March 22, 2009

Austin Allegro

When I was 11, among my friends at school was a girl who, as I myself did, enjoyed drawing and, to some extent, cars. As we were discussing once, she asked me what car my parents had. After answering to her, I returned the same question. She suddenly looked highly embarrassed, and uttered: “Oh, just some crap… an Austin Allegro”.

Unlike the previous automobiles featured on this blog, I wasn’t able to write a complete post by memory, apart from the aforementioned anecdote and the basic facts about the Allegro, as I’m not particularly familiar with this car – my friend at least rode in the back seat of a very uncommon vehicle, as very few outside England were foolish enough to purchase one. As most of my books and magazines aren’t within reach, I therefore browsed the net looking for details. Though never the best source and quite often filled with inaccuracies, Wikipedia ( nevertheless provided another anecdote that is worth inserting here:

In 2007, Sir Digby Jones
[then British minister of Trade], in criticising the inefficiencies of the Learning and Skills Council, said, “It is what I call the British Leyland model - you put a lot of money in at the top, and an Austin Allegro comes out at the bottom.”

After these two short stories set the mood, it is now time to discuss about the car itself.

A little history

During the Sixties, BMC came up with one of its most successful products ever, the ADO 16, better known from motorists in Great Britain and elsewhere as the Austin / Morris 1100 and 1300. A compact vehicle following Alec Issigonis’ concepts about a popular car, the ADO 16 introduced the cunning Hydrolastic suspension and, within a few years, became the most popular car in its country.

Things went so well with the ADO 16 that BMC personnel apparently believed success would last forever. After BMC became the nationalized group BLMC, also informally called British Leyland, the company’s new heads were surprised to discover that no replacement had been scheduled – actually, there was virtually no project at all ongoing at the time. Instructions were immediately given to develop not one, but two new cars to replace the ADO 16: Morris would build a conventional one, which became the Marina, while Austin would propose a more advanced vehicle more in line with its predecessor, the Allegro, known internally as ADO 67.

On the mechanical side, most of the components used by the Allegro would come from the previous ADO 16, apart from the brand new Hydrogas suspension, a technological marvel that was softer, quieter and better suited to bumpy roads than the Hydrolastic. The engine range would extend upwards, partly to use the 1500 and 1750 cc engines that were powering the Maxi – the car wasn’t selling, leaving largely underused the new facility in Cofton Hackett, dedicated to the production of these engines.

The body was designed by a team led by Harris Mann. That is, Mann drew the original blueprints – to the designer’s horror, engineers later deeply altered his project due to mechanical constraints. While the ADO 16 looked low and long, the ADO 67 grew stout. A compact V4 engine had been once considered but never developed; this, with the addition of a new and very tall heater, meant that the bonnet, and therefore the whole car’s lines, would have to be raised. Juggling with these limitations, engineers had to reduce the size of the windows and raise the overall height of the car, while increasing both the front and rear overhangs. When seen from the front, the narrow grille made the car look even bulkier. To make things as bad inside as they were outside, BLMC’s managing director George Turnbull imposed the use of an (almost) square steering wheel, dubbed “quartic”, which anyone disliked except himself. While the company had still great prospects about its newest product, some of its employees started to doubt.

The Allegro’s official birthdate was in May 1973, when this balloon of a car was finally unveiled. It was received with mixed reviews by the automotive press, to say the least. A rather generous standard equipment list was generally appreciated but, much more importantly, many critics fell upon the peculiar styling, the weird steering wheel, the weak brakes, the poor gearbox, the too-soft ride or the insufficient performances - in some respects the old ADO 16 even seemed superior to its successor. The public didn’t think much better of the newcomer, the “quartic” wheel soon becoming the butt of joke. Less funny was the car's tendency to lose its wheels while being driven, with potential dramatic results. In short, the Allegro was widely detested from the very start.

Not satisfied with having alienated the British press and public, BLMC decided to do the same abroad – after all, the Allegro had been designed at a very high cost and its maker now wanted its money back, so increasing its potential market was inevitable. In continental Europe, the Allegro was unanimously rejected. Innocenti, for long a BMC then BLMC partner, started to build the Allegro in Italy as the Regent. Only eighteen months later, production was stopped and, a short time later, Innocenti started building its own creations rather than un-saleable British ugly ducklings. Believe it or not, if the original Allegro looked repulsive, even worst was to come under the guises of an estate and a luxury derivative, the Vanden Plas 1500, both released in 1974.

From the very start sales were not what BLMC had expected. Over time they kept slipping down. The company tried to solve some of its many problems: the cars evolved into Series 2 and 3, respectively in 1975 and 1979. The latest Allegros were finally pleasant to drive if nothing more, but the main drawback of the car, its odd styling, could even less be addressed that BLMC, by this time, didn’t have any money left for retooling. By early 1982, while its successor, the Maestro, wasn’t even ready, someone finally did what most would have liked to do for the last nine years: press a button and stop the Allegro’s production.

A personal note

I like 1:43 as it offers very unglamorous cars that cannot be found in any other scale. I had read a short article about Vanguards’ Allegro around 2000, and though I wasn’t even collecting model cars at that time I was immediately attracted. Don’t ask me why I have so peculiar a taste!

A note for those of you who could question my mental integrity after reading my last remark: it’s the model of the Allegro I enjoy, not so much the real car...

About the model

Model: Austin Allegro 1750 SS
Year: c.1973
Maker: Vanguards - Corgi
Scale: 1/43
Distributed by: Vanguards, ref. VA04510
Acquired: brand new, in January 2007, in Hong Kong, S.A.R.

Though a commercial failure – it peaked as the seventh bestseller on the British market shortly after its release, while its predecessor had reached the top of the list – the Allegro, designed as a popular car, nevertheless sold well enough to push a die-cast maker, namely Vanguards, to make a model out of it. Mine is a metallic blue 1750 SS, made easily recognizable by its honeycomb grille. It was the most potent version of the range back then, but was nevertheless disliked by the journalists for its lack of performances. Though not the best Vanguards around in my opinion, it is still quite attractive. The most noticeable error is that the chromed moulding that surrounds the grille of the original car is conspicuously missing, somewhat altering its appearance up front. Anyway, criticising would prove to be pointless: who else would be daring enough to put on the market a scale model to rival Vanguards’ one? My rating is 12/20.



No comments: