Opinion : Austin Allegro at 50 – the contemporary view

Allegro Advert

Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the launch of the Austin Allegro. Much ink has already been expended on this controversial car and its part in the downfall of the British motor industry, and for what it’s worth, here are some more ramblings from yours truly.

Having extensively studied contemporary news reports, I have now formed a more solid opinion on how British Leyland found itself on the downward slope. The ADO67 was more than just an inadequate car that failed to sell in the numbers expected by its makers, but a design philosophy.

That design philosophy was to design British Leyland cars to a price. This was at the behest of Finance Director, John Barber, who had occupied a similar post at Ford of Britain. He had been involved in the costing of the Ford Cortina and the strip down of a Mini to see how BMC could manufacture it at the price it retailed at. Ford’s opinion was that BMC made a loss on each Mini sold, and that the subsequent ADO16 1100/1300 was barely profitable.

Maximising profits: BL’s mission for the Allegro

This was not reflected in BMC’s financial results, which were the only figures that really counted. By 1965, the 1100/1300 (ADO16) and Mini made up 50% of BMC’s car output, and that had increased 68% since 1959.

However, the July 1966 Credit Squeeze threw a spanner in the works, protest strikes restricted supply and BMC’s market share temporarily dropped to 27%, leading to a loss of £3 million in the financial year. This convinced pundits and politicians that BMC was heading for the rocks and a merger with Leyland Motors was brokered with Sir Donald Stokes in charge, with the new Finance Director, John Barber, effectively dictating cost parameters to the design Teams.

When the dust settled in 1968, the BMC range recovered the ground lost in 1966/67, but it was now too late. The design cells that had created some of Britain’s greatest cars were broken up. The widespread belief that BMC cars were unprofitable to manufacture and that the newfangled front-wheel-drive cars incurred higher warranty costs took hold both inside British Leyland and in the UK motor industry in general.

Austin Allegro

Following Ford’s lead

Many of the financial experts recruited by British Leyland came from Ford and they were convince that front-wheel drive was the byway to bankruptcy, and with the Escort and Cortina selling huge volume to fleet buyers, no one dared to ask why the ADO16 and Mini were selling in huge numbers, and instead focussed on their alleged cost failings.

Certainly, BMC was guilty of not rationalising its range and indulging in more component sharing between their two bestsellers, something that started to occur in the 1970s.

Another brickbat used to beat BMC was its lack of product planning, with the 1800 (ADO17) and Austin Maxi hailed as blunders. However, as events panned out, BMC was closer to the mark than the new marketing high flyers imported by BLMC from outside.

The front-wheel drive decade

The 1970s was the decade of the front-wheel-drive hatchback, and the Maxi was unveiled in 1969 – except it was unleashed on the public a year too early. UK buyers did not understand the concept, the fleet buyers believed front-wheel drive was intrinsically unreliable and it was too expensive for potential continental customers due to trade tariffs.

The relative failure of the Maxi therefore convinced British Leyland management that the front-wheel-drive experiment had led to a financial dead end. The conventional Morris Marina was developed to compete in the UK fleet market at great expense, and the Mini was left to wither on the vine because in 1968 it had no real rivals.

However, thanks to the success of the ADO16, British Leyland had at least to make an attempt at replacing the model. The company also thought it could succeed in replacing the unloved 1800/2200 Landcrab with a more stylish successor, the 18-22/Princess (ADO71), with the intention of retailing that at a higher price than its ungainly predecessor.

Austin 1800

Lots to do, so little time…

Roy Haynes, in his short tenure as head of the Cowley Styling Studio, had overseen some revisions of the BMC bestsellers, such as a Mini Clubman (ADO20) hatchback and a restyled ADO16, with new subframes designed to improve resistance to corrosion, known as the ADO22. However, these were deemed too expensive to produce by the incoming management, which in the case of the ADO16 replacement, decided to start afresh with an all new design, what became known as the ADO67 and launched as the Austin Allegro.

