Running With Scissors [Part Five]

The pen is mightier…


The power of the written word can be sometimes overstated, although this is not a position the gentlemen of the press generally care to acknowledge. Certainly, a poor review can hurt a new product, but it usually takes more than an unfavourable report to fatally damage its prospects, just as it takes more than one breathless review to create a hit. But for the historian attempting to rationalise cause and effect, the printed word – especially that of the specialist press – can be instructive, although it is a path one should tread carefully.

The press factor

By the Spring of 1973, the British Leyland Motor Corporation had been in existence almost five years, and in that time, the volume division which made up the bulk of its activities had launched three underwhelming model lines[1], and for the UK’s motor press, their faith in the new organisation’s creative abilities was becoming strained. Furthermore, the fact and manner of Sir Alec Issigonis’ slide into irrelevance was viewed in a dim light by a number of auto journalists[2].

It was against this background that ADO67 made its debut in May 1973. So while on one hand, there may have been some ambivalence amid the press corps towards Donald Stokes and his slick new management team, on the other, there was a palpable sense of optimism; the hope that five years on, perhaps Allegro would be the car it so desperately needed to be; not simply good enough to win over Britain’s motor correspondents, but a home-grown car for domestic motorists to once again take to their hearts.

In 1962, Autocar had rated the ADO16 test car’s dynamic capabilities in the most laudatory of fashions[3], hailing it as the landmark car it clearly was. This legacy would ensure that the UK press corps would maintain high expectations for its replacement. Of course one should bear in mind that at the beginning of the ‘Sixties the 1100 was largely without rivals – in technical terms at least – whereas by 1973, the field had become a good deal more crowded, not to mention, accomplished.

“Britain’s next best seller?” [Autocar]

Image: Robertas Parazitas

The Allegro press launch took place at the Spanish resort town of Marbella on the Costa del Sol, at which most of the UK press were in attendance. But while Autocar’s correspondents were undoubtedly amongst those enjoying both BLMC’s lavish hospitality and the Andalucían sunshine, they did not allude to it in their May 1973 Allegro introduction. Instead, they chose to give their impressions on a pair of Allegros sampled a good deal closer to home.

“Sweet music from Austin” [Motor Sport]

Motor Sport’s June 1973 coverage however did mention the ‘dancing girls’, the wining and dining and the revival meeting atmosphere of Stokes and Paradise’s speeches at the Spanish press launch, also noting that after all that excitement, the car itself appeared something of an anti-climax – their correspondent lamenting that Allegro was less of a revolutionary than anticipated[4]. Car Magazine too attended the Costa del Sol launch and perhaps it was over-exposure to the Spanish sunshine that prompted an 8-page ‘special supplement’, which to be frank, read more like an advertorial in places.

Each of the above publications had warm praise for Allegro, some of which they would have cause to retract at their leisure. Garnering plaudits was the ride quality, the performance and smoothness of the 1275 cc engine[5]; cabin layout and interior comfort, the level of standard equipment, the heating and ventilation, and boot space. The fuel economy (of the 1300 in particular) was also highlighted.

There was however evidence of insufficient preparation and poor assembly of the pre-production press cars, with numerous faults manifesting themselves, one of which seemingly delayed Autocar’s full Autotest of an Allegro 1300 Super De Luxe for a number of days. They also found the 1750 model they briefly tested to exhibit disconcerting front-end handling inconsistencies, in addition to diagnosing loose rear subframe mountings which were the source of what were described as “curious bonks”. Brakes too received criticism. More damningly, the 1750 cc model Motor Sport sampled suffered from a suspension-related malady which “rendered its handling at speed quite frightening” and later in the test run suffered a complete failure of the exhaust system, which sheared off just below the manifold, the result of severe engine “whiplash”.

The demerit side of the equation was more densely populated. Refinement was singled out, especially body ‘booms’. Traction too was an issue, with notable wheel fight and steering kickback being displayed (the larger capacity models being worse in this respect). Drivetrain refinement was sharply criticised, with notable shunt and torque reaction, while the gearchange on all models was considered notchy and baulky; that of the E-Series cars being considered particularly obstructive and unpleasant to use[6].

