Archive : Austin Allegro – launch and growing pains

AROnline’s historian-in-residence Ian Nicholls digs into the archives to discuss the Austin Allegro launch and growing pains from the perspectives of British Leyland’s movers and shakers at the time.

Overture to the Austin Allegro

Britain in May 1973 was a different country to what it is now. This was a world where the most desirable consumer item was a colour television set – for colour TVs would not outnumber black and white until 1976.

This year typified the popular image of 1970s Britain where men sported long hair, sideburns, kipper ties and flared trousers. Fashion, until now the province of the young, was now embraced by the middle-aged – and they also became fashion victims.

Glam and progressive rock dominated the music scene with Marc Bolan, Slade, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin to the fore. Princess Anne got engaged to Captain Mark Philips, and the Cod War began. Many adults smoked like chimneys, and people were more sexist and racist in their general attitude.

Booming car market – a great time to launch

The Prime Minister was the Conservative Edward Heath, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer was Anthony Barber. In 1972, unemployment reached the then shocking total of one million, and Barber reacted by pumping money into the economy – something that became known as the ‘Barber Boom.’ The UK car market expanded to a then-record of 1.66m.

It was against this background that the British Leyland Motor Corporation prepared to launch its all-important ADO67. This was its replacement for the phenomenally successful and long-running 1100/1300. If the raison d’être for the formation of British Leyland had been to provide the finance to develop a completely new range of models, then May 1973 was the culmination of this programme.

To prepare the ground BLMC, embarked on a publicity blitz deliberately timed to coincide with the company’s fifth anniversary, and this article seeks to detail what happened, and what was said. The PR blitz began on 2 May 1973, when the Chairman of British Leyland, Lord Stokes, unveiled the group’s results for the first six months’ trading. Profits £22m, making this the most successful first half in the company’s history. Only £7.2m was made in the same period in 1971/72.

BLMC: making loads of cars

A total of 561,000 vehicles rolled off the British Leyland production lines, an increase of 24,000. This represented £411m in this country, against £338m – and £348m abroad – an increase of £109m. The company also had a windfall of £2.5m following currency realignments. Lord Stokes and his men turned out these figures in the face of an almost continuously running battle against strikes.

The British Road Services strike, and a gas workers’ dispute, both hit British Leyland production – and around 60,000 vehicles were thought to have been lost during the half-year.

BLMC claimed that, as fast as the company could get cars off the production line, they were going to customers. But there was still not enough to meet demand. It was not a question of production potential being under capacity, but more a problem of getting fully geared up. While there was some surplus stock to fall back on in the first six months, Lord Stokes admitted that, in the second half, sales would be limited by production.

‘We could have sold an extra 150,000 Minis’

On 10 May the Daily Express interviewed Keith Hopkins, the Director of Publicity at British Leyland, who had known Lord Stokes since 1961. Hopkins was the son of a Coventry car worker, and had been educated at the Sorbonne University in Paris. The newspaper asked Keith Hopkins if British cars were really bad?

He responded: ‘The situation is not as bleak as it would appear. Last year when we had three months of industrial peace, British Leyland gained back a share of the domestic market at the expense of the importers. But then we had the British Rail Services strike and we slipped again.’

Hopkins was also optimistic about British Leyland’s prospects in Europe, now that Britain was a member of the Common Market, the then-popular name for what is now the European Union.

‘The most popular car exported from Britain is the Mini. It is our biggest seller in Italy, Germany, and Switzerland. We can sell every Mini we make. Last year we could have sold an extra 150,000 Minis in Europe if we could have produced them. But our total production of Minis was only around 300,000 for the year.’

Mini selling well, but new metal needed

Could British Leyland really have sold 450,000 Minis in a year? The introduction of continental manufacturing of the Mini had boosted annual production above 300,000 for a brief period and there was still some slack in these overseas plants to meet this perceived demand. Later rival small cars would be produced in this kind of volume, but Mini production now inexorably declined.

On 15 May, the PR offensive moved into overdrive when several national newspapers published interviews with Lord Stokes. He told The Guardian: ‘When we took on the job we realised that a massive task lay ahead but I don’t think any of us realised just how massive. It was not apparent just how heavily they (British Motor Holdings) was dependent on a range of models which was beginning to show its age, or what a paucity of new products there was to maintain a competitive position during the ensuing five years.’

This became part of his corporate mantra, and he would repeat it right up to his death in 2008. The Daily Express published an interview, ‘My Stake In Your Tomorrow’ which purported to be with Lord Stokes, but it could well have been a PR release written by Keith Hopkins. Click the link, as it makes fascinating reading in hindsight.

Stokes hits out at the old BMC

Lord Stokes also gave an interview to The Times newspaper. Looking back to 1968, Lord Stokes felt that at that time his responsibilities were ‘absolutely all-embracing. I think I realised then, particularly when we began to expose some of the facts of the case, that I had taken on myself a terrific commitment.’

‘It was something that I had got myself and the company and my colleagues into. It’s a huge company by British standards and a huge responsibility. And on top of that we found out that things were going to be much more difficult than we had been led to believe. In all the previous mergers that we had undertaken we had never, of course, found anything like this.’

‘Things were going to be much more difficult than we had been led to believe in 1968… – Donald Stokes

At Leyland, Lord Stokes had found that he was able to get involved personally in almost every aspect of the company.

‘I suddenly found that I had to transform myself into a delegator, and, at the same time, be an innovator because we had to get the thing moving. Somebody had to do something. As we found the situation, it was obvious that it was desperate. For instance, I had to decide that we were going to make the Marina. It was not a case of having committees, it was just a case of making a decision and going ahead as fast as we could.’

