Around the World : Austin Allegro – the export story

The poor old Austin Allegro has been a target of criticism almost from launch, much of it deserved. But a myth has gained ground that needs correcting. People will tell you ‘only 25,000’ of the 667,000 Allegros manufactured in Britain were exported – if so, that’s a pathetic record which fits well with the narrative of the Allegro being a flop.

But that’s wrong. Around 200,000 Allegros found a home outside the UK, close to a third of production. Chris Cowin looks at where they went, and questions how that myth came about.


Allegro overseas – telling the true story

Austin Allegro 2 - New Zealand brochure 1976.
Austin Allegro 2 – New Zealand brochure 1976

A lot of hopes and dreams were attached to the Austin Allegro, the successor to the best-selling BMC 1100/1300 (ADO16) family. British Leyland expected to build 5000 Allegros each week, that forecast resting on the assumption Allegro could capture 10% of the domestic market while also becoming one of the best-selling cars on the continent, following in the footsteps of Mini. With the Allegro range a lot broader than its predecessor, the car itself the fruit of a £21 million investment programme and two continental assembly plants lined up to help Longbridge meet demand, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, as recounted elsewhere on AROnline, a great deal did. Launched in May 1973, the Austin Allegro would be a car of the ‘malaise era’ with Britain and most export markets battling with economic problems in the mid-1970s. The car’s own failings and internal competition from the Morris Marina (which was never the plan) saw Allegro struggling to attain even 5% of a depressed UK market. And the conquest of new customers in Europe would have challenged any car when better-established competitors like Renault were discounting heavily to keep their factories busy, and the Japanese were on the march.

British Leyland’s future hung in the balance in 1973. The Allegro could have been the hero which sold like hot cakes and silenced the doubters, as the Peugeot 205 came to the rescue of that company a decade later. Instead, it under-whelmed and under-performed. Longbridge seldom built even half that forecast of 5000 cars a week and, by 1978, was producing well under 2000 (including kits for overseas assembly).

Austin Allegro overseas assembly

But overseas assembly there was – something that would have been farcical if the Allegro had failed as dismally in export markets as we are told. The bulk of Austin Allegros sold outside the UK were exported in kit form, and it’s perhaps exclusion of those kit exports that results in the claim of ‘only 25,000 exports’ (less than 4% of production). A dodgy statistic I first heard repeated by one of the old Top Gear trio, which seems to have gained currency on the basis of ‘they said it on TV, so it must be true.’

Allegros were assembled in Italy, Portugal and Malta, south east Asia and New Zealand, but the most significant overseas location was Leyland’s Seneffe plant in Belgium, which was turning out Allegros between 1974 and 1980. More than 150,000 Allegros left the Seneffe production line in that period and, although some were destined for the UK market in later years, the vast majority went to customers in continental Europe. Those component sets assembled by Seneffe had approximately 75% UK content and qualify as cars ‘manufactured in the UK and exported in kit form for overseas assembly,’ so are included in the figures for British Allegro production. That explains why, although 667,000 Allegros were manufactured by Longbridge during the car’s lifetime, less than 470,000 were ever registered as new cars in the UK. Nearly all the balance went for export, the majority via assembly at Seneffe.

An early Austin Allegro in Norway - 1974. Complete with dealer advertising encouraging test-drives. Most Allegros supplied to Norway would be Seneffe assembled. Photo: Erling Winje.
An early Austin Allegro in Norway – 1974. Complete with dealer advertising encouraging test drives. Most Allegros supplied to Norway would be Seneffe assembled. Photo: Erling Winje

Overseas sales of 200,000 cars spread over a decade isn’t great for a ‘volume model’ like Allegro. The old BMC 1100 (and derivatives) achieved that figure in half the time during the ‘Mk1’ phase of 1962-67. But Allegro fared better as an export car than either Austin Maxi or Princess. The Austin Maestro (LM10) was the future once, but it couldn’t beat Allegro’s production or export numbers either.

The Allegro went through three distinct Series of course, with many variations of engine and trim, two saloon body-styles and an estate. The Allegro 2 of 1975 addressed many criticisms levelled at the early car, and the Allegro 3 revamp of 1979 helped keep the model in the running, so those jibes about ‘square steering wheels’ etc. don’t apply to most Allegros sold overseas. The Allegro got a lot better during its lifetime, though it never acquired the hatchback which might have boosted sales.

Although it remained ‘current’ in the British catalogue for ten years, from May 1973 to early 1983, nearly all export sales occurred during 1974-1981, still long enough for those 200,000 cars to have ‘filtered’ into overseas markets, rather than surged. The choice of versions offered abroad was usually smaller than in Britain, though sometimes incorporating variants not seen in the UK like the 1300 Special and Italian 1000HLS. Let’s run through a few of the countries that bought Allegros in substantial numbers, with the help of some visual material.

Belgium and Luxembourg

Seneffe assembled its 500,000th car - a green Allegro - in May 1977. Photo: SAICOM
Seneffe assembled its 500,000th car – a green Allegro – in May 1977. Photo: SAICOM

As previously mentioned, the Seneffe plant is central to the export story of Allegro. The factory was built by BMC in the 1960s, and from 1965 assembled Minis and the 1100/1300. Maxis and Marinas were also assembled for a period, but the Allegro and Mini were the principal products of the 1970s. On 10 May 1977 the 500,000th car left the line, an Allegro. Though Belgian Allegro assembly commenced in 1974, the best years were 1977 and 1978 with almost 30,000 Allegros being completed in both years. A strength of Seneffe was the confection of special editions with added accessories, striping and so forth, and many of the Allegros sold on the European continent fell into this category.

Although Britain’s entry to the EEC in 1973 removed the original rationale for assembling at Seneffe (EEC tariffs on UK cars were phased out by 1977) it still played a useful role, helping meet demand (for Mini at least) and cushioning the impact of strikes in the UK.

