continental markets, may have been linked to the need to get Allegro assembly at the Seneffe plant up and running. But, as mentioned above, it resulted in the Allegro being launched in the teeth of a recession in France.

It was also a time when the French dealer network was reeling from the painful consolidation of the patchwork of independent distributors British Leyland had inherited in 1968, six for the BMC range alone, organised regionally rather than nationally, with Austin and Morris sold through rival networks.

As in many countries, the creation of a single network had seen many dealers lost. In France, where distribution had been extremely fragmented, three-quarters of the dealers who had held a franchise for one of the many BLMC marques in 1968 had been shed by 1973. Weak distribution would handicap British Leyland on the continent for many years to come, including in France, and including for the Allegro.

Reaction and the French rivals

In retrospect, a hatchback would have helped the Allegro in France, but let’s not forget that in 1974 the French competition was comprised of the Citroën GS and Peugeot 104 ,which both lacked a hatchback at that stage, in addition to the Renault 12 four-door saloon and the Renault 6 which had a fifth door, but was more of a small estate.

So, a hatchback wasn’t the ‘no-brainer’ some will have you believe, though the Simca 1100 which was France’s best-selling car for a period was a hatchback, as was the new Renault 5 supermini.

Austin Allegro in France
Top Allegro for France in 1974 was the five-speed 1500 Special – very few Allegro 1750 cars were exported anywhere

Press reaction to the new arrival from ‘outre-Manche’ was mixed. The novel Hydragas suspension sparked approving comments, but the A-Series engines were seen as dated, and it has to be said quality glitches on early cars and the infamous quartic steering-wheel – mocked as much in France as Britain – didn’t help.

Such squared-off wheels are commonplace on modern cars of course, but almost always teamed with power assistance which allows higher gearing of the steering, so the ‘cam action’ (as Motor called it) which made wheel-twirling clumsy on the Allegro, becomes much less of an issue.

From September 1974 that wheel began to be phased out in the UK, initially on the 1750HL and Sport models. Perhaps French customers should have been spared it entirely, as they were in some other overseas markets like New Zealand.

Allegro 2

British Leyland tacitly acknowledged the early Series 1 Allegro fell short of the mark in many departments by rushing out the revised Allegro 2 models in little over two years, compared with the four years taken to do that with the Morris Marina. Improvements on Allegro 2 included a useful increase in rear seat legroom, and the quartic wheel was history.

As the Allegro had arrived on the continent later, this resulted in Leyland France and their dealers embarking on the promotion of Allegro 2 little more than a year after launch of the original.

By the time the Allegro 2 was launched in late 1975, French advertising was working hard to portray the Allegro as the ‘big Mini’ but sales remained modest by comparison: in 1977 British Leyland sold 18,000 Minis in France, including 2,800 Innocenti versions, but only 4000 Allegros. And British Leyland remained a minor player with only 1.3% market share in France.

Austin Allegro in France
With the Mini a big seller in France, it’s not surprising Leyland began promoting Allegro 2 as ‘The Big Mini’. This was the theme of a television advert, stills from which appear here. It referenced the long tradition of ‘How many people can you fit in a Mini?’ contests

A three-door saloon?

The Allegro 2 range for France included a new body-style – the estate. This might have turned things round, the French being keen on their ‘breaks’. But they tended to prefer five-door estates. The Citroën Ami 6 had been the best-selling car in the 1960s with the five-door estate outselling the saloon. And when the Simca 1100 estate arrived, initially as a three-door, it flopped and a five-door version was rapidly substituted.

So, the Allegro estate faced an uphill battle – and it’s intriguing to see it described in the brochure as a ‘three-door saloon’.

Austin Allegro in France
The Allegro 1300 Estate was described as a three-door saloon (Berline 3 Portes) in some French marketing

As was the case in some other markets like Denmark, Leyland was attempting to compensate for the lack of a hatchback on Allegro by effectively calling the estate a hatchback. Not many French buyers were seduced.

Special finds favour

However, a model that did find favour was the Allegro 1300 Special – a version never seen in the UK – which married the economical 1275cc A-Series engine to the top level of trim.

