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The Carchive: The Leyland Princess

Chris Haining March 27, 2013 Cars You Should Know, The Carchive 22 Comments

 

princess1

Todays trawl from the R.A-S.H archive brings us a car that certainly doesn’t register strongly on the international radar, but is as brilliantly of-its-time as a ’59 Cadillac, a Cord 810 or a Model T.

The moment you read the phrase “motor-car”  it immediately confirms that you’re reading a British car brochure. And, in fact, you only really find that I-wish-I’d-been-to-Eton plumminess of tone in a publication from British Leyland.

So here it is; the British Leyland Princess.


“Many superb motor-cars have borne the title “Princess” over the years. Distinctive as they were, surely non of them possessed the poise and grace of these, the latest models of the line”

That’s all a matter for personal taste. The Princess name had always been associated with Austin, and was the name awarded to its top-line products from the end of the 1940’s, eventually disappearing with the death of the fairly remarkable Rolls-Royce engined Princess R in 1968. You’d think that any successive car would want to be pretty interesting in order to assume that mantle.

princess2

“Uncompromising in concept, the rakish lines have driven a wedge into the international motoring scene”

Enter stage left Harris Mann! Harris Mann, Harris Mann! King of the wedge! Yes, he of the Allegro and TR7. Harris Mann. When so many manufacturers around the world were chasing each other for trends, ideas and inspiration, Harris Mann was spitting out strange and unfamiliar shapes for British Leyland again and again, invariably involving triangles. Harris Mann had been bought a geometry set at an early age and was determined to use it at every opportunity. I like him. I’d buy him a drink. That’s an open offer, if you’re reading, Harris.

ADO71 was the code, but Project Diablo was the misleadingly dynamic name that the car was developed under. Its development would give Leyland a chance to gain ground on the continental competition by replacing their current mid-range saloon car, the Austin / Morris / Wolseley 1800/2200 series. Never heard of it? Well the nickname “Landcrab” tells you all you need to know about how elegant and desirable it was.

Something different was needed, of that there could be no dispute. And Harris Mann delivered. His creation actually went from drawing board to production without too much undue meddling from the production realists, and looked like nothing that had ever gone before it. Unfortunately, virtually everything else about the new car would be a typical British Leyland compromise.

Princess3

“…the luxurious Princess 2200 HLS Saloon. It’s a  car for those accustomed to the good things in life.”

First thing that they obviously got wrong was the marketing. In creating a medium-large car with a new and daring shape, BL could have taken the opportunity to change the way it sold cars. It could have taken the BMW approach of selling slightly austere, driver-focused machinery, or the Mercedes approach where quality and reputation were the Master Plan. So, what did BL do? Well, you know, they did exactly what they had been doing for the last four decades. This was an exercise in industrial inertia.

“Whether you’re idling in city traffic or cruising down the motorway at Britains maximum permitted speed, you’ll find the interior of the Princess 2200 HLS a haven of peace, quiet and luxurious comfort”

Princess4

It was quite a car, the HLS, with a walnut veneer dashboard and carpeted luggage compartment. It was distinguished externally by its trapezoidal headlamps and, as befitted the range topping model, rich velour on the “deep contoured seats. All of which were seen as to justify the cars status over the next model down; the HL, which made do with a lesser specification, thusly:

“We haven’t fitted a radio, for example. And you’ll find cropped nylon seat facings instead of velour h”

Mere Nylon? Ah, well, nobody did cropped-nylon as quite as well as British Leyland in the ’70s. They became legendary for it. And there’s the problem, again. Aside from the unusual wedge profile there was absolutely nothing unexpected about the new car. And this was even more of a pity when you consider what was happening elsewhere in BL.

Over at Rover, the SD1 was being rolled out within a year of the Princess. Aside from David Bache’s (Ferrari influenced) styling, there was that refreshingly minimalist interior, freed from the wool, wood, leather, pipe smoke, tweed jacket and ivory handled walking stick that had characterised Rover interiors for years. With the SD1 Rover had moved on.

With the Princess, Leyland had, well, not really got anywhere. There was some progress inasmuch as BL saw sense and gave it an identity of its own, but not until the car had spent six months on the market wearing Austin, Morris and Wolseley badges and the silly, contrived front grille styling that went with that. And the interior was a classic lost opportunity. Ergonomically it was far more accomplished than the usual BL fare, but so backwards in going forwards it was like Steampunk, only thirty years early.

Princess 6

“Notice how the stylist has given you width where you want it-at shoulder level- uncluttered leg space for everyone”

This was a definite Princess selling point; rear-seat legroom was nothing short of cavernous. As a packaging excercise, the Princess was very clever.

“on the move, you and your passengers will appreciate the smoothness of Hydragas suspension”

Technically you could argue that the Princess was actually more advanced than the SD1; although it carried the same mechanical units over from the Landcrab there was at least independent suspension, using Hydragas units, another British Leyland exclusive, which were interconnected front and rear. This actually gave an excellent ride without quite the complexity of an oleo-pneumatic system, but a definite need for regular pump-ups lest you inadvertantly achieve a Leyland Lowrider look.

