Allegro - Sweet music from Austin

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Like some glamorous actress British Leyland’s Austin Allegro made its debut to the press in a glare of brilliant theatrical lighting in a huge convention hall near Marbella, Southern Spain, a couple of months ago. As distractingly gorgeous model girls displayed the cars on the circular stage in a beautifully executed four-wheel ballet, Lord Stokes, George Turnbull and Filmer Paradise gave sales speeches which would have had the most hardened sales executives viewing them with admiration. This was to be the motor car which no family man could be without, a pearl in a sea of mundane family cars, the manufacturers of which would tear their hair in anguish as their sales slumped to the onslaught of this new Longbridge wonder. It was a superb piece of showbusiness and at least temporarily convincing even to the least gullible amongst us.

With the tinsel removed some of the glamour had gone as we set off into the mountains in the soft warmth of the Mediterranean spring sun the following day. The circuit chosen for the press test was twisting and arduous enough to make even the Targa Florio course look inviting in comparison and while Lord Stokes cast last-minute doubts to his army of PR men on the suitability and safety of these awesome mountain roads, they revealed convincingly that a large part of that sales verbosity was indeed true. Since then a week spent in England with the top model in this front-wheel-drive 12-car range, the 1750 Sport Special, has convinced this writer still further that in spite of several detrimental points, the Allegro has so much to offer, at very realistic prices (from £960 to £1,360), that competitors such as the Escort, Avenger, Viva and BL’s own Marina are likely to take a very severe shaking.

Sales are aimed at the European market as a whole, so competitors will also include such advanced thinkers as Fiat, Citroën and Renault. In anticipation of this challenge we had expected something rather more revolutionary on the lines of the sophisticated Citroën GS than the final package, which comes from the same mould as the rest of the front-wheel-drive British Leyland range. That is not to say that the Allegro is a disappointment, for its new Hydragas suspension, a derivative of Hydrolastic, is highly effective. Maybe it is fractionally inferior to the Citroën system, but it has a great advantage in simplicity, thus ease of maintenance and considerably less expense if repairs become necessary at high mileages.

Eventually the Allegro will replace the eleven-year-old 1100/1300 range and BL hope will regain that model’s place at the top of the sales charts currently held by the Cortina. Its range of transverse engines give it a far wider scope in the small/medium car market than the 1100/1300, however. They range from the 1100 and 1300 A-series with four all-synchro gears in their sumps to the 1500 and 1750 E-series Maxi engines with five-speed transmission. Alternatively the splendid AP four-speed automatic box may be specified on all models except the 1100. The confusing array of Deluxe, Super, Special and Sport Special denote different levels of trim. Supers and Deluxes in the pushrod versions may have two or four doors, as may the single o.h.c. 1500 Super and 1750 Sport, the Sport nomenclature being applied only with the largest engine option, while the 1500 Special and 1750 Sport Special have four doors perforce.

Sufficient Allegros are now on the road to render a detailed description of the appearance superfluous, a credit to British Leyland’s insistence on having 10,000 examples with dealers before announcement in mid-May, a date which for once the fickle Midlands car workers allowed them not only to honour, but to advance by six days. Apparently a three-door version may follow, as may a twin-carburetter 1750, though to give it five doors would be to create a ludicrous model situation vis a vis the Maxi, which it now complements. In terms of dimensions it is six inches longer, three inches wider and one inch higher than the 1100 and has 40 per cent more boot capacity. Forward planning has taken into account that it may pinch some sales from the Marina, now selling in such copious volumes that BL can afford to channel some of its customers on to the Allegro.

The entire range was available for test on the rugged Spanish terrain, except for the automatic versions, not to be released for sale immediately. In practice there was only time for me to try the 1300, 1500 and 1750 versions, the latter being a particularly bad example with a fault in its Hydragas suspension which rendered its handling at speed quite frightening, further experience with the example in this country being much more satisfactory. Missing the 49 b.h.p. 1100 version was no great disappointment; the cheap hack vehicle of the range, intended mainly for fleet sales.

Most obvious feature on first acquaintance with the 2-door 1300 Super (£1,057) was the extraordinary Quartic steering wheel, more or less a square with the corners rounded off, shared by all models. It’s an adventurous fitting designed to give clear vision of the instruments in the neat facia cowl at all positions. Doubtless it will be controversial, likely to be disliked most by drivers with bad habits of hand positioning, although it may well teach them to drive correctly. I found it quite acceptable, extremely desirable when cornering hard, for it enabled the wheel to be virtually locked in position to combat the natural tendency of front-wheel-drive to pull the wheel out of one’s hands. It did not encourage freeing the wheel to allow the useful castor return to centralise the wheel however, a practice which we should not condone in any case.

Together with this wheel, the Austin engineers have abandoned the unpopular lorry-type driving position, raking the column back to give the Allegro driver a normal, relaxed position. Indeed the driving position and the softly padded, vinyl seats proved to be exceedingly comfortable, even more so on the 1500 and 1750 models which had their standard brushed nylon upholstery. Pedals were well-spaced and it was possible to heel-and-toe in side-of-the-foot fashion. The gear-lever in all versions needed a long stretch to place it in first gear, making the inertia reel belts a necessity for comfort.

