Blog : Hatching out the Austin Allegro

Austin Allegro hatchback

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.

Morris Nomad added much needed versatility to the ADO16…

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…

[Editor’s Note: The above image is a Photoshopped photo, by Arnoud Besseling. You can view his Flickr photo feed here.]

Keith Adams

40 Comments

  1. That Photoshopped image is tremendous. It completely removes the pudginess of the original design. Makes it into something of a looker, at least from the rear quarter.
    Great job!

  2. It might have sold a little better, but the truth is there were a lot more things wrong with the Allegro than it not having a 5th door.

    In 1100 and 1300 form it was not as nice to drive as an Ado16, in 1500 and 1750 it did not offer the grace and pace their price point demanded. In design they had expected the 1500 to be the centre of gravity in the market, but the fuel crisis and following recession made the 1300, so the extra weight of the Allegro told against it.

    I think the way to go to replace the Ado16, was not to go like for like, but to have hit market with two models. Replacing the lower end of the Ado16 range with a compact 3 and 5 door super mini like a Peugeot 104, keeping the Ado16 minimalist or should that be MINImalist qualities.

    The top end of the Ado16 range could have been replaced by a reskinned shortened 100″ wheelbase Maxi, again 104 5 door styling to appeal to those who wanted something more aspirational and sophisticated than an Ado16, but also wanted something that was more compact and cleverer than a Ford.

  3. All Renaults except the 12 were hatchbacks by the mid 70s, and they were selling very well across Europe despite modest pace and refinement. I suppose BL could have mirrored this with 9x, and hatchbacked Allegro, Maxi, Princess and Rover. Reliability and quality would have been an issue though.

  4. Why produce a two box design unless you were going to put a hatch in it? Both the 127 and Astra offered versions without the hatch but they didn’t last long. It just seems yet another squandered opportunity by BL

  5. The hatchback version looks hugely better than the original by getting rid of that podgy look at the rear. Would the hatch have sold better ? I think it would. After all, the BL badge wasn’t a problem for the ADO16 which was a consistently strong seller. When the Allegro came out in 1973 I remember the collective shock about its styling. To this day I can’t understand how Stokes, Webster and Mann could have agreed to creating such a horror. The only thing I can think of is that they thought they were creating a latter day Morris Minor which had been successful with its rounded style.

  6. A hatchback Allegro could have done better than the saloon, and could have attracted more export sales, but quality issues on early cars and the underwhelming driving experience on smaller cars would still have counted against it. I would think, though a hatchback would have continued the BMC tradition of making innovative cars and Leyland would have advertised how much more boot space you had in an Allegro than an Escort.

  7. Like the image, a Series 3 rear as a basis would have looked even better from that angle.

    It would have definitely helped sales however that just leaves other negative aspects of the Allegro to remedy that were feasible enough to be within the company’s power to change for the better.

    Exterior wise aside from the front-end there are panels on the Allegro that could have been flatter that came out too curved leading to the slight “cottage-bun” re-entrant curve effect on the rear quarters and the hump at the waist rails on the doors instead of being a flowing straight line all due to a misjudged “spring” in the panel pressings (with the Princess experiencing the opposite likely as a reaction to the Allegro).

    On the handling front, it seems that the Allegro was conceived originally with a front subframe but that the item was dropped during development on grounds of cost. Its omission precluded the employment of anti-dive front suspension geometry, a development that made the R6 Metro so good. Also imagine if such an Allegro featured later Hydragas developments included an active anti-roll system, and fluid filled engine mountings connected to the suspension.

    The Downton tuned 83-106 hp 1.5-1.75 E-Series engines have previously been mentioned, yet cannot see a good reason why the existing engine could not have been enlarged to at least 1797cc as was tested during development (with a potential Downton tuned output of 108-110 hp) apart from concerns about overlap with the 1.8 B-Series (and a single carburettor version of the E-Series in 1797cc instead of 1748cc form would have been more competitive against the B-Series).

    The smaller A-Series engined versions of the Allegro could have probably benefited from some composite of early A-Plus as well as the common 70.6mm bore South African and A-OHC engines in 1100-1300cc form (possibly sans 1000cc OHV version).

