by Steve Favill
This car is probably cited as the perfect example of what was wrong with the British motor industry in general, and British Leyland in particular, during the 1970s and 1980s. The much-maligned Allegro came in for tremendous criticism, but was it truly justified?
I once worked for West Midlands Police and we were issued the most basic form of the Allegro, two-doors and the transversely-mounted 1100cc A-Series engine carried over from the old 1100/1300 range. Styling was controversial to say the least, the familiar two-box design of its much-loved predecessor being replaced by a rounded, egg-shaped body with contemporary wedge influences, if such a thing could be possible. Why the Allegro? Well, BL’s Longbridge plant was set in the middle of our force area, and we had to be seen to be supporting British industry by using BL’s products in our fleet. And so, it came to be.
I never owned one of these, but during my career as a police officer in the West Midlands I accumulated countless thousands of miles, and many hours, behind the wheel of various evolutions of this car. Let’s be honest, these little cars were thrashed on a regular basis. This abuse was both mechanical and in wear and tear, and considerably in excess of what they were originally designed to handle. The cars were driven twenty-four hours a day, year-round, and although most of the time they were driven fairly gently (it would not look good for a police officer to be seen driving like a hooligan for no good reason) there were regular occasions when an urgent call would necessitate dropping into a lower gear and accelerating for all the car was worth to get from where we were, to where we needed to be five minutes ago.
Attempting to initiate a pursuit in an Allegro was often an exercise in futility. Most other vehicles on the road could show the Allegro a clean pair of heels, and no amount of training could properly compensate for a lack of power in a straight line. This did not stop me from trying, however and I managed to over-rev one poor example when trying, and failing, to at least get close enough to a fleeing motorcycle to read the plate. I did the same to a different car in racing to assist another officer who was in serious need of some help. I still got there in a timely manner, but the car had to go in for repair immediately afterwards. It was notable that many of these vehicles were fitted with Gold Seal factory reconditioned engines, such was the frequency of this happening to others in the same line of work. The poverty-spec Allegros that were issued to PC Plod did not have tachometers, a small addition that would have saved police forces nationwide a serious amount of money.
The Mk1 Allegro was the car that had the infamous square steering wheel. Driving schools bought Allegros for that very reason, since the “quartic” steering wheel encouraged drivers to feed the wheel through their hands in approved fashion, as opposed to crossing their arms. People hated it! Such was the negative feedback that BL discontinued the quartic wheel when the second generation of the Allegro appeared in 1975.
The second incarnation, in addition to having a conventional, round tiller, underwent a mild facelift with a redesigned grille and black plastic cladding on the door sills. In addition the interior was upgraded somewhat, with slightly better quality materials and trim. The dashboard was also a little nicer. Instead of blue, the interiors were now black and the seats were somewhat more comfortable. It also seemed to be rather quieter and less “tinny” so I rather suspect that some sound deadening material was added as well. Most of my time in the Allegro was spent in this version, consequently I am most fond of this one.
The third and final generation went through another facelift, and featured yet another front grille. These cars also had heavier, larger bumpers finished in matte black, replacing the more delicate, and attractive, chrome-plated items in cars gone by. In addition, there was a larger front spoiler, indicator repeaters on the front wings, snazzier badging indicating the new Austin-Rover setup, and the mandatory single rear-mounted high-intensity foglight. The dashboard was redesigned yet again, with a more modern configuration. I also seem to recall the seats being cloth, but it has been so many years now that my memory might be a little shaky on this one. These cars felt heavier and more substantial.
Allegro rode very nicely and handled extremely well, and we never had any issues with driving in snow, thanks to the skinny wheels and front wheel drive.
I’ll admit that the police fleet was maintained and serviced better than most if not all of the Allegros in private hands, but the other side of the coin was that being driven 24/7 and receiving a regular thrashing from a group of young men who did not own the cars, subjected them to a more rigorous workout than could ever be imagined by even the most sadistic factory tester.