The new ADO67 would be designed to a price, and apart from Hydrogas suspension, would use tried and tested components. The aim was not to make a better car than the ADO16, but a cheaper car to manufacture. Moreover, a hatchback was not part of the equation as BLMC had burnt its fingers with the Maxi and there would be no repeat of that mistake.

However, while UK manufacturers dismissed front-wheel drive as unprofitable and unreliable, on the continent they saw things differently. The format just needed improving.

Renault 5

The opposition leads the way

Fiat led the way with the three-box 128 in 1969, winning the European Car of the Year Award 1970. The Italians followed this with the 127 supermini in 1971 and, in 1972, it appeared with a hatchback.

Also in 1972 the Renault 5 arrived. Very soon these cars, a type of vehicle that Ford saw as unprofitable, were topping the European sales chart, which they did for a decade. Ford was forced to revise its opinions and in 1972 embarked on the ‘Bobcat’ project to design a front-wheel-drive supermini that ultimately became the Fiesta. Indeed, so convinced was Ford that front-wheel drive was financially risky that the company initially thought it had to manufacture 500,000 a year in Spain to turn a profit. This was the mindset permeating within Ford, and no doubt it also existed within their former colleagues now at British Leyland.

Also in 1972 British Leyland, having squandered four years, now realised that it would have to replace the Mini after all, and embarked on the ADO74 project, using an all-new engine. For all their much vaunted product planning and marketing know how, both Ford and British Leyland had read the market wrong and front-wheel-drive hatchbacks were the way to go.

Ford Fiesta

Being led astray

Ford made the sensible decision to use existing engines in the Fiesta, but British Leyland’s plans to design the ADO74 around an all-new K-Series engine led to eye-watering projected costs, and the programme was cancelled after 18 months, meaning the Mini would have to soldier on against more and more state-of-the-art small cars, with a now declining market share, reflected in the annual production figures.

So, that was the background to the development of the Austin Allegro. It was designed to price to be merely adequate, in the belief that it would not encounter serious opposition, and manufactured by a company that believed that front-wheel drive was barely profitable, and the whole Issigonis era at BMC had brought the company to the precipice of financial disaster.

However, the picture had changed by May 1973. Britain had joined the Common Market, imported continental cars were now cheaper and the Volkswagen Golf was waiting in the wings.

Hatchbacks were the answer…

Europe wanted front-wheel-drive hatchbacks and there would be a long 11-year gap between the Maxi and the Austin Metro in 1980 – so much for market research… While it had been non-existent at BMC, at British Leyland it was just inept – if the likes of Fiat, Renault and Volkswagen could see the way forward, why couldn’t British Leyland?

While there has been much discussion over the Allegro’s styling, there has been less over its fragility, the consequence of designing it to a price. British Leyland gained a reputation for poor build quality and biblical unreliability because it was deliberate company policy to design its cars to a price and, as a consequence, it is no surprise that the resulting vehicles lacked robustness as standard. It was the company’s design philosophy, something that continued well into the 1980s.

Within in a year of its launch, it was clear the Allegro had failed and with it went the hope of British Leyland remaining in the top league of European auto manufacturers. The BLMC management blamed the Three-Day Week and industrial unrest but, apart from the car’s styling, the issues over build quality stymied demand. Whereas the Marina had been aimed at faceless fleet buyers who did not have to drive the cars they bought, in the case of the Allegro, the target market was the private buyer, and issues of reliability, build quality and styling mattered.

The cost of building down to a price

The concept of designing cars to a price was repeated with the Triumph TR7, 18-22/Princess and Rover SD1, contributing to market share meltdown. And by the late 1970s the Austin-Morris range was woefully out of step with market trends, as more and more manufacturers announced their take on the front-wheel drive format, leading to more loss of sales.

Pundits in the late 1970s blamed the age of the Austin-Morris range but, as both the Fiat 127 and Renault 5 were older than the Allegro and the Volkswagen Golf only a year younger, this was nonsense. The European manufacturers had read the market better and reaped the benefits.

