Cohort Classic: 1966 Vanden Plas Princess 1100 – Peak Issigonis, With Added Contradictions

You are, as a Curbivore, familiar with the BMC ADO16 (Austin America in North America, or Austin, Morris, Riley, Wolseley and MG 1100 and 1300 back home). Benoit clearly is, as he posted this example on the Cohort that he saw in Paris. I have described it as Sir Alec Issigonis’s masterpiece, as it took all he knew from the Mini, Morris Minor and before and made it work better at a precise market and size point, but did not have the weaknesses he was permitted to add, or enforced to adapt, to the Austin Maxi and Austin-Morris 1800 Landcrab. YMMV, that’s fine. Benoit clearly is, posting this 1966 Vanden Plas Princess 1100 on the Cohort.

This, however, is a specific little diversion. The tree of BMC went from Austin or Morris – exactly the same, different dealer (Chevrolet,  Ford or Plymouth equivalents), Riley for a bit of sports and luxury (Oldsmobile, approximately?), Wolsley for pure luxury (Buick?) and MG for a sports saloon theme (Pontiac?).

Many a word has been written (some by me, I admit) about Ford showing others, such as BMC, how to do it. This, though, is a case of BMC having “been there, done that”. In 1970, Ford bought Ghia, a respected coachbuilder and design house, and from 1973 added extra trim and the name to everything from Fiestas to Mustangs and beyond.

Austin had bought Vanden Plas, a respected London based coachbuilder and specialist converter, in 1946, and set them to work building limousines and later, in the late 1950s, taking bare Austin Westminsters and adding the full bespoke leather and wood interior. And not just leather and wood. West of England cloth ceiling trim, lambswool rugs, folding picnic tables….

Commercially, it obviously worked. Not only did BMC keep on doing it, the company allowed the pattern to spread to the ADO16. The Connolly leather heir, Fred Connolly, asked Vanden Plas to build him a special ADO16 with his products liberally used in it, in a similar manner to the coachbuilders who made special Minis in the early 1960s for Beatles and Princesses as that car was adopted by a fashionable set. Vanden Plas obliged, and showed the car at the London Motor Show in 1963.

It may seem remarkable now, but Vanden Plas had a separate factory in north London, close to maybe a hundred miles from Longbridge or Cowley. Bare body shells were pulled off the line at longbridge and shipped to London, where Vanden Plas completed the transformation from basic Austin to the mini-Daimler Vanden Plas Princess 1100, as it was formally titled. Princess was a name Austin had used for many years for limousines, many of which were trimmed by Vanden Plas, and also used on Vanden Plas versions of the large Austin Westminster.

Mechanically, it was pure Austin 1100, albeit with the slighter more powerful MG 1100 engine. The car ran to 1974, with not many changes.

A 1300 engine was fitted in 1967, alongside the option of a four speed automatic, and the rear fins were trimmed. A more powerful (65 bhp) 1300 engine was added in 1968 and that was about it. Still, BMC sold over 43,000 copies. And, yes, the Hydrolastic suspension did sag.

The summary of these changes can be seen on this example – a 1974 Vanden Plas Princess 1300 Mk2 seen in Milan, Italy by Anthony McAndrew.

Given that Alec Issigonis suggested an uncomfortable driver was an alert driver, turned his nose up at any science of ergonomics (as did many in the early 1960s, to be fair) and prioritised space over luxury, you do not have to pause for long to determine this would not have been choice. BMC liked it though, enough to not only build the Austin Allegro based successor, but also seriously contemplate Landcrab (Austin-Morris 1800) and its successor Leyland Princess 2200 variants on the same theme. Ultimately, Vanden Plas became a trim level on Austin-Rover products directly akin to Ghia on Fords, as well as on Jaguars in some markets..