The 1300 (or 7cv) Special was launched in 1977 and remained in the range through to 1979 when the Allegro 2 range for France comprised 1100 four door, 1300 Special, 1300 estate and 1500. The normal 1300 saloon appears to have been dropped early although for a while (see below) it was available alongside the 1300 Special.

Austin Allegro in France
Austin Allegro 7cv (1300) Special – ‘Why shouldn’t you have luxury for 25,690F?’ … This appealing package was not offered to British customers in the Allegro 2 range.

With Leyland Cars pricing very aggressively on the continent in the late 1970s, the 1300 Special (or 7cv Special) was an appealing package at an attractive price.

Austin Allegro in France
And then there were five: Addition of the Estate and the 1300 Special expanded the French Allegro range to five models for 1977.  But despite a wider choice, sales remained ‘confidential’ as the French say… The standard 1300 saloon pictured at bottom left soon disappeared. The Allegro 1100 was offered as a two-door saloon only at this point in France, later becoming a four-door.

Rival actions

But the competition wasn’t standing still. In 1976, Renault introduced the 14, aimed at the same market segment as Allegro and equipped with a hatch, while Peugeot revised the 104 to incorporate a hatchback.

The Renault 14 had a terrible launch – the French get things wrong too – not helped by advertising that compared it to a pear, and has gone down in French motoring history as a failure. One million were built which is low for a French volume model of that era, but compares to the Allegro’s 670,000.

Austin Allegro in France
The Renault 14 was a homegrown rival to the Austin Allegro, though being compared to a pear (as seen here) didn’t help it

The Renault 14 helped make Allegro seem like yesterday’s car. Leyland Cars was pricing very aggressively on the continent in the late 1970s, as it desperately tried to meet the wildly optimistic sales forecasts of the Ryder Plan, and in the late 1970s the Allegro found French customers by under-cutting newer or better-known alternatives like the Renault 14.

Later French Allegro advertising is firmly focused on price, but that value brand positioning would become a liability once sterling started soaring in 1979. And despite its efforts, Leyland France had to accept it remained chiefly a ‘Mini supplier’ with attempts to become a ‘range provider’ frustrated.

Allegro’s sales could at least be measured in the thousands but those of the Princess and Morris Marina were best measured in the hundreds (600 and 900 in 1977 respectively) and the Austin Maxi was dropped in France in 1976 after failing to gain traction – metaphorically speaking.

Four Eyes

From late 1978 onwards all Allegro 2 saloons assembled at Seneffe and sold on the continent came with four headlights, so later advertising for the French 7cv Special features this. However, this didn’t apply to Series 2 estates, which were always built at Longbridge and stuck with the rectangular lights for the moment.

Austin Allegro in France
‘At last a car that gets bigger on the highway but shrinks in town’: 1978/79 Allegro 2 saloons sold on the continent came with four headlights, as seen here

Allegro 3

Could it be third-time lucky for the Allegro in France with the Allegro 3 range, launched in 1979?

French press reviews had some nice things to say – which that advert aimed at the UK market clutches at perhaps a little desperately. It was noted performance was up on Allegro 2 (the Allegro 3 1500 had twin carbs) but so was economy (helped by the new chin spoiler which reduced drag).

Changes to external appearance and the new dashboard were commented on approvingly, and overall the Allegro 3 was seen as offering good value for money, with equipment levels on the 1300 HL (below) and range-topping (in France) 1500 HL seen as generous. The five-speed gearbox of the 1500 HL was seen as a plus, but it was questioned why the Allegro still didn’t have a hatchback.

Austin Allegro in France
The Allegro 3 gave a new reason to advertise the Allegro in France. The high level of equipment of the 7cv HL model pictured is highlighted. (‘nouveau moteur’ presumably refers to the new twin carb set-up of the 1500 HL)

All Allegro 3 models, including estates, came with the four headlamp arrangement when sold on the continent, in contrast to the UK where only the top trim level was granted four lamps – so never the estate.

While we’re talking differences one should also mention the Allegro 1750 models were, with a few tiny exceptions, never marketed in continental Europe or any export market through all three series of Allegro. That included the Allegro Equipe special edition of 1979 (an Allegro 2 variant) which thus didn’t appear in France. A ‘French difference’ was yellow headlight beams, achieved on Allegro with yellow bulbs – something mandated on all new cars in France until 1992.