The Stokes-era management continued to blame BMC for the ills of the British motor industry and, with the now deceased Chairman Sir George Harriman unable to defend his conduct, it was easy for them to shape the narrative in the story of British Leyland.

More effort needed

But the Allegro represented a half-hearted effort to compete on the European stage, it was simply not good enough for a car that was crucial for its manufacturer’s survival and it could easily have been so much better. British Leyland failed to understand that it was the appeal of its models that attracted buyers, not whether it came under budget in the development phase.

Unfortunately, this design philosophy continued with the Allegro’s botched replacement, the LC10 Maestro and the LM11 Montego. Blaming poor quality on its workforce was easy in the politically charged atmosphere of the time but, as Bernard Jackman, the one time Managing Director of Rover-Triumph said in 1974: ‘Quality and design are a completely integrated thing. If you have a poor design, no matter what you do on the line or how good your facilities are you will still turn out a poor product. It is not possible for fellows on the assembly line to make good the deficiencies of bad design.’

Simply put, the Allegro was a bad design.

Goodbye market share…

The last time British Leyland achieved a 40% UK market share was 1971, the same year as its first made-to-a-price car, the Morris Marina, made its debut. Coincidence, I think not.

British Leyland were not the only ones to release a dud in 1973. The bad boys of Rock and Roll, the Rolling Stones had released a quartet of classic albums beginning in 1968 with ‘Beggars Banquet’, ‘Let It Bleed’, ‘Sticky Fingers’ and the double album that many pundits consider their finest, ‘Exile On Main Street’, released in 1972.

In 1973, the Rolling Stones followed this up with the lacklustre ‘Goats Head Soup.’ Like British Leyland, the Rolling Stones would carry on, but they now ceased to be relevant in in their respective fields, ceding leadership and innovation to others.

Austin Allegro hatchback, sorry, estate

Ian Nicholls
Latest posts by Ian Nicholls (see all)

27 Comments

  1. Not so sure on the BL / Stone analogy! BL is long gone, the Stones are still here somehow. The Allegro was a failure by BL. Stokes and Co thought they could do better, but turned out a turd. The AD016 was the car Europe aspired to beat, but instead of doing a Ford and improving on what they had and save money BL tried to reinvent the wheel (literally). A flimsy car in reality, it’s structural strength was extremely poor (window popping anyone) and it was hamstrung by sgaring components that had come from bad decisions made during the Marina debacle. As I said before it wonders what other designs had BL had for the Allegro before they chose that one? I know Stokes wanted avant-garde but had he not learnt from Issigonis ignorance that style sells cars?

  2. The allegros alleged fragility was not a design issue, it was entirely a build quality issue due to a workforce that spent more time on strike than building cars. They were once the build issues were eliminated tough reliable cars, I’ve had 4 non were ‘fragile’

    • If was a weak structure, I have seen the engineering drawings and from my basic engineering knowledge can work out its not the strongest. And Kevan who worked for PSF confirmed in previous chats that it was, stating that for it to become a hatchback it would have needed extensive modifications, as unlike the Princess it was not structurally strong enough.

    • But when that same workforce was given the Honda designed Triumph Acclaim to assemble the quality was as good as Hondas itself. Good design doesnt just relate to how a car looks or performs, but how its engineered for assembly in a mass production environment.

  3. The big issue with the Mini and 1100/1300 (which BMC tended to treat as a family) was that (as Ian implies) they were very sensitive to economies of scale or – put another way – the break-even point for production of “the family” was very high.
    When BMC was able to build as many as planned – which was the case in 1964 and 1965 – the profitability of the exercise – and of BMC – was good.
    In fiscal 1964/65 an impressive 73% of the cars BMC built were front-drive and the corporate profits were the strongest since 1959/60.
    Then sales declined due to a weak UK market, barriers to export growth (and the long time taken before introducing improved Mk2 versions of Mini and 1100) and – as Ian says – so did the financial results.
    The problem for BMC in the ’60s was not that it was building too many front-wheel drive cars (as sometimes thought).
    It was that they couldn’t build enough.