Princess5

It was frustratingly sound, the basic Princess design, which made those flaws that were imposed on it by the product-planners completely unforgivable. For a start, that ancient B-Series 1800cc engine with pushrods controlling the valve movement spluttered out 84hp and displayed very little interest in motivation. The far more modern 2200cc six cylinder E-series unit was really the minimum requirement.  Advanced enough to have a camshaft in charge of inlet-outlet duties, it had an extra SU carb and produced 110hp. Neither of the engines made for a roadburner, but at least the six was smooth, and it made a pleasant noise.

Additionally, that side profile would tend to suggest that the Princess was a hatchback, but no. BL had decided that a hatchback configuration was far too downmarket for a car bearing such a regal crest, this being despite the fact that the Rover SD1, priced considerably North of the Princess, was to be a hatchback from day one. Ironically, in 1981 the Princess was phased out and replaced by the ’82 Ambassador, a topped-and-tailed version of the same hull but sporting, get this, a hatchback. Unfortunately, the Ambassador was basically decontented after the Princess, shifted downmarket and the forward-looking ideas behind the Princess were left to wither on the vine until dying from public disinterest.

Overall, British Leyland needed to stop being so bloody English and take a closer look at what the continent were doing. But my heart really has to go out to poor old Harris Mann. That courageous shape could have been made into so much more; it was only really let down by the details which, in typical BL style, were somewhat garish and chintzy. With the benefit of a little photoshoppery you could probably make the Princess into quite a contemporary looking machine, in perhaps the same way as one might update an NSU RO80. Well, perhaps not, but compared to the even more conservatively conceived Ford and GM products of the time the Princess definitely deserved a little more limelight than its parents ever offered it.

(Disclaimer: All images are of original manufacturer publicity material, snapped by me in a random untidy location in my house. Copyright remains property of the original copyright holder, which could be almost anybody, these days. Can’t really see BL Princess copyright rights being all that hotly contested over, these days…)

 

  • Devin

    Most BL cars from the '70s could have been pretty good if they were made by literally anyone else.

  • POLAЯ

    I once met a Princess from Leyland who gave me a rash.

    • Guest

      So how does the rest of the limerick go?

      • ChironRocket3

        I once met a Princess from Leyland;
        who gave me a rash quite assailin'.
        I've never before
        Been as tender or sore
        As that affliction she put on me male-'uns.

  • dukeisduke

    What's with the holes punched in the brochure?

    • Very annoying indeed. I have a few like this, presumably previously owned by some lunatic OCD I Keep My Kitchen Spices In Alphabetical Order character.

  • Number_Six

    Did Harris Mann forget about taillights? They look "holyshitIforgotthetaillights!!!" tacked-on. Among other things.

    • Jay_Ramey

      I think they designed themselves into a corner there a bit, it was either "too complex" or they weren't allowed to incorporate the taillights into the bootlid, but they wanted to have a low entry as well. So voila, here's your compromise!

  • Jay_Ramey

    Very true regarding the "motor-car" thing. Do you know what our Lincoln (Lincoln the appearance package on some select Ford trucks) is now the Lincoln Motor Company? See, we have nice things too now.

    Love this brochure, it's just a gift that keeps on giving, and the Princess was featured in one of my fave TG eps of all time, the British Leyland special:

    – Most interesting car they ever made. AND most radical and most modern.
    – Oh, look at the brown interior! Ooh!
    – Brown, brown, brown…
    – It's brown and browner!
    – Brown was a '70s color. This is a 1978 car. It's very interesting, it's in good condition…
    – Why is it interesting?
    – This was the first car in the world to obscure its wiper spindles under the bonnet…
    – Obscured windscreen wiper spindles – THERE'S a reason to own one!

    • dukeisduke

      No, the first cars to have hidden wipers were the 1967 full-size Pontiacs.

      • Jay_Ramey

        Well, you tell THEM : )

        TG and facts aren't always friends.

  • Vavon

    Those Princesses are for plebs, I wouldn't want to be seen in anything less than a Wolseley!

    <img src=";

    • Jay_Ramey

      Gawd, that's awesome. I want one. And so does Jamie K.

    • TurboBrick

      Is this advertisement implying that the other Princess variants "may require some assembly"?

      • Devin

        It was BL, so that's a distinct possibility.

      • dukeisduke

        Or reassembly.

        (when parts fall off)

      • Vairship

        All you need is a hammer.

  • Dangerm

    Those rear lights don't look like they were put on straight. Same for the glovebox.

    Shoddy build more an issue for BL than designs/spec's etc.

  • Rover 1

    I note that the background that this brochure is photographed reclining against is less automotive than previous R.A.S.H articles. Have we finally moved inside? Are all articles on BL cars to include pictures of screwdrivers in the background?

    • Vairship

      It's probably quite chilly in the garage right now, with outside temps around freezing.

  • Kev

    That's a great bit of writing. I think you've pretty much nailed it there without slagging the car off . Good work.

  • Jack Yan

    As you didn’t scan the images in, but took photos of photos, their copyright rests with you, not the successor to British Leyland. Though I enjoyed the disclaimer as much as I enjoyed the rest of the article.