As British Leyland foundered, the Allegro sank with it. Now it's the height of retro cool, says Keith Adams

Compile a list of 10 British motoring icons, and Sir Stirling Moss would undoubtedly top it - but nestling somewhere in the middle among the Aston Martins, Jaguars and F1 drivers, you would probably find a rather unremarkable small potato-shaped saloon.

The Austin Allegro didn't sell well, and certainly underwhelmed those who drove it. Yet, for reasons beyond its control, it has become one of the most infamous cars ever produced.

It could have been so different. In 1968, one of the industry's mergers from hell produced a lumbering giant called British Leyland - a union of those great marques we now speak of in the past tense.

Despite BL having a golden inventory of prestige cars, it struggled in the mid-market. Austin-Morris was in crisis, and it needed new cars to back up the Mini and 1100. BL bosses had seen new talent, such as the Alfasud, emerge from Europe and felt Austin should meet the challenge head on.

Basing the new car on the 1100 was an advantage, because it had keen front-wheel-drive handling, a compliant ride and sharp styling. All the new car really needed was a sharp, contemporary hatchback body and gutsier engines.

The plan quickly fell apart. Styling was brought in-house (even though Italian styling was the height of fashion, and Pininfarina had done so well with the 1100), with Harris Mann's team dreaming up a low, lean, wedgy design. This trademark style soon distended as the BL parts bin was stuffed in, and the wedge became the pudding.

The final indignity for the Allegro was the quartic (ie, square with rounded edges) steering wheel; it might have looked great on paper, but drivers hated it.

It was launched in May 1973, and there followed a brief few months when everyone was convinced the Allegro was a good car. There were queues of willing punters to buy it. The range was vast, encompassing 1,100, 1,300, 1,500 and 1,750cc variations and two- and four-door bodies; it had a "timeless" design, sharp front-wheel-drive handling and a bold range of colours. Starry-eyed optimists all, we thought the Allegro would continue the success of its predecessor.

But the euphoria dissolved as stories of poor quality circulated in the trade. Buyers couldn't come to terms with its challenging styling, and its high purchase price proved a bitter pill. The fact that the Allegro singularly failed to improve on its predecessor in any meaningful way should have been its epitaph.

But no. The Allegro's formative months were overshadowed by the crises of its creator. Just over a year after its launch, BL needed huge amounts of state funds to stay afloat. That turned BL - and its cars - into tabloid fodder; taxpayers' money was being spent and the public wanted to know where it was going.

Every time the press trumpeted a failing, more sales were lost, and the spiral of decline accelerated. Because the Allegro was BL's newest product, it became a focal point for the national craze of BL-bashing. Despite it being adequate in most areas and inoffensive in the rest, the quirkily styled car soon became a monument to this decaying carmaker.

Engineers developed the Allegro as best they could with diminishing funds. It was given more room, a smoother ride, plush interiors and a bizarrely styled estate version. But by the time the Mk 2 appeared in 1976, people no longer cared - the social stigma of owning one was too much.

Sales dwindled as the product improved, and by the time the Mk 3 appeared in 1979, it struggled to maintain a top five sales position against technically backward rivals such as the Ford Escort. In truth, the Allegro Mk 3 was rather good, and far from unreliable, yet hardly anyone bought it.

The Allegro should have bowed out in 1980, replaced by the much more conventional Maestro. However, BL's lack of funds meant development dragged, and the Allegro soldiered on to 1983. For a car that typified the defeatist mood of a decade, it really should never have escaped the 1970s.

Today, the Allegro makes a great comedy classic car. It doesn't rust unduly, and the engines are easy to work on. Rather like flared trousers, The Sweeney and Space Hoppers, the Allegro is now retro cool. Ironically, the best ones to own now are the earliest, worst models in the weirdest colours.

Get one and enjoy cheap and cheerful classic motoring. You won't even need to wear a bag on your head...

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