Blog : As the Allegro’s 50th birthday approaches…

Austin Allegro 1100

As we approach the 50th Anniversary of the launch of the Austin Allegro later this month, it seems like the right time to reflect on the legacy of this controversial car. While the Allegro is often remembered for its idiosyncrasies, lack of sales success and a less-than-stellar reputation for reliability and quality, it’s important to recognise the role it played in the history of the British motor industry.

Styled by Harris Mann, engineered by Harry Webster, overseen by George Turnbull and launched in May 1973, the Allegro was intended to replace the best-selling BMC 1100/1300 range. With its more modern – timeless and durable – design, the Allegro was a significant visual departure from previous Austin models, and it was marketed as ‘The New Driving Force From Austin.’

The car was positioned as a family car that was both stylish and practical, with a range of different models available, including a two-door, a four-door, and – from 1975 – an estate.

Distinctive doesn’t always mean better

One of the Allegro’s most distinctive features was its Quartic steering wheel, which was designed to provide better visibility of the car’s instrumentation. The Allegro was also the first car from British Leyland to feature Hydragas suspension, which promised a smoother ride than its competitors combined with incisive Mini-like roadholding – in achieving this aim, albeit after considerable fine tuning, the Allegro can be regarded as a success.

However, despite its design innovations, the Allegro was not without its flaws. One of the most notorious issues was with the car’s appalling quality control and shocking build quality, just as British drivers were starting to fall in love with precision-built Japanese cars with their Swiss watch reliability. The car’s design features, including the Quartic steering wheel, were also criticised for being uncomfortable and difficult to use.

Despite these issues, the Allegro was a popular car in its day, even if it never scaled the heights of its predecessor. It was surprisingly expensive at launch, but prices and the model range were quickly adjusted to expand appeal and make the humble Allegro more accessible to a wide range of buyers. It was also available in a range of different models spanning 1100-1750cc, including sportier versions such as the Allegro 1750 Sport Special and the luxurious Vanden Plas 1500.

It emerges as a great classic car

In the years since the Allegro was first launched, it has often been the subject of jokes and ridicule, with its reputation for unreliability and poor build quality contributing to its less-than-stellar image. However, in more recent times, there has been a growing appreciation for the Allegro and its place in British motoring history.

The Allegro’s innovative design features and individual styling, have become a point of discussion for car enthusiasts, and the car has become an undeniable cult classic in some circles. There are several dedicated fan clubs and forums for Allegro enthusiasts, who appreciate the car for its quirks and idiosyncrasies and younger enthusiasts love its combination of good value and stand-out looks and don’t get hung up on its reputational baggage.

However, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Allegro is the way it embodies the optimism and creativity of the early 1970s combined with the industrial doom and gloom of an imploding UK economy and rampant strikes. Despite its many flaws, the Allegro was an innovative car that was ahead of its time in several ways, and its distinctive design and features reflect the spirit of the era. Really, it deserved better.

That’s why, as the 50th anniversary of the Allegro’s launch approaches, it’s important to remember the role this car played in the history of British motoring. While it may have been a long way from being perfect, the Allegro was an important part of the car industry, and its impact can still be felt today.

A lasting legacy

Looking back on the Allegro, it’s clear that the car has a complex legacy. While it was reasonably popular in its day, it also had its fair share of problems, and its maker’s reputation suffered existentially as a result. However, as time has passed, the Allegro has become a symbol of a bygone era – men in brown suits smoking pipes in the office – and its unique design features and quirks have made it something of a cult classic.

Despite the passage of time, the Allegro remains a significant and painful reminder of the downfall of British Leyland. Even now – 50 years after its launch – many people continue to blame it for having a not-insignificant hand in the downfall and retrenchment of the wider British car industry…

Stay tuned to AROnline over the next few days for the best and worst of the Allegro, as it chugs past the big 5-0.

Austin Allegro Sport

Keith Adams


  1. L’Austin Allegro était avec le recul, en avance sur son époque, ce sont les grèves et l’organisation générale des entreprises qui ont menacés la vente de l’Allegro mais avant ça, de la Maxi et de la Marina…Une Allegro 3 , c’était une
    belle auto mais trop tard !