Austin Allegro launch and growing pains. Lord Stokes speaking at the launch of the Austin Allegro in May 1973
Lord Stokes became irrevocably associated with the Austin Allegro, launched in May 1973

With the Morris Marina and, indeed, with British Leyland itself in the first two or three years, Lord Stokes recalled the necessity of ‘quick almost intuitive decisions’.

Stokes dominates British Leyland

The effect, so far as the public saw it, was to stamp Lord Stokes’ personality firmly on British Leyland. Lord Stokes believed the British preferred a company with a personality at its head and not a nonentity.

‘We find a lot of people we recruit prefer to be with a flesh and blood Chairman, maybe irascible, maybe impetuous or anything else, but at least they have someone they can get a decision from. And I think they become involved with you to a certain extent.

‘We find a lot of people object to this faceless man at the top idea. I find this particularly on the shop-floor; I can go round any of our factories and I bet you most of the people know who I am, even though they may not agree with me and may not even like me. I am under no illusions about that.’

The challenge facing the British motor industry

Lord Stokes strongly believed that he was in business to create things, not destroy them.

‘I had no money involved and I got the same pay exactly as I had when I was at Leyland. The point as I saw it was that this was a challenge to have a British motor industry which would give opportunity for our children to get to the top if they could. We have reduced the number of plants. I think that is logical. We’ve actually not reduced the number of employees. In fact, we have slightly increased them.

‘And even in 1970, I never thought that we were going to lose. It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t pull through. But there were times when it was pretty black. We got a fair basin of criticism from people who didn’t really understand the problem.

‘The banks helped us a lot, of course. The joint stock banks, particularly, were very understanding. I went round and spoke to all the bankers individually and personally, and I think they understood the problem. On the other hand, we have never tried to lobby people.

There were painful model-range cuts

‘We are not great lobbyists in this company, and we never have been. I think it’s right, because if you start to try to run your business by perpetually lobbying politicians or bankers or so-called City men you just don’t get on with the job of actually running the business.

‘But I must say it’s a bit disturbing when the cash flow sums are going against you. And we had to chop things that I would have liked to have kept on. We chopped one of the Rover cars which I would have liked to have gone on with, but there was nothing else we could do.

‘You’ve just got to weigh up how much money you’ve got. We would have liked to have expanded more quickly and modernize our factories earlier. But we just didn’t have the money. And one of the most remarkable things is the way that everybody cooperated.’

The factories were looking good…

He continued: ‘I don’t think the public realises this, but people running factories are terribly proud of them. They like to see new plant and equipment coming in. They like to be up to date. We had to make a lot of these people defer and cut back and prune everything. Now we have relaxed the purse strings, everyone’s smiling, of course.’

Austin Allegro launch and growing pains. How the Rover P8 looked just before production was cancelled in 1971.
How the Rover P8 looked just before production was cancelled in 1971

Note his Lordship’s reference to the Rover P8, cancelled in 1971.

Stokes continued: ‘A lot of people have said that we would have disappeared long ago. My colleagues at the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation said I wouldn’t live five years. Now we can claim to have arrived. And we have got our plans for the next five years. And they are real plans which we have the money to implement.’

Embracing Europe

And he saw European collaboration in the motor industry rather than further large mergers.

‘There should be a greater sharing of facilities with manufacturers jointly developing a new gearbox, for example. But I think people will keep their own national individuality.

It will be a great pity if they don’t because I’m sure of this that if we had tried to put Jaguar design, under Austin-Morris it would have been a disaster.’

Stokes speaks out at the Savoy

The same day as all these articles appeared Lord Stokes gave a speech at a lunch at the Savoy Hotel, London, to mark the fifth anniversary of British Leyland. This is what he said:

‘In 1968 we stated that it would take a full five years to see the benefits of our merger, and we have worked fairly closely to a five-year plan. Although it had become clear to us that British Motor Holdings had financial problems we could not have understood until we took over the management of that company just how serious and immediate they were.

‘It was also not apparent just how heavily they were dependent on a range of models, which was beginning to show its age, or what a paucity of new products there was to maintain a competitive position during the ensuing five years.’

Not predicting the mess

Stokes added: ‘Furthermore, I do not think we could have foreseen just how bad the national industrial climate was to become or just how vulnerable we were to this. I believe, however, we can pick out six major achievements:

  1. Within a month of taking over the management of the new corporation we had laid down a new product programme to cover the next five years, the first evidence of which was the Morris Marina which went from a gleam in the eye to showroom in the record period of three years. The new products and revised products laid down in that programme are still emerging, the latest of these will see the light of day this coming Thursday, and the will continue to emerge over the next few months and years to give us what we believe to be the most competitive, attractive, and comprehensive range of cars and commercial vehicles in Europe.
  2. We have taken drastic steps to rationalise both our range of products and our production facilities, we have reduced the number of plants we have in the UK from 74 to 59, while the number of car models has been rationalised gradually and sensibly, such as the number of models produced by Austin-Morris has been reduced from 24 to 12.
  3. We have established an industrial relations philosophy and policy to apply to our employees throughout the United Kingdom. This has resulted in a common negotiating procedure, approved and welcomed by the trade unions and workers representatives. It has also enabled us to reform our payment systems throughout the most but plants, a process, which I think would by now be complete if the Government’s programme to combat inflation had not intervened.
  4. We have completely rationalised our overseas network of manufacturing plants as well as our marketing, service, and distribution outlets. Each major market now has an operating British Leyland company, which controls all our interests there and has made much more efficient and profitable operation as well as higher sales.
  5. We have also I think fulfilled the requirements of the first clause of the principles of management and organisation which were laid down at the outset of British Leyland. This was that the company should run as a single integrated company and not as a holding company with autonomous subsidiaries.
  6. With the current debate on whether the country is undergoing a boom or not, the topic of exports has latterly become a little unfashionable. It would be quite wrong of us, however, to ignore the balance of payments and we must continually bear in mind that exports are still absolutely crucial to the prosperity of the country. For the five years of our existence we have been by far the country’s largest exporting company of any kind. Indeed, during these five years British Leyland has sold overseas the massive total of over £2500m worth of goods of which more than £1700m were direct exports.

