The cars : Austin Allegro Equipe (1979)

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

Austin Allegro Special LE

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.’

Allegro Equipe (1)

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.

Allegro Equipe (2)

Thanks to Stephen Harper and Ian Elliott

Keith Adams
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42 Comments

  1. Always had a soft-spot for the Equipe- its sort of the polar opposite of what a ‘Q car’ should be (understated but potent), yet still somehow manages to carry it all off- and not look incredibly tacky, as limited editions of that era often did. I wouldn’t want any other Allegro (apart, maybe from the ugly VDP).

    Did they ever sort out the Equipe’s famously porous alloy wheels? If so, how? Perhaps by laquering the rims on the inside?

  2. In my recent Allegro interest I’ve seen shots of the Equipe on various web sites. I’m still not sure about the side stripes but the grille, black trim and silver paintwork are great. They enhance the styling so much! I’d love to see a de-striped one on my drive. To me, in today’s world, it looks good!!!!

  3. I’d have one-remember back in the day thinking they were pretty good to look at.
    Alloys, a few bits of ‘aerodynamic’ black plastic dotted around the body work and some graphics.

    Wonder where the inspiration for the Fiesta Supersport (the warm up act for the XR range) came from….?

  4. Beyond installing the 2.0 O-Series engine, has anyone ever tuned the 1850cc engine of the Allegro Equipe so it at least puts out 100 + bhp?

    • . . . I have it on good authority that a twin Webber fed Equipe, 1750 not 1850, could top 150mph. . .

  5. The front spoiler really tidies up the front, almost Granada Ghia-X like. Rally style wheels look good too.

  6. I never recall seeing any Allegro in silver apart from the Equipe. I knew someone who bought one and had a catalogue of problems which needed addressing under warranty.

    In those days I think most manufacturers only provided a one year warranty… not good if you had a troublesome car.

  7. Good grief, Bader owning an Allegro!! Well, it makes a change from battling against Messerschmidts.

    Which reminds me of the oft-repeated tale of Bader regaling the girls of Roedean with one of his War stories. Too rude for this site but a quick search with those 3 words (Douglas Bader Roedean) pulls up plenty of results…

  8. How cool is that! I googled the Equipe again – quite an effective car – if it had been backed up with a bit more grunt under the bonnet it could have been a ‘Sud chaser! I also googled ‘silver Austin Allegro’ – the only ones that come up are Equipes – how odd – I would have thought that silver would be a very popular colour……come to think of it, I can’t recall seeing a 70s Marina, Maxi or Mini in silver either…..

    • Silver and all shades of grey metallic have been quite rare in the 70s – so the Equipe really stood out. On most non-luxury cars of the time silver was not even an option.

  9. Bader in BL’s finest? – all the blood must have rushed to his head… Quite simply the Equipe is vile to me – it looks like someone took the most tasteless parts of the most tasteless cars in history and tacked them into one gruesome whole – that applique wood look is just hideous. It works on a Chrysler Savoy Wagon, it doesnt work on something that looks like the fat bird from Berwick…
    Actually it was tested a few years back what effect the loss of legs such as in Baders case would do to the skills of a combat pilot and the results were interesting. Since the blood couldnt pool in the legs, since they werent there any more the pilot is more able to resist blacking out and can therefore pull substantially more G than an entirely fit enlegged individual (this is the idea behind the RAFs current ‘blow up trousers’ for fast jet pilots today, DVT eat your heart out). Theres some evidence to show that Baders performance was improved by this because the Spitfire was able (when not being flown like spun glass like today) to survive higher G than both meatbags and the 109, Bader could therefore take the plane closer to its limits which may have helped him gain some of his victories.
    That said why on earth would anyone be so desperate to have an allagro to the point of having a one off special made? more to the point why did he do that when he apparently was perfectly capable of driving a manual (although I would love to have seen the policemans face who stopped him).

  10. I read somewhere Douglas Bader also survived a crash landing which damaged his artificial legs, but would have killed someone able bodied from the trauma of blood loss from their crushed & broken legs.

  11. 12. Jemma – the Equipe didn’t have any fake wood -those other pictures relate to alternative schemes that were looked at.
    Look, if Bader wanted an auto, who were we to argue?

  12. If you had to have an allegro, then make it a base model. The Equipe just made a strange/oddball looking car, look worse!

    • I have to disagree. I think the styling changes like the front spoiler, black grille and significantly wider wheels finally made it look good. Especially the fatter wheels which suited the chubby body. And I think silver was the right colour for it. Having a properly beefy engine and fat tyres would finally have made the Allegro make sense. I was planning to fit a V6 with end-on gearbox in one at one point but other projects took priority.

    • They most definitely did. I have an article somewhere, it increased top end by about 12mph, horsepower was up to about 77bhp and fuel economy INCREASED. I have seen photos of a white two-door Downton car, but the reg is unreadable, so I can’t find out if it still exists. All based on head, carbs and exhaust, and a distributor which better matched the new flow.

