Allegro: A Clever Classic Choice?
For many, the 1970’s failed on so many levels; power cuts, strikes and football violence, a decade of ‘dubious’ music and fashion with average automobiles. The replacements for some of today’s most popular classic cars were unleashed on an indifferent public; the great models from Austin, Morris and many more were no longer. ‘BL’ was already beginning to struggle when the Allegro was launched in 1973. Donald Stokes announced that the Allegro was not just a car for the sophisticated British public but also the sophisticated Europeans, knowing full well that the final product offered little resemblance to the vehicle penned by designer Harris Mann. Leyland with government support swallowed up smaller brands such as Triumph and Rover during the 60s and Wilson’s Labour looked for a further combination with the drowning giant BMC in 1969.
The 1972 showroom line up included both Marina and Maxi models and that same year car production in the UK peaked at 1.92 million vehicles. Stokes had the task of keeping the assembly lines running whilst pacifying a heavily unionised workforce, controlling the giant that had become BLMC (British Leyland Motor Corporation).
A Brilliant Idea
Replacing the extremely popular Austin 1100/1300 series (ADO16) was never going to be easy and the Allegro development began in 1968, the same year a revamped ADO16 returned to top the UK sales charts, as it did in 69. The budget an estimated £21 million was huge and the Harris Mann design was chosen for the ADO67. The original drawings exceeded the specs requested, not just a modern take on the 1100 but a long and sleek all-rounder to carry BL for the next decade. Why then was the image in Mann’s drawings not transferred to the Longbridge production lines? Simply money; once the accountants became ‘involved’ the compromise that arrived in the showrooms had ‘evolved’. ‘Parts bin raiding’ was the first place number crunchers looked too and the heater unit, developed at great expense for the Marina had to be shoehorned into place, affecting the height of the bulkhead and thus the bonnet.
Utilising the E series (Maxi) power plant for the 1500 and 1750 models ensured any chance of a low, sleek look had gone, being rather tall; whilst the smaller engine options continued with the venerable A Series. The gearbox was sump mounted similar to the Maxi and suffered from a ‘notchy’ operation which was far from positive. Management decisions taken in the day were bizarre at least, counterproductive at best; not making the Allegro a hatchback because that feature belonged to the Maxi alone was one move that forced some buyers to wait until 1975 for the estate version whilst others visited the dealerships of Citroen and Renault. The development of the hydragas suspension system to replace the hydralastic was a success but came with a huge price tag, this may explain the BL board’s decision to put the entire range up by 10% just prior to the Allegro’s launch; Deluxe 1100 cost £950 to £1366 for the 1750SS.
Journalists invited to Longbridge in 1972 were offered an early look at the Allegro a year prior to the unveiling at Earls Court Motor Show. BL management understood the value of good press support and asked those gathered for input and suggestions on improving their latest model. Whilst many options were offered, including replacing the infamous Quartic (square) steering wheel, none were taken up. Too late for dramatic alterations anyway the BL bosses decreed, the Allegro remained untouched; this annoyed many Journalists and did little to endear them to the model. Initially coverage was fair, some say even generous especially from those enjoying the sunny Marbella test but the Allegro’s compromises would not go away.
The Police replaced fleets of Panda cars with a launch order of 657 vehicles all of which would have the unpopular steering wheel discharged. Original designer Harris Mann admitted he was also disappointed with the ADO67 that finally left Longbridge being so different from his original vision. One thing the Allegro offered was a unique automobile; many believe such was the lack of quality control at the plant no two vehicles ever left the same and certainly not perfect. Dealers were forced to carry out extensive remedial work at PDI and faults due to poor build quality kept their mechanics busy. One British Leyland supplier from the era, Henry Farrell told me ‘we had one main and two smaller satellite dealerships with BL signs above the doors, these were difficult times for the brand.
