awful cars - loving the lemons
however bad the car, someone somewhere cherishes it. andy enright is very scared.
The Reverend Colin Corke seemed innocuous enough. Even the sort of chap you'd go for a drink with, if you could ignore the dog collar, conspicuous avoidance of industrial language and the fact that he is the chairman of Allegro Club International. Proud owner of a good number of the marque and font of all knowledge on this doyen of lamentable cars, he discharges his responsibilities with game enthusiasm.
As we entered the vicarage, the full and worrying extent of the good vicar's obsession becomes vividly apparent. Two crippled Allegros sat on the drive, gently decomposing whilst Corke's plan to take the best bits of each and create one rare 1750 Sports Special took seed. The shock of seeing two of these cars next to each other was palpable, and acted as a reminder as to how rare the Allegro has become. Harris Mann's bold vision was ruined by the demands of engineering expediency and metamorphosed from futuristic wedge into automobilia's waddling oaf.
"I realised it was missing a bolt on the fuel tank. It had never been there from when it left the factory, believe it or not. I believed him.
Without a wife to rein in his excesses, Corke has allowed Allegro body parts to procreate and swarm across the house. Evidence of this oily fecundity can be found in the back garden, under the stairs, on the kitchen table, climbing the stairs and in many other nooks and crannies. Despite this manifest devotion to the car, Corke retained a refreshingly pragmatic view of its place in history. "The Allegro was never a good car, never really an adequate car and certainly not a classic," he mused as he pondered a stray Quartic steering wheel. "What it provided was a comfortable and largely reliable form of transport." Allegro tales are legion and range from the assertion that they are more aerodynamic when travelling in reverse to the true reports of how they were banned from the Mersey tunnel due to their idiosyncratic towing characteristics. "Let me show you the 1300 De Luxe."
This was the cue for things to get rather spooky. Emerging from the garage in a wreath of blue smoke, shunning road salt like a tumescent Harvest Gold slug, came the Reverend's immaculate conception. This car was forensically spotless, the engine bay and underside shinier than Bob Monkhouse's forehead, the interior a devastatingly original dun. In regular demand for magazine articles and television work, this car a 1973 four door in the archetypal Allegro colour, is probably the finest of its type. "When I had it to bits, I realised it was missing a bolt on the fuel tank. It had never been there from when it left the factory, believe it or not." I believed him. Over a cup of tea, he shows me his collection of promotional material and magazines. It's an incredible sight. Lining the walls are head-high piles of brochures and magazines including every edition of Autocar since 1957 filed away, neatly entombed in a polythene sarcophagus. I'd always been suspicious of collectors, with their gimlet eyed quest for completeness and rectitude but the Reverend Corke seemed outwardly normal. What is it that drives people to devote a significant chunk of their lives to patently bad cars?
After spending time talking to such folk, they fall into two camps. There are those who take a realistic view, maybe lapsing into irony or studied eccentricity. These people are sane, and Reverend Colin falls into this category, betraying his eccentric leanings by professing his desire to spend lottery winnings on a Bristol. The other strand are those people in bad car denial. These people have taken leave of their senses and have realised the internet represents an ideal forum to air their views. Having been plagued by a Renault Fuego driving internet stalker, it was with some trepidation that I contacted Jonathan Sellars, Chairman of the Maestro Owners Club.
Twenty year old Jonathan is somewhat barking and has my telephone number. In a flat monotone he explained that Maestro owners were "slightly different from the norm, but younger than you'd imagine" and that attendance at club meetings had grown from an initially disappointing six cars. When asked to how many, the answer was a crushingly predictable seven. Furnished with the information that the carburettored MG 1600 was the most valuable, commanding prices in the region of £50 to £300, and how the club magazine had changed its name to 'Monstro' to accommodate jealous Montego owners, I wondered whether it was possible to buy a genuinely bad new car
Dale Harrow, Course Director of Vehicle Design at the Royal College of Art believes that vehicle engineering has advanced ahead of flair in design. "Cars need something extra. Whilst you can't really buy a bad car per se, a vehicle shouldn't become akin to a white goods purchase, something totally without character." Design guru Stephen Bayley agrees with this view. "I feel rather sorry for anyone who has to make a living from being a car journalist nowadays. A generation ago, merely describing an Austin Maxi gave you a hilarious article. My friend, the Californian conceptual artist, Phil Garner, used to carry about with him a Maxi workshop manual and when things got dull he would simply show people a diagram of the gearchange mechanism and they would fall about laughing."
The late car scribe Russell Bulgin had a theory which stated that it is harder to develop a bad car than a good one today. "The car industry is so mature that most design and engineering skills are available on the open market, either by creative hiring people or simply getting an outside consultant, such as Lotus Engineering, to sort out the mechanical bits. Cars aren't terrible anymore, the gulf from 'good' to 'excellent' is probably greater than from 'bad' to 'good'." He was right. It takes considerable dedication to make an awful car these days and only a very few manufacturers seem to have the dedication and perseverance to pull it off.
Probably the last word should go to Ian Brown, champion of the Vauxhall Royale and early Opel Senator. A man who has called his first born Ayrton Senator Brown believes that for £300, the Senator/Royale is comparable to any luxury car built today. I eye the miserably dented wrecks adorning his driveway and ponder whether he has driven the latest Mercedes S Class. There's a robust contentment to his reply that makes me question whether I've missed a vital point. "I don't need to" he notes with a smugly proprietorial air. "How can it get any better than this?"