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.