History of the 1973 - 1980 Austin Allegro
The Austin Allegro was designed to replace Alec Issigonis's very successful Austin 1100 and 1300, which had been the top selling car in the UK for most of its 12 years of production. However, the 1970s marked a sharp decline in British Leyland's fortunes, and the Allegro came to typify many of them, including the absence of a hatchback, just as it caught on thanks to the Renault R16 and Volkswagen Golf. The Austin Maxi was the only BL car to have a hatchback, but had so many quality control problems and a problematic gearbox, that BL failed to capitalize on the market.
Harris Mann was originally hired to re-skin the 1100 and 1300, but things went awry and the Allegro ignored Giorgetto Giugiaro's sharp edges, which were then coming into style. It wasn’t Mann's fault - he was responsible for wedges like the Princess and Triumph TR7 - but BL insisted on offering the tall E-Series 1485cc and 1748cc SOHC engines from the Maxi, in addition to the old A-series 1098cc and 1275cc OHV units.
The bigger engines wouldn't fit under the low bonnet, so it was raised, and the Allegro became rounded and dumpy, and was initially known as the 'flying pig'. Early cars also had a 'quartic' (square) steering wheel, also tried by Chrysler in 1963 in America – for about the same length of time – two years. The Allegro was offered as a 2- and 4-door saloon, with a Hydragas suspension, based on the old Hydrolastic system, while a 4-speed automatic transmission was optional. Desperately trying to catch the hatchback trend, a 3-door Allegro estate was added in September 1974, but only in production for 100 days before the Series 2 was launched with a number of changes to the grille and headlights, and improved rear legroom.
At the same time, an up-market Vanden Plas version was introduced, with a tall radiator shell and raised bonnet and enough fancy trim – reclining leather seats, wood dash, picnic tables and pile carpet - to bump the base Allegro’s price from £1159 to £1951. In 1976 BL contemplated moving Allegro production to Belgium to make way for the Mini replacement, the new Metro. However, that was delayed by a surprising four years, by which time the the Allegro was outdated.
At least the Metro was a hatchback, and its new 1-litre engine was also shared with the third Series of Allegros, introduced at the same time, in 1979. By then, the Allegro design had been outpaced by the Volkswagen Polo, Ford Escort Mark III and Vauxhall Astra. The Vanden Plas soldiered on in 1.5-litre and 1.7-litre form, until both models were discontinued in 1982, to be replaced by the Austin Maestro.
Allegros gained a bad reputation for being rust-prone, but were no worse than any other offerings at the time. Even five years into production, the Allegro was still the fifth best selling car in the UK. The launch of the Austin Metro and the Honda Accord-based Triumph Acclaim doomed the Allegro, but it was not missed, and today is considered to be perhaps the high (or low) point of the 1970s 'malaise era' British cars. Allegros are now considered 'retro chic' and are starting to appear in the more eclectic collections. In any event, with 716,250 examples sold, it's hard to call the Allegro a failure.
The Allegro is a star of Hagerty's Festival of the Unexceptional, which celebrates the best (worst?) of the BL-era cars.