    That just leaves the gearbox and while an end-on arrangement would have been ideal, apparently BL via Jack Knight were working on a 5-speed development of the in-sump gearbox that unlike the Maxi’s gearbox could have been more widely utilized, along with a 5-speed AP Automatic gearbox developed by Keith Gerrard of Bushey Transmissions in conjunction with Jack Knight. OTOH such developments are a stop-gap that delay the inevitable shift towards a universal end-on gearbox layout for FWD cars.

    http://anarchadia.blogspot.com/2012/01/vintage-thing-no232-austin-allegro.html

  8. The hatchback looks good but not sure if there was enough structural substance as the c pillar has such looks to slender, and seeing the technical drawings for the allegro on the net it would need a redesign to incorporate a hatch, being very flimsy (which explains the back window issue). As I said previously with my rather amateurish attempt at putting an alfasud front on an allegro, the front end needed the most work, along with better quality for it to sell anywhere near the ad016.

  9. Allegro was a terrible car nothing like as good as its predecessor 110/1300 I worked on them both as well as the trucks Allegro was truly awful not a patch on rival Fords or Vauxhalls

  10. I agree with the general consensus – a hatchback Allegro may have done slightly better than the reality (especially in export markets) but the end result, and the car’s overall image and reputation, would be the same. Really, the lack of a third/fifth door was the least of the Allegro’s problems in either conception or execution!

    It’s good to see the point being made that small family hatchbacks didn’t become the class-standard until almost a decade after the Allegro was launched. The ‘it should have had a hatchback’ (also applied to the Princess, even more incorrectly, I feel) is born of hindsight. Hatchbacks were still fairly unusual and utilitarian things in the early 70s, especially in cautious and image-concious Britain. The Alfasud and the Citroen GS were the Allegro’s immediate contemporaries and they also began life as two-box saloons, only much later gaining tailgates. The Chevette was either a three-box saloon or a two-box hatchback on the same wheelbase and at the size above the VW Passat was produced as both two-box saloons and hatchbacks (in 2-, 3-, 4- and 5-door forms!), presumably because it was felt that buyers needed the choice.

    It was the hatchback-only Golf that really started the trend for family-size 3/5-doors, and even that took a few years to stick and only seems obvious in retrospect.

    I suppose a hatchback Allegro might have somewhat salved the car’s historical reputation, being seen as a forward-looking concept that deserved better than it got (rather as the Maxi is viewed by many now) rather as the complete dud that, commonly but somewhat unfairly, it gets lumbered with now.

  11. That’s the best looking Allegro I’ve ever seen. It should definitely have been a hatch from the word go. A round steering wheel and headlights would also have been crucial; and a 1600 engine; and the improved suspension settings and extra legroom from the Mark 2 on the Mark 1.

    The Mini and 1100 were massive successes because they were ahead of their time – looking at the dreadful lack of appeal of the AllAgro, maybe that was more by luck than judgement. The trouble is, the Allegro sold so badly that, unlike Chrysler UK (Sunbeam), Citroen (GSA), Fiat (127, 128 3P), Peugeot (104), Leyland Australia (Nomad), GM in South Africa (Chev hatch), Chevrolet (Vega), Alfa Romeo (Sud), Saab (99/900), Volkswagen (Passat) and AMC (Gremlin), BL couldn’t afford to convert the Allegro to a hatch later.

    Unfortunately the Allegro was really neither ahead of its time or behind it, but a fugitive from the planet Butt Ugly. I can remember seeing the launch adverts in newspapers, and thinking “How are they going to sell that ugly thing”? In particular, the 1500 Special was a totally underwhelming and bland attempt to replace the classy Wolseley 1300. A 1750 single carb Sport Special to replace the lithe and light MG 1300? Don’t make me larf.

  12. The Allegro looked terrible and that is what killed it. Frankly I don’t buy the excuse Harris Mann trots out. He knew the parts they were using and the higher bonnet line needed for the car. His job was to come up with something that would work with those constraints, not some wedge design that wouldn’t possibly work.

    If the Allegro actually looked good, it would have succeeded. The mechanicals were well sorted and understood. It was actually pretty rust resistance and hydrogas worked well. Unfortunately, it looked blood awful and the rest is history.

    • I have to say that when you read Ian Nicholls part 5 of the Austin-Morris story, the Allegro design we got was one of several that was shown to the Leyland management, and that they chose it must have been to something different than we got. If you look at Mann’s early sketch it is a sleeker version, while the Paul Hughes design showed a sleek version based on the allegro. I think that Leyland management gave us this dud. The same story comes from the TR7 story, where Harris gave them several designs and they chose what he thought was his weirdest one.