The list of standard fittings on all models is exceptional: heated rear screen, two-speed wipers and heater, exterior mirror, 10.5 gallon tank mounted safely between the rear wheels, wax underbody protection, radial tyres (155 x 13 Dunlop SP68s on the 1750s and 145 x 13 on the rest), hazard warning flashers, alternator, electric screen washers etc. The cheaper 1100s and 1300s have rubber floor covering and door pulls, while others have deep, well-fitting carpeting, door armrests, cigar lighter and so on. The differences between respective models are too numerous to detail, giving the purchaser an extraordinarily, if confusing, choice of specification.

Heating, unnecessary in Spain, but essential in the model tried in England, was controlled by sliding quadrant levers in the centre of the facia and moderately powerful through-flow ventilation by narrow horizontal slots in the facia corners. Wipers, washers, horn, indicators and headlamp dipper/flasher were controlled by well-positioned, Triumph-type steering column stalks, with a capacity for single-sweep wipe. The lighting master switch was in the centre of the facia.

The four-speed 1300 had a precise if rubbery gear-change, similar to the 1100, the gearbox making the same characteristic whine. In Spain the Maxi-type five-speed changes on the low-mileage larger models were stiff and obstructive, but the one tested here had slackened off, making it light and precise so long as one remembered to push the lever from fourth to third lightly rather than physically guiding it and allowed the spring action to line the gear-lever up for fourth on the change down from fifth. On all the models tried, first gear was difficult to engage from rest.

Of course the Allegro’s major sales feature against its competitors is the Hydragas suspension, basically an adapted Hydrolastic system with nitrogen-filled spheres welded on to the displacers as the springing medium in place of rubber “cheeses”. The car is still carried on water-based fluid in the interconnected system and a two-way valve between the sphere containing the pressurised nitrogen, separated from the fluid by a butyl diaphragm, controls the damping. Spring rates are very soft, but the new damping system effectively controls roll without the need for anti-roll bars and combats the Hydrolastic car’s tendency for the rear end to sit down and the front to rise under full load, so that headlamp beams don’t reach the sky. Not self-levelling but effective.

On the rough Spanish roads the ride quality was indeed remarkable. There was a tendency for the car to float, less marked on the 1300 version with lighter engine, but in a fashion which neither disturbed the handling nor stomach. The big advantage seemed to be the reduction in pitch, although the Allegro could still be caught out by a sudden step in the road.

As to be expected the Allegro understeered, the o.h.c. engined ones more than the 1300, but held the road extremely well, while the rack and pinion steering was accurate and light, if a little less so on the big versions. The 9.68 in. diameter discs and 8 in. diameter drums, servo-assisted on the 1500 and 1750, stopped the car well without fade or wheel locking, the pedal being sensitive, progressive and light even on the non-servoed car. The inside front wheel left the road far too easily on bumpy corners, though without causing the car to lose adhesion, the wheel pattering and bumping as it clawed for grip. Lifting off the throttle in mid-corner tucked the front in safely and the overall impression was that the characteristics would keep even the most unwary out of trouble.

The 59 b.h.p. 1,275-c.c. engine in its new surroundings was remarkably willing and we have no doubt that this will be the most popular car in the range. Fifth gear on the 72 b.h.p., 79.5 lb. ft. torque at 3,250 r.p.m., 1500 was more of an overdrive, the engine needing more torque to utilise it to its full extent, a request which was granted by the 1750’s 80 b.h.p. and 100 lb. ft. torque at 2,600 r.p.m., with which the higher ratio could be used even around town, or for easy and quiet 90 m.p.h. cruising or 97 m.p.h. maximum. Even on the 1750 however, it paid to change down to fourth for overtaking in the 60 to 80 m.p.h. range. The 1750 tested in England achieved a 0-60 time of 13.8 sec., performance which could be described as adequate rather than inspiring.

One serious failing was the amount of engine whiplash, which eventually caused the exhaust down-pipe to sheer just below the manifold flange on the £1,366 1750 SS. Another tie-bar is desperately needed. Several cars in Spain broke speedometer drives, an ailment repeated twice by the test car, though we understand that this fault has been cured for production.

The suspension medium is sealed for life, there are no sub-frames to rot away like the 1100’s and the body has extensive anti-rust treatment, so the Allegro should exhibit good longevity. Even the 1750 recorded 25 m.p.g. when driven hard, partially encouraged by the fitment of a thermostatically controlled and silent electric fan behind the front-mounted radiator, so all models should be economical to run. Boot space is copious for a small car, rear knee room adequate, though headroom in that seat is limited for tall occupants. There is plenty of interior stowage space in under-facia trays, while the editor estimated that the lockable glove-box on the 1750 SS would take no less than three Rolleiflexes! A tachometer and a clock are also standards on this model.

All in all the Allegro is the best small car ever to come out of British Leyland. It quite justifies that company’s claim that the Hydragas suspension gives ride comfort almost on a par with that of the XJ6, and the standard of appointment and the numerous usual extras fitted in the normal specification to this conservatively attractive, small car should give it a massive following. We look forward to writing a full road test when the teething problems of the pre-production cars have been overcome.—C.R.

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