It’s high time we busted out our cagoules and oilskins, left the warmth and cosiness of today’s automotive scene, and exposed ourself to the stormy doldrums of motoring past.
Welcome back to The Carchive.
On our last visit we admired the marvellous if short lived Caterham 21, and we saw that it was good. Today we gasp in awe at the equally British Vanden Plas 1500, and can see that it’s, well, An Allegro.
I love these things. Absolutely love ’em. Not as a car, oh no, that would be silly. More in the same way as I love a classic Monty Python sketch or an episode of Blackadder.
The best thing about this brochure is reading the text and trying to guess whether the copy-writers were being threatened at gunpoint, or whether they just had an incredibly sardonic wit. This is probably the most ironic brochure in history.
“Almost alone amongst specialist car-makers, Vanden Plas exemplifies the maxim that good things come in small packages”.
That specialist car-maker was British Leyland, who meticulously hand-crafted millions of cars of all shapes, sizes and prices every year, providing the gates were open and the workforce were in the right mood. Only we’re asked to forget that British Leyland (or the Austin subdivision who actually built these things) had anything to with this prestigious little car.
Oh no. This was a Vanden Plas.
“Built in the great tradition of Vanden Plas coachwork, its basic design is one of the most advanced on the roads today”.
In case anybody out there is still under any illusion whatsoever, what we’re talking about here is an Austin Allegro. The car which was conceived to take on the might of Europe and show them just what style, what panache and what passion a small British car could have. You can be the judge of whether that mission was accomplished.
(Clue: It wasn’t.)
Harris Mann’s original stylistic proposals for the car envisaged a rakish, svelte machine which may well have been credible against the Citroen GSA and, before long, the Volkswagen Golf. Unfortunately
something everything about the design was lost in translation.
But that didn’t deter British Leyland from squeezing all they could out of their end product. Hence dressing the Allegro in a preposterous wig and fancy dress costume and flogging it as a hand-crafted luxury car. This was the very definition of lipstick on a pig.
“The Vanden Plas 1500 isn’t a collection of features. It’s a a thoughtful total design which invites immediate response. It’s as simple as that.”
In North America you had the Cadillac Cimmaron, a Cadillacized Chevy Cavalier. Here we had the Vanden Plas 1500, the name of a defunct company being cynically glued onto a titivated Allegro.
Before the (thriving) Allegro Owners Club declare war on The Carchive, let me fuel the fire still further by pointing out that BL’s marketing tactics would still have been a little disingenuous had the Allegro been a good car. It wasn’t. It was alright, granted; the Allegro doesn’t wholly deserve the default panning it receives at every mention (e.g it wasn’t as bad as a Morris Marina). But throwing a bunch of chrome and cushions at the Allegro and calling it a Vanden Plas did nothing to alleviate the underlying issue that you’re starting out with a damn Allegro.
“The interior of the Vanden Plas 1500 is dedicated to one single-minded aim, making motoring a true pleasure”
Well, the interior was very definitely the chief selling point of the car, and the only aspect that wasn’t badly tainted by the dreadful taste of Allegro. The dashboard, door trims, seats, carpets, headlining, all were exclusive to the Vanden Plas; a new set of instruments were set into a big slab of walnut veneered wood, this material also adorned the doors and, vitally, the picnic tables in the back. The deep, absorbing seats were faced in actual leather with those bits that didn’t make contact with your legs or torso being trimmed in rather more humble expanded vinyl.
And only a fool would suggest that this was anything other than a very nice place to sit. There were none those electrical gadgets which contaminate the allegedly luxurious environs of today’s luxury cars, this was the inside of a car from a bygone era. And as appealing as that idea seems right now, with hindsight it made the concept of the Vanden Plas 1500 all the more ridiculous.
This interior deserved something better than an Allegro to be fitted inside. It was more Armstrong Siddeley than Austin. And at a time where small cars were thinking towards the future, this was an unashamed throwback to the past. The car will never be seen as one of British Leyland’s brighter moments, despite actually being produced for six full years.
And yet, as I said at the top, the very fact that these ever existed at all makes me very happy.
(All images are of original manufacturer’s publicity material, photographed by me. Copyright remains property of… ooh, that’s an interesting question. China Brilliance? BMW? Probably some guy called Bob who lives in Bromsgrove)