Is there anything more 1970s than a British Leyland Princess? Known during its development as ADO71, and initially branded as the Austin-Morris 18-22 series, the Princess was a development of the ADO17 Landcrab, the car that first suggested Sir Alec Issigonis was not getting all the direction he should have been.
The Princess was intended to build on the Landcrab’s talents of great space, comfort, compact size and strength with some added style, a bigger boot (Issigonis never did big boots–he took his weekly shopping home in the door pockets of his Mini, from the off-licence), maybe a hatchback and more crash worthiness (legally required by then). Issigonis was no longer involved, having retired in 1969, although he continued to do some consultancy for BLMC.
The style came pretty quickly, considering that BMC had nothing in the cupboard at all regarding a replacement for the Landcrab at the time of the merger with Leyland in 1968, four years its initial launch. The Wedge was the style of the time, and one of its key European exponents was Harris Mann, who designed the TR7 and the Allegro prior to the Princess. Among its advantages was the space it created as a consequence of a higher tail (which would have ideally suited a hatchback, letting this car also replace the Austin Maxi). But as it was in 1970 (when the decision was taken), the Maxi was still young and the Princess was expected to replace the Austin 3 litre as well, so a hatchback was ruled out. The potential (internal) competition with the Rover SD1, which was developed concurrently, may have been a factor also.
Personally I think, and always have, that the style was great, with real distinction and originality compared with its contemporaries. Not every one agrees, but the Princess in a strong solid colour (like the featured blue car) is something that has stood the test of time well–it is clearly of its era but remains attractive.
Underneath the dramatic styling, the car used a lot of a Landcrab technology. Engine wise, the car kept to the 1.8 litre B-series engine from the Landcrab, as well as the 2.2 litre six-cylinder version of the (Maxi’s) E-series engine that was added as an option for the Landcrab in 1972. Both came without the five-speed gearbox of the Maxi though. The E-series four-cylinder was not used, partly for speed to production and partly because the available capacity was expected to be fully committed manufacturing the more modern engine for the Maxi and Allegro, so the 1948 B-series was kept in active service. The car was assembled at Cowley in Oxford, historically the Morris factory, and now the home of the Mini.
The suspension was Hydragas, first used in the 1973 Allegro, and a development of the Hydrolastic used in the Landcrab and ADO16 (Austin- Morris 1100/1300). The interior was much more conventional than in Issigonis’s cars, with a less upright and more conventional driving position and just as much space. The interior was pretty well trimmed, with a visual plushness denied to the Landcrab and a modern, attractive dashboard with ergonomics a Landcrab driver would die for. No longer did the driver have to struggle with an umbrella handbrake under the dash or use his foot to adjust the heater.
There were several small but deliberately modern features in the car–a seat belt warning light, recessed windscreen wiper spindles, and a driver’s seat with (manual) adjustment to a total of 240 positions.
The initial advertising was based on the capabilities of the car, and seemed aimed at the mature driver-chooser, albeit with enough gentle humour to keep most people’s attention.
Of course, since this was the first new car from the British people’s own BLMC following the effective nationalisation, it became the centre of special attention. The fact that it was modern looking, even dramatic, and different technically from the competition (which was perceived to be cars like the Cortina, lower end Granadas, Opel Rekord, Vauxhall Victor FE, VW Passat, Audi 100, larger Fiats, Citroens and the Japanese saloons) just made the target easier. Added to this was the size of the car–like the Landcrab it was larger than the Ford Cortina but smaller than the Granada, leaving it in a bit of a no man’s land. Was it a Cortina competitor, in which case it was too slow and ponderous, arguably too big and expensive, or a Granada competitor, in which case it was slow and neither large nor upmarket enough, with only a 2.2 litre six-cylinder engine? Perhaps its closest competitor was the similarly odd size Renault 20, with a hatchback and less distinctive, and less polarising, styling. The UK’s most trenchant motoring magazine, CAR, even put a 2200 HLS up against a BMW 520 and Citroen CX, where it emerged with its honour intact, if not an absolute winner.
