Nineties chic pushes the Allegro out of life's slow lane

The Seventies revival has reached the roads. Robin Stummer on the potato-shaped style statement
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THEY'RE out, and they're proud. After years of slumber, middle England is on the move - and its chosen mode of transport is potato-shaped and P-reg. The Allegro, that sedate granny-chariot of the Seventies, is spearheading a revival of interest in British Leyland cars that threatens to repopulate our roads with long-lost motoring marvels such as the Princess and Maxi.

Launched in 1973, the Allegro soon became the joke car par excellence. Advertising campaigns portrayed it as the choice of the young family, but the car's pudgy looks and 0-60mph-by-teatime performance found favour instead with the ageing Victor Meldrew tendency. Quality of construction was truly appalling and its image wasn't helped by the bizarre "design innovation" of a square steering wheel - a round wheel would have hidden the instruments.

Yet, somehow, the cars sold - even in the darkest days of Leyland, when militant union convener Derek "Red Robbo" Robinson played stop-go with the production lines at Longbridge, Birmingham. After design improvements (including a round steering wheel), the "rolling spud" - available in limeflower, applejack green or chocolate brown - became as much part of suburban life as net curtains and Radio 2. By the time the last veered down the sliproad of history in 1982, more than 670,000 had been built.

Now enthusiasts are dedicating themselves to the rehabilitation of the Allegro, which, with the rest of the BL range, was among the last wholly- British mass-market cars.

"It was always the poor little sister of the BL range," says Lynne Marshall, chairman of the unlikely-sounding Allegro Club International. "It was ahead of its time. The potato shape was unattractive in the Seventies, but cars nowadays are similar in design, and it looks modern."

Formed in 1990, Allegro Club International now has 700 members in Britain and on the Continent, many of whom own several of the cars. And they are not all sixtysomethings.

"Some members have owned the cars from new, but an increasing number are youngsters," says Ms Marshall. "For them, there's an element of rebelliousness in owning one. It's as if they're saying `I don't care what you think. I'm young and I've got an Allegro!' People are bringing them out of garages where they've been for years and finding them in good condition. They are simple to work on, and some of the later ones are quite powerful. We've even raced them at Silverstone."

But the revival of interest in cars that most people probably still think irredeemably naff isn't limited to the Allegro. The "Sleeping" Princess - or, less kindly, the Flying Turd - the big-bottomed behemoth that lolloped around Britain at the time of the last Labour government, and its sprawling cousin the Maxi, both have burgeoning owners' clubs, and prices for most of the Leyland cars have risen over the past two years. A top-of-the range Allegro now fetches around pounds 2,200.

To Rachel Bennett, a 22-year-old student from Etwall, Derbyshire, buying a Seventies British Allegro in the Nineties was the obvious choice. "I just love the shape and the style of it. My family now has four, and I can't stand jokes about the cars. Allegros are something I'm deeply into, and for me it's not a joke - so watch it!"

What remained of BL was bought by BMW last year, marking the end of the British-owned car industry, but for Allegro devotees the light died when the last 1700cc model rolled off the production line. There is, however, one car that has eluded the enthusiasts, and has become the Holy Grail of Allegro-dom. Somewhere out there, there is the prototype for the dozen convertibles (1975 price pounds 1,099). "It's the ultimate Allegro," says Ms Marshall. "We think it might be in Spain. There's a big Blue Peter Badge for whoever finds that one."