Vroom the Bell Tolls

Desperate times – desperate measures.

It’s very much like the old look, so maybe don’t look too closely? Image: Troxel’s Auto Literature

Allegro 3 arrived onto the market in Autumn 1979 and the BL marketing machine, amid the grinding of E-Series gears, stirred into life. “SuperVroom”, the promotional copy declared, and a nation held its breath. Or perhaps not. Amid the lexicon of advertising taglines, it was no exclamative for the ages. Indeed for most casual observers, it meant little and bore even less relation to the product being placed in front of them. But amid the siege mentality that permeated BL’s Bickenhill corporate fortress circa-1979, the marketing teams, much like their equivalents elsewhere in the organisation had to make almost nothing go a very long way indeed.

With no sheet metal changes possible, liberal applications of black injection mouldings had to stand in for any meaningful visual change – with one exception – the adoption of twin circular headlamps on more upmarket models. Opinions differ as to the visual appeal of this execution, and it does appear that something along similar lines had been considered during the car’s initial gestation. But there were other precedents, as we shall see.

Understanding the etymology of ‘SuperVroom’ would require a painstaking study of Allegro advertising lore, which is really asking a lot of you, especially on a Sunday. But it goes something like this.

Following the model’s lukewarm early reception, Allegro received a round of changes during Autumn 1975. Amid criticisms of a confined rear quarters, modifications to the rear seat pan liberated a few additional millimetres. This was seized upon by BL’s ad team, clearly struggling for promotional ideas in a queasy TV spot which employed the unforgettable tagline of “Vroom to Spare[1]. Now to be fair, it was the mid-Seventies and given BL’s urgent need to give Allegro sales a boost, one can perhaps understand the rationale to go the dancing girls (and boys) route.

BL’s marketers clearly felt this execution had legs and subsequently this Vroomy tagline would be appended across all Allegro advertising, in increasingly laboured fashion.

By 1979, with what little Government money being predominantly channelled towards upcoming models, a further round of modifications was enacted to the fading Allegro. But first, stock needed to be cleared and it was apparent that bigger marketing guns were required – 1978’s Special L.E being the opening salvo.

Early the following year, the “Now Even Vroomier” Allegro Equipe made its brief but vivid debut; a limited-edition marriage of the two-door Allegro body and the full-house twin carburettor 1750 cc engine. With no performance advantage to be gleaned over its less sporting equivalents, it was decided to make the strongest visual statement possible – Harris Mann’s team really earning their money in this instance – the graphics themselves having to carry out a great deal of the eventual heavy lifting.

Now even stripier. Image via Pinterest

But back to precedents: In 1963, BMC’s Belgian importer set up an assembly site in Seneffe, located in the Wallonia region of Hainault. With Britain’s application to join the EEC twice rejected, the Seneffe plant gave the carmaker boots on the ground, so to speak, and following the plant’s expansion in 1968, became BLMC’s production centre for French and Benelux markets[2].

The European market Allegro produced at Seneffe was a better equipped, more attractively specified car than its UK equivalent and this was further emphasised in late 1978, when a four-headlamp nose was introduced for Belgian, French and Italian market Allegro 2s – a treatment which was clearly noted and adopted by the home team for 1979’s SuperVroom Allegro 3.

It is also worth noting at this point that while Allegro was sold briefly (and unsuccessfully) under the Innocenti brand, following British Leyland’s sale of the Italian nameplate, BL Italia imported Allegros from Seneffe for the Italian market. While the Innocenti Regent had been offered exclusively with 1.3 and 1.5 litre engines[3], BL Italia Allegros came with 1100 cc (later 998) engines, which were more suited to the Italian carbuyer.

Image: carter collectibles on twitter

SuperVroom arrived with a burst of promotional zeal. It is possible here to discern the copywriter’s struggle to find a compelling angle – the repeated references to sportyness; (grille, wheeltrims, steering wheel), the ‘Jaguar-style’ face level vents, (‘those face level vents are from an XJ12, Marjorie’) and the suggestion that the addition of a front air dam would improve wet road handling. Still, marks for effort, although surely they could have dredged up an actual photograph of the car from somewhere?

It was all to little avail, matters being lost on a buying public who saw only the homespun styling, the bitter tang of defeat which clung to Allegro and the lurid stories which had become synonymous. Mud sticks. Beneath the histrionics was a product one purchased on necessity, not desire.

In time-honoured ‘BL Charter’ fashion, SuperVroom arrived late and more than a couple of quid short.


[1] This period ad can be viewed on a popular video sharing site.

[2] In addition, Seneffe also would become a pre-delivery hub. Furthermore, some of Seneffe’s production was redirected to the UK, to make up for lost output owing to industrial action.

