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As part of our search for the most iconic British cars of the last 60 years (head over there to vote for your own favourite) we’re looking at some of Britain’s best-loved cars in a little more detail. Today, we’re looking at the ill-starred Austin Allegro. No giggling at the back please.
Ah. If you remember the heady whiff of Fruit Salad sweets, ever bounced on a spacehopper or fancied the girl from Magpie, then you’ll have a place free in your mental attic for the Austin Allegro. Perhaps more than any other car, the Allegro has come to represent the failing days of Britain’s nationalised car industry: while British Leyland and then Rover would stagger on into the 1990s, the shadow of the Allegro hung over the company’s reputation and everything they did. Thus, in its own way, the Allegro is a true icon of British motoring.
The Allegro was conceived in happier times when BL still strode British car sales like a colossus. The Austin triumvirate of 1100, 1300 and Maxi had held the threat of Ford, Vauxhall and foreign competition at bay throughout the seventies, and hope was high that the Allegro would cement their dominance in the domestic market.
Firstly, Austin were slow to the punch. A replacement for the 1100 wasn’t even conceived until 1968 – 6 years after its launch. Designs were on the board by 1969 – with Harris Mann’s outline forming the basis of the eventual iconic Allegro shape, but even at that stage the designer was express unease at the way the engineers were corrupting the shape of his body styling.
Technologically though, the Allegro was surprisingly futuristic. The suspension – based on an innovative Hydrogas system – was good enough to survive until 2002 and the car boasted a ‘quartic’ steering wheel. While eventually a symbolic joke, research had shown it to be a good piece of ergonomics and shows how the Allegro team were ahead of the curve in many respects.
But nothing could hide the shortcomings of the eventual production car. Launching in May 1973 (a full 11 years after its precursor and 5 years since it was first conceived) it was soon found to be lacking in critical regards by the motoring press. Slow, heavy, cramped in the back and hampered by weak brakes the car failed to impress in test drives, and could raise little more than a half-heartedly patriotic cheer.
And that’s before its famously woeful appearance. The headlights were set narrower than the width of the car, making it look snub-nosed. The wheels didn’t fill the arches and, coupled with the bulging side panels, gave an overall impression of a car that looked something like a pregnant tortoise. As a package, the Allegro would never sell in the numbers that Leyland hoped for and yet, despite this, it’s successor the (arguably worse Maestro) took until 1983 to materialise – a sure sign that things at BL were deteriorating.
Well, although the number of people prepared to praise the Allegro’s looks is vanishingly small, it remains iconic. In the iconography of the 70s, the Allegro is up there with brown bri-nylon suits, David Bowie’s awful dentistry beaming away on TOTP, flock wallpaper and NHS specs. Philosophically, it also marked the downward lurch of British manufacturing and its submission to politics and management tinkering. While there would be future triumphs, the Allegro set a low benchmark and enabled a more aggressive Ford to capture the domestic market with its relatively sparkling Escort models.
We really wouldn’t want to bestow that honour on any modern car.