‘On the basis of the interim figures we announced a week or so ago we can now also justifiably claim that we are on our way to honest and respectable profitability.’

Modernising Austin-Morris

Stokes said: ‘On the car side, of necessity we had hitherto to concentrate the majority of our investment at Austin-Morris to modernise production facilities and introduce new models. During the second five years, although Austin-Morris by dint of its size, will continue to expand and develop there will be a relatively major swing of our investment and expansion efforts into the highly profitable area of Jaguar and Rover Triumph as well as the truck and bus division.

‘For some time, our engineers and product planners have worked on a new range of advance engines, four new car power units will be emerging from British Leyland over the next few years, and as the tooling for new engines is always very expensive a great deal of our investment will be devoted to this work.

‘I cannot give details of the engines or indeed the models which they will power, but they will all be of an exciting specification and will join increased amounts of aluminium alloy which is a very valuable aid in meeting exhaust pollution laws.’

How to fix a problem like Rover-Triumph

‘We are going to spend large sums at Solihull on a major new manufacturing and final assembly facility, one and a half am square feet, for a new Rover car,’ Stokes said. ‘Rover’s role in the British Leyland product programme will be very much what it is at present, the medium-sized quality saloon, but in a much bigger way.

‘We are going to spend large sums at Solihull on a major new manufacturing and final assembly facility, one and a half am square feet, for a new Rover car.’ – Donald Stokes

‘Triumph, will eventually cease to compete directly with Rover and will concentrate its energies on smaller but refined four-seater saloons in the luxury high-performance category to compete with the types of cars which certain Continental companies have sold so successfully in recent years. These developments will also attract large investment funds to our Triumph plant at Canley.

‘Large sums of money will also be spent on an entirely new sports car programme covering both Triumph and MG.’

Growing British Leyland: a priority

Also Lord Stokes stated that it was the intention to increase the group’s annual output of cars and trucks from 1,100,000 to 1,500,000. That, Lord Stokes said, ‘would have a dramatic impact on our international standing and competitiveness and of course provide additional employment ‘.

Lord Stokes refused to be drawn on the location of the projected new car plant beyond saying that it would ‘be located separately from our traditional areas of manufacture’.

He also disclosed that although he would continue for the time being as Chairman and Chief Executive, John Barber, then a Joint Deputy Managing Director, had been appointed executive Deputy Chairman and Deputy Chief Executive. George Turnbull, also a Deputy Managing Director, became Managing Director responsible to Mr Barber.

Stokes’s intention to step back

Lord Stokes added: ‘With the consent of the Board, I hope it will become possible for me gradually to relinquish the responsibilities of Chief Executive and assume the full-time role of Chairman.’

Lord Stokes also disclosed that the corporation would soon be moving to a new headquarters building, the 14-storey Burmah Castrol House in Marylebone Road, London. It would be renamed the Leyland Building and corporate staff would begin leaving the existing cramped office block in Berkeley Square in the autumn of 1973.

Lord Stokes declined to give detailed investments: ‘This would be unwise in view of the competitive nature of our, industry.’

The Spanish adventure begins

However, he threw out several gems, including the news that plans were being laid for: ‘What may be the biggest overseas manufacturing project of them all in Spain, where we are considering a major volume expansion with fully integrated facilities, including power-train manufacture.’

Spain was the fastest-growing car market in Europe, and there had increased speculation about plans to expand British Leyland Authi, the group’s existing Spanish plant. Summing up, Lord Stokes said: ‘We believe that these steps over the next five years will serve to improve our penetration of the United Kingdom market, the EEC and other major overseas markets, as well as our profitability.

‘We are also quite confident that for two years at least we shall be able to generate the cash we need from our own resources. This is the beginning of a very exciting era for British Leyland and I think that our designers, engineers, production men, planners and marketeers are going to give you a British motor industry of which you will be very proud.’

Upcoming models hinted at

Lord Stokes speech prompted a Government response. Christopher Chataway, the Minister for Industrial Development, said at Teesside the same day that the Government intended pressing British Leyland to establish its new car plant in one of the development areas.

Austin Allegro launch and growing pains. Keith Hopkins: Lord Stokes' spin-doctor
Keith Hopkins: Lord Stokes’ spin-doctor

It was a fantastic PR stunt by Lord Stokes and Keith Hopkins, indicating that what was in British Leyland’s interest was in the national interest. Stokes referred to a new manufacturing plant at Solihull which became the Rover SD1 plant. He also mentioned new engines. BLMC at the time was developing the K-Series (not the same design that appeared in 1989); the O-Series and the 2.3- and 2.6-litre six-cylinder engines for the Rover SD1.

Most of the press speculation centred on the location of the new greenfield site.

…and new factories speculated about

The Times said it would almost certainly be built in one of three traditional steel-making centres, South Wales, Shotton, in Flintshire, or on Teesside. Motor industry and steel sources said that under European Coal and Steel Community pricing regulations, which came into effect on 30 April 1973, motor companies would have to pay substantial freight costs for steel deliveries from railhead basing points near steel producing centres.

This introduced a new cost factor. Before 30 April, the cost of steel was the same wherever it was delivered.

The Times reckoned the capacity of the new car plant would be at least 250,000 cars. a year, the generally accepted minimum for the economical operation of a fully integrated complex. A labour force of between 8000 and 12,000 was thought to be necessary to produce 250,000 cars a year, dependent on the extent to which the new plant would be automated.