[3] The Innocenti Regent also hit the Italian market just as it contracted catastrophically following the oil crisis of late 1973.

The Seneffe plant continued to build a variety of BL cars (mostly Minis, Allegros and Marinas) until production ceased in 1980. The plant was shut down the following year. At its height, it was thought to have employed around 30,000 people, with more across the supply chain. 

Grateful thanks to Robertas Parazitas for the title.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

29 thoughts on “Vroom the Bell Tolls”

  1. What a sad, sad story. It looks like the best BL could do in the way of development was StickerTech. Would love to have had shares in a black paint factory back then!

  2. Well, it was the eighties so chrome was out, black plastic cladding was in and soon colour-coding would arrive.
    At least poor old Allegro was spared that ignominy.

  3. Great article, witty and informative storytelling. Fascinating to see the old road tests courtesy of David Walker. The retail pricing of the Allegro seemed very optimistic – more expensive than the Alfasud and Kadett and only a little less than a Honda Accord. Blimey – it’s a wonder they sold any at all.

  4. Good morning Eóin. I suppose we should feel a degree of sympathy for the marketing types, desperately trying to reheat the leftovers of a car that was never fashionable and was positively geriatric after seven years on the market. Weren’t vinyl roofs old hat by 1980 too? They still seem to feature prominently in the advertising.

    As to the stripes, they put me in mind of an ageing drag artist, trying to hide the wrinkles with too much slap on. Didn’t those alloy wheels on the Equipe have an issue with porosity, causing the tyres to deflate?

    As a counterpoint to the desperate advertising above, here’s an advertisement for the Italian market version of the car, showing it in, I would argue, its best light, with the original slim bumpers and quad headlamps, and not a stick-on stripe in sight:

    1. But with the black painted lower rocker panels that seem to have been (wisely) added early on in the Allegro’s life to take some of the visual weight out of the bodyside.

    2. Morning Daniel. I must say, with the quad light face and original bumper together, in the right colour, it doesn’t look so bad. Still kinda dumpy, but not hideously ugly. Still hate those hubcaps though.

  5. Morning Eóin, great stuff once again. Even by the standards of the day this vroom stuff was cheesy, and hilarious.

    1. If the car alone wasn´t cheesy enough (courtesy of aronline.co.uk)

      And we´ll let it there…

  6. Was the 1098 later 998 powered Allegro available under BL Italia sold elsewhere in continental Europe and would the Innocenti Regent have likely fared better with an entry-level 1098cc model at the start within the post-oil crisis context of the period, or ignoring the Allegro’s increased weight over ADO16 an earlier 998cc maybe even along similar lines as the 55 hp 998cc Austin de Luxe?

    Agree the Italian Allegro quad light and original bumpers looks ok, even if the same issues remain. As the Allegro and the Princess were basically at two extremes with regards to dumpiness and tinniness respectively, would the medium between both extremes have been a net visual improvement?

    Now envisioning a mid/late-80s Allegro not being spared of a body-coloured bumper treatment similar to this late Alfasud Sprint Grand Prix.

  7. Well, i was going to fill in and post for the Supervroom information pack but i think these episodes have covered most everything on the Aggro. But i also became distracted by the suitcases in the boot of the Italian version. And the stripes. And the vinyl roof…

    Can’t say I recall having heard of Seneffe, before.

    Here’s some telling No.1’s from 1979: Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick from Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Tragedy by The Bee Gee’s, Heart of Glass from Blondie and I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor.

    Perhaps the most apt though being Another Brick In The Wall by Pink Floyd.

  8. Hi Eóin, the writing seems to have been truly on the wall (brick or otherwise) for BL by the time the Allegro 3 came around, at least in terms of them being an independent manufacturer.

    David: I haven’t read the entire tests but the first paragraphs of the first test seem remarkably positive about the Allegro’s market performance. The second seems more realistic in that regard.

    I love how the Vroom to Spare clip subliminally advertises the fact that the Allegro is slow: “even a bunch of go go girls and boys can easily keep up while – er: gogoing”. I also like how the Equipe’s striping highlights the awkward plastic vent in the c-pillar.

    I’ve been trying to find ways to “salvage” the Allegro’s design and got nowhere (as evidenced earlier around these parts). So on a random notion of giving it a closed nose, I played around instead, with the following result, for what it’s worth (be that entertainment or shock value – please be gentle 🙂):

    1. Tom, I know you’re not responsible for it, but isn’t that door-to-wing panel gap awful? And this on a car deemed fit for a publicity photo – how did they not notice these things? Or did they just not care?
      Your work puts me in mind of the 1971-2 Oldsmobile Toronado, with a blank panel between the lights and functional grilles down alongside the number plate. I do like the way you’ve aligned the leading edge of the bonnet with the side crease.
      We could convert it to electric power; that closed nose would be just fine for the Allegro E.

