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Austin Allegro (1973 - 1982)

Last updated 4 April 2013

 
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Model Timeline

June 1968
Plans for the Allegro were drawn up

Five-hundred British Motor Corporation distributors crowded into the exhibition hall at Longbridge, for a question and answer session on their future with Sir Donald Stokes, the chief executive of the British Leyland Motor Corporation. He promised them a completely new model policy for the next five years under the direction of Harry Webster. Clearly any hope of a rehash of the ADO16 design had faded away by this point. In the mind-set of the time, new meant better.

In hindsight we can see that British Leyland failed to appreciate that the ADO16 had what we now call ‘brand values’. For all its faults, such as its propensity to rust into horse droppings in the slightest rain shower, the ADO16 just kept on selling, with 1968 and 1969 being the peak years of production. The new 1300 version sent sales rocketing to new levels, demoting the Cortina to second place, demonstrating that what customers really wanted was a better version of a tried and tested product. The ADO22 could have fitted the bill. To present those customers with something completely new was a risky strategy.

Harry Webster, interviewed in 1973, takes up the story. ‘When I arrived here from Triumph in May 1968, there was no sign of an eventual successor to any of the Issigonis-designed front-drive cars, unless you count Alec’s clever little ultra-simple Mini for Italy which, alas, had to be dropped because the market wouldn’t justify it. So the styling boys had a completely clean sheet of paper to start with, and I had a good deal of freedom on the engineering side.

‘On the other hand the Maxi was about to go into production, with a brand new factory at Cofton Hackett ready to churn out the new overhead cam engine in quantity, and the old A-Series power unit still had a lot of life left in it. So there was no question of any major revision on the mechanical side. That left suspension, which I felt was a priority as the original Moulton concept had been overtaken in certain areas by more conventional designs, and of course the package itself.

Cold weather testing the ADO67 in Finland in January 1972. Looking on are senior engineers Ray Bates and Tom Penny.

Cold weather testing the ADO67 in Finland in January 1972. Looking on are senior engineers Ray Bates and Tom Penny.

In the light of this, the Allegro’s development progressed rapidly. Prior to the setting-up the enlarged styling department at the Elephant House at Longbridge, Harris Mann and Paul Hughes produced rival designs at Cowley for the ADO67, but Mann’s design was chosen for further work. Mann would become Austin-Morris’ chief stylist following the departure of Roy Haynes – who did not want to move from Cowley to Longbridge. Mann closely followed the design brief laid out by Harry Webster – the Allegro should have durable styling, and not be a follower of fashion. Avant-garde cars never followed fashion.

In 1973, Austin Morris Chief body engineer Tom Penny gave the following version of the evolution of the Allegro’s styling. ‘The Allegro’s looks are the work of one man – Harris Mann, to be precise. Harris is our chief stylist. He came to us from Ford, and before that he was with, of all people, Duple the bus builders. His proposal for the new car was one of four or five that we presented to the board early in 1969. They walked into the big round building where the full size mock ups were displayed, and immediately they fell for Harris’s car. After that they just left him to get on with it. The production version you see today is hardly altered in appearance from the original.’

The initial designs for the Allegro were rakish, curvy and stylish. However, the need for the car use existing engine/gearbox packages, as well larger components from the BL parts-bin, resulted in design compromises being introduced. In 2002, Harris Mann explained the process: ‘We wanted to make a far more modern version of the 1100/1300, keeping the long, sleek look. Then a lot of other things affected it. A heater was developed at astronomical cost which was very deep. That had to go in. Then we had to put in the E-Series engine, which was more suitable for putting in a Leyland truck.’

This forced the bonnet line to be raised, making the glass-house shallower. The gentle curves of the initial design were also exaggerated, as it was felt by the engineers lessons learned in packaging and panel-strength from the ADO74-rivalling Barrel-car could be incorporated. The wheelbase was only slightly lengthened over the 1100, but overhangs were increased in order to improve under-bonnet access and boot space, two major criticisms of the ADO16.

