Infamous Austin Allegro’s Notoriety Grows with “Worst Car” Accolade
By Andy Bannister
This was a product of the late, unlamented British Leyland and first limped out of its factory in Longbridge, England, back in 1973. If you are American you won’t be familiar with the Allegro, which mercifully never made it across the Atlantic. The almost complete US failure of its predecessor, the Austin America, and its more conventional brother, the Austin Marina, saw to that.
Some 25 years after its demise, however, the Allegro still strikes a chord with the British public It recently came top of an internet poll to name the country’s worst-ever car. Yet, perversely, it also has a growing number of diehard fans to whom this most hated and unsuccessful of cars is the perfect quirky statement of individuality.
Launched with unjustified fanfare, the Allegro was meant to be the high-tech front-wheel-drive model to compete with the best Europe had to offer and be the pride of the modern British car industry. Even at first sight this looked a forlorn hope, for the car was saddled with a dumpy body, featuring a pinched-in nose and curved sides which defied attempts to improve it with a facelift.
It lacked a hatchback at the time most European contemporaries were gaining them, it was smaller inside than it predecessor, and it was mechanically unreliable. Worst of all it was thrown together by the couldn’t-care-less workforce of a company which was on strike more often than not as it careered headlong towards committing industrial suicide.
British Motor Corporation, one of the companies caught up in the disastrous British Leyland merger, wasn’t always a basket case, however. In fact its front-wheel-drive designs were years ahead of their time, notably the 1959 Mini and the 1963 1100, – the car which was so advanced that for a time it scared Ford UK witless and was Britain’s best-seller for years and even an export success.
Something went horribly amiss, however, by the time the Allegro finally made its appearance. British Leyland decided it needed a gimmick to make the new car memorable, and latched on to a designer doodle which became the “quartic” steering wheel, instantly dubbed square by the motoring press. It was a device guaranteed to make the car a laughing stock from day one.
Another remarkable foible was the rear screen’s tendency to “pop out” when the car was jacked up, dismaying many owners already suffering from a host of niggling faults. The car’s musically-inspired name quickly was changed to “All aggro” by the popular press, and the mud stuck.
Initially a two-door or four-door saloon, the Allegro later gained one of the most peculiar looking estate car bodies ever, with a swept-up tail and a ridiculously long single rear window. The car’s technically advanced but underdeveloped “hydragas” suspension struggled to cope with heavy loads, which didn’t help its chances.
One of my favourite Allegros ever was the limited-edition Equipe model sold in 1979 and pictured at the top of this piece in a typically ’70s ad style. This had the top-of-the-range 1750cc engine and weird body stripes which were meant to invoke the image of the popular Starsky and Hutch TV series earlier in the decade. It also featured a new and untried style of alloy wheel which turned out to be porous and led buyers to report constantly flat tyre. Like most Allegros the Equipe proved a challenge for the hapless dealerships to sell.
An even more bizarre variant was the Vanden Plas 1500, a “mini-limousine” by the people who provided upmarket Daimlers. An upright grille of outstandingly ugly proportions was grafted on to the car, which also featured a remarkable wood-and-leather interior. Most buyers (and there weren’t many) seemed to be retired colonels aged over 80.
Despite its obvious lack of sales appeal, British Leyland even cranked up a plant at Seneffe in Belgium to cope with an anticipated European demand which never happened. Instead, Belgian Allegros filtered back into Britain to make up for the gaps in supply caused by the endemic strikes tearing the UK industry apart in the 1970s. The Seneffe Allegros were also better built than their British counterparts, so in a strange way were quite sought after.
Italy also had its own locally-built version of the Allegro, known as the Innocenti Regent, with modifications to the nose, wheels, lights and interior to suit Italian conditions. This car was regarded with incredulity by Italian consumers who en masse refused to buy it, so the Regent is now one of the very rarest Allegro variants.
Over the years the car was doggedly improved – the square wheel being quietly dropped after a year or two – and by the end of its surprisingly long career (in 1983) it had sold a respectable 642,000 – way below its predecessor, however. During the Allegro’s time the state-owned company’s market share plummeted like its reputation, never to recover.
Today, as well as a being an incomparable testament to industrial and design failure, surviving Allegros are sought after in a way they never were when new. To some buyers, including quite a few young people, it’s so uncool it’s cool.
British Leyland managed some more entries in the Worst Car top ten, incidentally. Just behind the Allegro came the Morris Ital (a last-gasp facelifted version of the aforementioned Austin Marina), and a good number of votes also went to the resolutely wedge-shaped BL Princess. The only model seriously sold in North America to make the top ten was the Triumph TR7 although it got off lightly, securing only 2 per cent of the public vote (the Allegro got a massive 24 per cent).
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