The cars we loved.
The problems that plagued the Big Three in America were well documented, but they pale in comparison to the mayhem that was the British Leyland Corporation (BLMC) of the 1970’s. The large conglomerate pretty much contained the entire home British automotive business, with a large redundant portfolio made up of badge engineered products. Even with a laundry list of brands, at best BLMC could only manage to control
40% of the British market. There were profitable export friendly brands like Jaguar and Land Rover, but BLMC’s problems were rooted mostly in its home market cars from brands like Austin, Morris and Wolseley. Some serious consolidation would dump Wolseley and roll the Morris brand into Austin. The process also yielded a new brand called Princess. Princess was more a single car line than a brand, it replaced the pre-74’ Austin 18-22 and Morris 18-22.
The Princess actually started out as a Austin or Wolseley 18-22 Series, but when the parent company dumped the Wolseley brand it left a new full-sized sedan with no brand to be marketed under. So the Princess ended up as a car without a brand as it were. The lack of identity did not seem to hurt sales. There were a few trim lines but two engines separated them. Entry level cars made do with a 84 hp 1.8 litre four, while others had a 2.2 litre straight six. The upmarket Vanden Plas models were rather lush and all Princesses featured an advanced suspension system called Hydragas that was designed to emulate the smooth controlled ride of a Citroen CX. The Princess came close enough, offering considerable comfort and room thanks to its transverse engine layout and front-wheel drive.
Unlike the benchmarked CX, the Princess could not be confused for a performance car. The 2.2 litre was far from being the preferred mill for a performance car. With only 110 hp, it did good to get the heavier higher trim versions of the Princess to a less than royal 104 mph top speed. As an all-around family car, the Princess was not likely to be going that fast anyway. Passersby were sure to get a good look at the car as it leisurely accelerated from a stop light. At best, 13.5 seconds was all that was needed to reach 60. That of course assumed you had the four speed manual and not the three speed automatic transmission. The lack of a fifth gear was a constant complaint that would never get resolved. The Princess’s charms were never intended to be displayed in handling or straight line performance anyway. It was intended to be a comfortable reasonably equipped family car that competed with the likes of Ford’s ever popular Cortina.
The Princess had somewhat awkward styling, especially from the rear where it’s fast back design did not offer the convenience of a true hatch and looked all the more odd and unwieldy thanks to the occasional two-tone vinyl roof treatment. The front quarter view was the most attractive angle. The wedge shape almost recalled certain Alfa’s with the quad round light treatment. Harris Mann, the designer of the Triumph TR7 was clearly trying to invoke a touch of style in the form of a wedge in the design of the Princess, but must have lost his inspiration with the clunky ‘C’ pillar at the rear of the car.
The inside fared no better. It was a mishmash of less than best of class ergonomic thinking with dashboard elements appearing to have been tacked on as afterthoughts. For all of the Princesses oddness, it managed to be an appealing car. The few good attributes (ride and room)alone were enough to insure good sales early in the car’s lifespan. Like many other English built cars of the time, the Princess was dogged by reliability issues. The reputation caught up with it to the point of slowing down sales significantly.
The Princess would get some mild updating with two new four-cylinder engines replacing the initial 1.8. It also got a new name “Princess II”, but would not really get revamped until the more modernized Austin Ambassador arrived in 1982. The Ambassador was a vast improvement over the Princess as it tried to address some of the issues that hampered the Princess like having a true rear hatch and improved reliability. The new design resembled another one of British Leyland’s cars, the Rover SD1.The Rover would see exotic locals, while the Princess with it’s lineup of four cylinder engines only, would stay at home. The Ambassador was built as right hand drive only and may have been the only Austin to have that distinction.The British Leyland group would morph into other names, but would produce its last best stab at a four door hatchback sedan with the Rover Sterling by the end of the 80’s. Even with Honda’s helpthe end product would be troublesome and mar the reputation of English cars in America your years to come.