Why we shouldn't hate the car we love to hate
When a car gains the nickname 'Brown Fury' you know that it's not the type of car that people aspire too. Such was the lot of my 1982 Austin Allegro. It was white on the outside, which made the inside - and the reason for its unpleasant nickname - all the more surprising. Across dashboard, carpets, seats, steering wheel and door cards it was the richest and most unerringly consistent shade of russet imaginable.
I bought that car as a joke, because like almost every car enthusiast across the globe, I blithely accepted the established Fact that the Allegro was woefully awful and, also in fact, genuinely terrible.
Except it wasn't.
I've argued elsewhere in Classic Car Stuff that the Allegro is a much misunderstood work of potential genius that has become saddled by failure mainly due to circumstances. And possibly some inherent characteristics, of which more later.
Blame the EU
The Allegro owes its baton of crapness to the European Union. Back in the late 60s and early 70s the newly created British Leyland conglomerate was facing some serious challenges. Ford and Vauxhall, both touting smart new ranges, had successfully created cars that appealed to the burgeoning company car market. This new sector, brought about by changes in the UK's taxation system, meant that the cars people drove were less often ones they'd bought themselves and more often ones their firm had given them.
Ford and Vauxhall quickly understood what this meant. Company cars were all about hierarchy, about offering different models and trim variations to enable employees to stand out in the company car park as befitted their status in the company. Suddenly the person choosing the car was the employee - usually a man back then - and it ceased to be a family decision. Pulling up in the right car outside a customer's premises became the priority. This moved the goalposts towards style and performance instead of practicality.
British Leyland was seriously wrong-footed by this seismic shift in the car buying landscape. Its cars were big, practical, family-orientated models like the 1800 and the Maxi. These advanced but unstylish cars were too complicated and unreliable for fleet managers and too fuddy-duddy for the dashing salesmen. In the late 60s and early 70s BL's once-dominant volume cars like the 1100 and Morris Minor were gradually usurped by the Cortina and Escort.
Without the resources to beat Ford and Vauxhall, British Leyland decided that its future lay across the English Channel in Europe. Sophisticated Europeans, it reasoned, were just waiting to buy Austin's advanced front wheel drive cars. And across the pond the company car market was less well established.
And so British Leyland prepared for the inevitable - that Britain would join the European Economic Community. It set about developing cars that would appeal to cosmopolitan group that back then we called Continentals. Which gives you an idea of how far away and isolated we felt as a country.
Chief among these 'Continental' cars would be the replacement for the Austin 1100 - the Allegro.
It All Started So Well
The original designs for what became the Allegro were penned by Harris Mann, famed BL designer. At the time he sketched this initial study for the car, he was new to the company, young and enthusiastic. Just the right attributes for BL's new car, which was intended to meet the brief for a stylish, advanced and distinctly cosmopolitan car that would appeal to all those stylish and cosmopolitan families in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and so on.
Before consider how the Allegro failed to deliver on any of those promises, it's probably worth stopping here for a moment to consider whether those ideas of Continental Europeans were actually right. And therefore whether there really was a market for the Allegro at all, even if the finished car did bear any resemblance to Mann's original sketches.
In the early 1970s Britain was out in the cold. Literally, because there was a shortage of electricity and coal. But also metaphorically. Despite ending World War Two on the right side of history - including liberating France from its occupation - we had been shunned by Europe. France and Germany were busy making friends and trying to avoid World War Three, which led to the formation of the nacent European Union.
France didn't want Britain to be part of this cosy club because it would alter the power balance. And Britain wasn't that fussed either because it had become besties with the USA. So an uneasy truce was created, with Britain ploughing its own path and continuing to view anything from 'overseas' (ie Europe) as foreign, odd, a bit mucky and not really to be engaged with.
Our ex-communication from Europe was part of a long history of separation, but also fed this sense of an alien world across 30 miles of sea. We stuck to our own diet of beef and fish and chips, uncontaminated by soft cheeses and something awful called garlic.
Meanwhile, as we struggled with rising unemployment, fiscal crises, 3 day weeks and power cuts, we cast our eyes across the sea and imagined that France and Germany were having a whale of a time. And they were. Which is why from the late 60s we began lobbying to join their European Community club.
And the reason that's important is because in Longbridge, when BL was turning its gaze towards Europe, it seemed a very long way away. And consequently when it came to designing a car specifically for Europeans, the management of BL - already distracted by the woeful state of the business - didn't have an awful lot to go on.
Instead of coming to the conclusion that a continent that produces dowdy Volkswagens, boxy Peugeots and stolid Mercedes was probably quite similar to conservative Britain in many ways, they looked instead at what Citroen was doing and decided that here, after all, was the benchmark for their new car.
Seen in that context, the svelte design above, which would cloth advanced front wheel drive and Hydragas suspension, makes more sense. It's clearly not an Escort rival. BL was pitching its new model as a stylish, cutting edge model that would appeal to its idealised image of the typical European.
Except, as you may probably have worked out, such a person didn't really exist.
From Design to Disaster
So even if the Allegro had reached showrooms pretty much as Mann originally intended, it's questionable whether it was really what people wanted or that there was enough of a market to sustain it.
And of course, it didn't arrive in showrooms as Mann intended. It very much didn't do that at all.
Between those original sketches and the finished car, BL's bean counters imposed a series of compromises that watered down the design. Most significant of these was the decision to use the existing range of engines and a complicated heater system, both of which forced a higher bonnet and belt line on the car. This ruined the looks, creating a 'squashed bean' design that was neither cutting edge or stylish.