  2. The Allegro did mark one big departure for British Leyland: there was no badge engineering( except for the Vanden Plas) and every car came as an Austin. It had a logical range of trim levels and engine sizes that was similar to how Ford marketed the Escort and buyers could choose anything from a basic 1100 De Luxe to the luxurious Vanden Plas. Also using a five speed transmission on E series engined cars was advanced for the time.
    Howevever, everything else seemed to count against the Allegro: the weird styling, the notorious Quartic steering wheel, poor reliability on early cars and tales of bits falling off saw buyers stay away. Gradually the Allegro came right and it did have a good reputation for resisting rust, but like most other Leyland products, the improvements came too late.

  3. I remember the first full page ad’ for the Allegro in the Times newspaper. I also remember thinking, boy, is that car ugly. I haven’t changed my mind. All other things being equal, it’s easier to sell a pretty car (ADO16) than an ugly car. Sadly, all other things were not equal. The improvements over the ADO16 were outweighed by the retrograde changes.

  4. Sadly I don’t share Keith’s enthusiasm for the Allegro.
    The ADO67 was made to a price at the behest of finance director John Barber, in ignorance of what the opposition was doing, because it was believed to be the only way FWD cars could make money, as a consequence it alienated customers who then bought properly enginneered cars like the Volkswagen Golf. This process was repeated with the TR7 and Rover SD1 and it was goodbye to the British owned volume car industry.
    The Allegro may have come good in the end, but it needed to be right at launch.
    That it was not can be put down to the severe financial restrictions the design team was operating under.
    The Allegro represents British industrial failure. Design and manufacture it to a price and then blame the workers when the customers fail to materialise, and then repeat the process again with the Maestro.
    The penny did not drop until the arrival of Graham Day.

    • I don’t know whether Ian Nicholls has ever driven a Golf , but to describe it as “properly engineered” is stretching it a bit far, certainly in RHD form . I had a 1983 Golf GTI from new, and although it was an exciting car to drive , too much of the excitement was provided by engineering deficiencies, most notably an excessive degree of torque steer at high power/high angle take-offs , usually from a T junction . In addition , the gear linkage , whilst not down to BL standards , was nothing to write home about , and whilst not entirely spoiling the driving experience , did nothing to enhance it. Suffice it to say, I never bought another one, and the later versions became duller and duller

      • I should also have said that the brakes for RHD cars were abysmal : that is the only word which suffices to describe them

        • And yet the Golf is still with us and is one of the best selling cars of all time, unlike the Allegro that crashed and burned at launch, festered on the market until the early 80s then limped out of production with nobody noticing or caring.

        • The Mark 3 Golf was a retrograde step, it was bulbpus, ugly, had diesel and smaller engined versions that were like mechanical slugs, and had an interior like a 1971 Marina. Then there was a saloon version which must have been the ugliest car of the nineties. Apparently reliability wasn’t that great and in the 1993 JD Power survery, the Maestro fared better. Another thing that buyers of the Mark 3 Golf had to watch for, the rear wheelarches were notorious for collecting mud and water and these could rust early on. However, because it was a Volkswagen, people kept buyibg it, even if some might have been disappointed.

  5. To me, the Allegro is synonymous with the seventies. I turned eleven just a month after its release. The first one I saw belonged to a work friend of my dad. He’d bought it new and was showing dad around it. I remember thinking it certainly looked different from anything else I could think of. I didn’t love it and I don’t today, but I can’t think of it as ugly. It was very much of its time. Obviously there were other cars released in the seventies, but somehow the “All-aggro “ is the one I associate with platform shoes, flared trousers, vertigo-inducing wallpaper patterns, Raleigh Choppers, and the music of Slade, T-Rex, the Bay City Rollers, and ABBA. Especially the higher spec. ones in colours like orange, purple or lime green. Who remembers fibre- glass curtains? My mother had a pair in the most vivid orange you can imagine! As the quotation goes, the past is another country. The car lived too long. It might have been a better product once it reached its 3 designation but it looked silly by then. All gussied-up, trying to look contemporary.I wouldn’t have dreamed of buying one, no matter what “Mk”. It’s fun to remember it though.