Would BLMC expand into BSC?

The British Steel Corporation planned to run down its Shotton steelworks during the next few years, reducing the existing 12,000 labour force by 6500.

The Shotton works adjoined large tracts of land owned by BSC, and it was thought that this could he made available as the site of the car plant. It was only an hour away from port facilities at Liverpool.

An equally strong case was made out for a site within the South Wales triangle of Port Talbot, Ebbw Vale and Cardiff. But there were also strong advantages at Teesside where BSC was to expand a steel making complex to equal Japanese plants in size and concentration.

Austin Allegro launch and growing pains

Austin Allegro launch and growing pains. A 1.1- or 1.3-litre Allegro is now officially cool, and great to drive without being ironic. If you're 17-21, your mates will love this!
Allegro: The new driving force from Austin

The next day the ADO67 was launched as the Austin Allegro, BLMC’s car for Europe, the new driving force from Austin.

Filmer Paradise, the Director of Sales at the Austin-Morris Division said: ‘It is going to be a piece of cake — of all the cars I’ve sold this is going to be the easiest. It is the size the Europeans want it has front-wheel drive, which they want, it’s got the right shape and styling, it’s got the right spares and parts back-up and it’s the right price.’

‘It is going to be a piece of cake — of all the cars I’ve sold this is going to be the easiest.’ – Filmer Paradise

In the 20 May edition of The Observer, Michael Braham took a more balanced view of BLMC’s prospects. He pointed out that Lord Stokes was careful not to put forward a firm figure for the total cost of the expansion plan. All he did was point out that the largest sum spent in a single year so far was £67m.

Allegro: A boost for Britain

‘We see no reason why this annual rate should not he comfortably exceeded,’ he said. This was taken to mean that British Leyland had suddenly decided to invest between £400m and £500m by 1978. The popular newspapers dutifully rolled out the cliché’s about boosts for Britain and massive acts of faith. Such euphoric interpretations might have been very welcome to the Government but were seriously misleading, not least because 20 per cent of the money would be spent overseas.

In January 1973, the exact date is unknown, Lord Stokes had made it clear that British Leyland would invest about £70m in 1973, rising to around £80m in 1974. The clear implication was that this rite would be at least maintained in later years. There had been no change of plan or stepping up of the investment programme since then. Since British Leyland was formed in 1968, capital expenditure had averaged £53m a year,

‘All this excitement about a £500m boost is a big PR stunt really,’ said one industry insider.

Not committing enough to spending

Spending at the rate of, perhaps, £100m, a year would certainly be impressive to British Leyland’s net capital employed of £450m and a stock market value of only £200m. But by most other yardsticks it was still too little, assuming the money was invested in the right areas in the first place.

‘A company that size needs to spend £60m a year just to stand still,’ said a motor industry economist.

Fiat and Renault spent about £140m a year while Volkswagen, British Leyland’s other main European competitor, had reluctantly had to cut back its programme from £400m to £250m. Volkswagen were suffering from declining sales of its iconic Beetle, but had an Austin Allegro rival in the pipeline, the Golf hatchback.

The Japanese manufacturers expected to invest more than £600m between them this year and even Ford of Britain, much smaller than British Leyland, was spending £65m in 1973 and £67m in 1974. To make matters worse, British Leyland had a lot of ground to make up before it could start competing on equal terms.

Lots of issues, not enough to spend

‘We inherited an awful lot of old scattered plants,’ said new BLMC Executive Deputy Chairman and Deputy Chief Executive, John Barber. The harsh reality was that British Leyland did not have enough money to spend. In the previous three years pre-tax profits had averaged a meagre £22m of sales of around £1200m.

The upshot was that each British Leyland worker was backed by only £2179 of capital, compared with £6766 at Fiat and £7412 at Volkswagen. The figure for Ford of Great Britain was about £8100.

The under-investment in new factories and machinery showed up most clearly in British Leyland’s productivity record, which by international standards was pathetic. Its employees produced fewer than six vehicles a year each compared with 59 at Toyota.

Not all doom and gloom

John Barber argued reasonably, that the picture was not as grim as its looked because Toyota bought in more components and concentrated on high-volume cars, while British Leyland also built many luxury cars, like Jaguar, Rover and Triumph, with a disproportionately high labour content. And British Leyland did not aim to mechanise to the same extent as Volkswagen.

‘I think we shall probably end up with a little more labour and a little less equipment than some of the others. But I agree that we haven’t got the right ratio yet by any means. As far as we can foresee we’ve got enough cash for a few years,’ said John Barber.

British Leyland was in no shape to raise fresh funds on the capital market. 1972’s £50m rights issue flopped badly and the shares, now languished near their all time low at 34p. The stock market was deeply disillusioned about the company, partly because of the rights issue, partly because profits declined slightly to £32m pre-tax in the last financial year, £8m less than in 1968-69, despite booming demand.

Strikes were costing BLMC dear

Strikes in the group and among its suppliers, including British Road Services, had cost British Leyland 60,000 vehicles, or 10 per cent of its planned production. This was seen as good news at the time. In recent years the ratio of losses had usually been nearer 15 per cent.

Pat Lowry, the BLMC Industrial Relations Director, had masterminded the switch from piece rates to the far less contentious fixed daily wage rate system, which was seen as a contribution to this improvement. This now covered 66 per cent of all British Leyland workers and 85 per cent of those in car plants.

‘We are closer than ever before to an acceptable form of industrial peace. Most of our current problems result from disputes which are beyond the control of British Leyland,’ said Lord Stokes.

Exports were also suffering

External disputes, such as a recent strike at Rubery Owen, were still costing British Leyland dearly. John Barber blamed supply problems for the group’s sagging market share, it accounted for only 32 per cent of UK registrations in the first four months of 1973, compared with 37 per cent in the same period of 1972.

