When you think of poor cars and the worst era of British Industry, most will cite the Austin Allegro, a car that truly is a staple of its time, and those times were pretty grim to say the least! It has become a symbol of failure, a monument to catastrophic engineering, a beacon of impracticality and a terrible tribute to an age we Brits would sooner forget.
Bit is the Austin Allegro really deserving of such maligned opinions? Should we really hate it as much as we do?
The story of the Allegro goes back to the previous model of its range, the Austin 1100, a car that had become symbolic of the British family motor industry, with crisp smooth lines, round peeking headlights and a good blend of space and practicality, it sold by the millions and could have almost been described as a family equivalent of the Mini, novelty that you can use everyday. Trouble was that the 1100 was starting to look very much its age in 1971, and thus British Leyland, the new owners of Austin, took it upon themselves to design a new car that would be sheek and European, something that could win both the British and the International markets.
For this they enlisted the help of Chief BL Designer Harris Mann, famous for many great BL products such as the Marina, the Ital, the Princess and the Triumph TR7. Today many people blame him for the poor designs that the company spewed out onto the roads of Britain, but I personally feel sorry for him, especially with cars such as the Allegro. His original design for the car was an angular and very streamlined looking piece of kit, a hatchback and with two fins on the rear to compliment the long smooth waistband, making it look almost reminiscent of an Aston Martin DB5 crossed with a 1969 DBS. However, his promising designs were sadly watered down by British Leyland, tinkered, altered, and, quite frankly, ruined his idea to become what it is, with its bathtub curves, long sloping back and piggy headlights. I will say, it’s not the ugliest car in the world, far from it, I’ve seen much worse like the Pontiac Aztek which looks like a cross between a Bug and a mutant Rhino, but when you compare it to Harris Mann’s original sketches, then, and only then, do you understand how far down the Allegro design came.
But styling wasn’t what BL expected to win the market with, but instead with the car’s practicality, starting with the new Hydragas suspension to replace the previous Hydrolastic suspension of the 1100. With this suspension, The Allegro intended to lock horns with the likes of the outgoing Citroën DS and its replacement the CX. Hydragas uses displaced spheres of Nitrogen gas to replace the conventional steel springs of a regular suspension design. The means for pressurising the gas in the displacers is done by pre-pressurising a hydraulic fluid, and then connecting the displacer to its neighbour on the other axle. This is unlike the Citroën system, which uses hydraulic fluid
continuously pressurised by an engine-driven pump and regulated by a central pressure vessel. However, the attempt at being an outstanding motor ended at Hydragas because there was nothing else particularly endearing about the Allegro. The interior was cheap, nasty and very cramped, especially in the back where you couldn’t even fit a bag of shopping let alone your children! Rather than taking the sensible approach of the competition by fitting the car with a hatchback for more boot space, the car was just fitted with a tiny little trunk that you couldn’t fit a bag of shopping into either! The engine, the BMC A-Series, was carried over from the 1100, which was a fine little engine, perky and fairly reliable if maintained properly, as well as the heater being carried over from the Morris Marina, but I’m no judge of heaters so I won’t say if that was for good or for ill. Most jarring however was when the car was fitted with a square steering wheel! Probably the most memorable part of the Allegro is the fact that it was given a quartic steering wheel, which BL claimed was for ease of access to the front seat and so that the instruments could be seen, which leaves one asking whether you couldn’t see them with a round steering wheel! In the end even Harris Mann disowned the car with disappointment, claiming it was nothing like his original idea, which is pretty bad when even the Chief Designer disowns it!
Either way, in spite of Mr. Mann’s space-age design being watered down to something unrecognisable and with only Hydragas suspension to make it any different from anything else on the market, the Allegro was launched in 1973 with a promotional trip to Marbella in the south of Spain, and early reviews, despite there being a unanimous dislike to the car’s shape and styling, were quite warm, many praising the comfort of the Hydragas suspension. However, reviews of the drive quality, such as the car’s heavy steering and cheap, plastic interior, were less favourable.
Nevertheless, initial sales of the Allegro were promising and it was in 1973 one of the best selling cars of the year, but things truly went for the plunge soon afterwards, and the car never fully recovered. The flaws of the design became prominent, followed by British Leyland’s infamous low quality builds. Roofs, panels and boots leaked, rear wheels flew off, and rumour has it that these cars were banned from the Mersey Tunnel in Liverpool because they couldn’t be towed after a breakdown without the chassis bending in the middle! Engines failed to start, wiring was abysmal, rear windows popped out, the paint colours were dreary and dismal, the car would rust before you got it home and many commented that the car had a better drag co-efficiency going backwards!
The Allegro did come in a selection of variants, including an estate, a sporty coupé known as the Equipe, and a very strange luxury variant known as the Vanden Plas 1500, a peculiar which was fitted with luxury items carried over from the Jaguar XJ range and had a big chrome nose yoked onto the front to try and make it look reminiscent of a Rolls Royce or a Bentley. Only problem is that Rolls Royce’s and Bentley’s have their front ends designed around the chrome nose, and thus the result was that it looked something like
a pig! Also, another thing about Rollers and Bentleys is that they’re much, much bigger than a tiny Allegro, which had absolutely no legroom in the back which made the concept entirely pointless! The car was also sold in Italy as the Innocenti Regent, nothing particularly different apart from different badges.
In 1975 the Allegro II was launched to try and redress some of the issues with the original car, including a slightly altered front-end and some minor changes internally, but overall it was very much the same. These changes however weren’t enough to save the car’s dwindling reputation, and even though the BL advertisers continued to lay on the imaginative promotion, the car was still losing heavily to the likes of the Ford Cortina.
The final variant, the Allegro III, had the most changes upon its launch in 1979, including a new version of the A-Series engine and quad round headlights to make it look a bit more modern. Apart from that the car was still very much the same as it was in 1973, and it was truly showing its age. British Leyland, recovering from the bankruptcy of 1977, attempted to rationalise the company by pulling out of the sports car range as well as some of their older products. The MG sportsters were killed off in 1980 and their factory closed whilst production of the Allegro and the Mini were slowed down as they prepared to discontinue to both of them in favour of the Austin Metro. The Morris Marina and Princess were replaced by the mostly identical Morris Ital and the Austin Ambassador, and Triumph was now being used to pioneer a tie up with Japan to create good and reliable cars in the form of the Triumph Acclaim.
The hammer eventually fell on the Allegro after 9 years of production in 1982 when the Austin Maestro was launched after 5 years of development. In all, 642,000 Allegros left the factory during its lifetime, but today less than 250 are known to exist, with many
rusting away or being part exchanged for a plant pot by the time 1990 hit. The reputation of these cars is still very much maligned by both critics and motoring enthusiasts alike, with it topping many people’s worst car in history lists, and becoming Britain’s worst car of all time followed closely by the Morris Marina. Top Gear were always quick to bash the Allegro, with two of the ambiguous Vaden Plas 1500’s meeting their maker, one being smashed with a suspended Morris Marina in a giant game of Bar Skittles, whilst another was driven in reverse off a ramp and smashed into a pile of scrapyard cars.
Me personally? I feel that the Allegro was a car with promise and premise, but the abilities of British Leyland fell far short of their ambitions, not helped by their incompetence and desire to commit corporate suicide. If the car had been built as Harris Mann had designed, been given a hatchback, and had been created with the slightest semblance of sense, then it could have truly been a winner. As it is, the car is now a sorry marker in the world of broken dreams, one that we simply choose to forget and never forgive.