In retrospect I agree that the Allegro could have been better, but when a car is built down to a price you must expect some corner-cutting and product development by trial and error. Would I buy one? Back then, no, as it didn’t fit in with the likes and needs of a young, single man but now? I suppose I probably would, purely for nostalgia’s sake. That, and it being a rare and quirky choice in this day and age.
by Steve Favill
The Hillman Avenger. Intended by Rootes to be a competitor for the Ford Escort and Vauxhall Viva, the car was also marketed by Chrysler in the United States as the Plymouth Cricket.
It never sold in the numbers that its competitors did however, and I think that I discovered why during the course of living with this example.
My car was identical to the one shown on the front of this period brochure, even down to the ‘ J’ suffix on the license plate. I remember being quite impressed with the styling of these cars as an impressionable youth, and I took the opportunity to see if the car lived up to that.
Finished in a brown metallic paint with beige plastic upholstery, my ownership of this car had been intended as only a temporary thing. Since my current, and much more modern, French car was undergoing repairs to the body at the time, (don’t ask…) I saw this car being advertised cheaply and, since I needed to get to work and back at odd hours another car seemed to be a must.
I realise that the car was called “Avenger”, but quite whom, or what it was trying to Avenge, I don’t know and I certainly have no idea why it decided to enact that vengeance upon me. The one that I bought was terrible. It started and it ran, which I suppose was the main thing, but it felt gutless, even though it had a 1500cc engine. Acceleration could be measured in minutes rather than seconds, the seats were hard and felt as plastic as their covers, the ride was awful and the car had absolutely no redeeming quirks whatsoever. It had no “personality” to it, something that was unusual for a British car of the era.
A short while after buying the car, the rear suspension fell apart on me on trying to pull out of the car park at work one morning at 6am. I had it towed, and scrapped as it was not worth fixing. Besides, I was broke at the time…
Thus ended my one and only dalliance with a product of the Rootes Group, and of all the cars from the UK that I’ve owned, I would definitely NOT buy another. I still rather like the way that it looks, though.
by Steve Favill
The third British car that I owned was an altogether more sporting example, a 1976 Triumph Spitfire 1500, finished in the rather dashing (at least, to me…) colour of Tahiti Blue with black vinyl seats.
And what a great little car this was! My Spitfire, above all others is a constant reminder of my days as a single man.
Absolutely reliable, ridiculously easy to work on and fun to drive, the Spitfire quickly endeared itself to me. Gone were the days of “benign neglect” as unrestricted access to all of the car’s oily bits encouraged tinkering, I was able to adjust the valves, install new spark plugs and wires and carry out other tasks whilst seated on either of the front wheels.
Fuel economy was excellent, too. I can’t recall ever being concerned about excessive fuel consumption, and I would regularly take trips from my home in the English Midlands down to the south coast without giving it a second thought. Luggage could be accommodated by utilizing the well behind the seats, the boot and the luggage rack that I installed on the boot lid. This was my daily driver, and I remember being in a procession of cars trying to make it up a snowy hill on my way home from work one night being appalled at the stupidity of other drivers and wishing that they’d just get out of the way. Decent tyres and some weight in the boot helped of course but those skinny wheels enabled me to gain traction where others could find none and I was able to negotiate the other cars strewn at odd angles across my path and make my way home. I don’t think I even drove to the pub that night…
Of course all good things are destined to come to an end, and the same holds true for my Spitfire. Coming home from work one night I applied a little too much throttle on the exit to a traffic island in the rain, and the back end came around in a millisecond, the driver’s side rear wheel contacting the kerb. The little car got me home, and back to work the next day but I had to get it fixed and the car never really felt the same after this. Ah, the recklessness of youth…
I would recommend the Triumph Spitfire to anyone, especially in the current circumstances of there being anything and everything you might need to conduct any work that you might have in mind, from a routine service to a full-blown restoration. They are fun, full of character and easy to live with in every way.
Read more by Steve Favill on his blog http://noisytappet.blogspot.com/
by Steve Favill
The first car that I bought myself was a 1965 Austin Mini 850 Deluxe. The “Deluxe” upgrade had included corner over-riders on front and rear bumpers, two additional gauges, one each side of the speedometer which indicated coolant temperature and, I think, oil pressure, which meant nothing to me as a callow youth.