  4. Renault developed the 5 in particular very cleverly. Technology came mainly from the Renault 4 and 8, simple, tried and tested and reliable, but with modern front-wheel drive. Focus was on what was important to consumers in the 1970s, exciting looks.

    • Nate it’s a good point they used what they had. Ford during the 60s and 70s took what they had, gave it new clothing and made incremental improvements and added extras. The AD022 programme should have been the replacement for the AD016, a new looking improved version. You can see that Harry Webster was going with this plan too with his ideas for the project, but senior management made a bad decision thinking they could do better, the not invented here British mentality.

    • It was baffling why ADO74 was to have an all new engine, when the A series would have been fine and made the project far more affordable and far less risky. Base Renault 5s used the same engine that originated in the 4CV in the 1940s!

  5. I was one of the American cost analyists recruited by Rover in my case (and I came from Chrysler not Ford). Ian says that cars are designed ‘down to a price’. Rubbish – cost analysis and control was introduced that Leyland wasn’t building cars for fun but to make a profit out of them. We spent a lot of time costing every nut, bolt and washer and tearing down competitor cars to learn lessons on how they used technology to save money. This was anathema to many old school engineers who simply couldn’t design to a price. Take the Rover P8 for example. Many theories exist as to why it was cancelled but it simply would never have made money thanks to Rover engineers going to town on expensive features. Early in my career, I was shown a tear down of a Ford Escort gearbox compared with a Triumph Dolomite box – the Ford took up one display table, the Triumph four. I have to disagree about the Maestro/Montego too – they showed that engineers like Spen King could design effective but low cost platforms. I worked on the TR7 ‘Bullet’ programme and it was designed to be cost effective not ‘down to a price’. Now an emerging classic, it was blighted by Michael Edwardes confrontational approach to the unions and constant changes of manufacturing plants. And, the TR7, TR8, SD1, SD2 and Lynx would have shared many common components – so much for poor product planning. We may whinge about poor quality builds but if a car is designed to be built properly, it will be – Acclaim anyone?
    Back to the Allegro – it was a truly horrible car, ugly, fragile (ask me how I know) and rubbish to drive (I remember many times sitting in mine at traffic lights just trying to find any gear in the allegedly 5-speed box). I high waist line made it like sitting in a bucket. The Marina TC I replaced it with was better in every respect (although the Morris Minor derived front suspension could have been improved to good effect. The reasons for Leyland’s failure were many and varied and despite disasters like the Allegro, weren’t necessary all down to the products…

    • Good to hear facts from someone who actually knows what went on rather than theories and opinions!