You would imagine that someone at BL would have popped up their hand at this point and said something to the effect of "Can we all just take 5 and take stock of things please?" Quite possibly they did. And then again, maybe not. Either way it doesn't really matter because the outcome would have been the same - BL was determined to create an advanced, almost Avant-Garde design and reasoned that even with the compromises, the car still delivered that promise. After all, Citroens were distinctive rather than beautiful - shouldn't the new car be the same?
The Allegro hit the showrooms in 1973, the same year that Britain joined the EEC. BL had worked hard to widen the car's appeal, offering high performance versions as well as luxury versions with Vanden Plas grilles nailed to the front. They were good at this stuff - badging engineering and trim tweaking were their bread and butter from years of 1100 and 1800 sales.
Initial press reaction was not as bad as we perhaps like to imagine now. The styling wasn't really criticised, although journalists acknowledged that it was no looker. It was praised for its ride comfort and interior space and clear ergonomics. Most wondered why BL had launched a car that looked like a hatchback into a market that wanted hatchbacks. But that wasn't a hatchback. They had a point.
All reviewers questioned the most obvious Avant-Gardism, the Quartic steering wheel. The car, they pointedly noted, had a square steering wheel. Everyone knew that wheels should be round - it was, after all, how things had been since caveman times - and yet here was British Leyland telling us that this didn't necessarily have to be so.
The reaction to the Quartic wheel should have been the first sign for BL's management that things weren't going to be entirely plain sailing with the new car. The rationale for giving a car an oval wheel was clever and wise: it gives a better view of the dials, it's actually easier to manoeuvre and you always know how far you are from the central position. Which is why most modern cars have a variation of the Quartic wheel.
But journalists and car buyers didn't get this. They might have got it from Citroen, from whom they expected and enjoyed weirdness. But not Austin, the dowdy Midlands firm providing wheels for middle England.
Even the European journalists didn't get the Quartic wheel. Which is hardly surprising since Europeans are no different from any other country - most of the citizens want familiar and normal. Not everyone in France drives - or wants to drive - a Citroen.
Which, as we've discovered, was the fundamental flaw in the Allegro plan.
The European Project
The other problem facing the Allegro was that, despite joining the Common Market in 1973, Europe didn't welcome Britain with open arms. France wasn't much keen on us and Germany was busy buying its own very good Volkswagens, BMWs and Audis. Likewise Italy, which produced exactly the cars its citizens wanted, like the Alfasud. Not the Allegro.
It probably didn't help that BL decided to badge a version of the Allegro as the 'SS'. We thought it stood for Super Sport. The Germans and French were less sure.
And the European sniffiness and Quartic wheels were all before you factored in the way the Allegro was actually built. Which is to say badly. It was produced at the height of the 'Red Robbo' strikes and disputes between management and workers, a period during which car production continuously faltered and the cars that did make it out the plants were shoddily assembled.
It quickly became clear to BL management that the Allegro wasn't going to be the sales success that the firm hoped for and needed. In particular, the challenges of selling in Europe were greater than anticipated, and not solely because the car was a bit odd. Germany and France worked to protect their markets, which hampered BL's efforts to develop.
So the firm had to look closer to home and refocus on the British market. The trouble was that this involved flogging a car not designed for conservative British tastes at conservative British buyers.
The Allegro wasn't really suited to the fleet car market so it was pitched at the private family buyer. The range was finessed and a revised version, the Allegro 2, was quickly launched in 1975. This focussed on tidying up the most quirky elements - like that Quartic wheel - and streamlining the trim levels to copy Ford's L, GL and Ghia hierarchy.
This worked, but not very well. The quirky European car was now less quirky - and became even less quirky with the Allegro 3 of 1979 - but those gawky looks and the lack of a hatchback seriously impacted sales. Although British car buyers tended to still be loyal to homegrown cars in the late 70s, even they balked at the Allegro's continuing shoddy build quality and reliability.
The Allegro finally bowed out in 1982, a relatively short - for BL - 9 years after it arrived. 650,000 examples found homes. Isn't that a lot, you ask? Well in the same period VW churned out 6.8 million Golfs. They sold nearly as many Golf GTIs as the whole production run of Allegros. So no, not really I'm afraid.
Bringing The Allegro In From The Cold
So it didn't look great, it was badly built and nobody wanted it. All true. And all of which explains why the Allegro has become perhaps the most despised British car of the last 50 years. At least it achieved something then.
And it is all of those things. But simply hating or despising the Allegro overlooks the fact that, in many ways, it was actually very good. Those looks, while not perfect, were created for a reason - to be distinctive. It was badly built, but then so were many cars of the period.
That Quartic wheel was clever and innovative, we just didn't realise it at the time. More fool us. The interior was spacious and comfortable in the same way a Golf's was parsimonious and rigid. Instead of bouncing over potholes like a Golf, the Allegro glided smoothly and serenely on its Hydragas suspension.
Quite a lot of those 650,000 buyers really liked their Allegros. They valued the space, the clear, simple interior layout and the smooth ride. It wasn't quick or sharp-handling, but they didn't want those things. Allegros were slow and relaxing. Quite a few people bought several of them.
There's no doubt that the original Golf was - and is - a much better car. But it lacks the character and distinctiveness of the Allegro. These were the attributes the car was designed to deliver and it did - and still does.
I don't expect anyone, upon reading this, to flip over to Car & Classic and start scanning the listings for an Allegro. I may have owned an Allegro but I don't now and I don't want another one. They're not that good. But they certainly aren't as bad as their reputation implies.
Perhaps, nearly 40 years after the last Allegro left Longbridge, it's time we stopped bullying the little car and invited it in from the cold.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days. 01527 893733