Allegro in clay - looking remarkably similar to the finished product.

Allegro in clay – looking remarkably similar to the finished product.

That quad headlamp arrangement could have made all the difference.

That quad headlamp arrangement could have made all the difference.

With the packaging and style compromised, the ADO67 was mutating into a caricature of Mann’s original design,’…so the whole car gained in height. That made it look shorter and stumpier. Thicker seats were added inside, which cut down on interior space. It was getting bulkier inside and out, and lost the original sleekness. That was what happened unfortunately.’

September 1969
Allegro body styling finalised

The body design was finalised by the BLMC board on 19 September 1969 (at a cost of £21m) and this final incarnation was accompanied by a sense of unease, certainly by Harris Mann, who felt that his design had been corrupted too much by the production-engineers. However, the Allegro’s design was okayed for production by George Turnbull and it was felt the offbeat styling was exactly what the Austin needed to be: a flag-bearer for the go-it-alone spirit that was prevalent in the company at the time.

On the Engineering front, Alex Moulton had developed the Hydragas to replace Hydrolastic. This system was an improvement over Hydrolastic, which used Rubber as its springing medium; a more inconsistent material. Hydragas, however, relied on Gas and Nitrogen spring units, an advantage in terms of consistency. Continuing the Hydrolastic tradition, Hydragas was interconnected front to rear, meaning roadholding was unaffected by the softer ride the new system afforded. In comparison with Hydrolastic suspension, the suspension units are smaller and cheaper to produce, damping is more adjustable, depending on the application and noise insulation is far better.

The engine range was widened to encompass the new E-Series, complementing the venerable A-Series. Like the Maxi, the Allegro would be available in 1485cc and 1748cc forms, running the same in-sump five-speed gearbox – employing the rod-linkage that has been introduced to replace the cable-operated linkage that hampered the Maxi in its early life.

News the Allegro was to use the E-Series was greeted with sighs of relief from the workers at Cofton Hackett. The new engine factory had been built to machine and assemble the E- and E6-Series engines, the expense deemed necessary in order to meet inflated expectations management had for the Maxi. Unfortunately, Maxi missed its sales targets and Cofton Hackett ran hideously under-capacity. The anticipated sales targets for the Allegro were generous and would make up the shortfall caused by the Maxi’s failure.

As the Allegro neared production, the Quartic steering wheel was added. Jeff Daniels recalled in his excellent book, ‘BL: The Truth about The Cars‘: ‘…in Spring 1972, George Turnbull brought back to the Austin Drawing Office one of David Bache’s more way-out design ideas, a steering wheel comprising of four curves joined together by four straight lines, similar to the shape of a Television screen. It was something that had been incorporated on the aborted Rover P8 with good reason; but Turnbull felt that it was just the thing for the Allegro. Avant-garde and hi-tech was what the ADO67 design was all about.’

Back in 1973, Vic Hammond, Austin Morris chief designer, interiors, defended the quartic steering wheel. ‘For a start, it’s far from square. The usual circular form of the steering wheel is simply flattened out a little. We did it because we knew most drivers preferred a relatively small wheel, yet we wanted them to be able to see the instruments.’

June 1972
British journalists were given a sneak preview of the Allegro

In the summer of 1972, senior technical writers from the British Motoring press were invited along to Longbridge to see the Allegro and offer their opinions on the new car. As this exercise was held pretty much at the end of the Allegro design process, there was very little that the assembled journalists could suggest to Austin which would effect a great change to the car. They were unanimous in their distaste for the Quartic steering wheel. To say that they were also underwhelmed by the ADO67′s design, would be an understatement, principle criticism being it lacked style.

Austin Management intended to win approval from the Motoring Press by offering journalists an inside track on the development of the Allegro. Unfortunately, as a PR exercise this backfired, because even a small change, such as the removal of the Quartic wheel, could not be implemented. The managers who let journalists into BLMC before the launch of the car must have known that it would have been difficult to implement suggestions so late in the day – which makes their decision seem all the more curious. The result: the Press felt their suggestions had been ignored (which was not true, even though their wishes could not be met) and any goodwill this event may have generated was lost.

