I had a specific story in mind when I had a chance to drive a Vauxhall Nova and Ford Fiesta back to back, but sitting nearby was something else, something which recalled a perverse itch that I had wanted to scratch for year and years (a secret which I kept buried deep inside, protected as if it were worse than than a leaning towards necrophilia or still owning a Fatman Scoop CD).
I always wanted to drive an Austin Allegro.
And then, suddenly, my shameful dream was made a reality. A spindly, slightly rusty non-OEM ignition key was in my fist. An Austin Allegro, the same age as me and with the second smallest engine they ever came with, was all mine. Read on for all the gory details.
Resplendent in a dirty-looking shade of white despite being actually scrupulously clean, the Allegro in question had a marvellously down-at-heel look to it. There were areas of rust peeking through, both surface and not-so-surface. A repair had been carried out on the left rear wing and a slightly different shade of white had been used. The satin finish, though far from deliberate, laughed in the face of the expensive factory-matte paint finishes you can buy today for $$$.
I marvelled at the proportioning of the Allegro and, took a few moments to drink it all in. Harris Mann was a visionary whose intentions had become somewhat diluted by the time his creation hit the showrooms. The wedgy, striking profile he envisaged had morphed into a blobby, piggy globule of a car which would prove wildly incompatible with the sharp, crisp lines that soon became prevalent across Europe. The emergence of the Golf would immediately render British Leyland’s idea of A Car For Europe more than a little silly looking.
Despite all this, you’re looking at an Allegro 3. This was the second facelift of the Allegro, readying the car for the 1980s where it was STILL FOR SALE against Astras and front-drive Escorts. Watching the Allegro facelifts come and go in real time must have been as harrowing as seeing limbs being torn from a live insect; with every passing round of changes the Allegro became yet less attractive. The first facelift in ’75 brought along the demise of the infamous yet innovative squared-off Quartic steering wheel as well as the snuffing out of the few bits of actual interior elegance. Then, in ’79 the Allegro 3 changes brought with it an hilarious black plastic front air-dam and the ugliest steering wheel ever to invade a cabin. It also scaled new heights in brown and orange nylon achievement.
Just look at that cabin. It just, uh…. damn. There are no words, apart from brown. And orange. Unbelievable. Take a seat and the initial impression is of comfort, but I’m unsure whether it’s true comfort you’re experiencing or simply the relief of sitting down. I survey all that surrounds me; it’s a shattered relic of what Harris Man wanted in his little saloon – gone is the printed woodtone, unceremoniously exchanged for the brittlest, oiliest black plastic imaginable. If Steve Bakelite, the inventor of black plastic, were alive to see what would come of his creation he would feel ashamed and spend the rest of his life in deep regret.
I turn the key, not sure what to expect. It started, reluctantly, half flooded but coughed its way to idle with judicious modulation of choke. Its opening rasp is of the most flatulent kind, somehow almost charming in its rudeness. With it tapping away gamely I engage the weakly sycnchroed first and peel gently away. The next thing I notice is the transmission whine, a chorus between the four forward ratios and the final drive, which all whine away in harmony, a bit like you hear in a rally car but, you know, less excusable.
Although, at this point, I was only tricking along, it was enough to confirm my suspicions about Allegro Life. The steering wheel span round and round with only loose command of proceedings, pressing the accelerator only served to increase loudness and fuel consumption but not pace, not noticeably, anyway. The ride was fidgety, smooth and bouncy, in fact the results from that hydrogas suspension are of indescribable complexity, so I won’t.
It was all adding up to be just what I had expected. A car of very modest capabilities, foisted upon a nation of slavish British Leyland devotees who couldn’t be expected to know better. Allegros sold poorly in the early ’80s, but yet BL kept churning the damn things out until the Maestro (hooray!) turned up. The Allegro had always been a car of limited virtue, but its day was well and truly done way before this version went on sale, gawky, unsympathetically designed new rear lamp clusters and all. I was enjoying this prelude to a drive, not because I was experiencing anything measurably decent, but because of its sheer novelty value.
And then a remarkable transformation occurred. Out on the high speed bowl I found that the weakness and bounciness of that suspension which causes it to feel so ponderous at shopping speeds combines with mysteriously efficient aerodynamics to incredible effect. At speed, say, 70mph plus, the car seems to hunker down on its springs, which suddenly become far more progressive in the way they deal with tarmac imperfections. The steering, which seemed wayward and unruly, is suddenly precise and crisp and all that lightness immediately makes sense in the way it allows you to instinctively place the car.
It turns out that the skinny tyres were expertly chosen by the chassis engineers. The combination of a limited contact patch and tall sidewalls makes for a constant stream of information from the steering, directly through your knuckles and into your soul. Driving hard, the balance of the car keeps you constantly on a knife-edge. As a result, switchback complexes can be dismissed with a few smooth fluid swooshes of the steering wheel, imparting a feeling nothing quite like anything you’ve ever experienced, or certainly ever expected to experience today, in this car. Somehow everything aligns and crystallises into a perfect, primal driving sensation.
There are only 45bhp to use, but it’s the last five that are the best and the most willing. It’s those five, eager horses that do all that heroic work when you ask them to deliver, willingly powering the little beastie out of corners at speeds that you really had no idea might be feasible. You begin to love the noise, which is still as ugly as it ever was but you know that all that noise comes from the heart. It’s only a little engine, but it tries so, so hard.
Had you going for a minute, didn’t I?
Alas, the above high-speed hi-jinx may still prove to all be true, but I never had a chance to find out. An accident meant that the test routes closed early and I was turned back to base. I sighed, heavy hearted that I may never fulfil my dream of taking an Austin Allegro to the limit.
I can report, though, that the car pretty much lived up to every one of the British Leyland stereotypes that had ever been levelled at it. They don’t build ’em like this any more. The era of the joke car seems to be in the past.
I miss it.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015. With great thanks to Newspress for supplying the test vehicle. I like Allegros. I have nothing to be ashamed of)