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.
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.
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.
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.
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.