“Of all the cars I’ve sold this is going to be the easiest. It is the size the Europeans want, it has front-wheel drive, which they want, it’s got the right shape and styling, it’s got the right spares and parts back-up and it’s the right price.”
Yes, it is 50 years today since the group unveiled the Austin Allegro, arguably the most maligned car ever to be sold on these shores.
Quickly picking up the moniker ‘All Aggro’, for much of its life the Longbridge-built car vied with British Rail as a staple of every comedian’s humour in the 1970s and early 80s. Jeremy Clarkson once remarked that choosing between an Allegro and its stablemate the Morris Marina was like deciding whether you would prefer to have your left leg amputated, or the right one.
Was it really that bad? Did the Allegro really deserve the amount of ridicule that has been heaped on it over the past half century?
“Everybody said it was rubbish, but it wasn’t a terrible car,” says chairman of Allegro Club International, the Rev Colin Corke.
“It wasn’t brilliant, but when you look at other stuff from 1973, it wasn’t that dreadful. It had its problems, but so did a lot of Renaults and Fiats. The trouble was, in the 1970s, nobody had anything good to say about anything that came out of Britain.”
Today, the infamous Allegro has an almost cult-like following among collectors, and Colin reckons its kitsch image is a major attraction. Eighty-two owners turned out with their cars for a rally to celebrate its half-century at the weekend.
Colin says it appeals to young people in particular, born long after the car went out of production, who are drawn to its underdog status.
The vicar of Longbridge, who reckons he has owned between 40 and 50 of the much-derided cars since becoming a founder member of the club in 1990, has three examples at the moment.
“I was 14 when the Allegro was launched, and I was a car nut, but not a car snob,” he says.
“There was just something about it I fell in love with.”
After leaving university in 1981, he worked for a time as a car salesman at Kennings in London, where he was given an Allegro as a company car.
“I had it because nobody else wanted it,” he says.
While the Allegro might not deserve the opprobrium that has been heaped on it, it has become the poster child of all that was wrong with the British car industry in the 1970s.
It didn’t help that so much was riding on the new car.
When British Leyland was formed in 1968, an ill-fated merger between the successful Leyland cars and the struggling British Motor Holdings (BMH), new boss Sir Donald Stokes was said to have been horrified by the lack of new models to replace its ageing product line-up.
Most desperately needed was a simple, mid-sized saloon car targeted at the growing fleet sector, where the hopelessly outdated Morris Minor and Oxford ranges were making no impact on Ford’s slick new Cortina. The Austin Maxi – which Stokes had considered cancelling because he considered it so poor – was all that was in the pipeline. Stokes responded by instructing his design team to throw together the Morris Marina at break-neck speed, and the new car – essentially a re-skinned Morris Minor with fashionable transatlantic styling – was ready for launch in 1971. While motoring journalists were not impressed, the Marina initially sold quite well as a cut-price alternative to the Cortina, giving BL valuable breathing space to get its next challenge spot on – replacing the best-selling Austin-Morris 1100 and 1300.
The lower-medium sector occupied by the 1100/1300 accounted for 60 per cent of all cars sold in the UK, and was to become all the more competitive when Britain joined the EEC at the start of 1973. While import quotas and tariffs had previously provided British makers with a vast protected market across the Commonwealth, these barriers were about to come tumbling down. Get the new car right, and there would be a fantastic opportunity to export the new car across Europe, hence why it would also be built in Belgium and Italy. But get it wrong, and the existing market would be flooded by thousands of rivals from France, Italy and Germany….
The 1100 had been a smash hit since its launch in 1962, and was still the biggest-selling car in Britain in 1971. Its main selling points had been its advanced design and clean styling from the renowned Italian Pininfarina design studio, but after 11 years in production, it was starting to fall behind. Market trends gave a clear picture of what people across Europe were looking for in a car: sharp, angular Italian styling – like the 1100/1300 – but there was also a growing demand for hatchbacks.
So naturally, British Leyland responded by producing a bulbous saloon car with a square steering wheel.
In what would turn out to be a great act of hubris, Stokes and his team declared Austin was not going to react to market trends, but to set them.
There was some logic in this argument. In an effort to differentiate between his two mass-market brands, Stokes declared that Morris would produce conventional, run-of-the mill models in response to what the market – specifically the fleet market – was asking for. By contrast, Austin would focus on innovative, hi-tech cars aimed at the supposedly more sophisticated tastes of mainland Europe.
The other fly in the ointment was that BL was already about to launch a mid-sized hatchback, the Austin Maxi. Stokes hated the Maxi, which struggled badly for sales, but nevertheless ruled that there must be no other hatchbacks in the BL range to avoid internecine competition.
Styling was entrusted to Harris Mann, recently appointed as BL’s head of design. A 1968 sketch shows that he originally envisaged the Allegro to be a low, muscular, wedge-shaped car, with deep windows and a low, pointed bonnet. But Mann later revealed that his ambitions were frustrated by management’s insistence on using shared components from other cars. The heating system from the Marina, and the taller engine from the Maxi would both have a big impact on how the car looked.