  6. Golf v Allegro? No contest – not now, not then. Yes, even Wolfsburg’s finest had its faults, but there is one simple reason why these cars, and their manufacturers, were night and day: styling.

    VW went to Giugiaro and the Golf looked tidy but dynamic, modern but not weirdly futuristic. Driving one in the Seventies, you felt like you were going somewhere – a sensation unknown to the Allegro owner, unless he was gear-grinding his way back to the showroom for a refund. Park them side-by-side today and it’s difficult to believe they were launched just 12 months apart.

    Like everything else that fell from the not-so-magic marker pen of Harris Mann, the Allegro was pug-ugly – it’s useless to deny it. The fact that a few hipsters now find its dumpy form amusing is neither here nor there – it’s the private buyer of 1974 whose tastes determined the fate of these cars and their respective manufacturers. People will forgive a beautiful car its foibles, at least to an extent. But when the embarrassment in the driveway fails to proceed, it’s off to that nice Datsun dealer down the road.

  7. One reason the Golf had to succeed was Volkswagen was in a terrible mess 50 years ago and had relied on the ancient Beetle for too long and German buyers weren’t interested. ( Its biggest export market had introduced stringent safety and emissions controls that the Beetle couldn’t meet, which really hurt Volkswagen). Now suppose the Golf was created by the sort of bean counters at British Leyland: it would probably have been a frumpy saloon designed in house to save money and using Beetle engines as they were familiar to buyers. Most likely the ailing Volkswagen would have died as the new car would have been met with complete indifference.
    Luckily Volkswagen, admittedly with some help from the German government, made sure the Golf was far removed from the antiquated Beetle with a stylish hatchback body, new watercooled engines and fwd. It was a sales hit from the start and saved Volkswagen from bankruptcy, and the Golf name has lasted 49 years.

    • To be honest VW could have got it all wrong again! At the time they were looking at a Mid Enginged Golf and some really weird styling, including a few dodgy ones from Giugiaro. What happened to VW was NSU. Purchasing them, got them engineers who had the experience of developing fwd cars. They were in the early days of developing the next small car that became the Polo / Audi 50.

      The Aggros looks didn’t help it, but it’s reputation for dodgy build quality added to the constant strikes, which meant you had to wait for one, meant people went elsewhere on the continent to the Golf or the Alfasud, or here to the Japanese alternatives and increasingly the Escort, which would eventually become Britain’s best selling car. As Ian said above, the cheapening by John Barber and his team of bean counters did wreck the Allegro from day one, as did Stokes with his avant garde saying wish.

    • One of my colleagues had a late 80s Golf Driver trim model and I got to use it for a week while he was away on holiday. I found it quite a peppy car on the open road and made me consider it as a future purchase. I haven’t as yet, due to the relative higher price to Ford & Vauxhall’s etc. But there’s still time to re-think… Other than a Golf there’s not a lot of cars I fancy at the moment

  8. There are so many aspects to this sad story, which I guess is why we’re still kicking the subject around after 50 years. For those who care about British motors,it still hurts!

    Aggro wasn’t a terrible car but BL needed a great one if they were to become a serious player in the European B sector once UK entered the Common Market and the tariff barriers came down. Aggro v Golf is in a sense unfair, because VW DID create a great car – one that defined a market segment for decades to come. But that’s the standard that BL needed to hit, and as we all know they fell horribly short. Yes it was a better car than a contemporary Escort or Viva, but without the inducements of patriotism, habit and an Austin-Morris dealer on every high street, why on earth should any Frenchman or German choose to buy one?

    Of course poor build quality helped to kill BL, but I harp on about styling because I think there is a British reluctance to recognise its importance. And it’s tragic that BMC / BL got it so wrong, so often. On the one hand they had Issigonis and his lofty dismissal of ‘styling’ (“it so dates a car, my dear”). Yes, sir Alec, but what about DESIGN – the business of creating functional objects that are also beautiful? Just because you (rightly) don’t litter a car with chrome and tailfins, it doesn’t have to be so bloody ugly… does it [slaps face repeatedly]? And then they went to the opposite extreme, allowing the eccentric creations of H Mann into production almost unmodified (Aggro is a bad example, I know, but even the original sketches are horrible). And the tragedy is, beauty – unlike engineering – is free. Pretty cars are no more expensive or difficult to make than complete munters, but BL just kept on helping itself to more fruit from the ugly tree. Sorry everyone – that’s a bit of an essay. But it’s been stewing for 50 years…

    • Once again, I agree with everything you’ve said. It’s even more tragic to consider the styling of the Allegro when you look at the creations made from within what was the SAME company at that point over the preceeding years: E-Type, XJ6, Range Rover, ADO16, A40 etc.