Image: Autocar via Robertas Parazitas

“Bravo Britannia!” [Car]

Summing up his report for Car, Ian Fraser stated, “The ADO67 range, is of course, a good one which has been brilliantly conjured up, literally from nowhere”, before expressing disappointment about the legacy engines Allegro was forced to employ. This however he believed was insufficient reason to justify “a censure of a really excellent design[7]. Motor Sport meanwhile said, “All in all the Allegro is the best small car ever to come out of British Leyland[8].” Their correspondent then went on to say; “We look forward to writing a full road test when the teething problems of the pre-production cars have been overcome”; Autocar taking a broadly similar line with the 1300 SDL they tested, stating, “…we would like to think that much of our criticism stems from the test car being a very early example…[9]

In October 1974, Autocar published a 12,000 mile report on an Allegro 1300 Super which they had purchased for their long-term fleet. Their findings (too numerous to list in full)[10] made for somewhat alarming reading; perhaps the most dramatic being the collapse of the suspension (on several occasions!) Further to this were a series of water leaks into cabin and boot[11], the former being re-sealed, while the latter required rewelding of the body seams[12]. In addition, Autocar’s Warren Allport, in what he somewhat wryly described as “an eventful first 12,000 miles”, complained of a severe steering vibration which affected the car’s controllability at speed. These issues necessitated the car being returned to BLMC for rectification, a two month hiatus which saw a vast amount of remedial work being carried out[13], with amongst other components, wheels, tyres and suspension displacers being replaced.

“Long live the British motor industry!” [Car]

Car magazine meanwhile did not appear to have experienced any Damascene conversion regarding Allegro’s demerits (not in print at least), but a February 1974 Giant Test between a (new to the UK) Alfasud 1.2, a Citroen GS 1220 and an Allegro 1750[14], which saw the BLMC product taking a conclusive third spot may have elicited a change of heart. Two years later in its inaugural GBU classification, the Allegro was deemed Boring, with the sum-up of “Is fair enough good enough?[15]

This pattern of initial praise, quickly followed by disillusionment with insufficient development and indifferent quality control would become a recurrent theme of BLMC/BL products throughout the 1970s and well into the following decade. Over two successive reboots, (in 1975 and 1979) Allegro became thoroughly debugged, but early reputational reversals were to deal the model a damaging blow. Names stick[16].


More on the Allegro

[1] Austin 3-Litre, Maxi and Marina. Four, if you count the Mini Clubman.

[2] Many of these individuals had enjoyed a very cordial relationship with dear Alec, and viewed his diminution in a poor light. One can see a reflection perhaps in this from the sentiment expressed by Car in its June 1973 coverage; “And it is even more significant in a psychological sense. For the Allegro stands as a re-affirmation of faith by British Leyland in the creative engineering policies of the old BMC combine under Sir Alec Issigonis”. 

[3] “On its behaviour, conclusive opinions have been formed; the unanimous view of the test staff is that for overall rating for ride comfort on smooth or rough roads at all speeds, controllability in these conditions, adhesion in the wet or dry, inherent safety and steering response, there is no better car, irrespective of size.” Autocar Autotest August 1962

[4] Motor Sport considered Hydragas a marked advance on its predecessor’s Hydrolastic layout, if  “fractionally inferior to the Citroën system”. 

[5] Autocar however found the 1275 cc engine to be considerably down on performance when compared to its ADO16 predecessor, the author suggesting that it had been detuned. 

[6] In 1980, the UK press would still be criticising Allegro’s obstructive gearchange. It was never fixed.

[7] Hyperbole was by no means a concept first introduced to Car magazine by the fragrant Steve Cropley. 

[8] It was also the first small car to emerge from the BLMC combine, unless of course one counts the Mini Clubman. 

[9] Classic equivocation on the part of the reporters – not wishing to draw attention to the more glaring faults at such an early stage; put it down to ‘teething issues’ and hope for better from the home team.

[10] Autocar also reported a significant number of similarly disgruntled Allegro owners who had contacted them to relate similar intractable problems with their cars, some having sold them in exasperation. 

[11] We will return to the subject of the Allegro bodyshell in a later instalment. 

[12] Despite their efforts, the water leaks returned in both the interior and boot area, and had not been rectified at the time of publication. 

