Pass the wrench and leave it to me: AA Patroller and Austin Allegro owner Alex Phillips is the woman to call when your car is in need of SOS. Here, she tells Charlotte Vowden what it’s like on the front line of roadside recovery and repair.
Of the five classic cars AA Patroller Alex Phillips owns, Peggy the Leggy is the only one that hasn’t broken down. It’s a welcome break from her day job, but ownership of this British Leyland legend Austin Allegro – which sported the world’s first Hydragas suspension and the infamous Quartic steering wheel – comes with its own responsibilities.
“Peggy the Leggy isn’t just a Deluxe Austin Allegro, she’s a Super Deluxe Austin Allegro. Want to know what the difference is? She’s got carpet rather than rubber mats, full vinyl door cards and a chrome trim on her boot. That’s what technically makes her super, but there’s more to her than that, in certain lights you can even see the glitter in her go faster stripe.
My first time in an Allegro was coming home from hospital as a newborn baby. I don’t remember that, but I do remember being so small that when I stood next to the car the curve of its wheel arch went over my head. As a little girl I didn’t have dolls, I had Matchbox cars. My mum always gave me the choice of what I wanted to play with and when we went in a toy shop I always ran over to them. My passion for the actual mechanics of things is my dad’s fault. We didn’t have a lot of money so we’d buy cheap cars at auction and dad would do all the work himself to keep them on the road, I’d help by passing spanners.
When a friend suggested I apply for an AA Patrol job I laughed, I said ‘no, I can’t do that’ and he said ‘of course you can’. He was right; I started when I was 21 and have been working for the AA for the last 11 years. Being a roadside mechanic and recovery driver is very involved because it’s not just about the cars, it’s about looking after the people and that’s the hardest part of the job – I can control a vehicle, but I can’t always control the humans! When I turn up in the van people think they’re safe, but I have to make sure they stay safe which means I have to decide whether it’s best to get them away from the scene entirely. You don’t realise you’ve got to think those sorts of things through when you sign up for the job.
I’ve got five cars at the moment and touch wood, Peggy is the only one that’s never broken down. I think most classic car owners understand the basics so can get by with a bag of bits and bobs in the boot if something goes wrong, which is why I think I’ve not been called out to many classic car breakdowns – despite living near the Cotswolds where a lot of owners like to drive around.
I found Peggy on eBay for £800 in 2014. I wanted something a bit different – Morris Minors and VW Beetles aren’t for me – and there was not one little spot of rust on her, she was pure orange, but had she been brown I might have glanced over her. I don’t think she’d been driven for a good ten years because the tax disc on the windscreen was dated 2003 but when I picked her up I didn’t put new tyres on, which is really dumb, because not only was the steering wheel square, the tyres must have been as well because of the flat spots. It was a very bumpy ride.
Peggy the Leggy is named after the one lady owner who had her from new before me, and she loved to play golf. There used to be a dent in the back panel from where she slammed the boot down on her clubs and the hinges had to be replaced too; I even found a golf tee under the carpet. I had envisioned the real Peggy with a perm until I found a long grey hair in the car but I think she must have been small because the seatbelt had an adaptor on it to bring it down lower.
The Allegro Owners Club weren’t aware of Peggy the Leggy, but she came with quite a nice history folder full of old MoTs, a very delicate, original drivers handbook, scratch repair plasters and the Passport to Service with all its stamps and instructions which includes ‘a few hints on how you can drive the car to save petrol’ which of course I follow, especially with prices as they are at the moment!
I’ve also got the original sale documents which includes the new car order form that Peggy filled in with biro on 19th February 1974. She ticked the maximum retail price, which was £1,104.68, so she really wanted everything on it, but the thing that makes me smile the most is that she wanted metallic paint but didn’t get it. They didn’t do orange Blaze in metallic but the car finally has a bit of sparkle on her because when I had a few supermarket dents on the doors sorted out the paint guy ran out of plain black go faster stripes so put glittery ones on instead. I think Peggy would approve.
I’ve spent £1500 rebuilding the Allegro’s engine and apart from that it’s only been little bits that I’ve been tarting up, which I call ‘freshtoration’. I see restoration as ripping a car to nothing, putting new stuff on it and making it mint, which can look almost too good, but I do love detailing the engine bay. I’ve won awards because it looks how it would have looked in the seventies when it was first being used and I’m quite proud of that. I also got Harris Mann, who designed the Allegro, to sign the inside of Peggy’s boot lid at a show.
I’m happy Allegros haven’t gone up to silly prices like Fords but I don’t understand why people hate them because people love Minis and they’re pretty much the same. If anything, the Allegro is better because it’s comfier and quieter, but I don’t think Clarkson’s review helped.
I’ve heard all the usual negative comments ‘you’ve got an allaggro’ and ‘they were rubbish even when they were new’ but it hasn’t stopped me getting out there with her. I even use her instead of my van to go to AA training courses, but it always rains when she’s out of the garage.
Being in the minority in the car scene hasn’t been a problem because I’ve got a bright orange Allegro and I think I’m quite easy to talk to, but at work a lot of people don’t expect a female to turn up and I’ve found myself answering the same questions over and over again, like ‘what made you want to do this job?’ and ‘have you always been into cars?’. Once, when calling a customer to say I was on my way, the elderly lady who answered said: ‘What, you? You sound like a girl. Are you capable?’ It made me laugh and I replied ‘they wouldn’t put me in a big yellow van if I wasn’t!’ My friend laughs at the ‘WBG’ registration on my van, which he says stands for ‘What? A Bloody Girl?’.
Peggy’s got three pedals, a gearstick and a handbrake so there’s nothing really unusual about her, as Mike Brewer would say, she’s just an everyday car. She’s bouncy, and yes the steering wheel is square, but it doesn’t feel weird – apart from the fact that it’s very thin – I quite like grabbing hold of a corner of the wheel and pulling it round.
A lot of garages don’t know what to do with a classic car because they’re used to diagnostic machines that will tell them what’s wrong, which is good, but I like taking things apart. My motto is if you want a job doing properly, do it yourself, but having a go and seeing how it goes takes confidence which is one of the reasons I started my YouTube channel – to show people they can do it. The trickiest thing is having the tools, which can be expensive, and some of them you’ll only use once, for example the socket I need to get the steering wheel off the Allegro is massive and not much use for anything else.
Peggy and Peggy the Leggy lived in Surrey for forty-odd years and when I took her back to find her old stomping ground I felt like the car was happy. It was strange, it was almost like going back in time to find her old home while we looked for her mum. It’s such a prominent car and I was hoping that someone would recognise it, even after all these years; I visited two addresses where Peggy had been registered, but the dealer was long gone.
I’d really like to know why the real Peggy traded in a Triumph Herald 1250 saloon in cherry and white for a newfangled Allegro, and why she kept it for so long, but most of all I’d love to find out where she’s buried so I can go and tell her that her car is doing OK.”
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