“There’s no future, in England’s dreaming…”
Ah, the Allegro: Worst car ever. All Aggro. These and other less flattering terms have been routinely flung like wet rags at BLMC’s 1973 compact saloon offering in the intervening decades since the car ceased production in 1984. But while ADO67 itself would over time become notorious, its more dignified Kingsbury derivation was the object of ridicule pretty much from the outset.
Introduced in September 1974, the Vanden Plas 1500’s debut was greeted not only with a gilded tureen of derision but a sizeable component of incredulity; not so much for what it was, but largely for the manner in which it had been executed. So, what in the name of all that was sacred and holy possessed Vanden Plas to build such a curious motor car?
The fundamental rationale behind the VDP 1500 goes back to the 1962 introduction of ADO 16, the Morris 1100 saloon which would go on to top the UK best-seller list for the bulk of the decade. Shortly after the 1100’s introduction, Fred Connolly of the world-renowned hide producers commissioned Vanden Plas to create a one-off luxury version for his personal use.
At the time, BMC’s Sir George Harriman was keen to promote Vanden Plas as the carmaker’s premier nameplate, and in 1963, BMC requested that the Kingsbury coachbuilder weave its VDP magic upon the 1100, showing a prototype at that year’s London motor show at Earls Court. Featuring a similarly enhanced cabin as that of the ‘Connolly car’, along with visual refinements; the most notable being at the nose, where a prominent upright VDP grille replaced the standard car’s horizonal affair.
Given the 1100’s bluff frontal aspect, and the fact that already, MG, Wolesley and Riley versions were in production, sporting traditional marque-specific grilles, this highly formal arrangement was carried off with reasonable aplomb, flanked by integrated twin spotlamps. While an entirely speculative showing that year, owing to the level of customer interest, it entered production the following year.
Marketed as the Vanden Plas Princess 1100, the car was trimmed to a high standard by VDP’s craftsmen, featuring a full-width walnut dashboard, matching door capping’s and picnic tables fitted to the rear of each front seat. West of England cloth lined the roof, Wilton carpets on the floor while the seats were trimmed with Connolly leather. Each front seat had its own folding armrest and a central armrest was fitted to the rear bench. Additional sound deadening kept the NVH down.
The ADO 16 was produced over three series in both 1100 and 1300 form, manual or automatic. Proving popular with those who desired the sybaritic qualities of a conventional British luxury car, but neither the bulk or the thirst, the junior Princess proved a successful, profitable model line for BMC, with a total of 38,751 being built – the final Princess 1300 Mark III leaving VDP’s Kingsbury plant in June 1974.
While the ADO 16 Princess came about largely as an afterthought, it would appear that its successor (now shorn of Princess nomenclature) was in the product plan from the beginning – a likely outcome of the previous car’s durable sales success – the new car entering production a mere three months later. Inside, the traditional dials-on-a-plank, along with matching door cappings were unique to the model. Bound Evian carpets, Connolly leather and a sound deadening kit lent the requisite luxury markers – there being few surprises within the well-appointed cabin.
The frontal styling on the other hand, while certainly a surprise, was very much a matter of taste. Deeming it necessary to carry the requisite gravitas associated with the marque, the VDP 1500’s nose treatment is believed to have been the brainchild of Roland Fox, Vanden Plas’ Managing Director at the time, who created the initial styling sketch.
But while ADO16 could carry such a formal arrangement, the Allegro’s already somewhat pinched looking nose treatment was thrown even further out of kilter by the tall, inward-slanting grille, flanked on either side by the standard car’s small, inboard headlamp units. Taken in isolation, the nose treatment could perhaps have been excused, but viewed as a whole, the upright grille affixed to the rather plump Allegro body lent the the car a rather unfortunate aura of failed seriousness – that of a humble economy saloon with notions.
Portions of the UK press certainly thought so; the ever-acerbic Car (Oct 1976) decrying the VDP 1500’s appearance as “absurd“, noting that it was “certain to appeal, visually at least, to those who reflect warmly on past glories“. Autocar, somewhat characteristically gave the car a less hostile review in November 1974, stating that “With familiarity the forward slanted Vanden Plas radiator grille does not look objectionable on the Allegro body”.
Given how BLMC’s Donald Stokes was known to be opposed to his predecessor’s policy of badge-engineering, it is curious that he should have sanctioned such a product, especially considering how vital the success of the Allegro programme was to his business plan.
It is also tempting to ponder the VDP 1500’s subsequent sales career had either Roland Fox decided against the formal grille (or Stokes had said no). Would a less overt treatment made for a more commercially attractive product? We’ll never know for sure. However, what the sales figures do seem to illustrate is that the core customer base was either tailing off or dying out.
Finished to a high standard at VDP’s Kingsbury facility from Autumn 1975 until 1980 in 1500 and later, 1750 form with an identical mechanical specification to the equivalent Allegro over three distinct series; during the five year production run, a total of 11,942 were produced, a not disgraceful figure, but well below that of its predecessor.
Were it not for its appearance, the Vanden Plas 1500 would most likely have passed into history almost entirely unremarked, there being little conceptually wrong with a well-appointed, luxury version of a relatively humdrum car. However, largely as a result of its unmistakable visage, it became a somewhat lazy target of journalistic ire.
Yet from the vantage point of half a century, the VDP 1500 exudes a more ironic appeal, its initial failure to be taken seriously having since inverted into a failure to take itself seriously – a somewhat different proposition. We look upon the Vanden Plas 1500 now and are more inclined to smile benevolently at its wilful oddness, its defiant refusal to concede to conventional nostrums of aestheticism. For a car that carries so much of the semiotics of upper-class conformity, is there not perhaps an almost Punk, in-your-face sensibility to its demeanour – more Vivienne Westwood than Savile Row?
Roland Fox – style icon. What on earth were the chances?
 Was the VDP 1500 the last BLMC model introduction prior to the group’s collapse later that year?
 Vanden Plas Kingsbury plant was closed in 1979, the remaining VDP 1.5/ 1.7s being completed at MG’s Abingdon facility, prior to its closure in 1980.
 While the cooking third series Allegro received new larger plastic-faced bumpers, amongst other cosmetic changes, these were not fitted to production Series 3 VDP models, which were badged Vanden Plas 1.5/ 1.7, the larger engine being fitted to later models ordered with automatic transmission.
The 1970s were also an era of customisation, of Minis and VW Beetles sporting Rolls Royce grilles and the like. While its unclear as to whether Vanden Plas was aware of this trend, it was nevertheless of the Zeitgeist.
Data source: Vanden Plas Owners Club.