May 1973
Austin Allegro was launched

Allegro at the 1973 Earls Court Motor Show... (Picture: Kevin Davis)

Allegro at the 1973 Earls Court Motor Show… (Picture: Kevin Davis)

The Allegro was launched in May 1973, and the new small family car’s launch timing was perfect. Maxi had failed to make an impact on the market; ADO16 sales were fading, (Morris versions had been discontinued to make way for the Marina). The Cortina, once a rival to the ADO16, had grown significantly in size and the new Mk3 was having teething troubles – so the new car was launched with an air of optimism. Allegro had been developed thoroughly and BL management believed it would be a great success.

At launch, Longbridge was producing around 1100 to 1200 Allegros per week, giving what BL management claimed was the best launch of any of the company’s cars to date. BLMC claimed it had built up a stockpile of 10,000 cars ready for sale to the public, and hoped for an 8 to 10% UK market penetration. Also at launch, one of the two ADO16 production lines had been switched over to Allegro assembly; and when the weekly production rate reached 2500, the other line would be switched over to the Allegro.

By early 1974, BLMC hoped to produce in excess of 4000 ADO67s per week. The company claimed that buyers wanted more refinement and 1500cc engines and that the ADO16 1100/1300 could no longer satisfy this market. George Turnbull said: ‘We have tried with the Allegro to be all things to all men. That is a tremendous brief for our engineers but we believe we have succeeded. The C sector is expanding all the time and with this approach we are spanning the widest area of that sector with the minimum investment.’

Lord Stokes stressed to the BBC the importance of the Allegro to British Leyland in May 1973: ‘It’s very important because this covers the middle range between the 1100 and 1750 where the bulk of the business is, and it’s also a car which we think will appeal not only to the sophisticated British public but to the sophisticated European public, which of course is very much greater now that we’re in the Common Market. The car , we believe, will appeal to European tastes as a whole.’

His Lordship stated elsewhere: ‘We set our engineers, our designers, a challenge. I’ve watched it from all stages of development. I’ve driven it at all the stages of its development and I’m absolutely convinced that they’ve got a car here which is quite outstanding in its class and its type.’

And Harry Webster defended the quartic steering wheel yet again: ‘It really is the technically correct shape for this particular car because the instruments are so positioned that you can view them straight through the steering wheel. It’s a very comfortable wheel to hold and the angle of the wheel has now been flattened out so that it comes down to the natural way. It seems to have fitted into the vehicle as an interesting shape.’

A week after launch BLMC were already claiming they had sold the first two years of Allegro production. Was this really true or a PR exercise?

Road Tests were not unkind, but it could not be ignored that the 1100 and 1300 Allegros were ten% more expensive, and in terms of performance, it was also slower due to greater weight. Autocar magazine generously summed up the 1300 Super: ‘There is no doubt that a lot of thought and development has gone into the design of the Austin Allegro and it is bound to be a very popular new model. Compared with the much older Austin 1300 it is a big step forward in all respects and we would like to think that much of our criticism stems from the test car a being a very early example to move down the line at Longbridge. Apart from its advanced engineering, the Allegro comes with a very complete list of standard equipment and in 1300 Super form offers very good value for money.’

You could never accuse the Allegro of not having a very wide range... (Picture: Autocar)

You could never accuse the Allegro of not having a very wide range… (Picture: Autocar)

If this sounds like a ringing endorsement of the product, it must be remembered road tests were more circumspect in their criticism of new cars back in 1973, but disappointment at the 1750 Sports Special model was more obvious.

‘British Leyland have done well not to give the SS a phoney GT label because its performance for a small car with close to 2-litre engine is not particularly sporting or special, and certainly not in the category of a Grand Tourer. We were particularly disappointed that the 1750 could not match the acceleration and top speed of cars like the FIAT 124 Special T, the Datsun 180B, the Hillman Hunter GLS, the Renault 16TS, the Triumph Dolomite and especially the Ford Cortina 2000 and Vauxhall VX 4/90, which must surely be its real competitors. Whilst it offers other things to offset the performance deficit, we wonder whether sporting buyers will reckon they are getting enough.’