Leyland tended to treat Seneffe as a home plant, integrated closely with the British manufacturing locations. In the late 1970s, assembly of Mini and Allegro was duplicated with both Seneffe and Longbridge building both. To simplify matters and make it easier to prepare for Metro at Longbridge, a 1978 plan proposed concentrating Allegro assembly (for all European markets including the UK) on Seneffe, while the plant’s Mini assembly would have been repatriated to Longbridge to balance. However, this plan foundered on opposition from the unions and Allegros continued to come off the Longbridge production line until March 1982.

No stone left unturned. Tiny Luxembourg got its own special edition Allegro in 1978 – an example of the many special editions produced by Seneffe

Seneffe assembly of Allegro ended in 1980, and the plant closed amid much acrimony in 1981 when Mini assembly also ceased. All Allegros built at Seneffe (for the continent) had four headlights from late 1978 (thus the final phase of Series 2 production, and then all Series 3 production). Rather than becoming the sole plant for Allegro, output at Seneffe from 1978 onwards was supported by adding assembly of cars for the UK market with some versions (like the 1978 Allegro 1500LE and 1979 Equipe) all being sourced from Belgium.

A local presence and a significant workforce (there were also Belgian BL plants in Mechelen/Malines) were factors which helped the Allegro to find customers in Belgium itself – as were a run of special editions and (as in most export markets) value-for-money pricing.

Netherlands

The early Allegro in the Netherlands - 1974. 'The Allegro is here -Austin brings more fun to family cars'.
The early Allegro in the Netherlands – 1974. ‘The Allegro is here – Austin brings more fun to family cars’

With the Dutch being keen on the preceding 1100/1300, there was a big pool of potential Allegro customers in the Netherlands. And sales in the early years did look strong. In 1975 alone an impressive 8,200 Allegros were bought by the Dutch. That came close to toppling the Mini (10,400 sales) from the top spot in Leyland’s Dutch sales ranking, which is the kind of performance the company would love to have seen repeated across the continent.

As the 1970s progressed British Leyland fared better in the Netherlands (where it had 5% market share in 1974) than most other European markets, and the Allegro played a part in that. A weak pound provided cover for price reductions in 1976 which helped.

Nonetheless Dutch enthusiasm for Allegro faded fast and it’s perhaps no accident that brochures introducing the Allegro 3 of 1979 drop the ‘Allegro’ name entirely, instead christening the car ‘Austin 3’.

Still an Allegro really - the Dutch 'Austin 3' of 1979.
Still an Allegro really – the Dutch ‘Austin 3’ of 1979

Denmark

When the Allegro was introduced British Leyland, with the help of enthusiastic importer DOMI, was still one of the leading suppliers of cars to the Danes. Models like Maxi, which had little impact elsewhere, were arriving in Denmark by the trainload. In such circumstances a new model like Allegro was bound to sell in substantial volume, even if ‘conquest sales’ were modest. In Britain itself, despite the scorn of some, many existing customers returned to their familiar Austin dealership to buy an Allegro, and something similar occurred in Denmark.

 

New Allegros in the compound of Danish importer DOMI c. 1978. Photo: Bent Jensen.
New Allegros in the compound of Danish importer DOMI c. 1978. Photo: Bent Jensen

The Danes are practical people and they took to the exceedingly practical Allegro ‘stationcar’ which the advert below positions as superior to a hatchback. But few of the later Allegro 3 cars were sold in Denmark (or Scandinavia overall) as BL largely withdrew from those markets (where big losses were being incurred) at the end of the 1970s.

Austin Allegro Estate ("Stationcar") - Denmark 1979. "Beats 3-door (hatchback) cars".
Austin Allegro Estate (‘Stationcar’) – Denmark 1979. ‘Beats 3-door (hatchback) cars’

France

You may have seen the TV commercial (aimed at British buyers) in which a Frenchman stands proudly with his Allegro (in front of the Eiffel Tower just so we’re clear) to proclaim ‘This is the best foreign car I’ve ever owned.’  Well, such people were to be found. The Austin Allegro was never very popular and never came close to approaching French sales of the Mini, but it should be viewed as an also-ran rather than non-runner. The market for this kind of car was huge and domestic competition not so unassailable (the Renault 14 didn’t have people flocking to showrooms either).

The Series 1 Allegro 1300 in France 'Break away from the dreary'. Competitive pricing was always emphasised.
The Series 1 Allegro 1300 in France ‘Break away from the dreary’. Competitive pricing was always emphasised

1977 was a typical year with British Leyland France shifting 4000 Austin Allegros, which compared to 18,000 Minis (and 27,000 cars overall). In later years the emphasis was very much on ‘a lot of car for the money’ with a high level of standard equipment allied to affordable pricing. The Seneffe-built 1300 Special was an attractive package.

In France, as in most other continental countries, the Allegro had essentially disappeared by the time the Triumph Acclaim (LC9) arrived in export markets in early 1982, giving dealers (who were mostly small) a stronger contender in a similar field.

The French like their comfort - and that's what the Allegro 1300 Special gave them, for a reasonable price.
The French like their comfort – and that’s what the Allegro 1300 Special gave them, for a reasonable price

West Germany 

Selling the Allegro in Germany was always going to be challenging, and it will come as no surprise to hear the model essentially sank without trace in that demanding market. The continental launch of Allegro was staggered over a long period, with Germany being one of the later markets. So, although the car was displayed at the September 1973 Frankfurt Motor Show, it wasn’t possible for Germans to buy one until well into 1974. Even then supplies were restricted due to quality concerns, and the Allegro 1750 (which might have seemed appropriate to Germany) was never offered – in fact, that model does not appear to have been offered in any export market.