  9. Would the Allegro’s cause have been helped had it received deeper involvement from the individuals that developed the best-selling BMC 1100/1300 outside of say Alex Moulton, rather than from people who had little to no involvement until they were tasked with carrying over components from 1100/1330 to create the Allegro?

    With the ex-Ford and Triumph people at Leyland sideling the BMC folks originally involved with ADO16 (or then working on ADO22) and not implausibly treating them like they did not know what they were doing, in that regard it is hardly surprising the Allegro turned out the way it did.

  10. Ian Nicholls makes a good point about the budget restrictions for developing the Allegro.

    What is unfathomable is the amount of money squandered on the Marina. It cost nearly twice as much to bring the Marina to market as the Allegro. BL set out to deliberately build a cheap and nasty car – and succeeded – while blowing a fortune on it. Then they skimp on their high-tech car aimed at private buyers. There was only ever going to be one ending to this story.

    • Blimey, I didn’t know that about the Marina. Shocking (though I have to admit that as a 10-year old, a Marina HL was my idea of a swish motor. Blue velour – phwoar!).

      We could discuss BL’s rotten ‘eggro for ever, because it really does encapsulate everything that went wrong back then. But isn’t it all really down to one word that we haven’t said yet – hatchback. Golf had one, Allegro didn’t. End of story?

  11. The Mark 2 Escort came along in 1975 and like all Fords of this era was an exercise in how to market conservative engineering in an attractive body that would bring in the buyers, particularly in the light medium sector, where most private sales occurred in the seventies. A buyer heading into his or her Ford showroom would soon be attracted by an Escort GL or Ghia with metallic paint, a vinyl roof, sports wheels and upmarket looking squre headlights, as well as the neat three box design. Also the 1300 crossflow, while not the most refined of engines, was a decent enough engine and fairly reliable, and the Escort had no reliability horror stories.

  12. VW studied the Simca 1100 when developing the Golf as it was a proven big seller.

    The Marina was in a worst of both worlds by using old components that were made on new tooling because the original ones had worn out. It probably would have been cheaper & done better if it was a totally fresh design.

    With the mention of ex-Ford staff, did Roy Haynes have much input into the Allegro, of had he already returned to Essex?

  13. Agreed. Once it got those cheesy Z cars out of its system, Ford GB didn’t put a foot wrong until the Sierra. Yet none of that commercial competence seemed to rub off on Longbridge, despite poaching staff from Dunton.

    Apologies to John Wilkes (a Rover Wilkes?) Late in the day I caught up with the parallel discussion under Nigel Garton’s excellent piece about the styling. You said the H-word first.

    It still amazes me how much discussion this 50-year-old motor generates. It’s not as though there aren’t other BL cars that missed their mark for heartbreakingly avoidable reasons. Is it because Aggro is the watershed – ie before it, BL was a contender. After, the company was always fighting for its life?

  14. If only they’d improved the ADO 16 with a hatchback (as in the Australian Nomad version) and a front mounted radiator with electric fan….
    I had two ADO16’s in the 1970’s and now have one as a classic car.

  15. Not to mention some decent rust proofing that was known right from the start!

    One of the things the Allegro got right was being reasonably well rust proofed, at least by 1970s standards.

    • None of the Austin Morris products from the seventies and early eighties were particularly bad rusters, though oddly the premium Jaguars and Rovers seemed to rust more. I can still recall seeing J and K reg Marinas still running in the mid eighties and the occasional Landrab appearing when I was living in Coventry in 1989, a car which apart from being built like a tank was as durable as one.

  16. The Dad of one of my friends had a Landcrab well into the 1980s, & looked very old fashioned by then.

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