The Austin Allegro was almost universally lambasted for being ugly, frumpy and undesirable looking. But the company never set out to build a willfully ugly car, as these images clearly show.
Austin Allegro: sow’s ear out of a silk purse
The ugliness of the Austin Allegro is now very much set in the national psyche. Here’s a car that epitomises the failure of its maker during the 1970s – and yet, when it was first conceived, it was designed to take over from the best-selling Austin/Morris BMC 1100/1300 in an equally stylish and appealing manner.
The design programme for the ADO67 programme kicked off in late 1968, once the more commercially-important Morris Marina (ADO28) project had advanced into its engineering phase. The former ADO22 programme (which was a re-body of the BMC 1100/1300) was dead in the water following the formation of British Leyland, which made competing the with the Ford Cortina its number one priority.
However, while it was important that the Morris needed to be introduced in double-quick time, using as many carry-over parts as possible, the ADO67 was a clean-sheet programme intended to push British Leyland to the head of the pack in the family car market.
Packaging compromises kill sleekness
As can be seen from the image at the top of the page, lead stylist Harris Mann was more than keen to pen a design that lived up to that ambitious brief. He said, ‘We wanted to make a far more modern version of the 1100/1300, keeping the long, sleek look.
‘Then a lot of other things affected it. A heater was developed at astronomical cost which was very deep. That had to go in. Then we had to put in the E-Series engine, which was more suitable for putting in a Leyland truck.’
This forced the bonnet line to be raised, making the glass-house shallower. The gentle curves of the initial design were also exaggerated, as it was felt by the Engineers lessons learned in packaging and panel-strength from the pre-ADO74-supermini concept known as Ant and nicknamed the Barrel-car could be incorporated.
Harry Webster on the Austin Allegro design process
Harry Webster added, ‘When I arrived here from Triumph in May 1968, there was no sign of an eventual successor to any of the Issigonis-designed front-drive cars. So the styling boys had a completely clean sheet of paper to start with, and I had a good deal of freedom on the engineering side. I felt the suspension was a priority as the original Moulton concept had been overtaken in certain areas by more conventional designs, and of course the package itself.’
‘His proposal for the new car was one of four or five that we presented to the board early in 1969. They walked into the big round building where the full-size mock ups were displayed, and immediately they fell for Harris’s car. After that they just left him to get on with it. The production version is hardly altered in appearance from the original.’
The fact is that the Allegro could have been good looking. Even if you acknowledge that it eschewed the-then fashion for angular cars, the curvaceousness of it could have worked much better than it did. In reality, the Allegro’s looks weren’t entirely responsible for its failure – you’d need to look at the striking workers, the lack of quality and its high list price at launch for that – but there’s no doubt that, had it been better looking, history might have ended up being kinder about it.