Carshow Classic: 1975 Austin Allegro – Another Great Unfulfilled Hope From BLMC

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The Morris 1100 of 1962 was one of the most innovative and significant cars of its type and of its generation, but its replacement, the 1973 Austin Allegro, showed BLMC at its worst. With the Allegro, BL had a unique opportunity – to replace the UK’s best selling car with a better one. The business funding it was financially stronger than it been for many years; there were some modern engines available; the presence of other BLMC products meant it did not have to appeal to the conservative part of the market, and BMC’s record of technical innovation was still valid. Yet with the Allegro, BL managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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The 1100 (known as ADO16 in BMC jargon) was Alec Issigonis’s next new car after the Mini, and with its Pininfarina styling, hydrolastic suspension, front wheel drive and spacious but compact body, it was an absolute hit, Britain’s best seller from 1964 to 1970, taking over 12% of the market alone on occasions. Its principal competitor was the Ford Cortina, which also appeared for the first time in 1962 and offered a more conventional option in the price range.

The Morris 1100 (the Austin version arrived one year later  – this is BMC remember) offered innovation, comfort and space efficiency; the Cortina offered a different style, more car for the money and bigger boot but also a poorer driving experience. The Cortina went into its mark 2 in 1966 and then the larger Mark 3 in 1970, by which time BLMC had nothing competing directly with it. The 1100, now also available as the 1300, was now in a class of its own and competing against the Escort.

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After the BMC/Leyland merger in 1968, it was identified that the Morris brand would be used for Ford-chasing with very conventional RWD cars and Austin would be BLMC’s high technology brand, taking over the front wheel drive, hydrolastic suspension concepts of the ADO series of Issigonis cars. Hence, the ADO16 replacement was to be a high technology product, to be sold below the Marina but hopefully to build on the following the ADO16 had had.  The Marina was to be targeted directly at the Cortina, even if the aim did prove to be a bit off in the event. The Allegro was supposed to be a more timeless design than the Marina, with its modernity evident. It was expected to complete with cars like the Citroen GS, Alfasud, Fiat 128, Simca 1100, Renault 12 and Peugeot 304.

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picture from www.aronline.co.uk

But what did we get? A car that in its original design conception had been a lot more stylish than the product that actually appeared in 1973. Being avant-garde, it was expected not to follow fashion, but to lead it.  The style of the car was defined by 1969 by Harris Mann, who also styled the Marina, TR7 and Princess. And then stuff started happening to the Allegro – the E series engine from the Austin Maxi had to go in, and it was taller than the A series, so the bonnet was raised, a big and bulky heater (common to other BL products) had to be fitted, more thickly padded seats were added, it was decided to add some barrel like shaping to the sides to create more space.

All this happened on a car that had a similar wheelbase to the ADO16 but more length at the front and back for engine access and boot space respectively. The latest development of Hydrolastic, called Hydragas, was fitted. Engines were carried over from the ADO16, in 1100 and 1300 forms, or from the Austin Maxi in 1500 and 1750 with the same 5 speed gearbox and the associated issues in managing to actually change gear as well.

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The end result was a dull, dumpy looking car, with one fundamental drawback – despite its profile it had no hatchback. Quite how BLMC had managed to omit this is still a mystery, though it is known that Issigonis was no fan of hatches, and although he had by now retired his legacy was there still, and would be evident again later in BL’s history. But any thorough assessment of the market place and trends should have identified it – it had been such a success in cars like the Renault 16 and Simca 1100 for example. The car ended up weighing 10% more than the ADO16 but having the same engine and a more cramped interior.

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And then there was the square steering wheel, officially known as the quartic wheel. This was the idea of a David Bache, who was Rover’s chief stylist for the 2000 and later the Rover SD1. Austin-Morris MD George Turnbull saw the idea and insisted it go into the Allegro, as part of the high tech avant-garde image., even though British motoring journalists shown the car in 1972 recommended him to change it, as well addressing the frontal styling as well, to remove the “sunken eye” and “swollen cheek” look the car had. The idea of the wheel was that it combined the benefits of a larger wheel, for lighter steering with the space gains of using a smaller one. Sound ideal, until you turn the wheel.  The crucial point, though, is that one prominent and polarising idea coloured potential customers’ views of the car before they looked at it in detail.