[13] BLMC replaced the engine mountings, front suspension tie bar and mountings, rear suspension rebound straps and a large portion of the ignition system while they had the car. The dealer also gave the Allegro a thorough diagnostic check up – performance and economy proving noticeably better than the 1973 test car thereafter. 

[14] The 1750 Allegro was the closest in price to the two continental challengers, despite the gulf in engine displacement. 

[15] Car’s GBU stance on Allegro became increasingly spiteful throughout the ’70s, suggesting something of an over-correction on their part. 

[16] Allegro’s All-Aggro derogative certainly did. 

Sources/ acknowedgements: See part one.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

38 thoughts on “Running With Scissors [Part Five]”

  1. Good morning Eóin. As a car-obssesed twelve year-old, I well remember the hype surrounding the launch of the Allegro, including a spot on the BBC daytime magazine programme, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ which was no more than an extended advertorial (on a public television network that carried no advertising!) There was certainly much patriotic goodwill towards the new car, especially as it was replacing the still well-regarded ADO16.

    The honeymoon was short, however: within months, the Car Magazine Giant Test brutally revealed the Allegro’s shortcomings and, exactly a year after its launch, the new VW Golf showed how a contemporary C-segment car should be designed and engineered. That Volkswagen could go from having zero experience with transverse-engined FWD architecture to producing the ‘right first time’ Golf (and Scirocco) is a sad indictment of BL’s inadequacies, despite having more than a decade’s experience with that same architecture. How they must have laughed in Wolfsburg when they first saw the Allegro, knowing what they had in the final stages of development.

    This excellent series is, I think, leading us to the conclusion that the Allegro was deficient on so many fronts (styling, engineering, build quality, dynamics) that there was no single factor that undid it, hence no silver bullet that would have altered its fate. Looking forward to the next instalment.

    1. Good morning Daniel, you make excellent points. The Golf was just around the corner, carrying with it a complete shift in paradigm. Poor Allegro just had no hope. Having said that, I think Renault almost had it several years earlier with the Renault 6 and 16 (sans transverse engine, though). Averaging both cars out in size and market position would have resulted in the compact family hatchback formula that has succeeded for so long.

      I also agree that this is a super interesting series and I’m enjoying it so much. Thanks Eóin!

  2. Hello Eóin, and thanks for this wonderful series. Wow, don’t you just love car “journalism”? Autocar predicting a glorious career for the Allegro; Motor Sport’s coverage reading like an advertorial with a hefty dose of dancing-girls-and-sunshine to satisfy the drooling readers; Car paying lip service to BLMC and its inept and irrelevant upper-class twit head honcho. I can only shake my head at the very thought we’re still expected to take these people’s opinions seriously.

    1. One of the few clear conclusions I´ve got after 40 years reading car magazines is that for them, almost always, “newest is best”; very few magazines dare to criticise a brand new car, and very possibly, in those delicate years for the UK, a mediocre review of a domestic car could have been seen as an act of lack of patriotism. Not to mention advertising money…

      You said “…with a hefty dose of dancing-girls…”
      Sorry, but I can´t resist to put this Allegro TV commercial

    2. That “dancing girls” reference in the review is a classic example of oh-so-1970s cringe-inducing casual sexism, on all three sides: the management, which firmly believed this is a good feature for a car’s launch event and marketing campaign, the “journos”, who appreciated the gratuitous eye candy, and the buyers. As for car “journos” avoiding criticism of a new car, I’m not entirely sure this is always true: I remember the “esteemed” Greek mag “4 Troxoi” (pronounced “Tésseris Trohí”, and meaning 4 Wheels), which panned the Lancia Dedra at launch, calling it a “Nissan Sunny.” Nowadays, I’m more inclined to think reviewers’ written opinions and scores awarded are typically influenced factors like by their personal sympathies, the obligations and commitments of the mag’s advertizing department and/or the mag’s own relationship with the car maker, and even politics.

    3. In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that the Motor Sport journalist did not specifically mention whether the girls in question were in fact, dancing. Their purpose at the event was not alluded to, although the journalist in question, for purposes which aren’t clear, saw fit to mention them. Apparently, they were very pretty. In retrospect, I should perhaps have avoided slipping into the realm of creative licence here – or at the very least, placed the term in quotation marks. (Now remedied).