‘Where feasible and not unduly uneconomic, we have introduced double sourcing, Whenever the supply improves, our penetration goes up.’ said Barber.

Exports were also suffering, as they did in 1972. John Barber again: ‘We’re starving everybody to some extent, it’s better than letting some die and others live well. People criticise us for not making enough effort abroad. The trouble is that if we started being aggressive, we’d only embarrass ourselves because we couldn’t supply the damn thing.’

Austin Allegro: a car for Europe

The prime target was now Europe, which was expected to become a 12m car-a year market – as big as North America – within few years. The new Austin Allegro would spearhead British Leyland’ s attack, taking on cars like the Renault 12 and Fiat 128. British Leyland’s penetration in Europe was so pitifully low in May 1973 that it was expected to double or treble its sales there.

But John Barber was confident that the Austin Allegro would increase British Leyland’s overall share significantly.

‘I hope we can sustain a 35 per cent market share, but I expect imports to increase their share from 25 per cent to 30 per cent quite quickly. I’ve always said I don’t think we can reach anything like our profit potential until about 1976. By then we will have a fully rationalised product range,’ said John Barber.

Two years’ supply already sold

On 22 May, British Leyland told the press that they had already sold the first two years’ production of the new Austin Allegro. This smacked of news management by its PR men. The idea that British Leyland had orders for at least 200,000 Austin Allegros was and is ludicrous.

A day later, John Barber warned the corporation’s 180,000 employees that much bigger profits would have to be made to sustain the huge investment programme planned for the next five years. This had been variously estimated at between £330million and £500m. In the works newspaper, Mr Barber said the first half-year profit of £22.8m before tax was a vast improvement on the £7.2m profit in the same period the previous year.

But ‘this fine performance is only a step towards the sort of profits we have to achieve if we are to carry on competing in the top league of world motor manufacturers.’

‘I got rid of 30,000 people and I did it quietly’

Since British Leyland was formed five years earlier, capital expenditure had averaged £53million a year, appreciably less than their major overseas competitors had spent. With an eye obviously on the group’s poor strike record, he continued: ‘We plan to close the gap substantially, so you can see that the need for sustained profit improvement is vital to the corporation’s and our own personal prosperity.’

At a time when home market demand had risen by 35 per cent, BLMC continued to suffer heavy losses from disputes. In 1968 they built 1,000,896 vehicles and by 1972 this had risen only to 1,070,270.

One of John Barber’s first actions upon becoming the British Leyland Managing Director was to introduce a complete ban on recruitment. He said later: ‘We just insisted on saying ‘No hiring” with one or two exceptions like specialist people. I got rid of 30,000 people and I did it quietly too, without hitting the headlines.’

A European failure

While the Austin Allegro was well received in Britain, some Continental writers were non-committal, some actively hostile. Switzerland’s Automobil Revue said tactfully: ‘The cars tested were among the first produced, so probably by the time they are imported into Switzerland they will have attained the level of quality expected by buyers this and other export markets.’

In France’s Auto Journal, Bernard Carat complained of lack of power and performance and condemned the 1750 as dangerous with suspension ‘completely overtaken by events.’

Jean Bernardet of L’Equipe found the engines underpowered. He criticised the suspension and said: ‘British engineers will have to correct their aim if they want to satisfy Continental users and particularly those in France.’

Test cars weren’t good enough

Gordon Wilkins of The Observer newspaper had tested the Austin Allegro for the BBC’s Wheelbase television programme, a precursor of Top Gear. He wrote: ‘The cars sent to Spain for test by the world’s Press had been held back by strikes and late deliveries. Many arrived with the ride height set wrongly and most seemed to have had an early and feeble batch of damper valves.

‘Many Austin Allegro test cars arrived with the ride height set wrongly.’ – Gordon Wilkins, The Observer

‘If I had not, before and since, had the chance to drive cars properly set up, I too would have been tempted to write off the Allegro as a misfire. I still think that, if the 1500/1750 is given the performance Continental buyers expect, it will need stronger damping.

‘Fortunately, with Hydragas it is easy to vary fluid flow front to rear or up and down to control the ride. Some writers have described Hydragas as one of the ‘expensive’ features of the Allegro, but Alex Moulton, its originator, maintains that it will prove to be the cheapest suspension system fitted to any mass-produced car.’

The background to the Allegro

This then was the news-packed May 1973 that saw the launch of the Austin Allegro. It also highlighted the close working relationship between Keith Hopkins and Lord Stokes. Keith Hopkins finally departed British Leyland in January 1978.

In 1984, he founded KBH Communications, the name of the company derived from his initials, which listed The All England Lawn Tennis Club and Classic FM among its clients. The Chairman of KBH Communications from 1987 to 1995 was none other than Lord Stokes.

In 1995, Keith Hopkins sold KBH to Sir Tim Bell’s PR firm Chime Communications and merged it with Lowe Bell Good Relations. Hopkins became Deputy Chairman of LBGR. He died in 2006.

Stokes and Hopkins had been very effective in convincing the City in 1967/68 of the Leyland Motor Corporation’s worth and boosting the company’s share price to the point where it exceeded that of British Motor Holdings and thus enabling an effective takeover of that company to form British Leyland. However, by 1973, they were fighting a losing battle as BLMC’s share price evaporated away in the face of disappointing financial results and things would get much worse in 1974 as the era of cheap oil abruptly ended – and the Austin Allegro stumbled in the sales charts.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. I agree with the two French journalists on the Allegro being underpowered across the range, the car should have received slightly uprated power outputs from the start as follows.