"Austin Allegro - a car (as harmonious as) music". German introduction of the Series 1 Allegro - 1974.
‘Austin Allegro – a car (as harmonious as) music’. German introduction of the Series 1 Allegro – 1974

However, once available, the Allegro did find some buyers in Germany. It was Europe’s biggest car market and not every German was looking for an autobahn stormer, with cars like the Renault 4 and Renault 5 being popular. Some 3000 Allegros were sold in both 1975 and 1976 before demand tailed off to just a few hundred units annually, with only one Allegro (the 1300 Special) being listed in later years.

Leyland wasn’t a great brand name in German-speaking countries, sounding very like ‘Elend’ meaning ‘misery’… But they used it anyway with later adverts promoting the Leyland Allegro. Around 10,000 cars were sold in total over 1975-81, which was a tiny drop in a big ocean (Volkswagen sold 1.6 million Golfs in Germany over the same timescale). But it’s still 10,000 cars. It adds up.

The Series 2 Allegro in Germany c.1976. The slogan "friend of the family" was used in later German marketing, though few families chose to welcome an Allegro into their lives.
The Series 2 Allegro in Germany c.1976. The slogan “friend of the family” was used in later German marketing, though few families chose to welcome an Allegro into their lives

Italy

Innocenti in Milan had captured almost 5% of the Italian car market by the early 1970s with their range of Minis selling in healthy numbers approaching 60,000 annually. The ADO16 variants built by Innocenti had not fared as well, but there were hopes Innocenti’s version of the Allegro, the Innocenti Regent, would do a lot better. The history of the Regent is well covered elsewhere on this site, but suffice to say it was a failure, despite twin carbs (on both 1300 and 1500) which gave peppy performance, and Italianate styling tweaks including a different dashboard, Quartic instruments to match the Quartic steering wheel and a contrasting roof colour on top versions.

Regents were only built for a short period commencing in late 1973, with production ending in 1975 amid an economic crisis. Things could have been very different. The company became a wholly-owned subsidiary of British Leyland in 1972 and Leyland-Innocenti boss Geoffrey Robinson hoped Regents could be exported elsewhere in Europe to give the range of Austin Allegros in Leyland showrooms an added Latin twist (something that worked well with the Innocenti Minis). But with Allegro proving a hard sell already, no other country wanted the Regent. (as former BL executive Jan Thoenes relates).

Innocenti Regent: Not a success.
Innocenti Regent: not a success

Estimates of the number of Regents completed during a turbulent time vary from 3000 up to 12,000. However, whatever the number, the kits of components dispatched to Milan from Britain are ‘countable’ in the jargon as car exports, even though the Regent incorporated more local content than Allegros assembled at Seneffe. But the death of the Regent did not signal the end of Allegro history in Italy.

British Leyland sold Innocenti in 1976 and the same year the new Leyland Italia introduced the Allegro under the Austin brand. While Innocenti had positioned the Regent quite high in the market, the Allegro range for Italy featured the two-door model and availability of the 1100cc engine, taxed less severely than the 1300 and 1500 units. Allied to competitive pricing, this saw Allegro become a steady if not spectacular seller on the Italian market into the 1980s.

Series 2 Allegros in Italy c.1978. 'The car you can count on.'
Series 2 Allegros in Italy c.1978. ‘The car you can count on’

With small capacity engines being popular, Leyland went to the trouble of building a high-spec model allied to that base engine in the 1100HL, which formed part of the Allegro 3 range introduced in 1979 and, when the 1100 engine was replaced by the A-Series A+ 998cc unit for 1981, Italy received a well-equipped 1000HLS model, another Allegro never seen in the UK.

At last count (in 2019) 420 Austin Allegros and 112 Innocenti Regents remained in circulation in Italy.

The Italian Allegro 3 range for 1981 included a 1000HLS which allied the base 998cc A+ engine to the top level of trim. As mentioned in text of advert.
The Italian Allegro 3 range for 1981 included a 1000HLS which allied the base 998cc A+ engine to the top level of trim as mentioned in text of advert

Other Scandinavian Allegros

Austin Allegro in Finland - 1974
Austin Allegro in Finland – 1974

British Leyland entered the Seventies as a serious contender in Sweden, Norway and Finland, though in none of those countries was market share as high as the 20% enjoyed in Denmark. They all saw the Japanese make huge gains during the decade, much being at the expense of Leyland. But when the Allegro arrived in 1974 there was still a good network of dealers across Scandinavia ready to stock it.

Finland’s importer SISU was in the habit of accepting excess stock from elsewhere in Europe (which was often an issue) and selling it on at an affordable price, and many Allegros in Finland arrived by that route.

Swedish Allegros (like all cars in Sweden in the late 1970s) came with headlamp wipers as standard. Sales continued though in diminishing numbers through to 1979, the Series 3 models not being imported.

Swedish Allegros came with headlamp wipers.
Swedish Allegros came with headlamp wipers

Norway also saw BL fade fast during the ’70s, but the Allegro remained available through to 1982, a Norwegian Allegro 3 estate being pictured below.

A late Allegro 3 estate in Norway. Photo via Kjell H. Myhre.

 

New Zealand

There were bold ambitions for Allegro assembly in New Zealand, a country where British Leyland began the 1970s with 25% market share and where 42,000 examples of the preceding 1100/1300 range had been assembled by 1976 (living on longer than in the UK). Unlike Australia, the small size of the car market ruled out manufacturing from predominantly local components. Cars assembled in New Zealand were shipped from the UK in kit form and counted as British car exports.

Assembly of the Allegro Series 1 (with a round steering wheel) began in late 1975 after substantial investment, but it rapidly became clear it would not be sold (or assembled) in volumes comparable to its predecessor. NZMC was a partner of British Leyland rather than a subsidiary and, in response to consumer demand began assembling Honda models from 1976, with the Civic and Accord appearing in the same NZMC showrooms as Allegro.

