Have you ever beheld a piece of obsolete technology and thought that time ought to have been kinder to it? Perhaps when you slide your favourite, home-recorded Minidisc into your still-functioning deck, or when you pass a once magnificent Sony WEGA CRT television as it sits, screen down, outside somebody’s house – it’s sheer weight having thwarted that inevitable final journey to the dump.
Some technologies and styles meet their natural end, but others seem to follow a far steeper trajectory into premature obscurity. ADO71 – the design more famously known as the British Leyland Princess – was one. It’s a car that adhered to no prior design rules, and wouldn’t inspire any real imitators, either. It was a complete evolutionary dead-end. Personally, I reckon Harris Mann’s wedge-shaped masterpiece was horribly underrated, and this point was rammed home violently when I encountered this fantastic stretched example at the recent Ipswich to Felixstowe classic car run.
This sensationally rare machine is, as you might have guessed, not a British Leyland product. It’s a hand-built stretch limousine conversion built by Woodall Nicholson, a coachbuilder that is very much still in business, and counts Coleman Milne (surely a household name for limos and hearses?) among its divisions. It was marketed as the Kirklees, named for an area of Yorkshire, the county in which the firm was based.
With its sombre (mostly) gloss black paint, you’d be excused for assuming this example to have a lived a funereal existence, but no. A typed notice displayed in a window outlined it history, explaining that its first keeper was a district council. Here it was used for mayoral duties, whisking multi-medallioned officials around in angular style and with legroom to spare. It later spent a while as a rental limousine, where it must have been a hard sell among the more obvious stretched Ford Granada competition.
It really does offer the full formal-limo package, though. It’s more low-key than the 80s American standard – there’s no TV, VCR or illuminated drinks cabinet, nor is there the fibre-optic lights, anodised poles and wipe-clean upholstery that characterise any stretch found loitering in dubious urban corners today. There is, though, a panelled wooden divider between the chauffeur’s cell and the passenger lounge, and a pair of occasional seats that boost accommodation should the mayor need his armed bodyguards to attend today’s supermarket opening.
In fact, given the front-wheel drive nature of the Princess, and the smooth transverse-mounted six-cylinder engine fitted to this example, the Kirklees must have been a pretty quiet machine in which to travel, with no propshaft twirling noisily beneath the floor, and that divider providing an extra acoustic barrier between engine and sofa. All told, the Woodall Nicholson Kirklees seems to present a relatively convincing case for itself. And now we come to the best bit.
Just look at it. The Princess, in its normal form, was never really truly embraced as a piece of forward-thinking design. Launched in 1975, if you include its post 1982 Ambassador reincarnation it actually survived almost a decade – alas managing only its final two years with the hatchback it should have had from the start. Yet, in this long-wheelbase form, it looks like it could have been conceived as a limousine from the outset.
Had the public not generally regarded the underlying Princess as a bit funny looking and crap, its limousine evolution might have enjoyed a rather more enviable position in life. Imagine it today, trundling along with a subdued six-cylinder woofle, perhaps riding on wheels that lend it more visual gravitas than those disastrously unstylish finned British Leyland hubcaps (which I think are fantastic, incidentally) and the Kirklees would make an impressively sinister and other-worldly means of urban transport for the more esoteric gangster.
In an alternative reality, one where the Princess had escaped from British Leyland mediocrity and risen to become genuinely good, the Kirklees Limo might even have become a national symbol. I can imagine it as a kind of British equivalent of the Citroen CX limousines that seem stylistically immortal. Both were spun from slightly eccentric originals, after all. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. The Woodall Nicholson Kirklees is perilously close to extinction, and this example itself is generously described as shabby. Worthlessness and indifference condemned most to death by banger-racing, where their limo credentials no doubt turned them into motorised targets for early annihilation.
After extinction, the Kirklees will live on as a beacon of hope. Hope that something truly splendid can spring from something that seems hopeless.
What’s the most unexpectedly glorious limousine you’ve ever clapped eyes on?
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Redusernab 2018)