    – The 1100 55 hp instead of 46 hp
    – The 1300 65-68 hp instead of 54-63 hp
    – The 1500 74-77 hp instead of 68 hp
    – The 1750 84-106 hp instead of 76-91 hp

  2. Someone I knew bought an Allegro Equipe and had lots of warranty claims on it. To the best of my knowledge he didn’t receive the “blonde in sportswear” either. My Allegro experiences were confined to driving a hire car on the IOM… wasn’t bad for a couple of days use.

    • My Dad had one when I was a teenager, as a company car. I had a few driving lessons in it actually. The handling was good and the ride was still good, and the engine was phenomenally torquey. But Harris Mann was right when he said the engine should have been used in a truck. It wouldn’t rev very well and the maximum speed was only 100 – disappointing for the power to weight ratio. And there wasn’t enough room in the back for my head. Oh, and it used to leak oil out of the ‘under the oil level’ gear change rod, which is a stupid idea.

  3. 1. How come, that a car that was so much smaller than the Maestro was soooo heavy.

    2. Has anyone ever developed a coilover kit to replace any knackered Hydragas?

    • Heresy! In my view Hydragas was one of the Allegro’s redeeming features. It created a much bigger car feel than any competitive cars. What I’ve noticed over the years is that it was rarely the diaphragms that used to go, it was rust between the upper and lower sphere which caused the fluid to leak out.

  4. Good article.

    14 storey head office in London? It probably should have been in Oxford, Birmingham or Coventry so that management could actually visit the factories!

  5. I lived through it all and in Birmingham too ! Virtually all my friends were in the motor industry there. I think it was the constant strikes that did it for BL. The British car buyer looked at what was going on and voted with his feet. I think the Japanese cars were coming in then if fair volume, and were exceptionally reliable, even though they rusted just as badly as home produced cars if not more so.

    The Allegro wasn’t too bad a car, but at that time there was a big choice of continental and Jap cars without the nightly strike and dispute news we used to see almost every week.

    Funny how it’s all come full circle and the French, Italians and Japanese now have trouble selling cars ! Of course the Germans just worked steadily on like machines and won the War !! Good news at the moment from Jaguar Land Rover; let’s hope it lasts.

  6. I can’t hate the Allegro, if only because BL had its heart in the right place and tried to produce a compact and sophisticated modern small car.

    It’s a shame the thing never went near a customer clinic – I don’t suppose they had them back in the day when the car was being developed.

    If later developments teach us anything it’s that BL was on the right lines with Hydragas; what a shame it never received R6-style anti-dive front and anti-squat rear suspension geometry. What doesn’t quite make sense to me is why the Hydragas system on the Allegro didn’t appear to work nearly as well as it did in the larger Princess.

    Not if contemporary road tests are to believed:

    There were two other things about the car which sounded good on paper, but failed to deliver in the cold light of day: the E-series engine and its associated five-speed transmission.

    You do have to wonder how they got it so badly wrong – BMC’s fault, not Leyland’s, of course.

    A brand new OHC engine built on some of the most modern production machinery in the world, a unit that was according to Don Hayter the most reliable unit in BLMC’s cupboard, and capable of being built in huge volume – 8,500 per week.

    But was there ever a more lacklustre four-cylinder unit? Was there ever transmission with a ropier change quality?

    Eleven years after the Allegro ARG gave us the S-series, a unit that was not perhaps out of the very top drawer, but
    a decent effort nonetheless and built on the E-series’ production tooling. An all-iron lump, I’d always assumed that it went without an alloy cylinder head because there was little meat between the unit’s siamesed cylinder bores, iron heads being more tolerant of head gasket failure than warp-prone alloy ones – but then you realise that the O-series was similarly-siamesed but wore an alloy head. Furthermore, Cowley proposed a twin-cam 16-valve variant of the S-series and I don’t suppose they intended to cast the cylinder head in iron.

    All of which is a clumsy way of saying that perhaps BL should have viewed the E-series not as an engine unfit for purpose, but as a godsend – if only for those high-grade production facilities – and designed a new engine in the S-series fashion around those same facilities. Why not? Later on, they developed the O-series around the B-series transfer machinery and was the O-series really needed when they had the Triumph slant four in production? And did they really need the PE166 cylinder unit in the SD1?

    You could lose sleep over what a decent 1200cc to 1600cc OHC unit could have meant to BL, not to mention a 2-litre and 2.4 litre six. Or, indeed, a 1-litre triple.

    As for the five speed transmission, was it really beyond BL’s wit to have conceived a more assertive gear change?

    It’s hard to escape the feeling that in the Allegro there was a good car stuggling to get out but it was a neat concept, badly executed.

  7. I’ve got two Allegros and packaging issues aside (poor boot access and frumpy styling) they are on par or better than almost all the period opposition (non Japanese…) for comfort, level of kit and room.

  8. @8 – Someone offered a bolt-on damper kit for the Allegro. One was tested by Autocar, fitted with Sprite wheels giving a wider track, and reckoned the handling was greatly improved. I think the ride was comparable.

  9. I remember its launch – and seeing the thing for the first time – it wasn’t very exciting!

    Should have been a hatchback – enabling people to get into the back on a 4 door is quite a good idea, making it look interesting helps too. Giving is a square steering wheel and dirty – looking instrument glass doesn’t help either.

    Britain was building motorways and improving the road system – so 1300 is geared to rev its nuts off at 70 – just like its predecessor. 1500 should go like a rocket – but even 1750 doesn’t.

    All had the look of ‘Just think what we could have done had we tried a little bit harder’

    What happens when your company is run by a salesman and accountant?

    (To be fair to Barber I think he personally intervened to get some of the gearchange issues sorted with the FWD cars when the engineers couldn’t)

  10. Another great article on the history of BL – thanks. Amazing that the Allegro should be launched to journalists in Spain with the suspension set up wrongly! Only at BL….