With the car market in a slump in the late 1970s, and New Zealanders opting for Japanese cars, demand for Allegro was modest. After only about 200 Series 1 models, assembly of the four-door Series 2 saloon in 1300 manual and 1500 automatic form began in 1976 at the Panmure plant. The two-door saloon and estate were not available though it’s believed a handful of Vanden Plas 1500 cars were officially imported (an exception to the rule, as they were not generally sent abroad). The majority of New Zealand’s Allegros were Series 2 1300 saloons, but just before assembly ended in 1980 a final delivery of 48 Allegro 3 kits arrived from England. Towards the end most Allegros were assembled in LE specification with a vinyl roof, metallic paint and other added equipment in an effort to spark sales.

That’s not a very happy story but, despite being deserted by most car buyers, Allegro exports to New Zealand still amounted to around 6000 cars over five years it’s estimated, which is slightly more than the number of Princess cars assembled locally in parallel.

Austin Allegro 2 in New Zealand - 1976.
Austin Allegro 2 in New Zealand – 1976

South America 

Rather surprisingly, the Allegro was exported to South American countries, with Allegros popping up in Chile where British Leyland marketed a range of fully imported cars from the mid-1970s. Allegro 3 models were advertised in Argentina (and survivors can be found there). This may reflect a new-found enthusiasm for global opportunities from the BLEO (BL Europe and Overseas) organisation established in 1979, headed by Tony Ball. The four-door 1300 Allegro 3 appears the lead car of that effort.

An Allegro in Chile. Photo: Ramon Rivera Notario
An Allegro in Chile. Photo: Ramon Rivera Notario

Other markets in Europe & worldwide

As a core model from a major manufacturer, it would be surprising if Allegros had not made their way to other markets worldwide not already mentioned. In the Republic of Ireland Leyland retained a significant presence, selling 7,000 cars overall in 1978. Most were Minis, but despite the disruption of an import embargo in 1975, the Austin Allegro found Irish customers numbered in the thousands during its lifetime, imported complete and sold through dealerships which looked similar to their counterparts in the UK. In the early 1980s a three-car Allegro 3 range was offered in Ireland.

A small number of Allegros were assembled on Malta by Car Assembly Limited, while sales were notched up in Switzerland and Austria, in Greece and Cyprus, and in Spain (though unlike its predecessor, Allegro was not manufactured in Spain).

As a state-supported organisation desperate to boost sales volume in the late ’70s, Leyland did not skimp on (often costly) sales promotion for Allegro in export territories, which combined with competitive pricing some might call an attempt to “buy market share”. European sales director Bert Lawrence exchanged ideas between markets, the image below from an article explaining how Portuguese dealer Mario Ferreira da Silva (pictured) was attracting new Allegro customers into the showroom. Portugal was another country where Allegro assembly was apparently envisaged, though with that nation experiencing economic turmoil in the mid ’70s, it’s unclear how many were.

Allegro promotion in Portugal (where rallies focusing on Allegro’s fuel economy were organised and prizes awarded) – from a Leyland International booklet summarizing sales promotion activities across the continent

Associated Motor Industries assembled cars for the Singapore and Malaysian markets where Allegro was introduced in 1976 and, in 1977, they reported demand out-stripped supply. Could it be the chubby-looking Allegro had more appeal in the east? In Thailand a considerable number of survivors (all A-Series-powered) suggest local assembly took place, though details are hard to come by. In the 1970s a large number of independent assemblers operated in Thailand, often assembling cars from different manufacturers in the same plant.

A surviving Allegro in Thailand – where they were once a common sight. Photo: กุลณัฐ ทรงอยู่

Assembly in those Asian countries helps explain why production records show a total of 39,000 Allegros being exported in kit form to destinations other than Seneffe. That’s a lot more than Italy and New Zealand absorbed. It was part of the ‘last gasp’ of Austin-Morris assembly in those territories, where many thousands of British models were completed in former years, but where the Japanese were taking over in the 1970s.

Although the days of Commonwealth countries turning to Britain for cars were in their twilight, they weren’t quite over and you’ll find Allegros (still) in places like Mauritius and Jamaica. A sprinkling of Allegros reached scores of other markets with survivors being spotted recently in north Africa and the Lebanon.

One of the more interesting export destinations was the Eastern Bloc, where Communist regimes selected the Allegro as one of a list of western cars that could be purchased by the privileged. The fact British Leyland was a state-controlled entity (from 1975) is thought to have helped such deals.

Conclusion 

The Allegro was born into a different world from the one that greeted its predecessor ten years before. In the Sixties, BMC was still an important car manufacturer in Australia and South Africa which saw the ADO16 1100 (and derivatives) become a strong seller in both countries. Those cars (with a few early exceptions) did not qualify as British exports – instead, thanks to high local content, they were treated as being Australian cars and South African cars built by BMC (and later BL) as a multinational. But they reinforce the impression the 1100/1300 fared much better abroad than Allegro (which didn’t appear in either market).

The ADO16 was also sold in North America, with combined US and Canadian volume for the various versions totalling close to 100,000 cars. However, by the Seventies a new regulatory environment ruled that market out for Allegro. Moreover, in the Sixties the Japanese car industry was still finding its feet while ADO16 racked up healthy export business in a host of territories, ranging from Rhodesia (where it was assembled) to the Caribbean, where British cars still dominated. New Zealand as already discussed, was another example, where the Allegro would find the going much tougher than its predecessor in the 1970s, due in part to the Japanese.