    4. Still, it all serves as a reminder of the low standards that were the norm w.r.t. marketing back then (not that the present day is much better, but anyway). It also explains how we got to the Leisure Suit Larry franchise…

    5. Aha! My second favourite musical car commercial. It was hilariously cheesy, even back in the 1970s.

      My favourite? Easy question…this:

      Yes, it’s massively overblown for what it’s advertising, but how many sales reps and middle-management types at whom it was aimed imagined a life for themselves beyond their mundane, everyday existence? I think it’s a work of genius. The car wasn’t half bad either.

    6. Yes, I was thinking in the “Japanese man” Golf ad. What a contrast with the Allegro´s.
      We didn´t get that Golf mkI ad in Spain, but instead we got its late ´80s sequel, with the new Passat. Fantastic ads.

    7. Not much changes, Autocar obsessed with electric cars, Car obsessed with supercars you cannot even buy with a lottery win. Everything else is just a PCP payment.

  3. Astonishing to read the issues they had with these cars from new, their criticisms make it sound like they were testing 120,000 mile 10 year old cars they bought from a bloke in a pub car park for £50. It doesn’t take much imagination to think how bad they were to drive and own once they really did have a few miles on them if they were that bad brand new.

    You also have to wonder how much success a regular customer would have had in getting the required remedial work (re welding body seams!!) or if he’d have just been told to jog on, never to buy another BLMC product for as long as he lived.

    Some companies just deserve to go bust.

  4. I commented at the beginning of this series that, excellent though I knew Eoin’s presentation would be, I wasn’t looking forward to it, and it has certainly fulfilled my expectations.

    Throughout I’ve been trying to re-appraise the Allegro in a better light, but mention of the Golf has crystallised my attitude. The Golf is a car. The Allegro just isn’t – it’s a collection of bits, pummelled, moulded, bodged and squeezed together to look, more-or-less, like a car.

    “Nice One, Donald” as I seem to remember Car announced at the Allegro’s launch. Again I ask myself why I once held that magazine’s opinion in high stead? Despite the period attitude towards British car workers, they have more recently proven themselves to be perfectly up to the job. What’s the difference? They are no longer ‘managed’ by a load of smug, complacent, ill-trained, hierarchical, parochial, bickering, jingoistic (the adjectives could just go on-and-on) time-servers who considered that just saying ‘British Is Best’ made it true.

    The small-mindedness is encapsulated in the fact that, having sold an influential magazine a complete clunker, they took it away and tried unsuccessfully to fix the myriad faults, rather than just giving them another one that actually worked properly. Or maybe that mythical machine never existed.

    1. Yes, I know. If it was mythical, of course it didn’t exist. Blame adjective overdrive.

  5. In fairness, German and Japanese cars weren’t immune from build quality issues either, at least when they were locally assembled. My late father bought a VW beetle new in 1968 and, within a year, corrosion was appearing from inside along the rain gutters that contained the seam from the roof to the bodysides. The problem was diagnosed as a lack of any corrosion protection on the steel that formed the overlap. It was effectively irreparable but such was the lack of consumer protection back then that my father received no compensation and had to spend hours making (temporary) cosmetic repairs with body filler and paint.

    A decade later, I bought a Mazda 323 and, within a couple of years, both front wings and the lower edge of the tailgate rusted through from inside. I fought my corner on this and had replacement parts supplied free of charge, but I had to pay for the labour to fit them.

    Not coincidentally, both cars had been assembled in Ireland by the same company, Motor Distributors Ltd., which exists to this day and holds the Mercedes-Benz franchise for the country.

    1. Certainly agreed Daniel that today’s buyers would be amazed at the basic faults (rust being the worst) that were taken back then, if not for granted, then at least with a philosophical shrug of the shoulders.

    2. Motor Distributors couldn’t afford to paint them the way the factory did, and they were only assembling them so that they could import factory-built Mercs.

    3. Mervyn: I’m afraid you’re not quite correct there. Motor Distributors did in fact assemble Mercedes-Benz cars at their Ballsbridge facility from 1954 until 1977, when the final Mercedes car, a /8 came off the line. This (fully restored) car was pride of place in MSL’s Ballsbridge showroom when I passed it in late December 2019.

      Ireland’s entry to the EEC took place alongside Britain’s in 1973, but tariff barriers did not come down immediately and of course production facilities could not be wound down immediately – agreements would have had years to run out. Car assembly did not cease entirely in Ireland until around 1985.