  6. With respect to Mike Gould, while I in principle have no objection to cost control, within British Leyland it was taken to extremes that seriously impaired on the cars that consumers drove off the garage forecourt. The alleged cost failings of the BMC range was exaggerated, and so were the cost cutting measures on the Leyland funded replacements.
    Call it what you like, designing to a price or cost effective design, the end products had serious build quality issues that should not have been inflicted on consumers paying an arm and a leg for a shiny new voiture.
    Mike Gould cites the Triumph TR7 ‘Bullet’.
    As I wrote in this sites Rover Triumph story,
    ‘The North American Triumph TR7 launch was to take place in Boca Raton, Florida on 18 January 1975. British Leyland had managed to scrape together 35 press cars for its Leonia-based subsidiary to use as demonstrators. The quality of these cars was appalling and lacking the manpower for rectification, the men from Leonia called on the Group 44 race team for help.
    Group 44 cannibalised the 35 cars to create 17 drivable TR7s for the press. Triumph Technical Director John Lloyd arrived to be confronted by a further 15 technical faults for which he had no answers. The staff at Leonia were not impressed with the TR7 which they viewed as tame and gutless in comparison with the TR6 and poorly assembled with poor quality materials.’
    The source of this was
    ‘TR7 The Bullet that backfired on British Leyland’ by Steve Jackson.
    When production was moved to Canley there were at least 200 engineering changes to the car, so something was clearly not right about the TR7.
    As for the Rover SD1, and I own a Cowley built example and can’t wait to get it back on the road, this was another fiasco. Assembled in Europe’s most modern car factory, it was under priced to compete with the Ford Granada, when it should have targetted the buyers of the German premium brands with a resulting higher price, the quality of the Solihull cars was abysmal.
    Autocar magazine reported on its Rover 3500 automatic, which it ran for a year and 11,900 miles: ‘The most disappointing feature about the Car of The Year was the sad lack of quality control during building and the minimal pre-delivery inspection.
    ‘Most major fault was a gap between windscreen and pillars, which allowed in rain and draughts. Hatchback door was badly fitted, and the front doors were re-hung and adjusted to get them to close properly and to cut down wind noise. The general fit and finish was also poor.’
    The weekly also disliked ‘the sadly cheap sounding clang with which the doors shut – most inappropriate for a car of this class.’
    CAR magazine ran a similar specification SD1 for 20,000 miles. The vehicle suffered from numerous defects. The magazine added: ‘The finish in the boot annoys us to; it is carpeted, but looks more like a DIY job than something stemming from Britain’s most modern car factory…
    ‘The latest bit to go on our car is the plastic cowling under the driver’s seat which just fell to bits… It needs and deserves to have silly things like the wind noise eliminated, it should have a more appealing dashboard and better instrumentation, the feeble plastic bits should be replaced by good quality fittings and the cabin would benefit from more attractive upholstery.’
    Autocar also ran a 2600 automatic. One of its journalists wrote: ‘Little things saddened me; the way the fascia and instrument binnacle covering PVC material is crudely creased and stuck down at corners, the doors shut at a certain tinniness not found on cars that cost half as much… Without a partial respray the bodywork would now be very tatty. Rattling noises from the hatchback area indicate a degree of poor breeding in a car of such good looks and distinguished pedigree.’
    Back in 1966 Peter Wilks, then the technical director of the old Rover company stated that they charged an extra £35 for the De Dion suspension on the P6, and despite asking a higher retail price than the rival Triumph 2000 and Ford Zephyr/Zodiac Mk4, they comfortably outsold both.
    As for the Maestro and Montego, they were the cars that sealed the fate of Austin Rover as a volume car manufacturer, so bad were they from the outset.
    So we are left with two alternative conclusions.
    British Leyland either excessively cut costs to the bone at the design stage, or had no one on its design staff capable of cost effective design. Draw your own conclusions.

  7. Ford dominated the British car market after 1973, when British Leyland went into terminal decline. Their cars might have been nothing special mechanically, but the Cortina and Granada had the vital fleet market sewn up and private buyers bought Escorts and Capris in huge numbers. Attractive styling, a huge range of trim levels and engines, special editions and low running costs kept the buyers coming to Ford dealerships. Also should the Ford factories in Britain go on strike, the harmonisation of Ford’s European designs in the mid seventies meant the showrooms could be supplied with cars from Germany and Spain. No wonder by 1979, Ford was outselling British Leyland nearly two to one, a reversal of the situation at the start of the seventies.

  8. If you look in depth at the Allegro, in all honesty it was not a bad car. I would bet that the knockers never owned or drove the car. I owned five in all, and was never let down by them. The last incarnation, in 1750 form, in my opinion, was as good as any like priced car. I have since owned many a jaguar, and other upmarket vehicles. So my opinion is perhaps not as daft as you would be left to believe.

    • @ Phil Wyatt, the Allegro did undergo a programme of continuous improvement after the disastrous early years, and by 1980, it was a reasonable car. The 1.3 A plus model offered a class leading 12,000 mile service interval and, as in the Ital, had considerable improvements to economy and refinement that made it more competitive. I think the problem with the Allegro was it had a rotten start and was blessed with controversial styling that many buyers disliked.

  9. This seems very convincing, and you can see the cost savings in the quality of the materials used. Horrible thin plastic (quartic) steering wheel, dashboard with no fittings or styling at the bottom. The Marina was just the same. Compare this with the better quality of Fords, VWs and even Fiats if the mid70s and you can see the difference.

