Avid readers of the blog, of which I am sure there are many, will know that Great Escape Cars recently got an Allegro. I will be the first to admit that I’ve never been a fan of the All-Aggro, but I run a business and people seem to like them. They’ve now got retro-kitsch appeal. Equally, I can’t in all honesty say that, as An Allegro Owner, I actually like it. I don’t. But in much the same way that one tolerates a homeless dog, I will accept the Allegro in my life. And when something as distinctive as an Allegro becomes part of your life it also becomes hard to ignore. Which has also got me wondering about the car itself – exactly why is it so universally reviled? For many the simple answer to that question is to look at one. The Allegro shape is a hard one to love. After all the compromises the original svelte Harris Mann design ended up dumpy, rounded and, well, ugly. In an era when sharp edges were in – think VW Golf – the diminutive Austin was all curves and bumps. None of which would perhaps have mattered quite as much if the car hadn’t followed the 1100/1300, which was a particularly good looking car. And therein lies perhaps the root cause of the Allegro’s problem. The 1100/1300 was hugely popular because it did everything well. It was reliable and spacious and it looked good too. It also drove and rode tidily. The fact that beneath the skin it was also quite advanced for the era, with front wheel drive, was largely irrelevant to most of the buyers who probably had no idea what front wheel drive actually was anyway. Then along came the Allegro. BL decided early on that Austins would be innovative, a sort of British Citroen, while Morrises would be simple and basic to compete with Ford. Consequently when it came to developing the 1100/1300 successor they started in the wrong place. They forgot that what made the 1100/1300 successful was its reliability and decent looks and instead focussed on its technical innovation. The Allegro was intended to be an advanced family car that would command a premium by out-competing sturdy but simple machinery like the Escort. This would be a car to take on Europe. BL’s view seems to have been that by offering a spacious, smooth-riding car just like the 1100/1300, but one that was less quintessentially English in design, they would nail a wider and more affluent market. And with mechanicals and components largely borrowed from the earlier car it should also be reliable too. On paper therefore the Allegro seemed to do everything that the earlier car could do – space, decent ride and reliability – but with the added bonus of being more cutting edge. It’s in the arena of ‘cutting edge’ that the Allegro’s fate seems to have been sealed. In the early 1970s Britain was about as cutting edge as a piece of cheese. Sure, we had been the nucleus of the Swingiing Sixties, but that had really only involved a small number of young people in London. Most of Britain was a sea of brown and beige, from carpets to trousers to car seats. The last thing anyone wanted, or indeed expected, was a cutting edge family car. Least of all from British Leyland.
So the Allegro was the answer to a question that nobody was asking. The fate of the legendary Quartic steering wheel pretty much sums up the problem. Originally slated for the aborted Rover P8 project, the Quartic steering wheel was a genuinely cutting edge idea that improved dashboard visibility and increased knee room. The idea was so good that many modern cars use evolutions of its basic idea. But you would never have guessed that in 1972. Back then the idea of a car with a – gasp – square steering wheel was heresy. Witches were burned for less. 1970s Britain simply couldn’t get its head around a car with a square wheel. It seemed such an unbelievably stupid idea. Of course, the designer of the original wheel, the inventor of the telephone and the ‘imagineer’ of the lightbulb probably all faced similar ridicule. Humans don’t generally do new very well. BL’s issue was not that it had come up with a dumb idea. As history shows, it didn’t. BL’s failing was to catastrophically misread the market. Not only did they fail to understand that square steering wheels were considered ridiculous in the 1970s but they believed that a car’s looks didn’t matter either. This may seem insane now but BL seemed to genuinely believe that challenging equalled cutting edge. The steering wheel and the looks were all part of an assumption that customers wanted clever and innovative. They pretty much couldn’t care less. As Ford knew only too well, simple equalled reliable and, crucially, cheap. Cheap also meant cheap to make, so Ford could dress up its neatly designed cars with plenty of showroom tinsel to distract buyers. BL’s drive to be clever and innovative spectacularly backfired for another simple reason – its factories couldn’t do clever or innovative. Longbridge et al were technologically backward compared to Ford’s plants so expecting them to make a technically demanding car reliably and consistently was pie in the sky. Similarly the company’s quality control was virtually non-existent so the supply chain was similarly incapable of producing high specification components reliably. Consequently the Allegro not only looked challenging, it was also unreliable and badly made.
It is, of course, very easy to criticise. We weren’t there, we didn’t have to face the problems. But the Allegro was a clean sheet design with decent funding. There was no reason to get it so wrong. Had BL been closer to the market and listened to customers, rather than being a lumbering giant comfortable in its dominance, perhaps the Allegro would have been a sharper product. But none of that happened. Ultimately the Allegro’s failure is not that it was a fundamentally bad car, but that it was the wrong car for the times. It was the answer to a question nobody had asked. It has gone down in history as a joke not because of its inherent awfulness but because it was so out of step with the times. This was a car that nobody actually wanted, not because it was bad but because it wasn’t what they had asked for. Perhaps the Allegro could have overcome these problems if it had been reliable and well built. Of course, it wasn’t. That it still managed to sell in reasonable volumes is perhaps the most remarkable part of this story. Because people did buy Allegros. Not as many as BL wanted or expected, but enough for them to be a common sight on 1970s roads. Wow. So really the Allegro is a story of good answers to the wrong questions. Oh, and the importance of good design.
Our Allegro 3 1.1 is available to hire from our Midlands base.