Former British Leyland man Michael Wattam recalls the process of the Austin Allegro’s productionisation…
And the reaction from the firm’s South African outpost when presented with the option of building the ‘new driving force from Austin’.
The original sketches (above) and clay for the Allegro looked pretty impressive, but things changed as the car made the transition from paper to production line. The production guys took a sharp intake of breath at every panel and slowly got the design modified so that it looked pretty awful, but 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 selectivity and compromise ‘fitting’ required of panels on production, with manually-applied spot welds at the absolute minimum. At the same time, Volkswagen Group was 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 bodyshell 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 Sport and being appalled by the poor drive quality, drumming and general thrash. What a disappointment…
Finance Controller John Barber wasn’t that clever, either. Had he simply been a ‘car guy’ and not a fanatical bean-counter, he would have instantly cancelled the whole bloody 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. Clearly the first question we were going to ask them is, ‘will you take this car in sufficient numbers and at a unit contribution, which would make assembly there a worthwhile exercise?’
One look at the first pictures of prototype cars (perversely all photographed very nicely in a muddy quarry?) and their decision was already made, no need for any viability study. In about 15 minutes, said they would not build it. 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!
Other more ‘tied’ organisations such as BL Italia and BL France took a more pragmatic approach and asked for complete cars with unique low specs which they could sell in budget market niches, and when BL found getting cars registered in the UK profitably and in decent volume just wasn’t happening, acceded to their NSC requests for ‘specials’.
Nobody really wanted to know whether making Allegros was ever profitable – the marketing and financial systems used at the time were aided by sticking a wet finger out of the nearest window.
If you were at the coalface and have a tale to share, please do get in touch!
- I was there : The Austin Allegro – rejected by South Africa - 15 August 2022