Bangernomics: Austin Allegro – the greatest car you never bought?
Lampooned and ignored, the humble Austin Allegro hides substantial merit underneath a sordid reputation. Our staff writer took the plunge to prove it's not all doom and breakdowns
I’m not saying that I spent immeasurable periods of time in a rough area growing up, but when certain natives smiled in the local off-licence, the barcode scanner picked up their teeth as a set of saucepans. So, even as a child, I wanted something fast to help me escape.
After slogging through the necessity of financial woe to attain a degree from Napier University, upon finding employment and beckoning in the first full-time wage, I set about getting myself a set of wheels. With delusions of grandeur, the Jaguar section of the classifieds was whisked open to utter dismay. I couldn’t afford any of them; not even an X-type diesel.
Unperturbed, the next stop was the local classic car dealer. Swathes of Mercedes and fast Fords stretched out for miles – yet, they were all out of a post-graduate’s price range. Deflated, I sought refuge through Facebook – and that’s where it jumped at me. A 1980 Austin Allegro yearning for a new custodian.
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In Russet Brown with accompanying melted-chocolate beige interior, this was the ultimate underdog. Representing all that was wrong with the 1970s, the automotive equivalent of Eeyore the Donkey, the Austin Allegro was soon to be recycled if no one laid claim.
It was a distress call as the original sale had fallen through, so I went for it. Nightmares stalked my sleep that night, visions of Red Robbo lowering me into a flaming brazier, laughing maniacally as he did so to the lulling tones of The Good Life’s opening theme.
Yet, I had nothing to worry about. Under the watchful care of the Medway Monkeys club, the 1.3L had covered little more than 30,000 miles. There had only been two previous owners, and the Medway Monkey mechanics had already given the drivetrain a look over. All I had to do was get down to Kent from Edinburgh and drive it home. Would it make it to the Celtic motherland?
Collecting 'Jacko' the Allegro
Neil Netlingham greeted me at the train station and took me to the Allegro, where we struck up an immediate bond. He was so delighted that ‘Jacko’ had found favour with someone younger. So much so, he granted me membership to the club. We joked about the car’s well-documented faults and I paid the £600 asking price. With paperwork signed and the open road awaiting, I was the fully-fledged owner of a brown Allegro. My street cred was now dead in the water.
Yet, I cared not a jot. The spindly gearstick and bouncy ride raised an instant smile, and the charismatic transmission whine and flatulent exhaust pitch sparked appreciative laughter on the test drive. Departing Strood, Kent for the long drive home, I asked if Neil believed Jacko would complete the journey problem free. ‘No’, was the steadfast response.
Although valuing Neil’s honesty, the concept of wallowing 440 miles home suddenly felt quite unnerving. Nevertheless, bidding the Nettlinghams farewell, Jacko and I hit the road. Approaching the first junction out of the street and accelerating away was something of a culture shock; never before had I encountered a car to have run out of gears at 20mph. And I had learned to drive in an old Land Rover…
Hitting the road
However, despite initial trepidation, the journey north proved more relaxing than expected. Although starting off on the M25 and uncomfortable pushing the Allegro beyond 50mph, thus accidentally delving into London’s city centre trying to avoid traffic – during the Queen’s Baton Relay, no less – the running gear verified capability of coping with congested city heat. It was proving rather frugal, too; 35mpg was achieved without protest.
Still trying to avoid the dual carriageways by heading through York, team Allegro inadvertently hit the foot of Sutton Bank while traversing the A170. As one of Britain’s steepest road hills, Sutton Bank had killed vast numbers of cars. Having nursed the Allegro this far after years sitting idle, there was an air of uncertainty about reaching the top. Dropping from fourth to third, then second to first gear, an ill-tempered queue of traffic spawned behind us.