    • Johnathan, have you ever driven one, or is that what you read? The wierd steering wheel was faxed out very quickly.

    • I really liked them. I owned several Allegros over the years, including a Crayford, LLF230P, which took me all over Europe….ultimately sadly wiped out by a blind pensioner in an Escort. Allegros could be forgiven all their sins by the ride quality: not quite a Citroen but far better than the medieval cart-sprung stuff that was being dished out from Dagenham and Luton at the time. In all honesty I never had a bad one, and I could do a clutch swap on one in around an hour.

  10. Further to Ian Nicholls’ response to my post, the comments he makes reinforce my point about Leyland engineers inability to design to a cost target. Audi at the time had some innovative and cost effective component designs and no-one whinges about their quality. And the M Cars were not bad from the outset – far from it as they were well received at launch. But by that time the Corporation was stuffed by government short termism and engineering being gradually subordinated to Honda.

  11. There’s nothing wrong with rigorous cost control. It’s what successful manufacturers do, designing components and products to be reliable and cost effective. And it’s not as if the BMC ADO16 predecessor of the Allegro was a quality product either in terms of its build quality or rust protection, yet it sold like hot cakes.

    Produce a car that’s desirable and people will buy it, even if the build quality isn’t as good as its rivals, as with the LR Freelander. Unfortunately the Allegro wasn’t great and looked ugly.

  12. Further to the better quality fords mentioned, when I owned an Allego, an uncle bought a new cortina. He said very much the same at the time about lack of quality at BL. Then, within the second week of ownership of the ford, put his foot straight through the drivers side floor.

    • The Allegro was praised for its rust protection and I never saw many that were infedted with rust, even ones that were over five years old. If the Cortina was an early Mark 3, then yes, these could rust quite badly and 1970-71 cars were criticised for poor build quality. Not helped by a nine week strike in 1971 that really hurt Ford for a time and they took months to recover from.
      Ford being Ford, though, the Cortina was soon put right and a light refresh of the Cortina in 1973 saw far better Pinto engines fitted across the range, a luxurious 2000 E model introduced and improvements to quality. The Cortina became top dog for the rest of the decade and a firm favoutie for fleet buyers, taxi drivers and families wanting a well regarded second hand car.

  13. The dumpy [a friend said it looked like a hippopotamus’s bum] Allegro always had an image-problem. Its predecessor the [Austin|Morris|MG|Wolseley|Riley|Vanden-Plas branding-zoo] 1100/1300 was always seen as pedestrian, whereas Ford’s 1968 Mk.1 Escort had the Twin-Cam, Mexico and RS versions which were used extensively in motorsport and soon became saloon-car-racer/rally-stage stars.

    Escorts went on to the Mk.II versions with the RS1800 and shovel-nosed RS2000 and the BDA-powered rally-cars.

    These all generated a ‘halo’ effect; sure, if you couldn’t actually afford a Mexico or RS2000 you could still buy a 1300E/1600 Ghia Escort and rightfully claim it had some sort of motorsport heritage.

    What did the Allegro ever do in the world of motorsport? OK, there was “BL Special Tuning” but they were always seen as a sad pastiche of Ford’s focussed-on-winning AVO operation in Essex. Would you buy an Allegro Equipe when you could spend your money on a RS2000 Escort instead?

    “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” as they used to say in the US.

    The rest is history.

  14. Can I offer an alternative opinion in support of the old Allegro . My first car was an 11 year old Morris 1000, my second was a 10 year old Austin 1100. In 1976 I bought my first new car – a 1500 Austin Allegro in Brazilian metallic brown with yellow cloth seats . To me that was a vast improvement over the 1100. A bit more power , five speed box and seats and a driving position that was in a different league . It was far superior to my earlier cars . Don”t get me wrong I really wanted a Ford RS2000 but that was out of my league . However when compared to an 1100 or a Morris 1000 the Allegro was far better in every way . When compared to other BMC/ BL products I think it was a reasonable car

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