Principal criticisms were levelled at the lack of rear seat legroom (it was no better than the ADO16) and weak performance and brakes on the A-Series models. The gearchange action in the E-Series version was vague and notchy (one wag likened it to stirring a bag of marbles with a knitting needle). The quartic steering wheel was overlooked as a marketing gimmick, and the styling was politely consigned to the ‘make your own mind-up’ school of thought.

Impressive photography at launched added glamour, but fuelled disappointment in the following months... (Picture: Richard Gunn)

Impressive photography at launched added glamour, but fuelled disappointment in the following months… (Picture: Richard Gunn)

Actually, the issue of the styling cannot be left at that. The looks of a car and the image it conveys are utmost in the eyes of prospective purchasers – if a car looks right, faults can be overlooked; if it looks wrong, then its customer appeal is undermined. Which ever way you look at the Allegro, it is ugly; the nose is undefined and the grille/headlight treatment is so much narrower than the width of the car it consigns to make it look over-inflated, especially from the front. Spen King described it eloquently: “I remember when I first saw the clay of the Allegro – I was horrified and wanted to look away! It looked like a caricature of Henry VIII, with little features and a big, bulging face.”

The sides of the car, so convexly curved, serve to heighten the impression that the Allegro looks pregnant. Wheels that failed to fill the arches adding to the overall impression it was a blob of a car. It is easy to criticise the styling, and looks are always subjective, but in terms of a mass-market car with serious sales ambitions, it is impossible to think of a post-war car so universally condemned on its styling alone. What is more distressing about this situation is it could have been so different. As seen in early styling sketches of the ADO67, its design could have ended up sharp and attractive – Someone who wielded enough influence should have stopped the development juggernaut at Longbridge and said, ‘Hey guys, have you seen what is happening to this car?’

In fact people did try: ‘Myself, and one or two others, tried but John Bacchus, thought I was being too fussy. In fact part of the problem stemmed from misjudged ‘spring’ in the panel pressings – because the final pressing tends to deviate a little from the designed shape because of a small amount of ‘spring’ after being released from the die, the tool designer may try to compensate for this by altering the shape of the die. But if he over-compensates, it can have the opposite effect to what was intended. Hence the slight ‘cottage-bun’ re-entrant curve effect on the rear quarters. Also, the waist rails on the doors tended to hump a bit, instead of being a flowing straight line. The attitude was ‘it will have to do’.’

‘On the Princess, probably as a reaction to Allegro, the opposite happened – panels that should have had a subtle curve on came out too flat, giving a ‘tinny’ and insubstantial look.’

What confounds this even more is that the 1100, as styled by Pininfarina had pre-empted small car fashion by a decade, and cars such as the Volkswagen Golf and Alfa-Romeo Alfasud had shown crisp, angular styling by a big-name Italian designer was what buyers wanted. The only thing to be said in favour of the Allegro’s styling was that it couldn’t be mistaken for anything else.

Striking and very '70s, but many buyers were put off by that steering wheel, which soon became an object of derision. (Picture: Richard Gunn)

Striking and very ’70s, but many buyers were put off by that steering wheel, which soon became an object of derision. (Picture: Richard Gunn)

The Quartic wheel helped alienate customers further, and although Austin quoted sound reasoning behind the choice of such an offbeat item, the truth was people didn’t like it – it may have enabled unhindered visibility of the instruments, but unless you were sat in an Allegro 1750 Sports Special, there were never enough dials to fill the binnacle.

Her Majesty’s Police force placed an order for 657 Allegros to be used as Metropolitan and Panda cars around the time of the car’s launch. The police Allegros replaced the Morris Minor, and in the role of Panda car, were judged very successful. It was noted by the press Quartic wheels were being removed; It wasn’t as if the Quartic wheel was bad, just that it didn’t suit the Police way of driving (so it was explained by embarrassed officers). Thankfully, this butt of many jokes lasted less than two years before being consigned to the gimmick bin.