The car was originally launched in Austin and Morris 1800 versions, and in Austin, Morris and Wolseley 2200 versions. The Austin had large trapezoidal lights and a flat bonnet whilst the Morris had four round lights and a contoured bonnet. The Wolseley had the Morris’s headlights and bonnet, and all the plush trim you could ask for in 1975 (no electric windows though). The six-cylinder cars did have power steering, which they needed badly, and it was an option on the 1800. But it was still no sports saloon–the new car could be sold on space, comfort and style, but not performance. And like the Landcrab, it never got an estate derivative. It is only fair, however, to record that as device for moving five people about in comfort and safety with their luggage and with a bit of style, the Princess was a good as any of its main competitors, and better in many respects. It wasn’t sporty, but it was never intended to be.
Six months into its life, the branding was changed from Austin and Morris 18-22 series to Princess, in either 1800 or 2200 versions with 3 trim options, like a Cortina. The Wolseley name died, the ugly front of the Wolseley and Morris went, to be replaced a four headlamp version of the Austin front end on the 1800 whilst the 2200 kept the larger headlamps. So, BL reduced badge engineering by creating another brand.
Unreliability was a problem that had seemingly befallen all British Leyland products since the Mini, but by 1975 the problem was so bad and so public (at least in public perception, if not in statistical comparison with other manufacturers) that when the Princess started to develop faults, they became national news. Nightmare stories of collapsing suspension and driveshaft failures did not help at all and because BL were perceived to take such a long time to cure the problems, the car’s reputation plummeted further. And if a story is not true in the first place, getting a correction across is not easy.
In 1978, the Princess moved into series 2 with a new four-cylinder engine–the BL “O” series, which was an overhead cam engine, parts of which were traceable to a conversion of the OHV B-series to a more modern OHC configuration. This came as a 2.0 litre and 1.7 litre (an unusual size–it was going to be 1.6 litre but to save money the same cylinder head casting was used for both engines) and although more compatible with tighter forthcoming emissions regulations, it offered little that the B-series didn’t after being in development for seven years. The 2.2 litre six-cylinder continued unchanged.
As time moved on, the advertising had to get more contrived to get noticed, and to effectively use the car’s distinctive features and appearances to attract attention from those not instinctively opting to conform. It wasn’t the car for Mr. Average–you had to need something the Princess offered (space, comfort, style, British brand) to choose one over a Cortina, Cavalier or many others. It was a hard sell, never moving any more volume than the Landcrab had.
After seven years, the Princess got its hatchback along with a complete re-skin (except the roof and doors) and a new interior, becoming the Ambassador. Again, the emphasis was on comfort and space–it wasn’t plausible to put it on anything else. My personal view is that whilst the Ambassador may have had significant advantages such as the hatchback and additional windows, the car lost a lot of its appeal in this transformation.
But this was 1982–the year the Cortina gave way to the Sierra. The Mk2 Cavalier was also going strong, and cars like the Chrysler/Talbot Alpine, Renault 20 and VW Passat were all established, making the Ambassador appear slow, not that stylish, unsure of what size it was or what it was really competing against. Based on the old Princess and, frankly, seven years late to the party, it lasted two years, sold only 40,000 copies and was never built in left hand drive or exported from the UK.
The blue car featured is a 1978 Princess 2200HL automatic–the six-cylinder suited the four-speed automatic well, provided you weren’t in a hurry. The red car is a later 1981 Princess series 2 1700 with the O series engine. Both have recently been offered but not sold on ebay.co.uk.
BL never built a “courageous” car again. And that is a shame–BL were at their best when they did (Mini, ADO16, Rover SD1, Dolomite Sprint or Marina, Austin 3 Litre)–and because the elements that didn’t work out for the Princess were the bits that weren’t courageous: the old engines, the four-speed gearboxes, the odd size, the saloon-only configuration, the disjointed marketing and sloppy assembly.
I’d take one over any 1970s Cortina, though.