      Now of course, if you wanted an S-Class or SL (and you could afford one), it had to come from Sindelfingen at eye watering cost.

    4. I believe it was the case that Motor Distributors assembled Mazdas ftom the late 1970s so they could then import factory-built Volkswagens.

    5. I suggested that my wife’s aunt buy a Mazda 323 in 1981, since the local Ford dealer could supply plenty of promises but no Escorts. The car was a delight, and still looked solid when she traded it for a new Starlet around 1990. We later heard indirectly from the Toyota dealer that it wasn’t as good as it seemed (the water leak into the foot-wells might have been a clue). This was at the time Toyota were buying back Irish assembled RWD Starlets because of rust issues.

    6. My father ‘s 1970 Escort mk1, locally assembled, had the rear wheel arches corroded since 1972. And after that, front floorpan, shock absorbers mounting points, etc. It was completely repaired and painted every five years and was stored in 1986.
      When I got my driving licence in 1990, I drove it for one year. The floorpan had holes on it and when replacing punctured tyres, the jack would perforate the car’s underside.


  6. Thanks Eóin. Hindsight makes it difficult to gauge just how bad things were, given that – as Daniel states – all cars had quality issues (another thing that only got more or less solved in ‘peak car’ 1990s and early 2000s?), but the issues with the Allegro sound equal parts frightening and infuriating.

    I also agree with Daniel that the overriding picture coming from this series is that the faults with Allegro (and BLMC) were myriad without one stand out failure (or at least several). As bristow points out, part of the problem seems to have been that BLMC simply didn’t understand it was in trouble.

    Following the attention the Allegro has been getting, every time I see a picture of an Allegro the impression I get is a somewhat tepid “nice, a bit bloated”. Upon further inspection nothing happens, except that “nice” retreats from my mind and gets replaced with… nothing much really. Usually, you start to notice details that help you form a more definite opinion (be it positive or negative). With the Allegro, the details are so sloppy that no further impression gets formed, at least for me.

    Incidentally, Wolfsburg might have laughed at the Allegro, but given their situation I think the overriding emotion would still have been trepidation. “God, we hope this is going to work”.

    1. In the Seventies the default way of operations was that cars came to market anything but fault free.
      French manufacturers usually sold their products exclusively on the home market for a couple of months to get them to export with the worst bugs ironed out.
      Products that were particularly bad I remember were Ford Taunus TC, Audi 80 B1 and Scirocco/Golf Mk1 which were not only bug ridden but also corroded like hell.
      Early Golfs had clutch and throttle cables with a tendency to snap, leaking radiators and quite shoddy build quality despite of the high prices. But VW did a lot to fix the faults, they ran numerous buy-back campaigns to get rusty Golfs off the road and generally improved the product over time.
      Then, indeed, fortune favoured the brave. Something must have been inherently right with the Golf, things like being fun to drive (compare the 70 PS Golf to a 1750 Allegro) and its general practicability combined with the availability of an incredible 11,000 VW service stations in Germany.

    2. Yes, I’ve seen that crypto commercial, Daniel… 😉

      Dave: it does perhaps explain some of the press’ laconic attitude towards the many failures, if these were considered normal.

  7. Thanks again for the latest instalment Eóin, my favourite bit of reading atm. The state of these cars at launch tells me how little they cared.

    Maybe they wanted to try, and there wasn’t enough money left after the marina, but they really half assed the whole thing and it definitely showed.

    I can forgive the lack of a hatchback (they weren’t the only ones) but everything else about this car screams failure.

    Side note, why the hell couldn’t they develop a half decent gearbox? Seems like they never could. What was it called? Austin porridge?

  8. Here is one of Car magazine’s road tests, where the Allegro is up against the Fiat 128 and the Volkswagen Golf.

    One of the most telling lines in the test, I feel, comes towards the end, where they say that the Allegro’s handling feels old-fashioned. I think it felt a bit wheezy and unwilling and bouncy in comparison with rivals such as the Golf which looked and felt more modern (and yes, sporty, although that’s sporty in the ‘being light and fun to drive’ sense, as opposed to weighing 3 tonnes and having 500 horsepower). As others have noted, the Golf wasn’t perfect at launch, but the faults were soon sorted.