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Just weeks before the UK launch of the Allegro in May 1973, John Barber, the Ford trained BLMC Managing Director, instructed confused marketing teams to raise the proposed pricing by around £100, or 7-8%, a car.  The flummoxed BL sales teams, who had spent a lot of time and effort working out exactly how much to charge for an Allegro in amongst the rest of the BL range, then responded by presenting Barber with a line up of cars that the Allegro would now be competing with in the Austin-Morris showrooms, to persuade him to change his direction. This exercise highlighted the Allegro 1500 4dr at £1164 alongside the Maxi 1500 at £1182 (1.5% more), Allegro 1750 SS at £1367 against the Maxi 1750HL £1355, which was larger and much more commodious and had the same engine and transmission, and the significantly larger Austin 1800 at £1279.

Incidentally, can you imagine that process being needed at Ford, or even being possible? Barber didn’t change his mind, and the Allegro went on sale with the higher pricing. Why did Barber do this? Because he had recognised that BL had not controlled the cost of the car properly and was attempting to recover some profit from the Allegro.

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BL had expected and hoped Allegro production to match the volumes seen for the ADO16, of up to 4000 cars a week. The fact that this was a commercially important car for BL was made very clear, but within a year it was apparent that the volume was not there for the Allegro – production was never more 125,000 a year compared to the ADO16 which did 200,000 or more for 8 years from 1964. To get someone to buy an ugly car that was more expensive, no bigger inside and came with the square steering wheel, in place of their Austin 1300, was proving to be a big ask.

Many tales were told about the Allegro – it was more aerodynamic going backwards, it twisted and the windows broke if you jacked it, (but only if a hydraulic jack was used in the wrong place), the wheels dropped off, (but only if they hubs were over tightened by mechanics who thought they were the same as the ADO16s, which they weren’t). But, bad rumours stick, and the damage can be done very quickly.

It is true the production staff could look at an Allegro on the road and accurately declare it a day shift or night shift car by judging the panel gap around the bootlid – the bootlid was positioned in the aperture from the left during the day and from the right during the night. (That sounds trivial and even mildly amusing, until you consider what else that couldn’t be seen might have been done in the same way.) Anecdotally, it is said that BL managers were entitled to an Allegro, and would arrange to receive a car assembled by the company’s plant at Seneffe in Belgium, rather Longbridge

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This is not quite what Donald Stokes, BL’s Chairman,  had hoped for when he said “This is the beginning of a very exciting era for British Leyland, and I think our designers, engineers and production men are going to provide you with a British motor industry of which you will be very proud.” One thing the Allegro did not do was rot away – carefully designed box sections and some decent rust proofing and paint preparation prevented that.

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Even the Police using Allegros didn’t help, as their cars had round steering wheels. The explanations about a different style of driving didn’t really wash and with the arrival of the estate, which was exceptionally, er, distinctive, the square wheel faded away. But the rot had started, with the new national sport of BL bashing and its favourite target, the Allegro. It went downhill from there. The industrial strife, the corporate collapse and the economic situation of 1973-6 did the Allegro no favours of course, but had BL really done the best they could with this car? A compare and contrast with the VW Golf of 1974 would suggest perhaps not.

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Sales figures for the Allegro were disappointing, compared with the ADO16. Partly this was due to the car itself, the actual conceptual weaknesses (no hatchback, not that spacious after the ADO16), poor image but also the stronger competition than that car faced 10 years, with the influx of Japanese cars building.

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And BL actually made it worse, by offering the Vanden Plas 1500 – an even uglier Allegro with a pretentious radiator grille, a leather interior with a real wooden dash board and folding picnic tables. Without considering why a company that offered us the Triumph 1500 and Dolomite felt the need to produce such a car, it is still a strong candidate for the worst car BL, maybe post war Britain, ever made. There were two significant revisions, in 1975 and 1979, with the expected revisions to grilles, wheels and interiors, and it is fair to say that the Allegro did mature into a reasonably capable, if always slightly off-beat car, principally limited by its old (the 1.1 and 1.3 litres), and disappointing (the 1.5 and 1.75 litres) engines, the lack of a hatchback and the soft suspension and its effect on the handling. And the styling, and what was possibly worst image of any car then on the market. The featured mustard colour car is a 1975 Allegro 1300 Super – probably the most popular Allegro specification of its time. The featured Vanden Plas is a 1978 series 2 car.

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There was one last hurrah for the Allegro in the UK – the 1979 Equipe model, complete with a 1750cc engine,  5 speed gearbox, sports trim,  some prominent stripes and alloy wheels. It was BL’s best effort to match the Golf GTi and the like, and if your immediate reaction is Starsky and Hutch, it’s probably worked. But, many examples of the alloy wheels proved to be porous in use, with owners being greeted by 4 flat tyres in the morning. And that is almost a metaphor for the entire Allegro story – apparently contemporary and consistent with the competition in many ways, with a modern and technical twist and some distinctive and high tech features, but ultimately a disappointment, technically, commercially and, crucially for BL, as a ownership experience as well.