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.’
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.’
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.’
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.’
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.
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
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.