Mad props to Daniel Bevis for the pictures.
It’s only when you accidentally swig from a bottle of four-day old milk that you can appreciate how bloody good the fresh stuff is. It’s only when you twat your toe off the corner of a coffee table that you realise how happy your toes normally are. Without the bad, we are not able to appreciate the good. And because of that, we have to accept and almost embrace the bad. It gives us perspective. Reminds us how good we really have it. The Austin Allegro is the vehicular embodiment of this train of thought. It’s cars like this that make us thankful for every other car that isn’t an Allegro. Chrysler Crossfire notwithstanding.
Hate it or hate it, the Allegro is a car that we must, as the motoring collective, acknowledge and appreciate. Don’t roll your eyes though. To appreciate something doesn’t mean you have to like it. You can appreciate that Piers Morgan is a colossal shitcup. Doesn’t mean you need to like him.
The Austin Allegro landed with us in 1973 and was positioned as being the replacement for the ageing 1100 and 1300 models. They weren’t great cars, but ultimately they weren’t too bad. And fundamentally, Austin would have to make a deliberate, malicious effort to make a car worse. No self-respecting car company would sabotage itself in such a way, right? British Leyland be like, hold my Tetley…
Harris Mann (possibly the best name ever) was the, um, man charged with the task of penning the lines for the Allegro, and Harris didn’t hold back. What he envisioned was a low, sleek, dynamic and exciting car. A car that would make people take note of Austin’s efforts. It was a look into the future, and it was just what Austin needed.
Sigh. In the words of the late, great Jim Bowen, look at what we could have won. Striking, bold, focused. It was a hell of a vision from Mann. Until management got involved and ruined it. How? Well, they didn’t want to go all-out on making a new platform, so they needed to wedge the wedge the E Series engine from a Marina in there, and the heater, too. They didn’t want to spend money designing a new heater. Nope. And here’s the kicker – most Allegros were built with an A Series engine (though the 1750cc models were indeed fitted with the tall SOHC E Series).
You’d think that the suits would look at what they were turning Mann’s sketch into and perhaps question their actions. They didn’t though, and instead congratulated themselves in the belief they were making a car with a “timeless” design. They were not. They were just making a car so ugly it could make children cry.
But that’s nothing. The really amazing part of the Allegro story is the fact the top brass went all gatekeepy on the idea of a hatchback. The Allegro, to anyone with even a passing understanding of cars, looks like it should be a hatch. it was nott though. The Allegro was a saloon. This made it about a practical as a pair of tap shoes to a burglar. The bosses insisted the hatchback should only be used on the Maxi to give it a USP. No other car from the BL stable was allowed to have a hatchback. The arrogance was other worldly.
Because we’re British and we have this strange, underlying sense of patriotism no matter what we’re faced with, we of course bought the Allegro. And then we complained about it. But this is where the story gets interesting. Yes, we moaned about it, yes the motoring press piled onto it like fat kids pile on cake, but was it justified?
Yes, it was. The Allegro was and always will be, hopeless.
But therein lies its charm. As a motoring a curio, as an automotive oddity to look back on, the Allegro has a weird and somewhat powerful magnetism. Much like you don’t want to look at the fender-bender on the other side of the carriageway, but still do, the Allegro too pulls you in even though you know it’s wrong.
We were – and we use the word lightly – lucky enough to drive one a few years back. Great Escape Cars has these brilliant experience days in which you get to drive a selection of classics. Graham, the owner and organiser, threw the Allegro into the mix as a bit of fun. Sure enough, we pulled the keys from the hat, and thus we were charged with racking up thirty or so miles on the old machine. And do you know what? We loved it.
The are cars you aspire to drive because of their exclusivity, their power, prestige and badge, but that never goes the other way, does it? It should. You should get up and make an effort to go out there and drive a bad car, not only for the experience but also for the sheer fun of it. We giggled as we drove the Allegro along, and as the miles ticked over we even started to like it. It carried with it an apologetic essence of being, it wasn’t just a bad car, it was a bad car with guilt. And because of that, we didn’t blame it, we actually warmed to it and smiled as we drove on.
It was not fast, it was not engaging, it cornered with all the prowess of a terrier falling down the stairs, it was noisy, the interior was so brown we thoughts we’d driven up someone’s colon and the driving position was horrible. But the Allegro delivers all this with a wince and a blush. It knows what it is, and it’s very sorry. And for that, we sort of ended up liking it. It’s the kid at school who’s mother picked his non-uniform day outfit, it’s the best man forced into the position despite a crippling fear of public speaking. It knows it’s in the wrong, out of its depth and the launchpad for much laughter, but bless it, it’s trying its best.