  11. Fair point David! However, as I recall the 1980 Escort was meant to be like that, whereas with the Allegro it sounds like they hadn’t set it up to production car specification at the launch event! Was the problem with the Escort something to do with it having been developed on a R&D proving ground rather than on the public road?

  12. Frumpy styling when the ADO16 looked so neat. Fascia plastics were very cheap when ADO16 had some great fascias – especially the 1300GT. Talking of that why not an Allegro 1300GT with the same colours and black vynal roof. No hatchback, underpowered engines and terrible gear change on the 1500 and 1750. On the plus side, the ride was good, and they didn’t rust much at all. Should have had a hatchback, a saloon version with proper boot and a 70bhp 1300GT as well as an improved gearchange and higher powered 1750 with at least 100bhp – fuel injected to steal a march on Golf GTI – finally better styling. Maybe BLMC would be alive today if that had happened!

  13. I had a 1750 Equipe – bought at auction for peanuts – I had loads of fun beating the warm Escort boys in a straight line! The car was much faster than the 91bhp peak suggested because it had excellent mid range grunt.

  14. If it features the exhaust manifold I think it features then it was a really very poor designed item and really restricted top end power.

  15. @23 well 52 bhp per litre is hardly tragic compared to the (claimed) 55 bhp per litre of the Mk2 Escort RS2000, going by the stock RS2000s I put on the dyno they made more like 95.

  16. Like a lot of cars with time the allegro looks better now than when it first came out ,it’s size is spot on and look at the styling of most modern car’s.For the time performance was fine and the square steering wheel was an honest attempt to lighten the heavy steering.The body shell was light years ahead ot the 11oo with it’s rusty sub frames,and this talk of windscreens popping out is rubbish,i had a head on crash in a 1750 hls with no belt on and the car saved my life as i think it was one of the first cars with a crumple zone.

  17. “…it’s got the right shape and styling…” obviously designed by Stevie Wonder with a pile of plasticene. The All-Aggro was frumpy, dumpy, had a boot when everyone else was building hatches, had underpowered engines and almost the worst gearchange ever to make it into production. Add to that the nasty habits of the rear window popping out if you jacked it up in the wrong place and the even worse habit of rear stub axles shearing and you get the real truth – the Allego was worse than a Marina in many key respects. Factor in some miserable build quality and the joke Quartic steering “wheel” [steering rectangle] and the Allegro got the panning that it deserved. (And I nearly forgot the porous alloys, self-peeling vinyl roofs and naff stripes).

    You can apply all the polish you want but it is still a complete turd and even shaped like one. Especially in that chocolate brown colour. Then there was the bile green colour and insipid beige. To be fair, some of the later colours were better.

    The only Allegro hat worked for me was the estate – which I rather liked the look of except for the drooping rear under load. But by the time I was able to buy one, the reliability record and the experience that I had working on and driving a friend’s 1500 put me off completely. Then my friend’s sister had a rear stub axle shear at speed on the A64 near York. That did it for me and I bought a Triumph Dolomite instead.

    Perhaps Top Gear should drop pianos on Allegros instead of Marinas?

  18. That P8 looks like the sort of disguised prototype you normally see snapped by Hans whatshisname undergoing cold weather testing in Norway. Surely they can’t have expected to sell a luxury car with such plain styling, slab sides and weird proportions? It makes the Talbot Tagora look glamorous!

    The Allegro is just as bad, but for different reasons. It’s no coincidence that the most successful BL launch of this period, the Marina, had the most conventional styling…

  19. When you look at the strength of sales and demand for British Leyland product you realise that the whole company (mangement, designers, unions etc) took defeat from the jaws of victory.

  20. The allegro wasn,t the best car in the world and will never be a collector’s car but it wasn’t as bad as a marina.I never saw a window pop out and rear wheel’s did fall if the hub nut’s were incorrectley tightened.The car’s were recalled to have large washer,s fitted to retain the brg if it failed also they were recailed to have new lower arm tie bar’s fitted but i could not see why because they were big enough to put on a truck.The twin carb 1750 was quick but the 1500 single carb auto dreadful when pulling away.The last one,s had a 998 ‘a’plus from a metro fitted and for the size of engine went well.

  21. #29 Rear windows did pop out on the Mark 1 versions if jacked up in the wrong place. This was caused by excessive body flex. The Mk2 had a beefed up rear bulkhead and repositioned rear seat pan which prevented the body flex. The main culprits were over-enthusiastic users of trolley jacks.

    Cars were recalled after quite a few had lost rear wheels. I can vouch for the one I know about as the car was recovered by a local garage and the lady in question refused to drive it ever again and it was sold on her behalf by the garage. She escaped without injury but needed a change of underwear. As I recall the incident happened on a hilly section of the A64 and it took some time to stop the car safely. Losing the axle took the brakes with it.

    I also forgot to mention that the All Aggro that it was more aerodynamic when travelling backwards than when it was forwards. Oh, yes, and the sticking out hubcaps that rarely lasted more than one parking attempt before being destroyed by a kerb, and the self destructing wiper mechanisms, and the indicator stalks that used to break off in your hand. Never mind that the front wheel bearings used to last 30k miles if you were very lucky and could be a bugger to change.

    No wonder it was voted the worst car ever.

  22. @12,The trouble with the E series was all down to the head-it could not breathe! wasnt much better as an R- series.

  23. It seems like a different world, British Leyland having one third of the car market, the management talking optimistically and the Allegro to be a real Escort beater. Sadly this never happened, the company almost went bankrupt 18 months later, market share plummetted and the Escort began to really outsell the Allegro.