      • The thing I find strange about the Allegro design process is that for the Marina a car aimed squarely at the UK market and “Ford” customer they got Micheletti and Pininfarina. Yet the Allegro a car not only designed to follow up on the no small success of the Ado16 in Europe but to built in Italy and Belgium, they left the styling to Mann an unproven quantity to had just been promoted ahead of time following Haynes departure.

        I suspect the reason was the influence of Mann and other formerly Ford executives, who were no doubt pushing hard to eliminate the Italian influence in the company.

        Whilst it is true Mann likes to show a picture of a more wedge like Allegro, the car still has the mess of lines around its front wings and nose that the Allegro has and I do not buy his E Series story either, as strong evidence points to that being in the plans from day one. For example the Ado 22 was planned to use the E series engine.

        • A good point, it is quite interesting that outside stylists were asked to offer designs for the Marina, but that the next cars launched by BL in the next few years were all in house designs, e.g. the Allegro, Princess, XJS, TR7 and SD1 who no outside styling houses involved in the process

          • I think it might be the barber influence. They cut seem to cut back on any licensed stuff. The Cooper was dropped, Downton who had improved the engines were dropped. Only Michelotti seem to get a lookin (bar Innocenti mini). I think was the Ford mentality he brought, we have design staff we pay for so why pay for outside help.

        • The Marina was styled in-house by Roy Haynes – an ex-Ford stylist who’s credits included the similar looking Mk2 Cortina. Pinninfarina did provide some alternatives but they looked awful. Pity BL made Haynes life such a misery that it effectively ended in constructive dismissal. The Allegro would no doubt have looked far more contemporary and fit for its market on his watch.

  13. Looking back, it was a notable aspect of the early 70s, the number of fastback cars which weren’t hatchbacks, so the Allegro wasn’t unusual. From the mid 70s fastbacks generally became hatchbacks, or went back to the 1960s style 3 box saloon

    Apart from the GS, Alfasud and CX, early 104s and 127s were saloons, VW had the option of a fastback saloon Passat, the Capri didn’t get a hatch until 1975, the Datsun Cherry was a fastback saloon etc

    Even hatch loving Renault produced the 15 and 17 coupes without a hatch!

  14. Sadly, possibly the worst car I ever bought because of production maladies, brakes used to lock on in garage over night, sticking discs I believe, leaking cylinder head, bumper trusting within 6 months. I wanted to love that car which was a Snapdragon 3 door, coming up from a mini club man it was paradise inside, great size for me at the time, my mate had a denim blue HLS with the twin headlamp front end which was the most attractive car of that era, I loved it but couldn’t afford the high end model, great shame but hey ho. Last 7 cars have been Ford focus models, yeah they are not super cars but have never let no down. Lovely to go to nec for the classic car show every year to see what BL products should have looked like when the left the factory, sadly they didn’t. My Dad was an Austin man all his life but will no doubt have words with me when I see him up there in the future, no doubt.

  15. I may be in a minority but I don’t think this is really the problem. The Alfasud did not have a hatchback nor the GS.

    I’m also in a minority in not thinking the original was ugly or that there was really all that much wrong with it. Had it been as well developed as the series 1 or series 2 at launch it might have appealed more to users.

    What I will say is that the Austin Victoria re skin of the 1100/1300 is absolutely gorgeous. but would that have solved the main problems with the 1100, rusting and collision protection, . You could have stuck the E1500 under the bonnet too. It would have been like a mini Audi 80.

  16. Allegro, Princess, Maxi – All cars that flopped out of the box and where then just left to rot on the market for years and years with no real development. Couldn’t BL have picked just one of them and tried to make it work? Given how critical the Allegro was, as an ADO16 replacement a crash programme to turn it into a true 1100/1300 replacement would have been paramount – more important than the Metro in terms of sales, potential profit and sustaining the business I would have thought. BL managed to turn the Minor into the Marina in only 2 years, a similar crash programme to stick a modern, crisp, hatchback body on the Allegro platform could have given BL a Golf equivalent in something like 78 or 79.

    • The Series 3 Allegro was really where it should have been at the start, even if it didn’t gain a rear hatch straight away.

      Arguably the Princess was always a step behind where it should have been.

  17. Good Photoshop work. I don’t dislike the shape of the original car, even if it was not exactly planned. I would buy one (and a Princess) if I had the space. Alone, I suspect the addition of a hatch would not have made much difference. The company and its workforce together were responsible for a run of poor products, which our media coverage saw off. We still feel the effects of this legacy. Many cars made elsewhere were unattractive and not very good, but it’s salutary to consider how many of these manufacturers still exist. We were collectively crazy to throw it away.