That said, if doors were closing around the world, with Commonwealth preference for British cars largely a thing of the past, America a no-go and the Japanese mopping up customers, a new door was opening to Europe, where British Leyland expected most Allegro exports to be directed.

It would have been quite an achievement if Allegro had found enough customers in Europe to compensate for loss of the global business enjoyed by its predecessor. However, British Leyland’s sales forecasts imply it was expected to do just that. The projections of British Leyland Motor Corporation in the early 1970s, and the Ryder Plan of the mid-1970s, set volume targets for the European continent which were well-nigh impossible to reach without the Allegro, at the core of the range, selling in volumes comparable to the Mini at its continental peak. Think 150,000 cars annually…

It didn’t manage that, or even come close. But nor was it rejected by export customers to the extent a figure of ‘25,000 exports’ would imply. In country after country the story of Allegro sales is largely a tale of disappointment, but sales there were, so no need to twist the knife. If exports had fared better Allegro production itself would have been higher. As it was exports accounted for around one third of total Allegro output.

This Innocenti Regent now resides in the UK in the hands of Colin Corke

As ever any comments and additional info. are very welcome.  With thanks to Erling Winje, Stephen McIlroy, Graeme Roberts, Hassan Webb, Andrew Ryan, Keith Adams, Ian Nicholls, Chris York, Jan Thoenes, Ramon Rivera Notario, Andrea Coviello, Matt Weckert and Bent Jensen. 

Chris Cowin

55 Comments

    • Well obviously – if you can succeed in export markets, you can sell far more cars than if confined largely to the domestic market. Mass produced British cars that didn’t catch on overseas tend to be classed under “failure” (with a few exceptions). Volkswagen wouldn’t be where they are today if they hadn’t prioritized exports way back in the 1950s – and kept on doing so.
      If the Allegro had been exported in the same volume as its 1100/1300 predecessor production volumes would have been much higher, more money would have been generated to keep British Leyland in the black and fund a replacement, and we might now see it as the “car that saved the company”.

      A high volume of exports in addition to domestic sales would increase production volumes markedly which (due to scale economies) would reduce the unit cost of every car produced, whichever market it was destined for. So if a car (like Allegro) had sold in huge volumes overseas, BL would have made more profit on the Allegros they were selling in the UK, or alternatively been able to cut prices in the UK, thus selling even more.
      That kind of “chase the volume” thinking lay behind export efforts like the Triumph Herald in Europe in the ’60s (which Standard-Triumph assembled in Belgium also) or the Marina in North America.

      Another “UK plc” reason is the balance of payments impact and thus contribution to economic well-being. If you look at the rationale that lay behind the British government providing funding for Metro and later Maestro/Montego – a key reason was the role those cars would play (Metro especially) in helping the balance of payments – by selling overseas in big numbers (it was hoped) and by substituting for imports to the UK.

  1. Belgium did become a big exporter of cars to Britain in the seventies and eighties and had a fair sized car industry with Ford, Leyland, GM, Volvo, Volkswagen and Renault building factories in the country. The early Cavalier was completely Belgian built and production of later Cavaliers was topped up with Belgian imports, while Ford totally moved rhd Sierra production to Belgium in 1989.

    • I have a Belgian-built Volvo 740. It’s widely acknowledged in Volvo circles that Belgian-built Volvos are better than Swedish-built ones.

      • I have a Brazil-built VW Fox. Are the Brazil-built ones better than those from the Fatherland? Vorsprung durch “Made in Brazil”?

      • Who told you that? As a Volvo owner for nearly 14 years and knowing many others, I was always lead to believe the Swedish volvo were always best. In fact the worse built volvos came from Nedcar.

  2. I am not surprised the Allegro didn’t sell well in Germany in mid 70s as the Golf MK1 would be gaining in popularity then – and it was home grown!

    • That, and also at the period before the Allegro came along, quality of BL cars dropped to an all-time low. That had a massive impact on the sales – and the bad quality of British cars is still in many peoples heads!

      In 1974 BL Germany still had a large supply of ADO16 (Austin 1300 4 door and Morris 1100 2 door), which were sold at attractive prices. But the quality of these cars was horrible and – due to being stockpiled rather long – many had rust damage when delivered to the customer! (Including my parents new 1300)

  3. I’m sure there must be a good reason why BL set up windscreen wipers on RHD cars with an LHD sweep pattern – and then swapped them to an RHD configuration on LHD cars! – Whatever it is though, its not something I recall any other manufacturer needing to resort to – It will be another typically British muddled fudge I expect.

      • There was a belief (fad) in the early 60s that widers that parked in front of the driver would enable the driver’s vision to be cleared more quickly in the event of a sudden downpour. It appeared to be a purely British idea- adopted on many BMC and Triumphs as well as Rootes Arrow and Zodiac Mk IV. Any European cars that had a similar wiper pattern was down to cutting corners on the RHD conversion.

  4. I was working for BLMH in those days within British Leyland International.

    This is a good analysis of how things were.

  5. Thanks for the Great article Chris , never knew the Allegro was available in so many countries. Appreciate all the work you did to research this and share so much of the unknown story of these Fascinating and much
    maligned little cars.Dad had two Austin Allegro’s in New Zealand as our family cars and they provided cheap, comfortable, reliable service travelling all over the South Island . I have a real soft spot for them even learnt to drive is Dad’s 1976 1300 Super. Great to see more people today are restoring them and saving this important part of British motoring history.

  6. Forecasts of the Allegro reaching 5000 a week would equate to around 2.3 million (up to possibly even 2.6 million) over a 9-10 year period or what the Allegro, Marina/Ital and Maxi ended up achieving combined in terms of sales. Was the 2.3+ million figure the absolute maximum production capacity or was it capable of being expanded further had the Allegro been a success?

