Jalopy Corner : The Princess comes of age.

Mike Humble:

Happy Birthday Ma'am! The Princess is 40.
A right royal birthday. The Princess is 40.

Of all the BL cars born in the 1970’s, one of them fares slightly better in terms of image perception – the Princess.

That quirky car that was a wonderful world of wedginess is 40 years old this week, and five decades on looks just as weird and modern as when first launched. Heavily based on the outgoing 18/22 “Land-Crab” range, the Princess may have looked futuristic in the showroom but was far from being a thoroughly modern Millie under the sleek long bonnet. Powered by the proven 1.8 B series and 2.2 six cylinder E series engine, the Princess wasn’t built for long before the well known gremlins of bloody minded BL quality came to the fore, thus tarring the “Prinny” with a similar brush to the Allegro, Marina and Triumph TR7.

Reliability & Quality – the thin end of the wedge:

The Austin Princess was on the back foot from launch having been introduced into the marketplace during British Leyland’s darkest hour – 1975. This was the year that it effectively went bankrupt and the Government had to step in and own the firm – a tenure that was to last right up until 1988. The car barely got off to a start before 2700 workers at Cowley walked out on strike soon after production started. Despite the original Harris Mann design being signed off in 1970, five years wasn’t enough time to iron out the faults of the Princess. The legendary BL (lack of) quality soon reared its ugly head not long after launch.

Manual 2.2 versions were so prone to wrecking inner driveshaft joints at laughably low mileages that Leyland pulled it from sale until they could find a resolve. The gap was plugged by introducing an automatic only limited edition model called the Special Six – only Leyland could do that. Once the driveshaft problem had been solved by tweaking the angle of which they operated at, the manual version was plopped back into the price lists. The long travel suspension was another version of BL’s Hydra-Gas system which offered a supple ride but added more unsprung weight and complications over traditional coil suspension systems.

Other usual British Leyland own goals included the lack of a tailgate. Despite looking like a five-door hatch, the management took the decision not to add this at launch despite the designer – Harris Mann pencilling it in on the drawing board. The tug-of-war attitude between Leyland’s factories meant that the Princess was to have a boot as not to damage the success or take the shine off the up-coming Rover SD1 launched a year later in `76. If that wasn’t bad enough, there was the meddling of the marques with BL seemingly not knowing what the call the car only adding more evidence of chaos within the upper ranks of British Leyland.

Terry & June and a disctict lack of vroom:

BL then decided to use the Princess name as a stand alone brand and dropped the separate Austin / Morris and Wolseley names for 1978. The old 1800 engine was phased out and replaced with a more modern overhead cam unit in 1700 & 2.0 capacity with the OHC 2.2 remaining for the top of the range models being now known as the Leyland Princess. As the 70’s drew to a close, the Princess was offered in L / HL & HLS trim level. Known for being comfortable and roomy, the Princess tended to be a relaxing car to drive even if not offering the keenest of performance – critics often bemoaned the lack of speed and acceleration.

Even though it was marketed at the slightly affluent family or middle management business driver, the Princess was never really viewed as a thinking mans car. In some cases, it was seen as a bit of a joke especially when it reached TV fame of being the daily smoker for Mr & Mrs Terry Medford in the sit-com Terry and June. A retired BL salesman once remarked to me that as the show became one of the most watched on the box, actual sales took a dip as customers did not wish to be associated with the hapless main character of the show played by the much missed comedy actor – Terry Scott.

Sometimes, their advertising was too spot on. Mr Average bought the Cortina / Granada or Cavalier instead. Just like the Sierra when first launched, the Princess was too ahead of its time for some palates.
Sometimes, their advertising was just too honest. Mr Average bought the Cortina / Granada or Cavalier instead. Just like the Sierra when first launched, the Princess was too ahead of its time for some palates.

Despite being roomy and refined, it was running against stiff and much better built opposition. The Ford Granada and Vauxhall Carlton (both German engineered) had the edge over the Princess in terms of quality and driver satisfaction. They also roundly trounced the car in fleet sales numbers too and despite the fact the Princess was a nice boat to float along inside, hard used examples were pretty knackered by the time they reached 100.000 miles. Other competitors models like the Granada or Volvo 240 were only just getting run in as a Princess was becoming worn out.

The 80’s came along and the Princess got the body shape it ought to have had from the start – a five door hatchback, and the car was rebranded as the Austin Ambassador. A much improved and good looking roomy vehicle that quietly faded away altogether just two years after its 1982 launch. But today, the Princess enjoys a loyal following with an active owners club and on a purely personal view, I still regard the Princess and Ambassador as handsome looking cars fairing much better current acceptance than some of the other BL models of the same era.

Happy 40th Birthday Your Highness!

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