    2. The Allegro could certainly have been improved if the headlamps had been pushed outboard into the wings. Here’s an earlier attempt of mine, on the Vanden Plas version:

      I wonder how those headlamps might look if combined with a regular Allegro grille?

    3. Interesting how the remaining bonnet strakes, to me, switch from concave to convex.

      A full width grille certainly widens and thus appears to lower the whole car- indeed, IMHO, it fixes the worst point of the styling and addresses something that was never fixed. Maybe it’s reminiscent of the way they ‘fixed’ the Princess by changing everything that didn’t need changing and not changing the one or two things they should have, (add a five speed and a hatchback, improve quality, the end.) In the Allegros case, fix the grille, add a hatchback, improve quality, the end.

    4. Headlamps to the side was one of my earlier attempts:

      Although Daniel’s version illustrates it just as nicely. It may improve the nose, but that just makes it dissonant with the rest of the thing, which is still dumpy. I liked that the closed nose complemented the roundess of the rest of the design; it reminded me more of a Fiat, by the way. The last page of the first test David posted shows the Allegro and its competitors in side view. It rather highlights the awkwardness of the Austin’s proportions.

      Yeah, that panel gap is atrocious. This is a very low-resolution photo from – I think – a magazine picture that wasn’t large to begin with, and it still stands out.

  9. Maybe I have finally taken leave of my senses, but in Tara Green and on 14” Rostyle wheels the poor car looks halfway decent:

    I thought I would have a bash at improving the car’s awkward visage.

    Here’s one with larger lozenge-shaped headlamps in SAAB 99-esque surrounds:

    A better option, though, would have been to crowbar in some good old 7” round headlamps:

    See how they sit under the leading edge of the bonnet at the top and stand proud of the bodywork at the bottom (I took inspiration from the BMW E28…)

    1. Hi Colin. The green car is indeed almost desirable! The wheels do make a big difference.

      Well done for trying to improve the front end. Unfortunately, I think that the narrow grille frustrates all such attempts.

    2. The one with the Saab 99-esque surrounds brings to mind a no-BL scenario, where Triumph and Saab further collaborate on what is called basically an Escort-sized Allegro analogue (with provision for SWB supermini model) composed of a combination of repurposed Ajax and Saab 99 parts to replace both the FWD 1300/1500 and Saab 96 (including maybe a divergence where Saab chooses the Triumph SC for the 96 instead of the Ford V4).

      The Triumph version being styled by Michelotti, with the Saab version resembling a smaller 99 (similar to a sketch by Sixten Sason with shades of the Catherina concept).

      Knowing Saab (as under GM) they would probably look to differentiate it from the Triumph version and make it needlessly costly, mainly by wanting to use a 1.25-1.5 Slant Four mounted 99-style with Triumph possibly wanting a PSA/Nissan-inspired ADO74 in-sump layout with SC engines (or PE146/PE166-inspired small block successor to avoid overlap with Slant Four that needed redesigns to be mounted transversely).

  10. Admirable efforts on all fronts, but to my eyes, it’s true that you can’t polish a turd! I’m not sure that any are improvements. But that Alfa offers some clue to the obvious problems – it has a taughtness that the Allegro is too obviously lacking. And exacerbated by a stance that isn’t good even by cars of that age. The Alfasud had a not dissimilar look, but looked great to my eyes, and with the later addition of twin headlamps and similar run-out black addenda, was quite the thing when I was 10 years old!

    1. Exactly. To me, this shows what makes improving the Allegro so difficult: a lot of its problems are in the execution of the design theme rather than necessarily the theme itself. The line from the bonnet to the bottom of the DLO, or the angle of the side pillars (seen from the front or rear), and just consistently choosing the poorer alternatives for details (grille, headlights, rear lights).

    2. Given the background of how the Harris Mann’s Allegro proposal was one of four to five full-size mock-ups presented to the board in early 1969, with the production version hardly altered in appearance from the original.

      One cannot help but speculate what the other three to four competing full-size mock-ups were, they surely cannot be any worse then Mann’s proposal and can imagine some consisting of existing projects (e.g. ADO22 – plus Michelotti rebody, 10X, etc) and mock-ups from Pininfarina and others.

  11. Apart from the unfortunate woman shown above, who fortunately seems to be uninjured after being struck by the vrooming Equipe on her way back from the gym, the side strip hinting at the Starsky & Hutch Gran Torino is yet another thing that just emphasises the Allegro’s mediocrity rather than embellishing it.

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