Austin Allegro; WHY BRITAIN?

Note: The image is actually the Austin Allegro 1750 S.S. Top of the range, super sport. And still looks horrible.

Please don’t continue to read, if you are a) a member of the Austin Allegro fan club, b) a member of British Leyland fan club, or c) from the midlands.

Austin Allegro optimised the tragicness of British car manufacturing. So caught up in slamming Soviet Union car production (to be honest the Moskvich series were awful), society has forgotten what truly horrible cars British Leyland managed to make. If we are to be entirely fair to the Allegro, it was produced in the thick of British Leyland’s appalling labour relations, with a workforce as unreliable as the cars.

Austin Allegro; The Facts
Built 1973-1983 in Longbridge, Birmingham
Engine Four-cylinder, 998/1098/1275/1485/1748cc
Top Speed 100mph
Price when new From £974
Number Produced 642,350

British Leyland was formed in 1968 by the merger of British Motor Corporation (which was already a merge of Austin and Morris) and Leyland motors, with complete Wilson governmental support. British Leyland lumped together a number of major brands, including Jaguar, Mini, Rover and Triumph. All in all British Leyland was a very large company, 40% of all car manufacturing in the UK came under its bracket.

British Leyland was a company saddled with industrial unrest throughout its lifetime. In 1970 the then Chancellor of British Leyland, Lord Stokes, in his February 1970 speech proclaimed ‘In the first four months of the company’s financial year, strikes and the squeeze have hit the company so hard we have made no profit.’ Although Stokes was dismissed as being an alarmists, he was quite right. The strikes were making sure British car manufacturing could not be competitive aboard. Strikes were losing British Leyland sales, draining the company of funds for re-investment and sapping morale. This continued throughout the seventies.

1973 Britain joined the European Economic Community. British Leyland launched the Austin Allegro, as a ‘car for Europe’. Europe provided an immediate export market, Lord Stokes even claiming that Europe presented a market of 250 million for the British motor industry. Unfortunately the Austin Allegro with its gimmicky quartic steering wheel, and front wheel drive didn’t exactly rally the Europeans to dig into their pockets. In fact British Leyland had thrown everything behind this car, but it came to nothing. There was not the market for a fairly shoddy car, especially up against the mighty Volkswagen Golfs.

1973 in the Winter of Discontent, and into 1974 Heaths’ administrations clashes with the National Union of Miners and the calling of the final of five states of emergency’s. With this came a three-day week and from the beginning of 1974, British Leyland found itself operating at only 60 per cent of its capacity and there was no way it could remain profitable in such circumstances. In addition in 1974 in the largest British Leyland plant Longbridge, Birmingham the chief convener of the shop stewards retired, leaving room for Derek Robinson ‘Red Robbo’ to step into his place. Stout communist, and become a huge force against the right wing media, and a problem for the government. Between 1974-79 he was credited with causing 523 walk-outs at Longbridge, costing an estimated £200 million in lost production.

1975 British Leyland finds itself in server financial difficulties, requiring the government of Wilson to bail them out. Tony Benn was instrumental in British Leyland’s rescue. He is quoted saying ‘If the Government are required to put substantial sums of money into British Leyland in view of its importance to our national economy, it is quite right that the taxpayer in making that contribution should get with it an appropriate measure of public control and accountability.’ Benn required nationalisation in payment of aiding the company.

Despite British Leyland’s reincarnation and billions of pounds of tax payers money pumped into British Leyland; in 1975 British government pumped £1.4 billion into a company only worth £60 million, British Leyland was still failing to manage itself effectively. However British Leyland employed directly 170,000 and kept many other industries in work. Wilson knew he couldn’t do anything put push money back in to it, despite the major reason being strike action. British Leyland lost 17% of its planned car output in the first six months of the financial year, beginning in October 1975, of which 10% was due to strikes. To break this down, this mean 60,000 cars not being built, worth around £120million.

1977 was crunch time for British Leyland. And again they failed. Production of 400,000 cars lost due to industrial action, their chairman who was now Sir Richard Dobson had an incriminating tape of his speech at a private dinner where he expressed a view that ‘trade unions are bastards’, and in September the workforce were back out on strike, led by Robinson pursuing a 47% rise in pay. For Britain in general, imported cars were storming the market; 51% by August 1977 were foreign builds.

British Leyland was doomed. Unable to match their competitors in Europe and across the world, much ridiculed for awful cars, and dogged by industrial unrest. 1979 the company was renamed just BL, probably to prevent anyone from matching the shoddy workmanship of British Leyland to Britain itself. However the irony of the Austin Allegro, is that it’s become a collectible. The kitsch factor, and their surprising propensity not to rust has made them a survivor, and now a nostalgic way for people to relive the seventies. Hopefully the cars respect their heritage, and go on strike, saving Britain from being forced to remember.

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