    It is a pity the Allegro was unable to reach wider markets like ADO16 previously did, even if it would have been a very challenging environment in North America and required much in the way of getting it compliant with various regulations compared to the Marina.

    Aside from the apparent appeal of the Allegro in the East to the point where demand outstripped supply, have always wondered generally which countries in the East would have been a suitable location to establish a local BMC (later BL) branch that could supply the rest of the region (in the absence of India due to the License Raj or China).

    Also interested to know whether BMC Turkey merely produced commercial vehicles or also produced cars, as would have thought BMC cars could have done quite well there and the rest of the region.

    • To try & answer Nate – Over 2 million examples of the preceding ADO16 1100/1300 were built during its lifetime. There were many different plans and schemes within British Leyland as circumstances evolved during the ’70s (!) – but if you had asked your question in the early days around 1975 they would have been expecting to introduce an Allegro replacement (ADO99) in around 1980 – so Allegro would have had a shorter lifecycle than ADO16.
      Capacity planning for 5000 cars per week is reflected in facilities like the Trentham paint shop at Longbridge, built at the cost of £1.5m with capacity to paint 5000 Allegros per week. (and mothballed in 1975 as not needed). I suppose hypothetically – if demand had been enormous – they could have expanded production capacity further by investing in additional facilities – but that’s a very hypothetical question : )

      • Thanks for clearing things up, it is quite astounding how wildly optimistic BL were with there sales forecasts and it is unfortunate the Allegro was not a competitive force against its rivals.

        Always thought something like the Marina should have appeared in the early-1960s prior to its replacement possibly switching over to an Allegro (or ADO22) derived FWD platform with conventional gearbox and suspension (basically an early version of the Maestro/Montego which reputedly used the Allegro as a starting point), while Austin utilizes different exterior styling and Hydragas suspension.

        Yet the same time cannot help but think a late-60s introduction for ADO22 would have been a better alternative, while allowing the Allegro / ADO67 project to instead drift into a late-70s Maestro / ADO99 in much better circumstances for BMC (with the Maxi amongst other things featuring a shorter Maestro-like wheelbase).

        • Even a reskinned and mechanically updated Farina in the early mid-1960s would have been useful as a stop-gap, maybe replacing the Minor at the same time.

          Then again Peugoet managed to keep the similar 404 in production until 1975 with no major restyles.

          • Have doubts about a reskinned and mechanically updated version of the Cambridge A55-derived Farina B could have been a useful stop-gap, might have been different had the Oxford III been chosen as the basis for the Farina B given in some respects it was essentially an enlarged Minor only slightly larger than the Marina/Ital.

            In this instance believe the Leyland people had the right idea of a reskinned and mechanically updated Minor when it was first conceived as a rival to the mk1 Ford Escort (prior to being enlarged to compete against the Ford Cortina), however it was simply an idea BMC should have already done in the early-1960s as a pair of differently sized RWD cars* and was outdated by the time the Cortina-sized Marina appeared in the 1970s.

          • I think a reskinned farina in 1964/5 with a similar look to possibly the Datsun bluebird 510 with an improved suspension could have rescued sales.

          • Regardless of whether a reskinned and updated Farina B is derived from the Cambridge A55 or Oxford III (the latter say with Marina/Ital-like suspension uprated with telescopic front dampers and parabolic rear springs), there is no getting past the fact its dimensions appear to be roughly comparable to the Ford Corsair (essentially a LWB reskinned Cortina) and Vauxhall Victor FB meaning it would have been more suitable as a 1600-2000cc+ car in its present form as opposed to a 1100-1600cc+ Cortina rival.

            Datsun styling theme could work, especially the Pininfarina styled variations such as the Bluebird 410 and Cedric 130 (surprised the Bluebird 510 was not styled by Pininfarina) with a more Peugeot 204/304-like twist.

            If the Minor/1.5/Major were significantly related to the Oxford III/Isis II, with the Marina/Ital already being largely derived from the Minor and growing from Escort to Cortina dimensions during its development. One wonders whether it could have formed a more suitable low-cost stop-gap scalable family of conventional Pininfarina styled RWD cars from the early-to-mid 1960s.

  7. Thanks Chris for clearing up a bad myth. It’s a shame that the Allegro was not better looking, and better made as it would have been a real competitor in the EEC market up against the Golf and Alfasud. The 5000 cars must have been the total production figure for all three factories, as even the most productive plants are only hitting 80 an hour and that’s with modern machinery. Back then I believe Ford Dagenham was knocking out 40 to 50 Cortina an hour per line.

      • Daveh – A few thoughts as a bit of context – in July 1966 BMC were on the cusp of lifting ADO16 output to 7,000 per week (4,000 from Cowley). They didn’t – but peak output was not far below that – including cars and kits for export. There was seasonality in demand, so they might not expect to maintain that maximum output all year long.

        They would have needed 4000 Allegros per week, on average, purely to fulfil home demand if (as hoped) it had captured 10% of the UK market (less than ADO16 at the peak) and the UK market had expanded to 1.9 million units annually. In 1972 it had reached 1.6 million having flatlined at 1 million during 1964-69. It didn’t hit 1.9 million until much later but in the planning phase they could have anticipated that level for the mid ’70s. That’s assuming 48 working weeks and no disruption from strikes etc. So 5000 per week probably sounded sensible at the time.

  8. BL seemed to make some very optimistic sales predictions, the Marina was supposed to be at 300000 ar year in full production, but even in the best year it just about passed the 200000 mark.

