The Classic Cars We Love to Hate (But Shouldn't)
Public opinion is a fickle mistress. Just ask the car makers of yesteryear. They slaved over design boards, yawned through engineering meetings, gasped at marketing 'strategies' and applauded sales projections. Everyone agreed that their new car was an absolute winner.
Except the buying public.
Lots of cars have struggled to meet the lofty objectives of their makers. But only a few have taken the yoke of failure and turned it into a defining characteristic. Because time has a funny habit of enhancing and exaggerating failure, turning it from a vague sensation into an incontrovertible fact.
We stop questioning it. So it's time to burst some bubbles. Here are the five classics that, while perhaps not actually very good, also aren't in fact as rubbish as we think they are.
That they're all British is not so much a coincidence as a consequence of our terrible reputation for building cars during the era when classic cars were born.
1. Austin Allegro
The Austin Allegro is a byword for rubbish. Its failure, in the eyes of car fans, is so complete that mere mention of its name provokes laughter. Or retching.
With good reason. It looks odd. It should be a hatchback, but isn't. It was a stranger to reliability and the back windows popped out if you jacked them up in the wrong place. Which you usually had to do, quite often. It aimed to take the fight to the VW Golf and Alfa Romeo Alfasud, but did an abrupt about turn long before it reached them and scurried back to Longbridge.
I think we've fundamentally misunderstood the Allegro. In the early 70s, when British Leyland was developing its 1100 replacement, the future was Europe-shaped. BL was being squeezed by Ford and Vauxhall in its home market and saw a chance to expand into the new Common Market. The firm lobbied the Government heavily to join the new European Community.
The Allegro was deliberately designed for those Continental car buyers: BL reasoned that the new car had to be distinctive and different. And, of course, it was.
The Allegro's odd looks, Hydragas suspension, Quartic wheel and fastback styling were seen by BL as bang on the money for the European market. Here was a car as unique and distinctive as anything from Renault, Citroen or Simca.
Unfortunately, the same characteristics alienated British buyers. They wanted conventional, like their Escorts and Cortinas or Vivas and Cavaliers. Europe was 'somewhere else' across the water, a place to be viewed with suspicion and scepticism. In 1970s Britain people liked what they knew and knew what they liked. The Allegro didn't fit into those plans. At all.
The Allegro's failure, of course, is that not even the people it was aimed at - all those cosmopolitan car buyers in Germany and France and Italy - actually wanted it. It was the kind of car designed for Europe by people who had never actually been to Europe. And it didn't help that it was catastrophically unreliable and badly built. That forced BL to double down on the UK market, in the process simply compounding the impression of failure. Because even with beige paintwork and brown interiors we didn't want it either.
Instead of simply laughing at the Allegro we should really see it as a failed, but daring experiment. A car naively built for a new relationship with Europe. The Allegro was a failure, but a misunderstood one.
2. Morris Marina
If the Allegro's crime was to be too unusual, the Marina's was to be too ordinary. Too average. But it was deliberately built that way.
In the 1970s BL was struggling. Too many factories, too many different models, not enough sales. The firm was losing the fight for the burgeoning fleet market to Vauxhall and Ford but lacked the resources to mount a concerted fight back.
BL wasn't ready to wave the white flag though. It poached a group of Ford executives and set them to work creating a new car to do battle with the Cortina. Except it didn't give them very much money or, in fact, very much time.
Given the extremely short development time and innumerable compromises brought on by lack of funds, it's surprising just how good the Marina actually was. It looked ok, it was comfortable and there were simple, clear trim levels to match Ford.
What was less good was the Morris Minor suspension, which gave the car dreadful handling, and the size. The Marina was designed as a conventional Cortina rival. But between developing and launching the Marina, Ford launched a new Escort and Cortina and made them much bigger than the cars they replaced. So when it was launched the Marina was suddenly and unexpectedly an Escort rather than Cortina rival.
That, really, was the Marina's main failing. It certainly wasn't as good as the Ford cars and it was, as usual, very unreliable. The engines were also old and asthmatic. The radio was positioned so that it could only be operated by the passenger, which wasn't ideal for the nation's salesmen ploughing their lonely ways up and down the new motorways. Presumably in silence. There was a strange coupe version that tried to be a Capri, but wasn't.
And yet it sold quite well. It never sold as well as BL wanted, but it wasn't quite the failure we've come to call it. The Marina was a central part of so many family lives: it was straight and conventional and, yes, a bit mediocre, because that was what many people wanted in the 1970s.