The initial Allegro 3 range for 1980 included an 1100 four door, 1300 HL, 1300 estate and 1500 HL. The HL name replaced Special, as used previously, while no two-door saloon was offered. But both the 1300 HL saloon and 1300 estate were dropped at the end of the year.

The base model Allegro 3 1100 looked rather base, despite the four headlamps (not fitted to equivalent British market cars)

So, in its final French catalogue appearance, for 1981, only two Allegros were offered: the rather spartan 1100 four-door and the much posher 1500 HL saloon, which now qualified as a 7cv,  even though previous Allegro 1500 cars had been rated as 8cv.

No doubt there was a reason why the 1500 model outlived the 1300, perhaps because of the five-speed gearbox. Or perhaps they were simply running down stocks and the 1300 sold out faster. Perhaps it was felt the new Austin Metro 1.3 S could replace the Allegro 1300 models, as the Metro 1.3 HLS wasn’t marketed.

In any event, these were very obscure models in France by then, with the BL brochure for 1981 grouping them with a ragbag of other legacy cars as pictured, while the promising new Austin Metro and the evergreen Mini occupied most of the pages in that publication. Not bad considering it also included Rover, Jaguar and the Triumph TR7.

Austin Allegro in France
The French BL catalogue for 1981 grouped the Allegro 3 with both Morris Marina and Morris Ital (that overlap presumably reflecting stock issues) and a sole Princess model (2000 HL) called an Austin at this point in France. None were long for this world, even the Ital being dropped in France after 1982

Italy, where the Austin Allegro was introduced in 1976 after the ill-fated Innocenti Regent was dropped, was a better market for Allegro 3, and received a 998cc Allegro 1000 in 1981 which didn’t make it to France, powered with the A+ engine developed for Metro.

There’s something of a question mark over where the final Allegro saloons for the continent were assembled. Seneffe stopped assembling the Allegro in 1980, and stopped assembly altogether in 1981, but Longbridge continued to build Allegros until March 1982.

It would appear the French were simply running out stocks during 1981, with the refreshed Allegro range seen in the UK for that year (with the A+ engines in 1.0-litre and 1.3-litre form, and detail revisions to trim) not making an appearance, in contrast to the Italian market.

The end comes

Continental sales of Allegro ended in early 1982, when the much more competitive Austin Metro and Triumph Acclaim were already bringing BL France the success that had eluded them in the 1970s. The 1980s saw BL sales in France on an upward trend and the Allegro forgotten.

From 27,000 cars in 1977 BL sales in France grew to 40,000 in 1987 and continued to climb towards 50,000. The Austin Metro did quite well, peaking at 18,000 French sales in 1986, while the French continued to buy around 7000 Minis annually, and BL market share approached 3% at times.

That was helped by the smaller Rover cars developed in partnership with Honda and built at Longbridge proving popular. First, the 1984 ‘SD3’ Rover 200 saloons (below) and then the 1989 (R8) Rover 200 models, 22,700* of which were sold in 1994 – more than the Allegro managed throughout its lifetime, aimed at a not dissimilar market segment.

Those ‘Honda-Rovers’, as the French often called them, proved rather more appealing in France than the Austin Maestro which when launched in 1983 was seen as the Allegro’s direct descendant.

*Includes 2400 notchback versions badged Rover 400.

Rover 200
New dawn: The Rover models developed in partnership with Honda sold much better in France than Allegro over the next couple of decades. This 213S is from 1988

Allegros have now virtually disappeared from French roads, with difficulty in servicing the Hydragas suspension likely to be a factor. In contrast, you still see plenty of 1970s Minis in circulation.

The final analysis

Total Allegro sales volume in France (1974-82) was 21,000 cars, which amounts to approximately 10% of total export volume for the Austin Allegro. That’s around the same as Italy, when one combines Innocenti Regent and Austin Allegro, but double the West German figure. The Allegro did better in the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark – certainly as a proportion of total sales in those countries.

So, compared to those mid 1970s forecasts, Allegro sales have to be seen as a disappointment, in France, in continental Europe and overall. Lord Ryder’s projections implied Allegro sales in France building up towards 30,000 annually, which are the sort of figures the Volkswagen Golf achieved in France in the late 1970s.

