There’s a lot of chat around here at the moment about hatchbacks – and what was, and wasn’t, there to beat the Volkswagen Golf to the market. I would put in a vote for – no, wait, hear me out – the Austin Allegro.
I know what you’re going to say: ‘The Allegro wasn’t a hatchback! It doesn’t count! But it should’ve been a hatchback! Typical rubbish BL, missing the boat again!’
Hang on a minute, though. If we are talking about ‘…a two-box medium-sized hatchback, with front-wheel drive, and perfectly sized to fit in a European garage.’ Well, that’s the Allegro Estate, isn’t it?
I know what you’re also going to say: ‘But the Allegro Estate is an estate! Not a hatchback! The clue’s in the name, there!’ Well, I’d say the name is not the definition. The word ‘hatchback’ was only coined in 1970, even though plenty of cars which fitted the definition of hatchback had been produced before then. More were produced afterwards, without the H-word necessarily being used. For example: the Toyota Corolla Liftback. Just like the Allegro Estate, it wasn’t officially called a hatchback. And just like the Allegro Estate, it is a hatchback.
Sure, the Allegro Estate doesn’t have a sloping back end – but that’s not the defining feature of a hatchback, either. Plenty of hatchbacks, both then (Polo breadvan, Fiat Cinquecento) and now (Dacia Sandero, MINI Hatch) have a high roofline and squared-up rear. It’s an easy way to provide more interior space. In fact, this type of bodyshell design has pretty much become the norm. The Allegro was a pioneer here.
I would also say the Allegro Estate was a design pioneer in another way. Its upswept side windows were an unusual feature in 1973. Only the Reliant Scimitar had anything similar. Now, almost every car has the Allegro Estate upswept window line. Come to think of it, lots of cars have wacky-shaped steering wheels these days, too. The Allegro was ahead of the game in all sorts of ways.
Yes, in some respects, the Allegro does represent an evolutionary dead end in car design. You can’t buy a car today with a gearbox-in-sump transmission and Hydragas suspension – even Citroën doesn’t do Hydropneumatic suspension anymore. But I would argue that this isn’t really relevant. The fact that the Allegro has these of-their-time features doesn’t count it out.
Gearbox-in-sump always worked well enough, even for auto boxes. The reason the concept fell out of favour was because of the problems it created in terms of packaging. Putting the gearbox under the engine resulted in an awkwardly tall unit which necessitated a high bonnet line. Realistically, Harris Mann’s original wedge design for the Allegro was never going to make it off the drawing board – there would’ve been no way to get the engine in. It’s also why the Mini Marcos has such an oddly-shaped front end, as the design tries to reconcile a droop-snoot nose with the need to get the bonnet over the carb.
Likewise, gas suspension was a good idea – technically. Trouble was, it was always more expensive than a set of steel springs. That’s why nobody does it any more.
Anyway, in general, if you’re looking for a car from back in the day which ticks all the boxes and does all the jobs of a modern hatchback, I give you the Allegro Estate. BL never realised what a pioneer they’d made!