  13. @ 15 – Don’t agree. Yes, the side stripes are positively garish but the grill, spoiler, black trim are a big improvement.

  14. @ 16 – JH Gillson

    Interesting, been looking for info on what the E-Series is capable of in terms of tuning.

    So in theory, if a standard Allegro 1750 Equipe with 91 bhp can do a claimed 0-60 in 9.8 seconds (based on the limited info I can find) than an Allegro with a 106 bhp version of the 1750 E-Series should be able to roughly crack 0-60 in the early/mid 8s, based on roughly calculating the 0-60 difference between the 95 bhp version of the Maxi and the 106 bhp Downton-tuned Maxi (a difference of about 1.6 seconds).

  15. @ 18 – Nate

    Read somewhere many years ago – in Practical Classics, I think – some guy who had an Aggro 1750cc as a student (because it was the largest engined car he could afford to insure.)

    Said by the time he finished with it, it cranked out 140bhp. Said he applied the principles of Vizard’s tuning the A-series engine to the E, and got a fair few engineering students to help him.

    The consensus seems to be that the E-series wasn’t a very tuneable lump – found some sniffy old “Car” road tests in which much the same thing is said – but I think that’s probably garbage: it’s just nobody seriously tried to eke a few more ponies from it because the cars it was fitted too were so unfashionable.

  16. 140hp was possible with the MG1600 unit. Flat spots caused by the fuelling system was fixed by using slightly smaller chokes.

    Plenty of torque from this unit but was as harsh as a cement mixer really, and not very tough. -It, like few of the E/R Series engines, blew it’s gasket in the two middle rings (and that was with an official Austin part). And can I also point out that the water pump was a real bitch to get to….

  17. @ 19 – JH Gillson

    Isn’t Vizard the guy who managed to get the A-Series to put out very good fuel economy figures? Also, what were the principles of Vizard’s tuning?

    It did not help that the E-Series powered cars were largely unfashionable though despite the engine also managing to ruin the original Allegro’s styling, BL could have at least regained ground by having the top Allegro put out Golf GTi-rivalling figures like on the 1750 E-Series Downton conversions.

    Though having its own issues the related 1.6 S-Series (mostly) came good in the end and even managed to put 150 bhp in the Janspeed Rover 216 Vitesse Turbo.

  18. @ 19 – Nate

    Vizard is the guy who wrote the big bible of A-series tuning:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tuning-Engine-Definitive-Performance-Economy/dp/1859606202

    Never consulted this book even when I used to own a Mini, but it is regarded as pretty much the definitive tome for those wanting to hop-up the A-series.

    I would say a Downton style conversion for an E-series Allegro (or Maxi) would be the best way to go because Daniel Richmond’s work was very highly regarded back in the day.

    Here’s the index for press reviews from that same website in case you haven’t looked through it all already:

    http://mk1-performance-conversions.co.uk/downton_press_reviews.htm

    It seems he was never bothered with headline-grabbing bhp figures but rather concerned himself with achieving a broad spread of torque, a philosophy that resulted in a Downton car (whether it be a Mini, 1100, 1800, MGB, MGC, Maxi, or Marina) being rather more refined, usually more economical and always much faster than the standard article.

    So, yes, BL could probably have produced a harder-charging Allegro, but would the five-speed transmission have coped? As I understand it, it was a bit borderline with the twin-carb 91bhp 1750cc unit. Mind you, that’s not something that concerned the company when it launched the MG Metro Turbo…

    Does make you wonder, though, how the Maxi’s five-speed gear-cluster managed to cope with the torque of the 1974 Lotus Elite. Badly, I would imagine.

  19. I do remember Motor magazine testing one of these when launched with favourable comments.
    The best one being along the lines of. . . .
    will beat a 2litre Cortina from the lights and outhandle one also!
    T

  20. Outhandling a Cortina is not that difficult isn’t it? On a slightly challenging road my single carb Maxi 1750HL would be easier to drive fast than the 2.0 Litre V6 Taunus (read Cortina Mk IV) I once bought for a long holiday drive. The Taunus had a higher top speed and was much quieter – that’s about all.

  21. @11 Alexander… I agree, most non luxury cars in the 60s & 70s were not universally available in metallics. Exceptions were the Cortina MK2, Zodiac MKIV and Vaux VX4/90 FD series. Granted, the Zodiac was regarded as a luxury car though.

  22. I owned an Equipe with a vinyl roof and no side stripes. With two doors and decent sports seats it wasn’t a bad looking car for its time. Also it seemed quite quick back in the day. The main problem was the crappy paintwork – it had to be completely resprayed when it was only three to four years old.

  23. whilst working for Wadham Stringer Bournmouth I initiated the turbo versions of the maxi and allegro and jointly developed it with Janspeed. The main problem with turboing the 1750 engine were the pistons used by factory the problem was sorted by fitting a set of forged pistons. Great Fun got a few speeding ticket testing the cars. Alas BL insisted I stop and wanted details of the R&d which I understand W S gave them.