The following year heralded the Estate version. If people thought that the saloon version ugly, the Allegro Estate came as an even greater shock. Practicality was never in doubt, with its flat load-floor and large luggage area. Unfortunately it displayed the same tail sagging behaviour under load as the ADO16 estate. But if people thought they had seen the pinnacle of quirky with the Allegro and its estate variation, they had not counted on the Vanden Plas 1500.

The Allegro was treated to the same Vanden Plas make-over given to the ADO16; a leather interior, wooden dashboard, sumptuous interior fittings were added throughout (including polished walnut picnic trays being added to the front seat backs), and the traditional VP radiator Grille. Vanden Plas’ Managing Director, Roland Fox actually styled the front end after seeing a prototype of the ADO67 in the early ’70s, citing the Daimler Double-Six as an influence. Given the design constraints he worked under, there was little room for experimentation, but when asked why a lower grille arrangement could not be used, Fox insisted the protruding snout afforded a ‘proper view’ from the driver’s seat and that was what his customers wanted. Whereas the ADO16 had an attractive shape that lent itself perfectly to badge engineering, the Allegro did not, and the final arrangement was almost universally criticised.

January 1974
Vanden Plas 1500 launched

The Vanden Plas was even more ugly than its more humble brethren, quite a feat in itself. The Vanden Plas version sported a round steering wheel – British Leyland said it was something Vanden Plas customers did not want. In the end, the Vanden Plas 1500 was bought by a small number of loyal customers, although it always made a handsome profit. Today, it remains a cult car, and most still survive.

It is easy to see the appeal of the Vanden Plas 1500 – load up a small car with executive levels of equipment. It was an idea Rover successfully latched onto in the late-1980s with the 200/400, the only difference is the Allegro was such a poorly executed starting point…

March 1974
Allegro went on sale in Europe

The Allegro finally went on sale in continental Europe in March 1974. Quite when the penny dropped and BLMC realised that the Allegro was not going to sell in the numbers expected of it is difficult to ascertain. The oil crisis of 1973/74 had depressed the car market, but on April 28th 1974, came the announcement that BLMC was pruning the Allegro range of three of its 12 models. These were the-two door models of the 1300 De Luxe, 1500 De Luxe and 1750 Sport. Contrary to BLMC’s expectations, it was the smaller engined 1100 and 1300 models that were proving more popular with the public.

In the first three months of 1974, it came seventh in the list of best-selling cars in Britain; a modest performance compared with its predecessor, the 1100/1300. Production at this time was running at only just over half the weekly capacity at Longbridge of 4500 to 5000 units. In May 1975 British Leyland announced it was to close their largest and most modern car painting plant at Trentham, Longbridge, Birmingham, as the £1.5m facility was operating at only one tenth of its installed capacity. It was completed just two years previously to handle up to 4500 Allegros a week.

It was reported at the time that Allegro production had peaked at 2500 per week, and was by now down to 2000 per week. By this time, production of the Volkswagen Golf was running at 10,000 per week. By November 1978, the weekly production of the Allegro had dropped further to 1000 per week when BL announced a further 25% cutback in output.

October 1975
Allegro Series 2 was launched

Series 2 Allegros were launched in 1975. The main improvement found in the series 2 models, was the improved rear leg room, but most newsworthy for the tabloid press was the loss of the quartic steering wheel. (Picture: Rene Winters)

Series 2 Allegros were launched in 1975. The main improvement found in the series 2 models, was the improved rear leg room, but most newsworthy for the tabloid press was the loss of the quartic steering wheel. (Picture: Rene Winters)

Problems which became evident in the first couple of years resulted in a hasty facelift, announced in October 1975. The interior was upgraded, and more equipment added. A shuffling of rear panels released more rear passenger legroom, and adjustments to the Hydragas suspension improved the ride quality (stiffer suspension was used at the front in tandem with softer spring rates at the rear). Criticism of the Allegro’s driveline snatchiness were also partially rectified by replacing the synthetic engine mounts with rubber ones, and adding two vertical dampers to the front mountings.