  9. Chris. Very much enjoying your books. I am on to the later volume and have the export to read.
    My late father, Christopher Milner, worked for BMC; Riley and Wolseley sales manager, left before BL and could see the writing on the wall. He had an early Allegro 1300 SDL as a company car when he worked for the BRF. I have fond memories of the car and prefer the Mk1 Allegros over the later versions. He did 72k in 18 months. I think that the car is often maligned erroneously and one needs to take the car in context at the time. Chris explains much of what went wrong with car but I think that the Maestro was less forgivable mistake. Too late, too big and under developed. The Montego though grew to be a good car but by then the damage was done.
    The 70s were full of not very good cars and the allegro actually no bad. However it failed to capture the market as the 1100/1300 did. Bit like the Metro, Maxi, 18/22 and Maestro it did not fit properly into the defined segments properly. BL rarely produced vehicles that were exact matches in the segments. The Marina was the closest and hence its comparative success in matching the Cortina spec.

  10. Merlin your closing comments about vehicle size and segments hit the nail on the head I think. To err once would be unfortunate but BL seemed to be a serial offender in that regard.

    • If you look at all of the British based manufacturers, they all seemed to miss the mark bar Ford during the 70s. It was the same stateside. The oil crisis clocked a lot up. If it had not happened, BL’s cars would probably been right for the segment.

      • Vauxhall did hit back with the Chevette, which came in four versions and was available as a van. This was a masterstroke for Vauxhall as they could take on superminis like the Renault 5 with the hatchback, and take on the Escort with the saloon and estate versions While never selling in the same numbers as the Escort, Vauxhall managed to sell 50,000 Chevettes every year over here and it was exported to Ireland, the Low Countries, Germany and Denmark. Also using the drivetrain from the Viva and basing the car on the Opel Kadett saved massively on development costs.

        • But it wasn’t Vauxhall was it – they got given the T world car and made it into the Chevette. It was Opel that got it right as they lead the project.

          • Over here, the Chevette rejuvenated Vauxhall and gave them a competitive car to sell, even if it was an Opel design. Yet being built in Ellesmere Port with Viva components meant it was as British as the Viva that was produced in the same factory and this helped sales.

    • Thanks for that news cutting Mark. It could be interesting to do a “compare and contrast” analysis of JLR’s Slovenia plant with BL’s Seneffe plant in terms of UK content etc.
      Worth mentioning that the bulk of JLR production is still in the UK (despite which they get a lot of bad press for “offshoring” Defender).
      In 2018 they produced 449,000 vehicles in the UK plants, the bulk of them being exported, which compares to global retail sales in their last financial year of 580,000 vehicles from all their plants worldwide.

      • A better comparison might be with Nedcar which is currently contract assembling MINIs, but is very much tied in to the “MINI triangle” of Cowley, Swindon and Hams Hall.

        It’s location, very near to the UK is clearly a benefit, I imagine the same applied to Seneffe

  11. The Allegro wasn’t a bad car – just one that was compromised and not as “normal” as it’s main competitors. The heavy lifting of moving this size of car over to front wheel drive had been done long before by the ADO16, and the suspension medium (and lack of conventionality to its rivals) was a minor issue to most buyers – the Metro later proved an unconventional suspension set up wasn’t a barrier to high sales. The main “unnormal” bit of the Allegro was the styling and, initially at least, wilfully odd details such as the quartic wheel.

    I wonder if a nip and tuck to the front end around the time of Allegro 3 coming into the market, with a Metro-aping Ital/Ambassador style grille and lights, along with a removal of the odd lines that made the front wing tops appear substantially lower than the bonnet line, would have helped? The rest of the car isn’t a styling disaster and, lack of hatchback aside, the rear of Allegro 3 didn’t look woefully out of date even by the early ‘80s.

    If the estate version had been marketed a bit more effectively as well, then there actually WAS a hatchback Allegro. I know it was estate shaped, but that didn’t stop VW selling the Polo Mk2 as the everyday model in estate shaped form, with the conventional hatch shaped version sold as a coupe. Marketing/perceptions could have led to the Allegro being described as available in saloon (4 door), hatch (estate) and coupe (2 door) form, with only a change to the sales material. Maybe keep the smallest (or even smaller) engines out of the 2 door to emphasise its coupe credentials? Would have been a cheap way of BL making the Allegro more relevant to the competition, and might have ended up with the estate being pitched against the likes of the Golf in magazine group tests – this avoiding the whole “less handy than the Golf without a hatchback” line. This would have particularly helped in European markets, where the norm was increasingly becoming hatchbacks in this sector. If the primary body shape didn’t have a hatch, then what not promote the hell out of the variant that did?

    Another missed opportunity was the lack of a van variant. It would have been so easy to create a Bedford Chevanne competitor, simply by panelling in the estate’s rear windows. This would have fleshed out BL’s van range nicely, with a more car like van to complement the Marina/Ital van.

    Seems like there was a kind of “oh, it’s failed” defeatism around the Allegro, and mild updates are all it was ever going to get after that thought stuck. Contrast that with the (not dissimilar in some ways) Alfasud, which was developed along the way, got a hatch during its life, a van based on the estate variant, and even a separate coupe version with different styling.

  12. From this excellent essay their seems to be a comical use and dilution of the Austin branding.What was the international marketing plan for the Austin Morris brand in export markets ? With the UK still having separate Austin Morris franchises where was the MG version for the Morris garages ?