3. Triumph TR7
'The Worst Sports Car Ever Made.' That is quite an achievement. And in some ways it seems as if the TR7 was actually trying to achieve it all along. It wasn't very sporty, it broke down really an awful lot and it was often available in brown, or its close relatives.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the end result, it wasn't actually meant to be this way. The TR7 was designed to replace a whole range of much-loved British sports cars including the MGB, Midget, BGT, Triumph Spitfire, Stag and TR6. There were so many of them that for a while in the late 60s and early 70s it was as if Britain had actually invented and then owned the whole two seater sports car arena.
So you would expect the team behind all those cars to come up with a genuine world beater.
Of course, they didn't. What they came up with was the TR7. At the start it was undoubtedly a clever idea - a compact, good-looking sports car that was comfortable and spacious in a way that all those previous British sports cars simply weren't. But that great start became watered down and moulded and adapted so many times that it lost sight of the original objectives. BL took every opportunity available to cut corners - ditching the various high performance options in its stable to drop in the standard 8 valve 'slant four' Triumph engine as used in its saloon cars, rather than the tastier 16v version (which, admittedly, had proved less reliable). And there was no V8 until much later, which the car was crying out for. The suspension was also softened up to suit American tastes.
The TR7 didn't fail because it wasn't very good. Drive a TR7 today and you'll doubtless be impressed by the solidity, sure-footed handling and those pop up headlamps. Compared to a MGB or TR6 it is a really comfortable place to be. It may not be quick but then neither was the MGB or Spitfire or even the Stag.
No, the car failed because it was built very, very badly. If you were lucky enough to spot one of the 150,000 TR7s built over 7 years then you were most likely to see a brown car coming towards you with one headlamp up and one down. That was if it was actually running. More often than not the TR7 was populating hard shoulders and laybys, awaiting the arrival of the fourth emergency service.
The TR7's unreliability has, over time, become conflated with more fundamental failings. Perhaps its time we gave one of the last proper British sports cars more of a chance.
4. Austin Princess
The Princess, more than any BL progeny, had it tough. The firm couldn't decide what to call it, then called it many different things - there were Wolseley and Austin versions with confusing trim levels - then just decided it was Princess. Then it got a hatchback and became the Ambassador.
Like the Allegro, the Princess owes its existence to Britain's entry into the Common Market. It was intended to be a stylish, cutting-edge car aimed squarely at all those sophisticated cappuccino-sipping Continental Europeans.
Also like the Allegro, that didn't quite work out. The doors to Europe didn't fly open and, even if they had, nobody really wanted an odd-looking, big, unreliable bus from Austin. BL had fundamentally misunderstood the market.
And so BL had to refocus the Princess on the British market. Who didn't want it either because it was unconventional in a conventional world. Pushed up against the Granada and Viceroy it's genuinely difficult to imagine anyone buying the unusual, unreliable fastback Austin.
Because it was, lets not forget, very, very unreliable. Which by now you've probably come to expect.
But I think we should give the Princess a chance. Instead of following the crowd with a simple, straightforward three box saloon that would meet Ford and Vauxhall head on, BL chose to take a risk. Like every risk BL took it didn't pay off. But it could have had. The Princess was distinctive, luxurious and had a magic carpet ride. When it worked, of course.
5. Reliant Robin
Behold the Plastic Pig.
I have a theory. We don't actually hate the Reliant Robin, we hate what it represents. Yes, it has all the ingredients of naffness, starting with the 25% reduction in the conventional allocation of wheels, but there's more to it.
There had been three wheelers before, but it was the Reliant Robin and its sibling the Rialto that took the fight to the mainstream. In the 1980s the car carved a niche for itself as a cheap way into a new motor. And you didn't need a car licence - you could drive a Reliant on a motorcycle licence.
As there was no obvious reason to buy a Reliant Robin that didn't involve the words 'cheap' and 'motorcycle licence' the car became a byword for naffness. In the upwardly mobile 1980s we laughed not at it, but at what it represented - the people who were not as well off as lucky old us. And we have kept on laughing.
And, of course, the Reliant Robin is bad in quite a number of ways. Except its ability to topple over, naturally. It was badly built, it had three wheels and it was very, very slow. Actually, speed and its lack of it was one of the myths about the Robin. Yes, it did tend to go quite slowly, but that had more to do with the driver being unfamiliar with piloting anything wider than a motorbike. Because the glass fibre body, 850cc engine and unavoidable reduction in road wheels made it surprisingly nippy.
Instead of falling into the trap of laughing at the Robin we should be applauding its audacity. A very British, very quirky addition to the panoply of classic motoring.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733