  24. My company car was a series of Ford Escort Estates (Mk 2’s) for several years, then a couple of Marinas. This was all fine by me (and my colleague who had similar models and used to ‘race’ from our office to a branch about 30 miles away). All the cars were fun to drive and on the slippery back roads we could hang the back out, opposite locking to our hearts delight……and then they went and gave me an automatic 1300 Allegro Estate.
    I did try (honestly) to like it – but it did things so differently to the Fords and Marinas. It rattled and creaked, it had a horrible orangey tan interior, it bounced up and down, it let water in under the windscreen, it was noisy, it had the handling of an overloaded banana wagon and was about as far away from fun as you could get in the late 70’s.
    Apart from the disastrously high bonnet line (not part of the original styling concept you will recall), I actually liked the look of the thing and it was a practical load carrier. The AP box however was jerky and drove me insane and the hydrolastic suspension was never a favourite of mine – except in the 1800 which it seemed to suit fine.
    @29 I suspect it will be a collector’s car (much as we hate that term) because everything will be one day. I used to buy and sell Heinkel Bubble Cars for a fiver when I wa a kid yet one sold recently for £27,000!
    Lancia B20’s were selling for £50 years ago and a friend of mine scrapped
    half a dozen of them ‘cos he couldn’t even get that. Now barn find B20’s with some history are fetching £35k! Funny old world.

  25. Funny how things change – I wonder what reaction the Nissan Juke would have had if it had been launched in 1973? Surely (in styling terms at least) it is as ungainly now as the Allegro was seen to be then?

  26. @30

    Was it an Austin-Morris thing, losing wheels?

    My father speaks of recalling Morris Minors on blocks having lost a wheel.

  27. Oops! Thanks Keith!
    Think the Morris Minor tales might have related to trunnion/king-pin failure, possibly not getting greased.

  28. @35 I can fully understand that the Juke broke the mould – that shape would be enough to brake any mould! I suspect Peter Pellandine and Tim Dutton would have shied off even in the curvy fibreglass days.
    I also accept that it sells – but so did the Rolls Rapide washing machine and that was as much use as a chocolate teapot!
    Enough rantings for today – must get back to work.

  29. That Rover P8 reminds one of two quotes, that regarding the TR7 being a styling exercise and one from Spaceballs… I think it ended something along the lines of “horse faced space-dog…!”

    The Allegro (aka ‘the only thing ‘fast and lively’ about it was the rust’)? looked like a cowpat, drove like a cowpat (once was enough for me) and was even the right colour (in the main), to blend in as a cowpat. Who on earth had the idea that nursing-home-underwear orange was a suitable colour for a car?

    There are many things that can be said of the MG6 (which to be fair looks amazing in copper gold) but the primary one has to be “At least its not an Allegro…”.

  30. I have a last of the line Allegro 3 1300 estate. The design was well and truly sorted by then, sadly nobody noticed.
    It drives just like a slightly bigger metro, trundles happily along at 70 and does 40 mpg. I like it!

  31. The Rover P8 reminds me of seventies American police car and looks completely un Rover like. Thankfully they designed the beautiful SD1 instead.
    Out of interest, I’ve bumped this up as I’ve always wondered how many Allegros made it from Seneffe. British Leyland wanted to top up production in the late seventies and mentioned topping up production of Allegros with cars assembled from kits in Belgium. It did seem some made it over, most being the Mark 2 Special, but I’m curious as to when this ended and how many were imported as I’m sure the unions would have been very concerned about importing cars.

  32. Mostly a load of tripe. It overlooks the fact that the Allegro was DREADFUL car, engine, engineering; quality and above all STYLING were dreadful.

    The manufacturing date was set back by months because no one at BL would sign the order for the CV joints.

    Management at BL couldn’t organize a piss up in a brewery. They antagonized the workforce, largely because of archaic class hatreds, they had no market research, they relied on engineers to put a car together and tell the public “this is what you need/want” – such arrogance pervaded the entire industry and brought it to its knees.

    The car itself was below any of its competitors in terms of reliability, handling and specification yet BL kidded themselves it would sell in Europe! This was no new idea – Morris had thought the Minor thousand would sell in the states against the VW – they were just a bunch of clueless class-ridden car boffs a mixture of unimaginative engineers and a few politicians who couldn’t sell life belt to a drowning man.
    It had an engine that was so out of date it was laughable – basically an adaption of their pre-war engines with over long strokes etc., converted to OHV it was the same engine as in the Austin A30! The later OHC engines were no big change and were so tall they prevented any low appealing front end styling and could hardly fit into transverse cars as 6 cylinder versions with compromising the cooling system. All one has to do is look at hew neat reliable and compact engines being churned out in mainland Europe at the time or even Ford and GM UK, to see that the BL engines were outdated before they were even fitted into a car!

    Even the guy who designed the Allegro hated what BL did to it before it was released

      • I always do, Keith, and think the Allegro came good in the Mark 3 version when the quality issues were sorted, the A plus engine really improved refinement and economy, and the styling was freshened. It’s the same with all the cars British Leyland produced in the seventies, they came good in the end, and in the case of the Princess, only poor reliability on early cars marred an otherwise excellent car.

  33. The Allegro might have been an odd looking car, but it was fwd, which British Leyland hoped would take on its rivals from France and Italy, and had the unique Hydragas suspension, so it was a technically advanced car for the time, which was what French buyers in particular liked. I think if the Allegro was better built and better to drive, it would have done a lot better as people could overlook the styling, which was improved as the years went along, if the car was as good as the ADO16. Also with regard to rust and reliability, the Allegro was praised for its rust resistance at the time and the A series engines were known for being reliable and easy to work on, although transmission and driveshaft faults were common on early cars.

  34. I’ve heard mixed stories about how rust resistant the Allegro was, the worst being someone putting their foot through the floor of one when it was only 6 years old! Was that a Friday afternoon special when the rust proofers were on strike!

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