    • That’s a very difficult question to try and answer James, as plans changed frequently as the company evolved. The Allegro was planned and launched in 1973 by British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC), marketed from 1975 by the Leyland Cars division of state-controlled British Leyland Ltd. (which had a very different vision) and late in life (from 1978) became a product of the Austin-Morris division of the renamed BL Cars before ending its days in the catalogue of “Austin Rover” after yet another reorganisation.
      Looking at the European market (including the UK) – in the early BLMC era there was a strategy of positioning “Austin” as an avantgarde and advanced brand (with front-drive/hydragas etc.) vaguely like Citroen. This differentiated Austin from Morris which was intended to be more conservatively engineered, rear drive and “style focused” – vaguely like Ford. This “Webster doctrine” was driven mainly by the domestic market (where in the early ’70s both Austin and Morris were individually bigger than Vauxhall – so it could be justified). In the European context one can argue whether it made sense to try and split “Austin Morris” into two paths in that way rather than just concentrate on a unified effort. (In markets like Sweden “BMC” had been pushed hard as a brand in the ’60s which escaped the confusion of the Austin vs Morris divide.)
      In practice only the Morris Marina and Austin Allegro were developed in line with that “Webster doctrine” strategy which was superseded by the mid ’70s.
      MG was perceived by BLMC after 1968 as a brand to be reserved for sports cars. Sensitive to criticisms of “badge engineering” they phased out MG saloons. The Magnette was dropped in 1968 and the Austin/Morris 1300GT effectively replaced the MG 1300 4 door in 1969 while the MG 1300 2 door was dropped in 1971.
      Marina and Allegro did not have MG versions as they might have done in the past, instead having sporty versions (TC and Sport/SS) which filled that role.

      In the mid seventies there was a big shake-up with the Ryder Plan, with the philosophy that “Leyland” should become the corporate brand. Such a wholesale rebranding had been already implemented in Australia in 1973 where Austin & Morris disappeared completely in favour of Leyland Mini, Leyland Marina, Leyland P76.
      Looking at what happened in the UK & Europe in the 1975-1977 period, one can describe it as an attempt to “phase in” Leyland branding which (in the UK at least) was never completed. In some European export markets (Germany and Norway being examples) nearly all advertising in that period was for “Leyland” cars like “Leyland Allegro” & “Leyland Spitfire” even if the badging still read Austin & Triumph.
      In the UK progress down the “Leylandisation” path was in steps (like the dropping of “Austin” branding from Maxi in 1976). Nonetheless, by 1977 there was only one model (the Allegro) still branded “Austin” in the UK catalogue and only one “Morris” – the Marina.
      This “Leylandisation” strategy was (imo) very misguided. It would have been far better (especially on the European continent) to concentrate all efforts on the (still quite well-regarded) Austin brand for the volume models.
      That effectively did happen during the later BL Cars era from 1978. After being marginalized in the 1970s Austin had a comeback. The Metro, Ambassador, Maestro and Montego were all launched as Austins and marketed as such, and the Mini began to be promoted as the “Austin Mini” from 1983 (for the first time in the UK since 1969).
      But then the pendulum swang back again the other way, with Graham Day concluding in the late ’80s that “Austin” was a negative and dropping the brand (in the UK in 1987, in 1988 in some European markets).

      All of this chopping and changing was hard enough for the UK consumer to keep up with, but in export markets it led to general befuddlement – especially as many individual countries (within Europe) diverged from the over-arching strategy at the local level – as did dealers in their communications.

      All of the above relates principally to the UK & Europe. Different strategies were pursued in other global markets. In retrospect, if British Leyland were to hold their own in the cut-throat global car market of the ’70s it would have been far better to have picked their best “volume” brand and promote the hell out of it to establish a strong worldwide “Austin” brand comparable to Renault or Toyota or Nissan. The foundations were there.

  13. I was one of the few Germans interested in the Allegro, when it was introduced in our country. It might sound strange to many of you but I quite liked the shape and wanted something different, a car one didn´t see in every other driveway. In addition the local BL dealer, who also had an agency for Alfa Romeo, had a good reputation.
    The testdrive in an Allegro 1300 painted in aggressive light green was alright and I seriously considered to order one. But when it came to the details, the salesman told me I couldn´t order a sunroof. Sadly this took the Allegro off the list, as I have never wanted a car without one. I bought a Peugeot 204 instead. Surprisingly all Peugeot sedans for the German market came with a sunroof. If you didn´t want one for some reason, it was a special order.

    • I can’t recall any Austins of this era having a sunroof as an option. Indeed they were quite sparsely equipped cars, and it was odd Austin’s flagship in 1973, the 2200, had no more equipment than an Allegro Super.

      • I think we’ve mentioned before the relative lack of equipment with BMC / BL cars before, especially compared to what the other manufacturers were offering at the time.

        • Its a long time ago now but as far as I remember the only option in Germany at the time was metallic paintwork, not even a radio could be ordered from the factory. Another feature I didn´t like was the upolstery in leatherette, fabric was unavailible.

  14. In truth no British car was very well equipped. When dad got a brand new HC Viva estate in 1975 he had to have his own radio installed. It took the Japanese to show us what a well equipped car was.

    • Interesting to hear this. In Germany at the time basic modells were also sparsely equipped, but the list of factory options was extremely long and you could kind of order a car made to measure. This applied to the most popular German cars in the Allegro-class, namely Golf, Opel Kadett (similar to Vauxhall Chevette) and Escort. By ordering many items you could easily raise the price so much that a well equipped Golf or Escort came a lot more expensive than a basic Passat or Taunus (=Cortina).

  15. At one time even BMWs & Audis needed a lot of options ticking on the order form to get a spec comparable to cars the same size,

  16. Other Scandinavian Allegros

    “In both Sweden and Norway Allegros sold, in ever diminishing numbers, through to 1979, with Series 3 models not being imported.”

    The wonderful Series 3 was most certainly imported to Norway, and being sold through 1982 – though with HL trim level only!
    Having just passed my test, my father and I was trawling BL-dealers showrooms in order to find me the ideal first car. I will never forget the extreme enthusiasm I was obsessed with, being able to examine those brand new Allegro 3s; featured with the superb new dashboard layout and being painted in the most wonderful, new metallic colours.
    My father disclosed ‘I so much wish I could afford to buy you once of those!’

    (He couldn’t quite though, so I ended up with a second hand Marina which served me exceptionally well – however that’s another story.)

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