Keith Adams tells the short-and-sweet story of the Austin Allegro Equipe – a go-faster saloon that its maker sold as a homegrown alternative to the Alfa Romeo Alfasud Ti or Chrysler Sunbeam Ti.
It was certainly bold, although its performance didn’t quite live up to expectations.
Equipped to fail? The fastest Allegro
The Austin Allegro Equipe has entered motoring folklore as one of the more infamous limited edition cars of its era – but was it really that bad? It went on sale in July 1979 and was a performance-orientated version of the normally-pedestrian saloon, which was based on a two-door version of the 1750 HL, painted boldly in bright Silver with contrasting ‘Starsky & Hutch‘ stripes fitted with good-looking GKN alloy wheels (more of which later).
In some ways, it was a vastly underrated car, and the performance was pleasingly rapid for its day, even if it couldn’t stay with contemporary debutantes in the UK, the Renault 5 Gordini and Volkswagen Golf GTI (both of which had been on sale in Europe for some time, but made the transition to right-hand drive in 1979). If the mechanical layout was familiar, that’s because it was all-but identical under the skin to the short-lived Austin Allegro 1750 Sport.
The car was conceived in the dying days of the Series 2 Allegro and was intended to give the increasingly slow-selling range a boost in the run up to the modernised Series 3 going on sale.
How the sporty Allegro came together in Longbridge
Newly-recruited Austin Apprentice Stephen Harper joined the team of talented young stylists tasked with raising the appeal of the Longbridge-built midliner. Harper had already come up with the Allegro Special LE limited edition (above), and the Equipe was a development of this theme. It featured bold-looking graphics combined with the two-door shell and 1750cc engine to add more youthful appeal.
Harper recalls, ‘here are the original Equipe taping schemes – the chosen theme was in the background of these pics, done together with Tom Owen, who went to Jaguar soon afterwards.’
He added: ‘these wheels were the first (off the shelf) supplied by GKN, who later went on to manufacture the unique Equipe wheels. Also the four-door model was only a partial consideration. The focus was for the two-door, but the four-door was also a fallback if Marketing felt that the project would not sell enough units. Hence the different scheme, as the Starsky & Hutch Hockey-Stick didn’t fit around the rear door handles and pillar. The spoiler was a near-to-completion production part, but de-tuned later.’
Launching the Allegro Equipe
Former British Leyland Public Relations man Ian Elliott was involved with the launch of the Equipe in the spring of 1979 – just weeks before the arrival of the Allegro Series 3. He remembered: ‘The announcement of the Equipe coincided with a Northern Group of Motoring Writers Test Day at the Mintex proving Ground up in Sherburn-in Elmet, Yorkshire. So we were detailed to take one up there as part of the Austin-Morris test fleet. As usual, however, we were right at the end of the supply chain, and the car was delivered minus its lurid side graphics.
‘Since the graphics were really the entire point of the exercise, we ended up sticking the vinyls on ourselves, early in the morning! Quite a ticklish business putting such a big vinyl across four separate panels.’
The production Equipe would feature metallic silver paint, that stylish chin spoiler, regular versions of the GKN alloy wheels and the front fog lamps. The driver grasped hold of an alloy-spoked steering wheel shared with the Mini 1100 Special, black headlining and houndstooth check upholstery. List price was £4,360, although it only remained on the price lists until the arrival of the Series 3 in September 1979.
What happened to the Equipe?
The Equipe ended up with with a rather special customer. Elliott adds, ‘shortly after it was announced, we had a call from Sir Douglas Bader (yes, the ex-World War 2 fighter pilot) saying that he wanted an Equipe, but it had to be an automatic, for obvious reasons. Strictly speaking, this wasn’t possible, it wasn’t in the spec, but there were always people at Longbridge who could bend the rules, and a car was produced for Sir Douglas. One wonders if it is still around, a real one-off.’
As for the rest of the manual Equipes, it wasn’t so good. Although it was a limited-run special, examples of the model hung around showrooms well into 1980, and would be heavily discounted into the hands of new buyers. It wasn’t well regarded in the trade either with tales of the alloy wheels being porous and owners removing the stripes in order to calm down the oh-so 1970s styling – and, with the Allegro’s image being in the mud throughout the 1980s and ’90s, they soon proved disposable.
However, there’s much more appreciation for them nowadays, offering usable performance and stand-out styling, with examples being in demand when they do go on sale. Today, there are fewer than ten left on UK roads, and they’re all now in the hands of doting owners.
Thanks to Stephen Harper and Ian Elliott