On a crest of revs and several Hail Marys, the Allegro ridged Sutton Bank’s summit with the trembling temperature needle residing beyond the red. Pulling over at the first opportunity, the stream of motorists in my wake filed passed with curiosity. Some BMW drivers even waved to me with one finger.
After coaxing the temperature down, we set off for the A1M. I admitted defeat in my navigation skills, clearly unable to fix a direct route to Scotland, yet there was a development upon gliding down the on-ramp at Dishforth.
After 248 miles and six hours on the move, the Allegro felt happier attempting motorway speeds. Breaching 50mph no longer felt like self-harm, whereas 60mph offered a comfort point. Any faster and the vibrations would have had the trim off, but sticking to just under 60mph made for fine progress.
Turning off for the A66 brought raven black skies and pelting rain, yet Jacko didn’t flinch. The winds picked up and visibility dropped. Traffic built and dissolved in equal measure, giving the clutch and brakes a thorough work out. The confidence in my new purchase was building. Not even the onward slaughter of Mother Nature’s worst discouraged headway.
Passing the Scottish border, having only had to stop for petrol once so far, my back wasn’t inflamed and my legs still had feeling. Such was the comfort level that the encroaching darkness and time bore my optimism no ill. Yet, it was this attitude that was almost my undoing.
Branching off for the leafy back lanes closer to home, I pushed the accelerator into the carpet with ill-gained self-reliance. Despite a reputation for handling like a downhill wheelie bin, Jacko tucked into the curves with aplomb. The Allegro was far from a GTI or hot hatch, but its little 1275cc A-Series engine egged on for more. Accelerating out of the bend proved gutless and flat, but if momentum was carried forward then you could corner with surprising pace.
Then it went wrong. Only ten miles from home, the damp tarmac undulations caught me out. Layered with leaves and foliage, a hard-pressed attempt to corner rapidly caused a loss of traction. The back end slung out, the lop-sided hydragas suspension hopping as it crabbed.
With the steering fastened in opposite lock, not even cadence braking could bring the Allegro back into line. It wasn’t until I smoothly reduced the speed and fed the throttle with feather-light leverage that the vehicle regained its poise.
It must have looked planned with skill, as the local farmer had been watching in the dusk from over the fence in his tractor. Stopping to catch my breath, he gave me a round of applause.
‘Lad, I haven’t seen driving like that before. I had an Allegro back in the day and I never managed to do that.’
Crawling home with a mouthful of humble pie, I arrived in Edinburgh some 14 hours after leaving Strood. Neil was impressed that Jacko has lapped up such a journey, but not as impressed as I was. My car-obsessed mates even took to it with affection – a complete surprise to all involved.
I very much doubt a cheap old Jaguar could have successfully attempted such a trip without problems. Whether it be overheating in traffic or up steep hills, coping with hundreds of miles after years in storage or accepting such abuse on home turf.
Trundling down to see family the next day, there was a surprise in store. My parents and their close friend Fiona Duncan had dressed up in period costume to welcome the car home. They had initially guffawed at such a purchase, but the Allegro bowled them over with its retro charisma, which they viewed very much through rose tinted glasses.
My younger sister was harder to impress. Questioning its grunt, commenting on how slow the vehicle was during any trip out, she refused to be seen in it due to lack of speed. To hammer the point home, this is the girl who once took 40 minutes to eat a sandwich because it was her ‘friend’.
However, it didn’t matter. Although having gone forth in search of something fast, exotic and aesthetically pleasing, I instead ended up with what brainwashed wagon-jumpers christen ‘the world car in the world’. It’s far from it, in fact.
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For the princely sum of £600, it had all the classic car charm of a Jaguar, yet with the infamy and dependability no luxury vehicle can honestly offer. After nearly 500 miles and two day’s worth of activity, the Allegro had defied nearly all urban legends plaguing its reputation.
Driving to the local Tesco, the place which had originally inspired the urge to depart with haste, my mantra was different. The car had taught me a valuable lesson; look beyond initial judgement and there is always merit.