I was there : The Austin Allegro – rejected by South Africa

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’.

Allegro Harris Mann sketch

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.

1973 Austin Allegro

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…

The new twin-carb Allegro 1750HL (left) and 1750 Sport models were announced in September 1974. Note "go-faster" stripes above the sills of the Sport. They replaced the previous (single carb) Allegro 1750SS (Sport Special) and Allegro 1750 Sport.

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!

Leyland Italia Austin Allegro

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!

15 Comments

  1. Leyland South Africa of course effectively “filled the gap” (left by not building the Allegro) with the 1275cc Austin Apache which replaced the locally built “ADO16” 1100/1300 models in 1971 – but used much of the same structure as ADO16 – thus prolonging the life of investments made historically to manufacture ADO16 in South Africa. It remained available until 1978. (Broadly the same thing happened in Spain with the near-identical Austin Victoria of 1972 – and Leyland AUTHI in Spain also chose not to manufacture the Allegro). …. In theory an all-new 1970s design like Allegro should have been far superior (and easier to build) – compared to a re-heated (and restyled by Michelotti) version of its predecessor (which explains why the Apache/Victoria route was not taken for the mainstream UK/European market).
    Interestingly in plans from 1976 (included in the book of Ryno Verster) Leyland South Africa was anticipating a local introduction of ADO88 (which became Metro) and ADO99 (which became Maestro) for the 1980s. But that never happened as the organisation was contracting fast by then.

  2. The last comment refering to Harold Musgrove, is quite telling. He was definitely a “car guy”, but his attitude, reaction, to the South African management’s refusal to accept Allegro, illustrates he had lost any ability to objectively appraise what he (was told, he) had to produce in the UK. Disappointing!

  3. When Michael tells us South Africa was considering “the option of building” the Allegro do we know if this refers to full scale manufacture or mere assembly?
    Assembly – which occurred for Allegro in several overseas countries – would have involved the import of panels and many other parts from the UK in kits. That’s what they did with the Marina during 1973-75 – but South Africa’s strict import quotas & tariffs on kits limited the number that could be sold (to around 200 per month at first) and affected the price that had to be charged (and would have done for Allegro).
    Or are we talking about proper “manufacture” on similar lines to what South Africa was doing with the ADO16 1100/1300 that preceded Allegro?
    That would allowed unrestricted sales, and would have made the Austin Apache redundant. The A Series engine was already in production locally which would have helped. The only overseas country that got close to “manufacture” as opposed to assembly of Allegro was Italy – so it would be great to nail down this point …

  4. I wonder if the rejection of the Allegro by BLMC South Africa and the departure of Jack Plane, who came from there, from the main British Leyland Board are related ?

  5. That was fantastic reading, but ended just as I was really getting into it. Please write more articles; the insight added greatly to my existing knowledge on shenanigans at BL.

  6. Well I mean…I can’t exactly blame them. I’d have taken one look at that bulbous monstrosity and wondered if it had been stung by a bee, and if they’d lost their minds.

    Again, the lack of money to design and build the allegro was probably because the marina had eaten up all the funding, wasn’t it? 40 million (in 1970!) to reskin a Morris Minor? Madness.

    If they had any sense they’d have made one car with the ‘looks’ (and body options) of a marina and the mechanics of an allegro, rather than them splitting the difference over two cars to no avail.

  7. Interesting reading.
    It would have been a real hard sell trying to get SA to take Allegro. A huge investment for very little gain, they already had the tools to make ado16, and could easily spend a smaller sum to refresh the design to achieve the same result.

    The other interesting point is the undertones of Barbers cost approach:
    Ford were masters at cost control (Honda were even better in my experience). Cost control is where you start a project with a framework of costs that give you the profit margin you desire. In this way you pay the right price for the right part.
    Longbridge was running the show at this time, they had no concept of cost management – it seemed to translate to cost cutting!
    All the stories , memories, anecdotes from this time confirm this.

