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
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.
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
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Other Scandinavian Allegros
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. In both Sweden and Norway Allegros sold, in ever diminishing numbers, through to 1979, with Series 3 models not being imported.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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