  18. On a bit of a tangent, the Austin Victoria was made with an Aussie-improved version of the E class engine in 1500 form. I never got to drive one, but I did drive the very similar Apache in South Africa, that was OK.

    The original sketches and clay for the Allegro looked pretty impressive. The production guys took a sharp intake of breath at every panel and slowly got the design modified so that it looked pretty awful, buy possible (and cheaper) to make. For instance door swages which were designed in and needed to add strength and cut panel vibration down, were eliminated and the extremely bulbous door panels productionised. The reason was that the press tools on which the doors were to be pressed, were fairly light and could only cope with simple bends and not deep, clearly defined 3D draws. The press dies themselves were made of a low grade steel material which wore quite quickly and would have needed relatively frequent renewal. This applied throughout the car. All because there was no cash to buy heavy presses and quality deep draw steel dies.

    There was a huge amount of manual selectivityand compromise ‘fitting’ required of panels on production, with manually applied spot welds at the absolute minimum. At the same time, VW Group were investing heavily in cutting-edge automated whole-body production.

    The above and the inherent lack of torsional strength implied by a very lightly engineered and simplistic body shell design, led to all those problems with doors stuck when the car is jacked, and the terrible acoustics when driving, particularly with the most powerful E series motor. I remember getting into a 1750 GT and being appalled by the poor drive quality, drumming and general thrash. What a disappointment.

    Barber wasn’t that clever. Had he simply been a ‘car guy’ and not a fanatical bean-counter, he would have instantly cancelled the whole b**** thing and sat on his hands.

    I was unfortunate enough to take pictures and tech details to Leyland South Africa in 1973, pretending to be all positive about the new car. They took one good look at it and said they would not build it, in about 15 minutes. They were on good terms with Stokes so when I got home I was given a right royal rollicking by senior Longbridge management – anybody who knew Harold Musgrove would understand the expletives used!

      • @ricahrdpd, a hatchback would have made amends, but I’m not sure by how much as the original Allegro was a poor car and took six years to put right. Same thing happened with the Montego in the eighties, most of its rivals had a hatchback option and diesels were becoming popular, but Austin Rover never offered a hatchback version and only received a diesel option in 1989. Again both the Allegro and the Montego eventually became good cars, but long after the market had moved on.

        • Yes that was true of a lot of BL / AR cars, it seems the first few customers doubled as development drivers.

          • @richardpd, however, by the time of the R8 and the Rover Metro, they had cars that were developed properly and were excellent from the start.

  19. I grew up in a Ford family. I learnt on a driving school Anglia. My first car was an Anglia, and I progressed to Cortina. In a moment of stupidity I bought a Dolomite Sprint that spent as much time on the ramps as on the road and I soon got rid and moved back to the Cortina. Served me right for leaving Ford.

    Some years later I had the itch to change. The local dealer (Appleyard’s of Leeds) were advertising a good offer on Allegros. Someone I knew who had one said they were good cars “just like driving a big mini”, so I bought a new 1.3 Allegro. One of the last mk2’s. Pageant blue

    It was an absolutely delightful small family car. Good ride, comfortable, totally reliable, easy and cheap to service. I used to record mileage and fuel used, tankful to tankful, and if it ever slipped below 45mpg it was unusual. No noticeable rust. My only criticism was engine noise at speed-it needed another gear. When I eventually moved on to another car the Allegro stayed in the family for many more years till it went for scrap.

    It’s not fair to compare the sales of the Allegro with the earlier 1100/1300. The latter was a trail blazer but whilst the Allegro was a better car it had stiffer competition from continental manufacturers who had caught up. I remember my first sight of a hatchback-a parked R5 that had a couple of dining chairs in the back. I decided then that my next car would be a hatchback.

    There was nothing wrong with the size of the Allegro. Compared to such as a 2006 Golf the length and widths are almost identical. Look in any supermarket car park today, and half the cars will be thereabouts the same size.
    If they’d put a hatch, similar to the photoshop above, on the Mk3, together with a fifth gear, it would have been a top seller for the next 10 years. No need for the Maestro.

  20. Just checked and an Allegro estate was 6cm SHORTER than the current Polo!
    The saloon was substantially shorter (as was the Maxi).
    I don’t remember them ‘feeling’ so small when I was a kid in the 80s.

    Polo 4053 long
    Allegro saloon 3861 long
    Allegro estate 3993 long
    Maxi 4040 long

    Just goes to show how conceptions of a ‘medium size’ car have changed.

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