A few months ago the sort of email I’ve come to occasionally expect popped into my Inbox. Can we borrow your Allegro?
This time it was Newspress, purveyors of access to media. We’ve provided a few cars to Newspress for the SMMT Test Day. Normally it’s Jensens and Corvettes. This time they wanted the Allegro.
This is the sort of request I’ve got used to. Since I bought my Allegro – and, yes, I have to admit, it is ‘mine’ – it’s generated more press coverage than the rest of our fleet combined.
It’s hard to see why. The Allegro, on any criteria, is crap. It looks bad, it drives dismally (if not actually badly) and is, in this case, extremely brown. And yet the Allagro commands an allure that few can resist. I’m not sure there’s another car built in the last 50 years that commands such approbrium. There are contenders of course, the Rialto, Skoda Estelle, Ssangyong Musso, but somehow we expect them to be bad. The Allegro is in a different category of awfulness, one all its own.
Quite how we got here, to a place where Allegro is a watchword for naffness, is not entirely clear. Take a look at the original Allegro and, while it’s certainly no oil painting, it’s hard to describe it as awful. BL did compromise the original Harris Mann concept but, believing slightly bizarrely that Austin was the new Citroen, they thought challenging meant quirky. It didn’t.
Looks aside, the Allegro was reasonably good at doing what a family car should do – spacious, comfortable, smooth-riding and well equipped. Perhaps it was its propensity to break down that gave owners plenty of time to dissect its myriad qualities in more detail. Yet there were many of those – owners, that is. The Allegro sold respectably well, despite apparently being awful.
Perhaps the Allegro’s failing, which sowed the seed of its current reputation, was that it was a car manifestly a step out of time. At launch it faced the mk1 Golf, a chiselled hatchback of superlative abilities. Further afield it was up against the early stages of a Japanese onslaught – Datsun may have offered oddly styled family cars but they were cheap, well-specced and reliable.
The Allegro arrived onto a car buying scene populated by customers who considered Japanese and German cars risque and outre. That may be hard to imagine now but in the 70s buying non-British was deemed traitorous. BL’s adverts played heavily on this, exorting buyers to think of the poor humble Leyland worker chipping away at the automotive coal face.
This loyalty sold Allegros. The trouble is, it was a trick. The guilt trap only works for so long. Buyers scared of French Renaults weren’t ready for an avant garde Austin. They wanted sensible. And reliable. Unlike its predecessors the Allegro faced a competitive market where its failings shone brightly. Poor build, dodgy looks and unreliability condemned it quickly and comprehensively.
The Allegro’s real failing is not that it was bad, but that it was not good enough. BL created a car for a market that didn’t really exist: an innovative, quirky car aimed at people who wanted simple and normal. And good.
The 70s fixation with Buying British and being loyal didn’t help either. Foreign travel and EU membership introduced Brits to what they could have: they began to realise that Buying British often meant Buying Crap, a second rate product that could only be sold with a soupcon of guilt thrown in. Some, perhaps many, resented it. I know my dad did.
Sticking to the knitting with a conservative, sober-suited car in the mould of Ford or VW would have been simpler and more successful. Selling cars because they were good not just because they were British was, in hindsight, a better solution.
The Allegro was a saloon in a hatchback world. A British car in a burgeoning international culture. While not strictly bad, it showed us how weak Britain was compared to its rivals. Just 30 years ago we’d won the world war, yet this was all we were capable of. I don’t think it’s over stating the case to say that the Allegro embodies our national stumble. We looked at the Allegro and saw Britain as it truly was.
40 years on we’re more confident about who we are. We’ve accepted our reduced place in the world. We can laugh at the Allegro. We can embrace it. And maybe it’s this that explains how astonishingly popular the car has become. The Allegro is not a good car. It’s not even a very bad car. But it does represent a very specific moment in time, when Britain doubted itself, and with good reason. In the Allegro it found a car that represented its fall from grace: after all, how could the nation that won the world war produce such crap?
I admire my Allegro. I admire its resilience. Its unavoidable brownness. Its not a good car and in many respects is a terrible one. But it doesn’t really deserve its role as automotive whipping dog. I never imagined I’d play the role of Allegro apologist but, folks, here I am. Allegro: we salute you. You’re not as as bad as people say you are.