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Austin Allegro

Published: 19th Jul 2011 - 1 Comments

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Allegro should have steered BL ro a bright future but instead it became a laughing stock with its square steering wheel

BL said that the square steering wheel was a safety aid!

Here’s a popular pub quiz question: What car (a British one incidentally)was more aerodynamic when going in reverse than forward… Could pop a windscreen out when you changed a wheel and was given a name that lent itself to a host of jokes? Want an extra clue? It had a square steering wheel!

It’s the Austin Allegro of course, perhaps better known as the ‘All aggro’ or ‘Alleg pull’ to the great majority of people. Many ‘experts’ who never even knew the car if truth be told. Yet, jokes aside, was the 70’s replacement to the best selling and well loved 1100/1300 range really as bad as its reputation suggests? Allegro, just like several of its sibling models, such as the Marina and Maxi, wasn’t a bad car at all – just badly developed. Indeed, the ever critical Car magazine praised the Allegro to the hilt when it was fi nally launched in spring 1973, yet fi ve years latter labelled it as “dreary”. Car now regards its fi rst verdict on the car as one of the magazine’s biggest blunders. And that’s a shame because, if the Allegro had lived up to its on-paper promise, that initial enthusiasm wouldn’t have been misplaced. Essentially, the Allegro was supposed to keep all that was good about the decade-old 1100/1300 ranges, plus add more space, sophistication and luxury. The trusty A Series engines were retained, but supplemented by the Maxi’s 1500 and 1750 units with their fi ve-speed gearboxes on the top models.

The old fluid suspension was ditched in favour of gas, to counter the car-sicken fl oat suffered by the old Hydrolastic system. In addition, the Allegro was a usefully roomier than its more compact predecessor (especially the boot) and boasted a far more orthodox driving position than the old ‘bus-like‘ stance all BMC FWD cars were blighted with to varying degrees. Sir Alec Issigonis played no part in the Allegro, so you’d have thought the car’s styling would be benefi ted. And yet the car – styled by Harris Mann, later of TR7 fame – looked surprisingly dumpy; a strange high bonnet line was dictated by that E-Series engine and the Marina heater system.

No matter, the Allegro looked fresh and new, as well as offering strong value for money. Costing between £974 and £1367, it was lot more tempting than the old Mk1 Escort and the HC Viva, although the launch of the two-door Hillman Avenger in October ‘73 certainly gave BL a worthy home-grown competitor. “Beauty with brains behind it” is how an early Allegro advertisement put it. So, why did the Allegro become All-aggro? Essentially, it was another BL product that relied upon the fi rst batch of owners to fi nish off the development work. Suspensions didn’t leak, but many of them collapsed, while virtually every owner could keep goldfi sh in the spare-wheel well, so bad were the body leaks on early cars. British Leyland at least cured this area for 1975 cars; in true high tech German-style – not! It simply drilled two holes in the fl oor at the factory! Interior rattles were common, BL designing nylon washers to stop the seats making the most racket. Autocar had a particularly miserable time with a long term 1300 SDL. Over 20,000 miles, the car suffered all the above plus two engine rebuilds. “I became so fed up with the car’s unreliability… had I been a private owner I would have sold the car,” said its unhappy custodian.

‘Roundly’ criticised…

The biggest talking point of original Allegros wasn’t their odd aerodynamics but that silly steering wheel. Called ‘Quartic’ by Austin, it featured round edging; the idea was that the squared look added welcome extra legroom, made the instruments easier to read, plus it was touted as a safety aid by BL, as it forced the driver to hold the thing properly! Needless to say, the Quartic tiller was ditched by summer 1974. But, you wonder if the idea would have been praised for its sheer inventiveness if the Germans or French had thought of it fi rst! Of course Allegro has its good points. It was a spry performer, especially in 1500/1750 forms, being Escort Mexico quick in 1750SS guise. The five-speed gearbox certainly gave these top models longer legs than a pricier Rover P6, or XJ6, let alone any cruder Ford. The ride, while certainly not perfect, especially on pre-75 cars, was superior to most rivals (including the 1100) and the Allegro was steadily improved over a ten year run – it’s just that by then the Austin’s reputation was sullied beyond redemption. T h e e s t a t e s , although hardly things of beauty, were like mini Volvos and the top Vanden Plas 1500 automatic (£1950 in 1974) had as much luxury as a Daimler Sovereign, which boasted the same badge but cost almost four times the price!

Allegro 2 surfaced in 1976, boasting more rear legroom, with an Allegro 3 appearing four years later, by which time the range included 998cc and 1098cc models to broaden appeal effectively making a letter day Morris Minor, albeit without the character and charm. Less than 650,000 were made, against almost two million 1100/1300s. Today you often see Allegros at classic car shows, usually snuck out of the way along with Marinas, Maxis and Maestros, as though they are some form of automotive pariahs. Motor called the Allegro the most disappointing car of the 1970s because it inherited all the good points of the 1100/1300 “while lamentably failing to be a significant advance on it.” But if you’re now after something different as well as cheap and cheerful why not seek out a good one and have the last laugh. After all, classic car motoring is supposed to be fun!

When The Car Was The Star

Anyone remember Life Begins At 40? You would have no reason to recall this really bad sitcom from Thames TV apart from the occasional appearance of a Vanden Plas Princess 1500. More recent Allegro cameos are found in Little Britain, plus the 4 door (!) Series 3 (!!) panda car in Life on Mars, a slightly more authentic 1100 police car example in the fi rst series of The Professionals, the 1500 Special in the reliably dire Return of The Saint. The prize for the most offbeat Allegro appearances has to be awarded to Carlos, the 2010 mini series about the notorious Venezuelan terrorist – see if you can spot several BL cars during the running time.

Classic Motoring

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This review has 1 comments

  • I may be the only Hongkonger to own an Allegro 1300. This was bought from a 2nd hand car dealer after I past the driving test when studying in UK in my young age for 400 pounds. This car was tested by my friends so until I paid the money and sat at the driving seat then I noticed that the wheel is square. In the days after I kept looking at the leveling of the wheel to keep the car straight up and in reverse. I like this square wheel and remember it full of fun.

    Comment by: Carlos Wong     Posted on: 15 Aug 2012 at 05:52 AM

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