Abandoned History: The Austin Allegro Story, a Fine Motorcar (Part I)


October 3rd, 2022 4:49 PM

Today we embark on the story of the small British car made famous long after its demise by a certain BBC car program. It was ugly, poorly made, and had a nasty reputation while it was still on sale. We’re speaking of course about the Austin Allegro. Prepare yourself for the forward-looking new car from British Leyland.

The Allegro was an important car for Austin and its amalgamated parent British Leyland and was one of the first product designs generated by the new company after it was founded in early 1968. Of the 17 total automobile marques within the BL portfolio, Austin was a full-line manufacturer of middle-market cars, sort of like Rover (the brand that eventually absorbed it). 

Designed for the important small family car consumer, the Allegro was a replacement for the ADO16. Most often 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-shaped sedan, available in two- and four-door versions, as well as a wagon. 

The 1100 was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, who brought the world the Mini in 1959. All ADO16 variants were produced between 1962 and 1973, though some were killed off a bit earlier. The practical cars used A-series Austin engines from the Fifties, and though the model was very successful it looked dated by the turn of the Seventies, and competition from other brands had more updated product.

British Leyland knew it needed to move away from multiple badge-engineered versions of the same car, and the new Allegro would be marketed under only two BL marques: Austin and a few years later, Vanden Plas. The latter turned the Allegro into a “luxury” car, as was the brand’s mission (more on that in the future). 

Allegro was offered alongside two similar cars from BL, largely differentiated by their body styles. The first to arrive was the Maxi, a slightly larger five-door hatchback. 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 intended to be available as a sedan as well, but BL management canned that project and instead had Morris offer the Marina as a sedan in 1971. The Marina shared a 96-inch wheelbase with the Allegro but was more traditional and rear-drive. The front-drive Allegro was the last of the trio to arrive, in 1973. 

Internally the Allegro project was known as ADO67 and began in 1968 when British Leyland was less than a year old. The original intention at BMC was a modernization of the Austin 1100 design, a program known as ADO22. BL management killed that idea and stated that an all-new car was needed to compete with the successful Mark II Ford Cortina. Part of the all-new car idea was in order to support branding differentiation: Austin would sell more adventurous car designs, while Morris would appeal to the more traditional buyer. 

And adventurous was what the Allegro’s original designer, Harris Mann, envisioned. The late Sixties and early Seventies styling trend was toward sharper, squared-off angles and wedge designs. Mann penned a two-door sedan shape that was sharp and wedge-like. As the illustration shows, a low hood line met with a front fascia that was angled forward and held a thin chrome bumper. 

Side detailing relied mostly on a nearly horizontal character line, with a minimum of detailing. Mag-type wheels lent a sporty look, and a fast A-pillar met an equally fast C-pillar at the Allegro’s rear. It almost looked like something AMC would envision under the guise of Dick Teague; even the door handle design was AMC-like.

It was a modern take on the 1100’s successful design – the original prompt from management. However, while the design looked great there were some issues with its implementation. BL demanded that although it was a new car, the Allegro must have as many extant parts as possible. Most important among those was engine sharing. 

Austin planned to continue the use of the A-Series inline-four engines from the 1100, all of which were smaller displacements. However, BL management stated the E-Series engine must also fit under the hood as it would power more upscale versions of the Allegro, and later on in the Vanden Plas. E-Series engines were larger and taller than the A-Series mills, and in this instance were 1.5 and 1.7 liters in displacement. 

Fighting for the limited room with the engine was a newly developed (and large) heating system. It was a sunk cost and already implemented in the new Marina. Management said it had to be used on the Allegro too. Both things forced Mann to redesign the hood line to be much higher than intended. And that had consequences with regard to the greenhouse and meant less glass.

Sharp edges and the wedge design were removed shortly thereafter by engineers, who were presently spending time with a design intended as a replacement for the Mini. The ADO74 focused on new packaging methods and structural strength via rounded panels. ADO74 was all over the place as a project, and was eventually so rounded it garnered the nickname “Barrel Car.” The project was canned because BL didn’t have enough cash to launch a new Mini, but its effects on Allegro styling were notable.

In the end, engineers and management at BL transformed Mann’s design into something much less than sleek. It was only then that the design was presented to management in 1969 for approval, among five total design options. It was given the green light for production and received few design changes from that point forward.

Rounded corners and a general curvature of all panels combined with a roof that was taller and more conservative than originally intended. The front end used headlamps and corner markers already available in the BL parts bin, which made for a dowdy front end that lacked any sportiness.

The look was completed with some steel wheels and hubcaps, and the Allegro looked like it sat slightly too high because of its gas suspension (more on that later). Overall, the Allegro looked much softer than intended because of its roundness and looked too tall with its shrunken glass area. It was a sort of adventurous design because it was the opposite of all popular contemporary styling.

None of that mattered to British Leyland management, who were determined that this new styling direction on the Allegro would mesh 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 mixed 1950s mechanicals with advancements in gas suspension technology.

[Images: British Leyland] 

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