Today we embark on the story of the small British car made famous long after its demise by a certain BBC motoring programme. It was ugly, poorly made and had a bad reputation while it was still for sale. We are of course talking about the Austin Allegro. Get ready for British Leyland’s new forward-thinking car.
The Allegro was an important car for Austin and its merged parent British Leyland and was one of the first product designs generated by the new company after its inception in early 1968. 17 All the car brands in the BL portfolio, Austin was a full mid-range car maker, as was Rover (the brand that eventually absorbed it).
Designed for large and small family car consumers, the Allegro replaced the ADO16. More commonly known as the Austin 1100 or Morris 1100, it was also sold in various badge-engineered versions from MG, Riley, Vanden Plas and Wolseley. The ADO16 was a hatchback, available in two- and four-door versions, as well as a station wagon.
The 1100 was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, who introduced the Mini to the world in 1959. All ADO16 variants were produced between 1962 and 1973, although some were killed off slightly earlier. The practical cars used Austin A-series engines from the 1950s, and although the model was very successful, it looked dated by the early 1970s and the competition from other brands had more up-to-date products.
British Leyland knew it had to move away from multiple badge-engineered versions of the same car, and the new Allegro would only be marketed under two BL marques: Austin and, a few years later, Vanden Plas. The latter turned the Allegro into a “luxury” car, which was the brand’s mission (more on that in the future).
The Allegro was offered alongside two similar cars from BL, highly differentiated by their body types. First to arrive was the Maxi, a slightly larger five-door hatchback. The Maxi was the first British five-door hatchback design and the last car designed at BMC before it was reorganized as British Leyland.
It was also intended to be available as a sedan, but BL management scrapped that project and asked Morris to offer the Marina as a sedan in 1971. The Marina shared a 96-inch wheelbase with the Allegro, but was more traditional and motorized. . The front-drive Allegro was the last of the trio to arrive in 1973.
Internally, the Allegro project was known as the ADO67 and began in 1968 when British Leyland was less than a year old. BMC’s original intent was a modernization of the Austin 1100 design, a program known as ADO22. BL’s management killed that idea, saying that an all-new car was needed to compete with the success of the Ford Cortina Mark II. Part of the idea of the all-new car was to support brand differentiation: Austin would sell more adventurous car models, while Morris would appeal to the more traditional buyer.
And adventurous was what Allegro’s original designer, Harris Mann, envisioned. The style trend of the late 60s and early 70s was towards sharper, squared angles and wedge designs. Mann penned a two-door sedan shape that was sharp and wedge-shaped. As shown in the illustration, a low hood line met a forward-sloping front panel with a sleek chrome bumper.
The page detailing was mostly based on an almost horizontal character line, with minimal detailing. Mag-type wheels gave a sporty look, and a fast A-pillar met an equally fast C-pillar at the rear of the Allegro. It almost sounded like something AMC was considering in the form of Dick Teague; even the door handle design was AMC-esque.
It was a modern take on the successful 1100 design – the original steering prompt. But while the design looked great, there were a few problems with the implementation. BL required that even though it was a new car, the Allegro should have as many existing parts as possible. The most important of these was engine sharing.
Austin planned to continue using the 1100’s A-Series inline-four engines, all of which were smaller displacement. However, BL management said that the E-series engine should also fit under the hood, as it would power the top-end versions of the Allegro and later in the Vanden Plas. The E-series engines were larger and taller than the A-series turbines and in this case had 1.5 and 1.7 liter displacements.
Competing with the engine for the limited space was a new (and large) heating system. It was a sunk cost and already implemented in the new marina. Management said it should also be used on the Allegro. Both things forced Mann to redesign the hood to be much taller than expected. And that had consequences for the greenhouse and meant less glass.
The sharp edges and wedge design were removed soon after by engineers who were currently spending time on a design to replace the Mini. ADO74 focused on new packaging methods and structural strength via round panels. The ADO74 was everywhere as a project, and was eventually rounded up so much that it was nicknamed the “Barrel Car”. The project was scrapped because BL did not have enough money to launch a new Mini, but its Allegro styling effects were noticeable.
Ultimately, BL engineers and management turned Mann’s design into something less than elegant. It was only then that the design was presented to management in 1969 for approval, out of a total of five design options. It was greenlit for production and received few design changes from that point on.
Rounded corners and general curvature of all panels combined with a higher and more conservative roof than originally intended. The front end used headlights and corner markers already available from the BL parts bin, resulting in a boring front end that lacked sportiness.
The look was completed with steel wheels and hubcaps, and the Allegro looked like it sat a little too high due to its gas suspension (more on that later). Overall, the Allegro looked much softer than expected due to its roundness and felt too large with its constricted glass area. This has been a kind of adventurous design because it was the opposite of all popular modern styles.
None of this mattered to the management of British Leyland, who were determined that this new styling direction on the Allegro would fit perfectly with its up-to-date engineering and create a truly timeless design. Next time we’ll discuss said engineering, where BL management and engineers blended 1950s mechanics with advances in gas suspension technology.
[Images: British Leyland]
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