It’s impossible to overstate how revered this variant of the ADO16 is in Japan, but I trust those of you who read my posts will know that already. Aside from the obvious retro obsession exemplified by the likes of Mitsuoka, which make more than a passing nod at this very car, I’ve had the dubious honor of authoring two pieces (here and there) for this website regarding some of the full-fledged ‘90s Nissan march-based “tribute cars” that this country has spawned. This is probably due to the fact that the supply of genuine Vanden Plas Princess 1100/1300s is, sadly, limited. Eventually though, the real thing appeared classically parked on the side of a curb, to coin a phrase. And it’s definitely worth a closer look.
I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for these. The basic BMC bones of this machine, engineered by Alec Issigonis and Alex Moulton, styled by Pininfarina and produced by the largest carmaker in the country, certainly makes for a solid base on which to badge-engineer a bunch of lookalikes. The number of names and marques that were attached to the ADO16 is pretty impressive – Austin, MG, Morris, Riley, Wolseley, Authi, Innocenti… Kind of crazy, but that was BMC in the ‘60s.
The Vanden Plas variant was something of an afterthought. The former London branch of a major Belgian coachbuilder, Vanden Plaaaah (most Brits seem to think that’s how “Vanden Plas” should sound, for some unfathomable reason, so let’s humour them) was bought by Austin right after the Second World War to manufacture the company’s Princess limousines. By the late ‘50s, the limos started losing their Austin badges and gained Vanden Plaaaaah ones, leading to the creation of a new marque.
The big 4-litre Princess carried on loftily, but soon Austin (now BMC) found they could add models to the Vanden Plaaaah portfolio. One was a high-end version of the BMC Farina saloon, the 1959-64 Vanden Plas Princess 3-Litre (it was a 2.9 actually, but who’s counting?). This was replaced by the same car with a Rolls-Royce-made all-alloy 4-litre (well, 3.9 really, but…) straight-6.
This all made sense, as the Vanden Plaaah name was being used on big luxury saloons and giant limos (as well as some senior Austins, but more as a trim level thing). The humble ADO16, by comparison, was a world apart. But it did hail from the same corporation, and it seems the director of the Kingsbury works took a shine to the little car when it debuted in August 1962 as the Morris 1100.
As is evident all I’m sure, the ADO16 was an evolution of the BMC Mini. It was engineered by the same people and thus shared some of that cars’ characteristics – FWD, transverse engine, very spacious cabin for its size – but also featured a completely new independent suspension, the Hydrolastic, which sort of took the Citroën 2CV’s concept, but tamed it to achieve a far less alarming amount of body roll. It also looked great, thanks to Italian-infused styling. In short, it was ready to be a smash hit, and it largely was.
The Morris was soon buttressed by the sporty twin-carb MG; the me-too Austin arrived in September 1963. At the Earl’s Court Motor Show a month later, the Vanden Plaaah stand had an ADO16 with a shiny new nose, a big slab of veneered wood on its dash and the finest upholstery Britain could muster in its cabin. This was a prototype hand-made at Kingsbury, using an MG 1100 base, and exhibited just to gauge public sentiment. Said public acquiesced, and the rest is history.
It took about a year to get production of the Princess 1100 underway. And in 1965, the Riley Kestrel and Wolseley 1100 joined the family, possibly due to the fact that the Princess was really expensive. Well, it had to be: they weren’t skimping on the Connolly leather and the wool carpets – or the extra sound-deadening. The ADO16 got a major makeover when it switched to a new 1275cc engine in 1967, leading to a sensible change in nomenclature to Princess 1300 for the Vanden Plaaaahs. Power was up to 65hp for the twin-carb cars.
By this point, the ADO16 was even available with an automatic gearbox – which our feature car has, making it a fairly rare example of the breed. On the other hand, the 4-speed automatic was only fitted with the single-carb 60hp engine, which is unfortunate given how much power is sapped by the transmission. Leonard Lord giveth, and Leonard Lord taketh away, as they said during the perilous British Leyland era.
But given how miserable this era was going to become in short order, let us gaze in awe at the limousine in miniature that is the interior of the Princess 1300. There was still a lot of quality and workmanship left in the Kingsbury works, right until the walls caved in and the balloon went up in the dreaded decade of discontent that were the ‘70s. Kingsbury closed in 1979, yet ten years prior, they could still make a damn decent picnic table.
The inherent snobbishness and rigid class structure still present in British society back in the early Elizabethan age meant that there were quite a few urbanites who were happy to part ways with many pounds, as well as a few shillings and pence, to be able to chauffeur themselves in a Princess 1300. How much pre-decimal currency did one need? Well, with the slushbox, about ₤1134. Less without, of course, but that was still a very hefty amount of Sterling, as the comparative table below will attempt to illustrate. I haven’t done one of these in a long while, but the Princess inspired me.
I tried my best to find cars below 1500cc to measure against the Princess, but the smaller Vauxhalls, Fords or similar were just too cheap to stand the comparison. Only exotic Italian or bigger cars were on par with or dearer than the Princess – this shows how high Vanden Plaaaah were aiming at, but also that looks can be deceiving. In terms of interior space, the ADO16’s super-efficient packaging meant that it was the equal of the eternal Cortina, the old BMC Farina (a.k.a the Wolseley) or the new Rootes Arrow (represented here by the Singer Gazelle), minus the boot space. And what the Princess lacked in power, it (sort of) made up in handling compared to the likes of the more powerful Nissan, Ford or Simca.
Still, it’s like the Princess 1300 played in its own cozy leather-upholstered niche, up next to all those larger sporty saloons. And that is one of the things that makes it attractive, in the end. It is a unique blend of a small car, big on the inside, chock full of luxury and slathered in chrome, but also front-wheel drive and relatively reliable, given its age and origins. As far as Japanese folks are concerned, this car hits 95% of the desirability checklist: it’s British, it’s cute, it’s luxurious, it’s small, it’s economical. It’s grandiose, yet non-threatening. It’s got a crown on its grille and this one even has an automatic gearbox! What’s not to like about the Plaaaah?
As CC’s very own Roger “Vanden” Carr remarked a couple days ago, the ADO16 just turned 60 years young this week, so perhaps there could be no better time to post a Princess 1300. BMC churned out close to 2.2 million ADO16s – of the two-door, four-door and estate kind – until production was curtailed in the summer of 1974 (though it lasted an extra three years overseas).
The Vanden Plaaaaah variant, though pretty much dreamt up on the fly, stayed right until the very end, in four-door only, tallying just over 43,000 units in a decade. That may not be a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it was all gravy for BMC / BL: development costs and nearly all production costs were soaked up by the volume of the Austin / Morris variants, and it kept the Kingsbury works afloat for a while, even as the BL mothership started listing badly, gravy notwithstanding. Quite a saucy little number, this Princess 1300.