Keith Adams ruminates about some of the not-so-great cars sold by British Leyland’s competitors – and wonders why it’s still so fashionable to knock our once-great nationalised carmaker even though its mistakes were echoed across the wider industry.
Here, in the first article of this occasional series, we look at the Renault 14 and compare its fortunes with the Austin Allegro. Were we really that bad?
Renault 14: Not-so-rotten pear?
Sometimes collaborations between carmakers is the mother of all evils. Other times, they can be wonderful. However, more often than not, we end up with misunderstood cars that are neither fish nor fowl. Great collaborative efforts include the R8-generation Rover 200 or 6oo-Series, while misunderstood ones would be best epitomised by the Alfa Romeo Arna. Then we have the bad ones.
Conventional wisdom is that the Renault 14 is a bad one concocted from the joint Peugeot-Renault parts bin. It’s considered so bad that some people around here have compared it with the Austin Allegro. You can see why – the parallels are there in so many ways. For one, it’s blessed with rotund styling that wouldn’t be mistaken for anything else in its class. Secondly, by Renault’s lofty commercial standards, it was far from a resounding success – during its 1976-1983 production run, it sold fewer than a million examples. Finally, and just like the Allegro, it earned a memorable nickname in its home market – ‘Rotten Pear’ in the case of the R14.
It was known internally as Projet 121 and was designed to compete against the Volkswagen Golf with power coming from the Société Française de Mécanique Renault-Peugeot’s Douvrin ‘suitcase’ transmission-in-sump engine. With its zeitgeisty five-door hatchback body and range of efficient engines, it had the potential to be as successful as the Renault 5 in a much more profitable sector of the market.
However, it got off to a bad start. Its introduction was delayed by six months due to industrial unrest, and there was press and buyer resistance to the car’s styling. Although it was the first Renault powered by a transverse engine, it was also considered to be a problem child for dealers and workshops, unused to dealing with the intricacies of this ‘Peugeot’-engined car. Sales were slow after an initial flurry, and the success that the company had expected for the R14 simply wasn’t forthcoming. Sound familiar?
Model development followed rapidly with the launch of the larger-engined, and highly economical, GTL and the surprisingly capable sporting TS version. Then, a facelift was rolled out in 1980, which saw a slight revision to the front-end styling and some interior upgrades to keep it on the pace of rivals such as the Chrysler Horizon, Fiat Strada and Vauxhall Astra/Opel Kadett. Was it enough to turn the fortunes of the R14? Not really, and when it was replaced by the 9/11, few lamented its passing – especially those within Renault.
So, Renault 14 or Austin Allegro?
Well, I’d rush to the defence of the R14. Styling is a subjective matter, and it has to be said that, for a car launched in 1976, it was nothing if not modern thanks to its integrated bumpers and door mirrors, a complete lack of fussy-looking drip rails around the windows, and a clean, timeless look that predicted the move to more organic designs in the 1980s and ’90s. But a car like this can’t help but be defined by its failure – and, in this case, poor corrosion resistance, public derision, low residual values and a limited model range place it in a very poor place, even now.
Is it better or worse than the Austin Allegro? It was certainly more modern, and benefited from a hatchback and a roomier interior, which made it an infinitely more practical proposition. The two were on a par with each other in terms of ride quality, while the Allegro’s flatter cornering made it better suited to UK roads. The Allegro also had a bigger model range, with up to 1750cc compared with the R14’s maximum of 1360cc – but, despite that, an Allegro Equipe was barely any quicker than a Renault 14TS. Moreover, as the years rolled on, it was clear that the Allegro rusted less and was more durable than the R14.
In commercial terms, the Renault outshone the Austin, but only just, with the latter selling 667,192 examples in a nine-year production run. However, the British car was probably more profitable, and at least shared a great deal of its technology with a wider range of models in the company’s portfolio than the Renault did.
So the question remains: was the Renault 14 worse than the Austin Allegro? I’d say say the Renault was probably the better bet then, and I’d definitely prefer a Rotten Pear over an Aggro today. Having said that, as a classic car to own and run on British roads today, the Allegro definitely gets the nod – you’ll be able to find parts for it, and will never be short of conversations with random strangers – if that’s your thing…