In a parallel universe, it’s May 1973 and British Leyland has proudly introduced the new Austin Allegro three- and five-door. It’s an exciting new small family car, which is being marketed as ‘the new driving force from Austin,’ and continues the theme of ‘all the fives’ first kicked off with the Maxi, and expected to become standard across the entire Austin range. Unlike the frumpy Maxi, which suffered from a slow start that it failed to recover from, the all-Leyland-developed Allegro is looking to set a new standard in the family car market with its fifth door, wide range of engines and five-speed gearboxes. This truly is a car to beat the Europeans and Japanese at their own game.
Work started on the ADO67 programme in 1968 and, just over four years later, its latest product has gone on sale to replace what was – until recently – Britain’s best-selling car, the BMC 1100/1300. It’s big news for British Leyland, but in the interests of being a forward-looking high-tech carmaker, every innovation in the company’s armoury has been thrown at it. Originally, the plan had been to scale up BMC’s successful small family car, from its transmission-in-sump powertrains, via its fluid suspension, right down to its small bootlid and two-box shape.
After all, how could the ADO67 not succeed when it was continuing the theme laid down by its big-selling predecessor? But a little way into the development programme, and around the time all of British Leyland’s Austin-Morris design capacity had been moved to Longbridge, lead Designer Harris Mann had a moment of inspiration. With the development of the Maxi fresh in everyone’s minds, and the dropping of the saloon version, Mann made the decision to adapt the ADO67 to have a fifth door like its larger brother. It caused consternation with the Engineering Team, but after the British Leyland Board signed off this change, the additional investment was considered worth the effort in an attempt to inject some serious sales appeal into the Austin range after the Maxi’s lukewarm launch.
The risk factor of producing a smaller five-door and three-door sister car wasn’t as great as it might have been. The BMC 9X had worked a treat with it’s opening rear door, as had the Longbridge-designed YDO9, which would go on sale in Australia and New Zealand as the Morris Nomad (above). So, although in 1969 there wasn’t much in the way of five-door opposition and this was still an unusual configuration, the Autobianchi Primula and Simca 1100 certainly looked promising. They had showcased the undeniable advantages of these small five-door saloons – not least the doing away with bending over double just to put something in the boot of a small two-box saloon.
And now, with the world going mad for small cars with tailgates in the newly-emerging supermini class, British Leyland hopes to create the same buzz in the class above. We shall see…
So, would it have made a difference?
The idea of an Austin Allegro hatchback produced by armchair pundits with an ability to use Photoshop isn’t a new one. But this is a pleasing visual representation of what it might have looked like had the poor car been born this way. Without doubt, a hatchback adds additional usability to the Allegro’s talents, but the question of its implementation and overall reliability still hang heavy in the air like an unanswered question. So, would a more stylish and practical Allegro have sold any better than the disappointing product we ended up with?
In reality, probably not. Was the Allegro’s undeniable ugliness that big a contributor to its failure? Or did its strikebound maker’s mismanagement prove the bigger reason, especially when combined with its poor production engineering, cost-cutting and overall unreliability? Alas, we’ll never know. Yes, it clearly didn’t help in a market dominated by super-stylish, but mechanically-simple Fords. My own feeling, though, is that the Allegro hatch would have enjoyed a little more export appeal, and would perhaps have had a brighter and more enduring image as a fashion leader in the UK later on – especially once the Volkswagen Golf appeared on the scene in 1974 with its me-too hatch-backed rear end.
Whether it would have been enough to stop the rot is another matter altogether. Truth be told, small hatchbacks in this market sector didn’t really become big news in the UK until the arrival of the Vauxhall Astra and Ford Escort Mk3 in 1980. And by then, our Allegro hatch would have been old hat anyway. What do you think? I’d love to hear from you…