For June 2003, we are doing something different for the Car of the Month feature….
In May 1973, the replacement for the seminal Austin 1100/1300 – for many years, the UK’s best selling car – was launched to the world’s press. For a long time, the car was known to many in automotive circles as the “ADO67”, but on one sunny spring morning, the mysterious code was replaced by a name with musical connotations: Allegro.
Buyers did not have long to wait before they would know the relative merits of the Allegro versus the 1100/1300 – they would find out in June 1973, when it went on sale in Austin-Morris dealerships across the country.
So, for June 2003, the car of the month does not fall to one particular person’s car, but to one particular type of car. Love it or loathe it, the Allegro evokes feelings in all people asked to express an opinion on it, and so, it’s only fair not to let its thirtieth birthday go without comment.
Happy 30th birthday, ALLEGRO!
THE Allegro ushered in a new marketing concept for British Leyland, because like the 1100/1300 before it, a huge range of cars was available, but unlike its predecessor, all models would be sold under the “Austin Allegro” banner. No longer did it seem the right thing to do to have the buyer confused by whether they should be lusting after an MG or Wolseley model – no sir… the ADO67 was an Austin, like it or lump it. Buyer confusion may have been averted on this level, but it certainly did not stop people being puzzled by why they added a quartic steering wheel, made it bigger (without being roomier), and undoubtedly, buyers were stunned by the Allegro’s unconventional styling.
Of course, there was a perfectly understandable reason for the challenging styling, and that was because the advanced foreign opposition of the time such as the Alfasud and Citroen GS were also unconventionally styled – and it was these cars that British Leyland seeked to emulate with the Allegro. However, both the Alfasud and GS were largely the products of one man, the Allegro was not. OK, it might have been styled by Harris Mann, but it was the productionising engineers and management committees that manages to reduce its styling to a cruel pastiche of the original. However, it might have been ungainingly looking, and buyers didn’t understand it, but initially, the press loved it… CAR magazine, the esteemed journal that used to challenge the establishment praised it to the rafters at the time of its launch – cheered on by the advanced specification and non-conformist approach.
Autocar and Motor magazine also both loved it, but the honeymoon soon subsided about the same time as the first road tests. CAR magazine were soon forced to eat their words when they pitted the 1750SS against the Alfasud and GS (both in 1200cc form) and found it wanting in too many areas to come anywhere but last… buyers felt the same, and they soon began to melt away in large numbers, tempted by the normality of the Ford Escort, or the reliability and build quality promised by the Japanese car importers. That is not to say that the Allegro was a bad car; it did have its positive points… simple engines sited in huge bays meant easy servicing, and the Hydragas suspension did allow for a good ride. Despite its reputation, the Allegro also remained reasonably roll-free in cornering, and it gripped pretty well – however, its handling merits were masked by the rubbery steering.
Time passed, and the Allegro was developed into a reasonable car… the series 2 came along and improved the rear room, whilst making the drivetrain less snatch-prone. The series 3 followed some time after and introduced a nicer looking dashboard (with Jaguar fresh-air vents no less!) and some nice trim options…. The styling became less jarring with the passage of time, and what was once judged to be as graceful as a penguin on dry land, became almost cuddly in the eyes of the less critical.
Series 2 Allegro was little changed externally, but some useful engineering modifications were added. It also saw the quartic wheel rightfully laid to rest.
Series 3 was treated to black bumpers, quad headlights in the top models and plusher trim…. It also should be considered the best of the lot in terms of day-to-day driving.
Of course, we all know about what makes the Allegro a glorious failure, and in truth it does prove that most Brits do have an opinion on cars, and that given a big enough failure, it will enter the public consciousness. Like Big Brother’s Jade, the Allegro proved that good looks and intelligence were not always the way to get into the news, but it is not all bad. If we try and look back… how many other cars can you recall being launched in 1973? I bet not many. And that’s the deal with the Allegro, and perhaps its one and only legacy…. it has a place in history, and it has a place in everyone’s hearts.
Last word goes to the Equipe: butt of many jokes in 1979 – and a car that proved almost impossible to sell, but today, many many people seem to have fond memories of them. How strange…