The harsh reality was that, though understandably popular with the Trade Unions and the sponsoring Labour Government for appearing to make job losses unnecessary, the 1975 Ryder Plan for British Leyland wouldn’t have worked, certainly in terms of continental sales objectives, unless the Austin Allegro had been something of a ‘wonder car’ which revolutionised standards in the segment (rather like the BMC 1100 (ADO16) had done on the UK market ten years before).

And had been built without disruptions to an impeccable level of quality (rather like the Golf can we say?) as well as being priced competitively.

Sadly, it was neither. Seneffe assembly couldn’t totally shield Allegro from disruption to supply caused by long-running strikes in the UK, either internal to BL like the 1977 toolmakers’ dispute, or at suppliers, which halted production and the despatch of components.

The Allegro’s under-achievement, in France and elsewhere in Europe, is probably the single biggest reason British Leyland only supplied 1% of the cars sold on the continent in 1980, rather than the 4% predicted by Lord Ryder.

On the other hand, 21,000 cars sold to France is 21,000 cars. If only 10% of the people in France who had previously bought a new Mini had been persuaded by their friendly dealer to replace it with an Allegro, then 21,000 Allegros would have been sold – and there was undoubtedly an element of that going on, as expected. Remembering that in France, especially rural France, people’s loyalty was often more to the dealer – who they saw in the local bistro every weekend – than to the brand.

21,000 cars was a useful contribution to Allegro’s overall export volume of over 210,000 cars of which approximately 150,000 were sold on the European continent. They helped keep both Longbridge and Seneffe in business during the 1970s, and those 21,000 cars for France represent about 3% of total Allegro production. The Austin Allegro was an ‘also ran’ in the French family car field. It wasn’t a ‘non-runner’.

Still, it has to be said that British advert at the top of the article employed quite a bit of creative license in implying the Allegro 3 was a winner in France. As did the segment in an earlier Leyland Cars TV advert which showed a Frenchman with his Allegro (in a beret in front of the Eiffel tower just so we’re clear) declaring ‘This is the best foreign car I’ve ever owned’.

If you bought an Allegro in France, you were always in a rather small minority.

Austin Allegro in France
As comforting as a Shetland pullover’. Advertising for the Allegro 3 1500 HL in 1981 formed part of a knitwear-themed campaign which also included Austin Princess (‘soft as cashmere’) and Morris Ital (‘robust as an Irish sweater’)

With thanks to: Marc Aumonier, Matthieu Martin, Hervé Reby-Noisette, Jean-Claude Leclerq, Lionel Sentenac.

Chris Cowin

6 Comments

  1. Why would you buy a lemon when you could have a pear? Lol. The French had a better selection of alternatives that an Aggro and were all French made so why buy an Austin? I’m surprised they sold any in reality, it must have been people looking for something different?

    • Price was a factor. And familiarity with the dealer (one can assume that at least some of the big pool of French Mini owners did trade up to an Allegro).
      The French did buy quite a lot of imports in this class. Golf, Escort, Fiat 131 … For 1975 20% of cars sold in France were imported (300,000 cars) led by Ford (50,000), Fiat (43,000) and VW (36,000).

  2. Love these articles, thanks, they’re fascinating.

    I want to see the other knitwear adverts, that’s hilarious!

  3. I wonder if the Allegro selling well in Belgium was due to it being assembled in the country, in the same way Cortinas, Minis, Opel Asconas( Cavaliers) and Escorts sold quite well in Belgium. Interestingly the closure of Seneffe had the same effect as the closure of Linwood in Scotland at the same time: Belgians boycotted British Leyland cars for many years, in the same way Talbot saw their sales slump in Scotland.

  4. Fascinating stuff. I have very poor Photoshop skills but if you add a boot on to an Allegro, it suddenly looks a much better car. Try it!

  5. The Allegro could have been a car tha French took their hearts if it was a hatchback as they were totally sold on fwd and unusually styled cars in the seventies. Always wonder if any Avengers or Vivas were sold in France in the seventies, or if their conservative engineering was a big turn off in France.

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