Autocar magazine summed-up after its test of the Series 2 1750HL: ‘Perhaps the handling inadequacies would not be so noticeable were the Allegro to fulfil some other role with distinction. Its performance and ride could make it an ideal small luxury car, but here, too, it falls down, thanks to poor seating and rather insipid interior styling. So it is a car without a role; cars like the VW Golf LS and Alfasud Ti outsmart it as small sports saloons, while others such as the Citroen GS have the style and comfort the Allegro lacks.’

Still the Allegro sold sufficiently well, but the major obstacle to sales was the styling, and there was by then no more money left in British Leyland’s coffers for a re-body. Crisis in the Corporation meant Taxpayers’ money was being used sparingly, and any meaningful development of the Allegro was further down the list priorities than it ought to have been. From June 1978 the Allegro was also assembled at BL’s plant at Seneffe in Belgium and many were imported into the UK, but it continued to be sold throughout the 1970s and into the ’80s, its styling resolutely unchanged.

September 1979
Allegro Series 3 launched

This picture of an Allegro 3 shows perfectly, just how much of an improvement can be made with a few cosmetic modifications. The quad-headlamp arrangement (also found on European series 2 Allegros) addressed the biggest criticism of the the car's styling: its bland headlamp/grille arrangement.

This picture of an Allegro 3 shows perfectly, just how much of an improvement can be made with a few cosmetic modifications. The quad-headlamp arrangement (also found on European series 2 Allegros) addressed the biggest criticism of the the car’s styling: its bland headlamp/grille arrangement.

The Allegro 3 benefited from many engineering improvements, but the new dashboard and interior increased the Allegro's appeal massively.

The Allegro 3 benefited from many engineering improvements, but the new dashboard and interior increased the Allegro’s appeal massively.

She styling was titivated by a wide range of new colours, new lights, plastic wheel trims, new radiator grilles, wraparound plastic bumpers and a natty front airdam. This model incorporated some very real technical improvements, especially in the area of fuel consumption – a factor very relevant in 1979. It also received a stylish new dashboard and uprated interiors.

The result was a pleasant to drive Allegro, all models were well-equipped and well-and-truly sorted: in other words, it developed into a capable car. If nothing else, the competence of the Allegro 3 proved the development engineers at BL earned their money. Disappointingly, sales continued their downward spiral until it it was replaced, unmourned, by the Maestro in 1983.

Interestingly, it was towards the end of the Allegro’s production run the two most bizarre versions saw the light of day. The first was the Equipe model, which appeared in July 1979. This was a Two door version of the 1750HL, painted boldly in bright Silver with day-glo orange ‘Starsky & Hutch’ stripes and porous alloy wheels – guaranteed to leave the unsuspecting owner with four flat tyres in the morning. Austin-Morris touted the Equipe as a rival to the Alfasud Ti and the Golf GTi. In some ways, it was a vastly underrated car, but the styling additions and colour choices were somewhat misjudged – even though today, it’s a highly prized slice of retro. The Allegro Equipe never became a permanent addition to the Allegro range, but then again, it was never intended to – acting as a car to generate much-needed showroom traffic during the dark years.

There was also the Allegro 1.0. This version came about as a result of model and engine rationalisation in the BL range following the launch of the Austin Metro. When the Mini Clubman was dropped, so was the 1100cc A-Series. Austin decided to drop the 1-litre version of the Engine into the Allegro, rather than make the 1275cc version the base model. Quite why this was done is unfathomable, but needless to say it was a slug car offering no economy advantage over the 1275cc version.

March 1982
Allegro ceased production

The end for the Austin Allegro finally came in March 1982, a full year before its successor, the Maestro reached the showrooms. Sadly the Maestro was also stylistically challenged, showing that BL had learned nothing from the Allegro.

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