    This was before my time, but my time was spent on the body engineering “coalface” – the doors one specifically! I can assure all readers that swages in doors cost nothing, also there was only one quality standard for production press tooling. They cost a huge amount, the only way you get them cheaper is when the toolmakers have no work! Just after 2008 was great…….
    The issue with multi-panel designs was due to the company not having a big press line to produce monosides and other large panels. Capex outside of specific projects was impossible to find. Tooling cost was increased due to this! However, most cars designed in the early 70s were the same.

    This was fixed with the purchase of line 20 at Cowley to support project Bounty (Acclaim). In the 1980s this was still the largest press line in Western Europe. I assume that Honda would not consider changing the design!

  8. Regarding the pros and cons of South Africa marketing the 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 it 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.

    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.

    The business of CKD and SKD vehicles always fascinated me. Less advanced countries often wanted to grab tax from importers, while providing employment/revenue to local workers and their employers. Thus, you would seek to keep the imported vehicle as incomplete as possible by sending it as a kit to be assembled on a local production line. Some components were locally sourced, such as wheels, tyres, glass and as volume predictions became higher, the thought of local sourcing of more technical components was investigated.

    Thus in the case of Leyland South Africa, almost all of Triumphs and Rovers were locally assembled, while the1100/1300 was a candidate for much local manufacture and especially the ‘A’ series power unit. Truck and Bus chassis underwent similar scrutiny. The fly in the ointment (actually it was a whole nest) was that Roger in the UK could never put the right parts in the right box at the right time as they thought the peeps in some remote country they’d never heard of, would be able to improvise. Nope. Triumph 2000/2500’s were built with a mixture of MK1 and MK2 bits, e.g., I had a MK2 2000 estate with a MK1 fascia, seats, steering. Very interesting.

    • I’ve heard some odd specs for cars in Australia & New Zealand due to having to comply to locally sourced content quotas.

      Sometimes some locally made components were carried over to a new generation because it was cheaper than tooling up for a revised part if the old one could still fit.

      This was common with some of the earlier Japanese models.

  9. Thank you too to everyone for filling me in on the e-series too. I’m very much obliged!

    Was there any reasonable possibly of making it smaller too? Down to 1.3 or even 1.1? I ask because as good as the A series was, it was both old fashioned and time consuming and labor intensive to build wasn’t it? Then again, would the tall e series have even had any chance of fitting in a supermini?

    • From what have been able to gather over the years on the site and from other commenters.

      While the engine was initially conceived as a 1.3-litre to allow for the possibility of a 2-litre E6 and was said to have been designed to fit where an A-Series was fit, it apparently offered no great improvement over the equivalent A-Series. The latter also had much greater tuning potential and scope for improvement that it should have probably been exploited much earlier on (to become A-Plus later A-OHC, etc) then it ultimately was.

      The E-Series article mentions displacements as low as 1160cc, while the Maxi article mentions a 1797cc being tested that like the 1748cc was created by lengthening the stroke in the latter’s case. No idea how far the 1160cc got yet can imagine it was dismissed in light of how the 1.3 E-Series fared for similar reasons.

      One can only speculate for why the 1797cc never appeared yet the 1748cc did, be it politics or the possibility the 1748cc was chosen to avoid overlapping with the 1.8 B-Series. Had it been the case the 1797cc E-Series would have likely replaced the 1.8 B-Series, however the former was a tall engine (maybe even too tall to fit to an MGB) and apparently was unable to comply with US emissions standards in its present form.

  10. We had a Mk3 in Champagne (Beige) in 1982, after mum was terrified after her Snapdragon Yellow Morris Marina Mk3 with the dreadful 1700 engine, slide and careered out of control with all the snow and ice on the hills of Sheffield.

    I actually got on a B*s rather than be seen in said car, when she came to pick me up from Comprehensive School. (one of my younger sister’s had been to see an optician).

    Dreadful boot, whose lid would crack you on the back of the head.

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