  24. Our small family BL dealership in Bradford-on-Avon sold two Equipes, the first, in November 1979,(YMW266V) went to a mature owner who liked the car but he insisted that we remove the stripes prior to delivery! This was duly done but when the car was traded back into us in March 1982 (against a new Opaline Green Triumph Acclaim) the subsequent purchaser asked for the decals to be re-applied! Our second Equipe (EMW278W) was not sold until 17th September 1980 and remained with it’s first owner for three years before being part-exchanged in Sept 1983 for a new Ford Escort 1.6L. As for paintwork issues late 70’s metallics were hopeless for longevity with fading, dulling and micro-blistering all being very common.

  25. I owned a 1980 Allegro Equipe OGB 477V and it was an excellent reliable and quick car for its day. All the things that they came out with to slag off these cars was utter drivel especially the porous alloys wheels rubbish. Never had a single flat tyre in all the time I owned it that was not a puncture and the surviving Equipes are still running on the same alloys today no problem as are the many Allegros running these alloys from scrapped Equipes. I would still have had that Equipe today if it had not been written off in an accident. I used to look after and service my own cars and keep under the wheel arches and floor etc rustproofed and undersealed to keep any rust at bay as you had to do that with all cars back then to stop them rusting and mine was written off in excellent condition apart from the accident damage. Would happily have another one today no problem.

    • By 1980 most of the Allegro’s bugs had been sorted out.

      Recently I’ve been collecting up old car magazines from the 1970s-80s & many ads in them are for rustproofing treatments. I presume derusting early in a car’s life would extend it’s time on the road by a few years.

    • Which magazine praised the Allegro for its resistance to rust and it was always a myth to say the car was a rustbucket, when it clearly wasn’t, and the same could be said of the Maxi and Princess, that were quite well rustproofed. Back in 1979, for all manufacturers were starting to rustproof their cars better, it was still a case of undersealing you car every year to stop the rust. Fortunately, as the eighties went on and manufacturers started to galvanise car bodies and use more plastics, this practice died out.

  26. Not sure how accurate the following is though Motor magazine has the 91 hp Austin Allegro Equipe reaching 0-60 in 11s and cracking 100mph, bringing it up because thought it would be interesting to roughly calculate the performance of an Allegro Equipe featuring same Downton tuning as employed on the Maxi 1750.

    Honest John has the 91 hp Austin Maxi 1750 capable of reaching 0-60 in 13s with a top speed of 97 mph, meanwhile an article to the Downton tuned 106 hp Austin Maxi 1750 has the 0-60 time reduced to 10.4 seconds (and also able to crack 100mph).

    The data so far suggests an equivalent Allegro Equipe with the 106 hp Downton upgrade should have been able to shave almost 3s off the existing Equipe’s 0-60 time, which would be class competitive against its contemporary C-Segment rivals.

  27. The Allegro Equipe was a UK market Allegro 2 model and as such had just two headlights. But (at least) one has been retro-fitted with the quad headlight arrangement which (from late 1978) was being fitted to all Allegro 2 cars assembled at Seneffe and sold on the continent – and would appear on the UK market Allegro 3 (but only on the top trim level). This improves the look of the Equipe (imo) but isn’t original (on a UK market car anyway). I don’t believe the Equipe was marketed outside the UK, or built in LHD (though there are rumours of sightings in the Netherlands). If any were, then such continental market cars would have had the four-headlight arrangement presumably.

    • The Allegro was quite popular in the Netherlands in the mid seventies. I believe it sold over 8000 in 75 and similar in 76 and a top ten seller. It also sold well in Denmark in the same period, possibly because it was quite cheap. Sterling devalued about this time, so probably meant its export prices could be reduced. The Mini and Maxi both did well in these two markets at that time too.

  28. Interesting. There’s a photo of a 3yr old me standing by an equippe somewhere in the family album. Must have shaped my taste in odd cars early on.

    What’s really interesting here are the van sketches behind and in front of the allegro sheet. It looks like a forward control van with all the 70’s “passion wagon” styling accessories. Can anyone shed any light on what this was?

  29. Over forty years has passed since the first Allegro Equippe appeared at my local BL dealer in North Hampshire and it still makes me shudder.the least popular two door version of the car coupled with the biggest engine in the range,this just after the effects of the second shock rise in oil prices after the Iranian Revolution had pushed up petrol prices to record highs. If that wasn’t enough the over the top body stripes and tasteless interior compounded how bad it was. My first thought was who’s going to buy this? and at this small local dealership it sat there,weeks became months and it was still,if a ton of steaming horse manure had been dumped in the showroom it would have been sold quicker than this,I’m not sure hoe they got rid of it,but the Equippe was never a good idea and how it got to be foisted on the public is a mystery

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