Poor management and radical unions meant substandard cars and although the mechanicals were generally reliable, the body construction left much to be desired. Jack up an Allegro in the wrong place and the rear window would just pop out’. The ADO67 didn’t cause the collapse of BL but over the nine years in production it failed to stall the inevitable, poorly managed and built; the press dislike to the model didn’t help either. For those who have never enjoyed moments with Leyland’s final nemesis, one big question; was the Allegro really that bad? One enthusiast assists with an answer.
‘I purchased my first Allegro in 1989, a Vanden Plas no less’ James Butler confessed whilst showing me around his 1981 series 3 estate; one model that is becoming rare now with just 17 left on the road and James has two. ‘Over the year’s dozens have passed through my hands mainly because they were so cheap to buy. Those facing MOT failure were broken for parts and I supplied owners across the country whilst keeping my own cars roadworthy for nothing’. James purchased an ultra-rare Equipe model from a scrap dealer and restored it to show winning quality then found fame with Quentin Wilson on ‘The Cars the Star’ lapping Silverstone for the cameras in 1994. Mr Wilson noted over 20 years ago that the Allegro appealed to younger buyers, the same appeal applies today, something it didn’t achieve at launch. James thinks the biggest issue facing remaining Allegro’s on the road is the lack of replacement Hydragas units, once the nitrogen has escaped the unit, the ride becomes unbearable.
Plans and drawings to re-inject existing units are around James kitchen and he is confident of manufacturing a system to keep any Allegro suspension bouncing along for years. Quizzing James as to why he chose to adopt the one BL car many just look to forget he confirmed ‘so people ask me why the Austin Allegro? Well the answer is I am not really sure! I first bought one about twenty five years ago as a run about and then another one and so it went on. I have always been one to support the underdog but that is not the main reason for owning a couple of Allegros. After several years without one my memories soon hark back to my teenage years driving them around also I truly feel the Estate versions are not bad looking cars. The Allegro has always been good to me, reliable and long-lasting, so no matter what people say about poor build and windows popping out etc I have never seen it happen; maybe I am just lucky’.
Spacious and Surprising
‘The Allegro has Vroom for Five’ a BL slogan that adorned the TV advertising campaigns of the 70’s and with the estate a massive 53 cubic feet of luggage space was gained when the rear seats folded flat. The door closed with a reassuring clunk, no rattles so far and the 1300 A+ series engine required little choke before it settled to a confident tick over. The dash clock still works I noticed and contrary to expectations the gearbox slid into first with minimum fuss. Clutch operation is light and the steering is reasonable; unless you have grown up knowing only power assistance.
On the move the suspension impresses with an ability to soak up the very worst pot holes whilst the 1275cc A + retains most of its 62bhp and keeps with modern traffic easily. It seems James did very well finding this 51K mile estate via the internet, its one previous owner certainly maintained it well. Rust prevention when new included a visit to Salop Car Care who wax-injected the body and although James has fitted aftermarket wheels, this estate maintains its originality. Interior trim is excellent for a 34 year old, the seats are comfortable and their coverings are certainly an improvement on the earlier series 2 vinyl offerings. The contrasts of interiors are apparent when comparing the later blue car with James other estate, a 1977 series 2 with a similar mileage finished in its original white with a very 70’s feel inside.
After an hour of town and ‘A’ roads an honest opinion strikes me ‘the Allegro is actually a pretty decent drive’ leading to an appreciation that those choosing to support the model are not all eccentrics. Whilst like James the average Allegro owner enjoys being different they also benefit from an affordable and reliable drive and with British Leyland’s involvement these owners are never short of conversation at any gathering.
Technical Specification: BL Allegro Series 3 Estate 1981
- Engine: A+ Series 4 cylinder 62bhp-72ft lb torque
- Gearbox: Four speed manual-FWD
- Suspension: 4 x Hydragas units
- Brakes: Fr discs – Rr drums
- Fuel Consumption: 32.5mpg
- Performance: 0-60mph – 17secs/Top speed 84mph
- Weight: 850kgs/Length: 13ft/ Turning circle: 33ft