Harris Mann and the cars he designed have received a lot of flak over the years but, as he tells Martin Buckley, he was stymied by dated technology, interfering bosses and a lack of money
If you were a car designer, how would you feel if the shape that defined your career had become shorthand for everything that was wrong with the British motor industry in the Seventies?
That has been the fate of Harris Mann, the creator of the Austin Allegro, a car that has become so emblematic of Britain’s darkest car-making hour that a company is now hiring them out to do “ironic” tours of the Cotswolds for £95 a day.
British car designer Harris Mann.
Launched in 1973 – with its now-famous Quartic (or square) steering wheel – the Allegro is the model his name is most readily linked to. However, the quietly spoken Londoner will remind you that he also styled the British Leyland Princess (of Terry and June fame) and Triumph TR7, and that he had a successful post-Leyland freelance career, including at BMW.
Mann, now in his 70s and retired in Worcestershire, also claims to be totally at ease with the part he played in the creation of this icon of Seventies kitsch; after all, he only designed the body.
After serving his apprenticeship in the late-Fifties with the commercial body-maker Duple and a short period working for the famous Raymond Loewy design consultancy in New York, Mann joined Ford of Great Britain.
“I stayed for four years and was involved in bits and pieces, like door handles, on the D-series truck, the Transit and the Escort, Capri and Cortina.
“Ford was a very strict company,” Mann recalls of his time at Dunton, Essex. “Everything was done for a purpose and to a budget. The objective with the Escort, for instance, was to do a car that was better than a [Vauxhall] Viva, but cheaper to make: the profit was the bottom line.”
Mann was headhunted by British Leyland in 1968, as the Maxi was about to be launched: “Looking at what they were making, it seemed a godsend of an opportunity because there was so much to sort out.”
As well as the front end of the Mini Clubman, Mann did the Marina, another reviled product of the era.
“It was identified that all the [British Leyland] front-wheel-drive cars were losing money and the Escort wasn’t losing money – which was how the Marina came about,” he explains. “It wasn’t built to rule the world, it was just meant as a simple car that used odds and ends from around the corporation – which is just what Chrysler was doing and it got them out of a hole at the time.”
The Allegro, by contrast, was intended to be a major contender, and Mann's first recognisably Allegro-like designs – dating from 1970 – show a sleek, compact two-door saloon every bit as handsome and modern as the much-praised Alfasud, still two years away.
In fact, had the Leyland engineers not been constrained by the requirements of bulky engines and outsize heaters (in the name of parts sharing), the Allegro would certainly have been a better-looking car.
The heater made the scuttle higher, then when the twin-carb engine went in it made the thing sky high,” says Mann.
“As time went on it was getting loaded with all kinds of safety requirements that the 1100/1300 had never had to deal with. And then they wanted to make it more luxurious looking, with big, fat seats that robbed the knee room.”
What about the Quartic steering wheel? “That came from engineering, because the seats had grown so fat they thought it would give more leg room and still allow you to see the instruments.”
The Allegro, launched as BL’s “car for Europe” with an advertising campaign said to be the biggest in the UK industry at the time, was promoted as an advanced family saloon, thanks to its unusual Hydrogas suspension and it being front-wheel drive.
Revisiting the Allegro’s press cuttings, it is a surprise to find that, poor gearchange aside, it was not that badly received in 1973. Tales of rear windows that popped out if you jacked up the car in the wrong place – and even wheels falling off – did not become general currency until later.
“I had one and it was all right,” says Mann, who today drives a HondaCivic. “It didn’t do anything exceptional – it just did the job. But it got slated, which I think was just British Leyland bashing; whatever BL did in those days it got criticised.
“I know the unions were giving journalists some ammunition, but you never saw anything in the papers about strikes at BMW or the problems VW had trying to replace the Beetle.”
Strikes have become inextricably linked with the Allegro. It is a surprise therefore to discover that BL's Longbridge factory, south of Birmingham, was at work often enough between 1973 and 1983 to build more than half a million Allegros.
“At the time everybody was coming out on strike,” says Mann. “The unions said there was no new investment – but they were blocking it all the time. In the meantime we were just battling on; in some ways it was good fun, but with no money to spend on anything.
“There was a lot of tooling and machinery that dated from the war when they made bombers. They adapted it to making cars, whereas the Germans were able to start from scratch.”
Mann considers his most successful design to be the wedgy Princess of 1978. “It retained the good points of the Landcrab [the 1964 Austin 1800, which it replaced] and was a good product, although it destroyed driveshafts because there was a greater load on them. But they never addressed the problem because they didn’t have the money.”
Like the Lada Riva and Reliant three-wheelers, the Allegro has come in for so much criticism over the years that to give it another kicking now almost feels like picking on a soft target. And besides, if it is a joke, its partial but very real legacy of closed factories makes it a hollow one.
Anyway, were there not plenty of badly made and dynamically challenged family saloons to choose from in the Seventies?