Not As Awful As We Like To Believe Part 3: Austin Allegro
Updated: Jan 2, 2021
Some tasks can be justifiably described as Herculean. Like climbing Everest or defending Ghislaine Maxwell. Or being Dominic Chappell.
And then there's rehabilitating the Austin Allegro. No car has been so comprehensively cast out into the wilderness as the only car apparently modelled on a squashed baked bean.
But as a former owner - that's my car, Brown Fury, at the top of this article - let me try. That the Allegro is fundamentally awful, actually terrible, and of course very bad is taken as Fact. It's a Fact so incontrovertible that very few of us actually stop to question it. And, I think, we should. Because, probably not like Ghislane Maxwell but maybe like Dominic Chappell, the Allegro is fundamentally misunderstood.
First, Some History
In the late 1960s the British car industry was doing rather well. Its 1100 mid-size family saloon was Britain's best selling car, comfortably outselling its Ford rivals. It looked quite good, it was fairly reliable and it was spacious.
But it was getting a bit long in the tooth. So when British Leyland was formed in 1968 it prioritised replacing the 1100. The project was risk-averse: the new car would be pretty much a revamped 1100 following a similar style and prioritising practical concerns like space and economy over anything vaguely exciting. This worked because post-war suburban Britain was a particularly conservative place that liked what it knew and was deeply suspicious of anything else. Mainly anything else not originating in Britain.
This conservative approach made quite a lot of sense. Even in 1974, when the 1100 was 12 years old, it was still Britain's best selling car.
British Leyland, however, made a classic business mistake: by focussing on replicating what made an already successful car successful, it ignored what was happening in the wider market. In particular Ford was busy regrouping with a serious twin assault on the British car market in the shape of the Cortina and Escort. The latter faced the 1100 head on and aimed to do everything the 1100 did, but better. It had more space, it looked better and, thanks to Ford's astonishing marketing genius, there was an Escort for everyone.
Further afield European car makers were circling their wagons with ground-breaking new models like the Alfasud and Golf. And Britain's drift towards the 'Common Market' meant the threat from these Continental interlopers was becoming much more serious.
British car buyers were also changing. Foreign travel began opening their eyes to new opportunities. To exciting opportunities like soft cheese and wine. Things that were new and not British.
British Leyland wasn't entirely immune to these threats. But it fudged its response. The firm tried to have its cake and eat it - designing a car that owed a lot to the 1100 whilst trying to also be cutting edge. Hence the Allegro was designed to look exciting - as the early design sketch above suggests - so that it could compete against stylish Continental competitors. All the while staying true to the 1100's basic - and pretty humdrum - concept.
Not entirely surprisingly, this didn't quite work. A car can't be exciting and not exciting at the same time. BL also sabotaged its own plan through a multitude of compromises that destroyed the original svelte lines.
The Allegro was finally launched in 1974 and soldiered on until 1982. Less than 650,000 were sold, compared to 2.1 million 1100s. Over the same period VW sold 450,000 Golf GTIs.
How The Allegro Got Its Reputation
When the Allegro was launched press reaction was not particularly bad. Residual pro-British sentiments plus a lack of historical perspective - which meant they didn't quite see the threat posed by the Escort, Alfasud and Golf - saw initial reports laud the car's smooth ride, spacious interior and wide range of trim and engine options.
British Leyland even sought to make a virtue of the car's appearance, pushing it as a stylish European car with cutting edge features like its Quartic wheel. In other words, a bit like a British Citroen GS.
British car buyers didn't quite see things the same way. Although sales were initially buoyant (thanks again to those pro-British sentiments), the car's awkward looks and quirky features - that Quartic wheel again - put conservative 1100 owners off. British buyers simply could not understand why a car, any car but specifically this car, had a SQUARE steering wheel. It didn't matter that British Leyland gushed about how this improved dashboard visibility and made steering easier, the simple fact was that this car had a square steering wheel. A square wheel. Whatever next?
Then there was the Escort, with its stylish but entirely conventional saloon car shape. Its plethora of trims. Its rallying success. Here was a conventional car that managed to also be exciting, without alienating anyone. The Allegro was too conventional for anyone wanting anything vaguely exciting and too unconventional for people who liked convention. The closest it got to sporting pedigree was the 1750SS model. SS, for Super Sports. For a nation within living memory of a World War, those initials conjured somewhat different images.
Then there was the Golf. And the Alfasud. Britain's membership of the Common Market in 1975 changed the rules on which Continental car makers could compete in the UK. Although it took time for our in-built resistance to 'foreigners' to break down, soon suburban driveways began to feature VWs, Renaults, Fiats and Alfas.
Faced with these threats, the conventional car designed to replace the 1100 that was also the stylish Continental rival, suddenly seemed dangerously out of step with all of them. It was neither conventional enough or stylish enough to beat off any of them.
It didn't help that the Allegro was very, very unreliable. And badly built. Although these problems were not, contrary to received wisdom, limited to British Leyland. Ford Cortinas and Escorts of the time were similarly badly built and unreliable. But at least they had the saving grace of being desirable products. The Allegro simply wasn't.
Should We Reconsider?
As we've seen, the Allegro was the wrong answer to a question British Leyland wasn't even asking. It failed to recognise that the mid-market motoring landscape had changed - a lot - and simply giving the people what the people had, with a light drizzle of Continental fizz, wasn't going to cut it. The Allegro was out of step with the times, a car that looked like a hatchback but wasn't, and wasn't quite a saloon car either.
But does that make the Allegro a bad car? I don't think so.
The Golf was more practical but the Allegro was a smoother, more relaxing drive. And more spacious. While the Escort was the definition of conventional, the Allegro was distinctive and different. It even had a properly posh version, with a Rolls Royce-like grille, not just a bolted on 'Ghia' badge.
While lots of people grew to hate the Allegro, they often didn't include the people who parted with their hard earned cash to buy one. So while children might ask their dad to drop them off round the corner from school, dad would become an Allegro loyalist. Owners quite often bought several in a row. For them there was nothing else quite like it: a humble family car that was relaxing to drive. The car's hated-on reputation even became a badge of pride.
The Allegro was, by many measures, not very good. British Leyland completely fumbled the open goal that the 1100 had gifted them. They created a car that was entirely unsuited to the world it arrived into, a stolid motor that in the mid 70s was that most criminal of things: unexciting. And yet, it did many things well. As a family car it was spacious. Unlike the hard-riding European hatchbacks, built for smooth autoroutes, the Allegro was smooth and comfortable to travel in.
The real Fact of the Allegro story is how badly out of step it was with 1970s motoring. But that doesn't make it a bad car. It's not an exciting car, it's not a very good car, but I don't think it doesn't deserve its reputation as hateful car.
Perhaps its time to celebrate a car that is distinctive and different. But not actually very good.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733.