EBF486C, finished in Trafalgar Blue with grey vinyl interior, was surprisingly reliable, despite my well-meaning but still comparative neglect. It was reasonably quick, by virtue of the fact that it weighed next to nothing, and the wheel in each far corner of the car meant that it handled better than even its designer had ever imagined. Sliding windows in the front doors and cable pulls with which to open them were just a part of its undeniable charm. It carried me to and from police training college out Coventry way in the English Midlands, and never failed to get me to my destination, wherever that was.
One of the faults that I can remember was a dead water pump, which required removal of the radiator together with a number of other items just to reach the bolts (and which needed doing again after finding out that I had goofed something up). I had an early deadline the following morning and, thanks to my father and brother who burned the midnight oil to get the job done for me while I caught some sleep, I was able to make it on time.
The only other issue which I can remember, other than the never-ending battle with the dreaded tin-worm, was with an increasingly iffy fuel pump which always responded to a smart whack with something solid and heavy, and necessitated kneeling down, reaching underneath the rear subframe and administering the assault. Rewarded with the ticking that indicated renewed delivery of liquid dinosaur I would return to the driver’s seat, turn the key and continue my journey.
This tactic failed to work for me one wet morning when, on my way to perform another tour of duty as a British Bobby starting at 5.45 in the morning, the usual remedy of hitting the fuel pump finally failed to elicit as much as a token death rattle from the now thoroughly abused SU fuel pump.
Fortunately, I always carried a selection of basic hand tools with me wherever I went in this car and I also had a new replacement fuel pump in the boot. Deciding to carry out a roadside replacement, I eventually showed up for work 30 minutes late and received an almighty bollocking from my shift Inspector. This was before the cell phone was even thought of, and so a call to let them know was out of the question.
I eventually sold the car, as the offer of a much newer, larger and more exotic vehicle provided to be rather more tempting than my poor little Mini. Would I buy another? In a New York minute I would, which I suppose is the true test of how good a car really is.
by Steve Favill
My first car was bought for me as a gift from my parents at the age of sixteen. It was a 1961 Ford Anglia 105E, in Ford's Ambassador Blue, a rather nice colour that suited the little car perfectly. The registration number, 433CDA, would be worth a small fortune today.....
Mine was the base model, not the fancy one that became famous in the Harry Potter movie. The base model, as it turns out, was much rarer than the DeLuxe and Super versions which came with the full-width chromed grille and chromed strips, headlamp "eyebrows" and upgraded trim. The Super even featured a two-tone paint job, AND a glove-box lid, which mine never had.
I loved that little car. I named it after a girl that I had a crush on in high school which was as close as I ever got to the real thing, and being too young to drive it right away I learned how to find and fix the rust holes with fiberglass and body filler, and I generally messed about with it and developed an understanding of how everything worked. Upon reaching the age of seventeen I was able to get my provisional licence, display 'L' Plates front and rear, and wait impatiently for someone who had a "full" license to agree to come out with me.
It was light, fairly nippy for such a small engine, a 997cc overhead-valve inline four cylinder and with responsive steering. It was also fairly roomy, the goofy reverse-slope rear windscreen allowing a higher roofline and therefore more headroom in the back seat. Not that I ever got the chance to try it for myself, sadly.
I remember a trip to Solva near to the city of St. David’s in Wales, a canoe strapped to the roof, 'L' plates and a full-licence holder in the form of my best mate, Dave Cook, riding shotgun. Nothing too exciting but it was freedom!
I suppose that the biggest test of how good, how reliable, a car is remains in answering the question whether or not I would have another. The answer has to be a resounding "Yes". These are great little cars, full of character and easy to maintain, and in retrospect I have to say that these represent the perfect starter classic (although they were just old cars back then!) for getting a youngster off on the right foot. Parts are reasonably available even today, and club support means that finding body panels and trim parts will not be as difficult as it was a few years ago.