March 2016

My name is Colin Corke and I have had the privilege of being a volunteer in the BMIHT Archive for some years. I have helped with sorting and cataloguing all kinds of historic material, having the advantage of being an enthusiast for cars in general and British Leyland products in particular.

The Archive contains a good amount of company service bulletins intended for the dealers and mechanics who were responsible for maintaining the cars. Most of these are in glorious ‘technobabble’, often with a touching trust in the ability of the dealership staff to deliver the suggested modifications with skill and care. Or sometimes, rather more alarmingly, encouraging them to monitor whether customers are complaining about a known fault. My document of the month is an extract from one of these service bulletins, which tells a story not just about the car it relates to, the Austin Allegro, but also about the wider issues which beleaguered the British motor industry during the second half of the twentieth century.

Why This Document?

I have chosen this particular document as a lover and owner of Austin Allegros, a vehicle whose historical reputation has suffered from factors which have little to do with the inherent merits or otherwise of the design.

In 1968, British Leyland came into being as the result of a merger involving the majority of surviving car manufacturers. The new Corporation started work straight away on two models of its own. The first to be launched was the conventionally engineered Morris Marina, aimed at the fleet car market and intended to compete with products like the popular Ford Cortina. The second was the Austin Allegro, which British Leyland hoped would build on the success of the car it was intended to replace – the 1100/1300 range, which had been the best-selling car in Britain for many years. Throughout its production life the stylish 1100 outsold the Mini, which may have been more fashionable and yet, in reality, was far less popular. It had been a standard bearer for British-built advanced technology, designed by the star of the British motor industry, Alec Issigonis, and enhanced with Italian styling. Its replacement, the Austin Allegro, was to be British Leyland’s ‘Car for Europe’, developing Issigonis’ advanced ideas in a tightly costed and improved form. But the Allegro was launched into a troubled economic climate and at a time when the image of the British motor industry was at a low ebb. As a result, its design was compromised in ways which meant that it would never fulfil its potential.

After the public launch in May 1973, there are many product bulletins outlining elaborate procedures for fixing water leaks in the new car. This one is dated 10 October 1974. They are all labelled ‘confidential’ though it is unlikely that the information they contained was not widely known. This bulletin, issued after sixteen months on the market, might well be titled ‘we give up!’ It instructs dealers to drill three holes at the lowest points in the Allegro boot, and then ‘touch in the bare metal with a suitable paint colour’. Water can still get in by implication, but the holes will let it out. The justification for this is that ‘boot drainage holes have recently been introduced in production’! As the Allegro Club itself jokes: ‘In what other car can you take your goldfish on holiday with you?’

This document, with its details of how a dealer could claim payment for this work, reflects the problems British Leyland had with its new car. In a story that would often be repeated, though there was little wrong with the fundamental design, its ambitious plans would come to nothing due to quality and manufacturing issues. Rather than addressing the underlying problems, the company often chose unsatisfactory quick fixes which it hoped its long-suffering customers would simply overlook.