    I don’t think the Allegro was a great car, but it wasn’t utterly appalling either – it had some charm.

    Austin Allegro 1100 - Fiat 128 1100 & Volkswagen Golf 1100 Mk1 Group Road Test 1975 (1)

    1. When the Golf 1 arrived there was a campaign in the notoriously car (let alone driving fun) adverse German press against the 70 PS version to indoctrinate everybody that 70 PS in an everyday car were utterly irresponsible.
      Customers thought otherwise, which surely can’t have pleased the press.

  9. This series just gets better and better, Eóin.
    For a time there in the seventies-early eighties, it often seemed as though new cars were not as good as the preceding model. I’m thinking of Datsun’s retreat from the 1600 into forgotten mediocrities like the 180B and 200B (Australian names). Magazines didn’t usually come out and say the new model wasn’t as good as the old one, but you could often get inferences…
    As an ADO16 fan I used to wish we’d got its replacement in Australia. European cars were too expensive and lacked parts and service backup, and Japanese small cars were bland. Now I’m thankful we didn’t. It’s alarming to realise how many things conspired against the Allegro’s success. Too many cooks spoiling the broth.

  10. At the end of the day expectations were too high and ADO16’s shoes simply too big for the Allegro to properly fill. An ADO16 update aka ADO22 (with Maxi-like conversion from Hydrolastic to Hydragas, Nomad-esque E-Series, etc) would have likely received a more sympathetic hearing from the press in comparison and been cheaper to develop, before being replaced by something amounting to an mid to late 1970s Maestro.

    The Allegro could have been a much better car then it ended up being, however based on the chaos within the company a case could have just easily been made for them to simply skip a generation and focus on a later project if sales of ADO16 during the 1970s are any indication despite being neglected.

    On the face of it and in isolation the Allegro was designed to replace the ADO16, however as a product of Triumph culture and thinking without any understanding of what made the latter a success, also get the impression they indirectly had the FWD Triumph 1500 in mind as well (leaving aside the obvious differences) considering it was discontinued around the same time the Allegro appeared.

    The concern about Allegro’s gearchange as well as the Maxi’s makes one aware that Issigonis’s 9X prototype likely also suffered from the same issue when pitted against the existing Mini, along with the then new Clubman and Autobianchi A112 (was the gearchange also an issue on the related 127 and 128 in the case of the A112?).

    When bringing about the merger the government of the time surely must of been aware of the likely perfect storm it was creating, yet for all their encouragement and part played they were reluctant to front the costs of all the projects the constituent companies were planning for the next decade and already paid for beforehand (was the deal for the merger ever sealed by a sizable cash injection from the government?).

  11. The French had 1968; the Germans had the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Italians had to endure the years of lead. In all three cases there was something of a resolution – acknowledged – of the hang-over from disguised social conflicats remaining from the ashes of WW2. The UK´s equivalent was the labour disputes of the 1970s (the I Ireland conflict is something else). I think the appalling quality and engineering of UK cars was a symptom of the same conflict manifested in the labour disputes. As said above, as soon as the moronic, entitled and supercilious Oxbridge/ex-army class of managers was removed things improved. At least no bombs or guns were involved. Just dismal cars like the Allegro. Even I, a fan of munters and mongrels (Alfa 90 – yes, please) have no time for the Allegro. A few can be kept for museums. I don´t care if I never see one again. And I probably won´t, not unless I go looking for one in a UK car collection.

    1. I was wondering when I last saw an Allegro. It must be decades ago. According to the Austin Morris Riley Wolseley Register there are 48 Allegros with a valid registration in The Netherlands of which 8 have APK, the Dutch equivalent of the MOT. With around 9 millions cars registered here, seeing one is a less than one in a million chance.

    2. I believe that we have only a few hundred Allegros left in the UK, so you’d have to go to a car show to see one in the metal. Its grandfather, the Morris Minor, however, is in relatively rude health. I believe we have around 8,000 on the road. One does still see them out and about, from time to time.

  12. I was searching for something to say. Until I saw the picture in Charles comment above. The other cars look so much crisp and clear that the Allegro seems old fashioned. The discussion reached its peak argument. Allegro style seemed out of date and out of place.

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