“This forced the bonnet line to be raised, making the glass-house shallower,” Mann later revealed. He also said that the gentle curves of his original design were exaggerated at the insistence of engineers, to increase structural rigidity.
According to motoring writer Jeff Daniels, it was managing director George Turnbull then insisted on the infamous ‘Quartic’ steering wheel, after seeing a sketch during a corporate management meeting, and believing it was just the thing to reinforce the Allegro’s cutting-edge credentials.
And then, according to Daniels, came another public relations disaster. Several months before the car’s launch, BL invited a select group of technical journalists to a private preview, to gauge their response.
“Their reactions were lukewarm to say the least,” wrote Daniels in his book, British Leyland: The Truth Behind the Cars.
“About the best compliment they could pay was that it looked different enough not to be confused with anything else.
“They entered several strong pleas, not least that the nose should be given more character, and that the Quartic steering wheel should be done away with. They were assured that while time was short, due weight would be given to everything they had said.”
Months later, the car was unveiled, exactly as they had seen it, with all their concerns ignored. This riled the journalists who felt their time had been wasted, and led to a number of critical early road tests.
Calling its high-performance model the SS, less than three decades since the end of the Second World War, was not a great PR move, either.
The Allegro launch was preceded with an advertising blitz featuring a blank silhouette of the new car, inviting customers to see the new car at midnight. But not even the best efforts of Filmer J Paradise’s slick marketing could get people excited by the new car.
While Paradise had waxed lyrical about the Allegro’s styling and technical prowess, most of the early road testers were more fixated on the shape of the steering wheel – with the reaction being invariably negative. One of the more withering road tests came from MotorSport magazine, who questioned whether the Quartic should even be called a ‘wheel’, instead referring to a ‘four-sided steering control’.
The ‘Buy British’ policy of public bodies in the 1970s meant the Allegro would become a common sight as a panda car, but there was more PR embarrassment when it emerged that forces had been replacing the Quartics with conventional round wheels. Critics also pointed out that while the new car was larger, and 10 per cent more expensive than its predecessor, it also had less interior space, with the rear seat being particularly cramped.
The lack of a hatchback was partly addressed with the launch of a three-door estate in 1975, but the hearse-like styling proved even more controversial than the saloon.
As with pretty much all British Leyland products in the 1970s, early Allegros were beset with teething troubles and reliability problems, not helped by appalling industrial relations at Longbridge where Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson ruled the roost. Stories began to emerge in the Press about windscreens popping out when the car was jacked up; the company defended the claims, saying this never happened when the correct jack was used, but it did little to improve the Allegro’s image. The car was banned from London’s Blackwall Tunnel amid fears that towing stricken Allegros out of the tunnel would result in flying windows.
While this could be dismissed as sensationalist reporting by a national media which had turned ‘Leyland-bashing’ into a national sport, it was much harder to dismiss the growing number of reports about wheels coming off Allegros. The problem came to a head in 1976 when Margaret Walton suffered serious injuries when a rear wheel came off the Allegro she was travelling in on the M1. A subsequent court case revealed internal memos which showed British Leyland had recorded at least 100 cases of Allegros losing wheels in the first 15 months since the launch. The problem was eradicated by a simple modification, but a judge ruled that BL had failed to respond sufficiently, holding it liable for Mrs Walton’s injuries.
The square steering wheel was quietly dropped in 1975, and a heavy facelift addressed most of the early problems, including the lack of rear seat space. The sad thing was, by this time nobody was interested.
At the height of its predecessor’s success, the 1100 sold almost 158,000 cars in 1965. BL management expected that the new car would easily match that figure in a fast-growing market, with the numbers being further boosted by the factories in Europe and New Zealand.
Even in its last full year of production, the 1100 managed 102,449 UK sales, but the Allegro never came close. In its first full year of production, 68,409 Allegros were sold, and by 1976 the figure fell to 55,218 – a 4.3 per cent share of the UK market, compared to 14.3 per cent for the 1100 some 11 years earlier. By this time the money had run out, and all BL could do was limit the damage and ensure that the Allegro did not end up losing the company money.
A further facelift in 1979, and the introduction of some trendy, if garish colour schemes, turned the Allegro into a half-decent car, but the introduction of the Vauxhall Astra and third-generation Ford Escort made the Allegro look very dated. From 1980 onwards it failed to even make the top 10 sellers in the UK, little more than a decade after its predecessor had topped the table.
The Allegro plodded on until the end of 1982, having sold just 642,350 cars, compared to 2.1 million examples of the 1100 and 1300. The year after the Allegro’s launch, Volkswagen introduced its own rival – the sharp-cut Golf hatchback, styled by the Italian Georgetto Giugiaro. The Golf is still in production, with 35 million models sold during a 49-year career.
Ironically, the Allegro was dropped just as more rounded shapes were coming into fashion. It was replaced by the Maestro, which bucked this trend by being stubbornly angular…
And Filmer J Paradise, the fast-talking American who thought selling the Allegro would be a ‘piece of cake’? He quit his post just three months after the Allegro’s launch, and took up a role marketing Japanese imports.