Leyland Princess (formerly Austin / Morris / Wolseley 18:22)

A larger-sized (by British standards) car produced by British Leyland from 1975 through 1981, and in revamped form as the Austin Ambassador between 1982 and 1984. Widely reviled at the time, it's now possible, looking back, to divorce the car itself from its manufacturer's problems and inability to build, market, maintain or promote their products. The Princess was certainly flawed, but it got other things very right, and it did not commit the cardinal sin of being boring-looking and forgettable.

Controversial Styling

Like many other controversial cars, the exterior styling was distinctive, innovative, and somewhat divisive. The Wedge, as it's often been nicknamed, is indeed very wedge-shaped; the styling is all angles and slanting panels, very 70s style (see Lamborghini Countach for the production epitome of such style). The designer, Harris Mann, was also responsible for the Triumph TR7, another notably wedge-shaped car, as well as the decidedly non-angular Austin Allegro. The Princess, unlike the Allegro, made it to production metal relatively unscathed and unaltered from Harris' original plan. The bonnet (hood) was a little higher, to allow for taller engines, but the biggest change from Harris' design involved the rear. Harris had intended the design to be a five-door hatchback, but management decided that the Austin Maxi should be the only hatchback in the range, making that its unique selling point, and besides, they thought the Princess' prospective buyers wouldn't like a hatchback - even though, in the Rover division, the new Rover SD1 was being given a hatchback design. So the Princess received fixed rear glass and a seperate boot (trunk), belying its appearance. This was to prove a sales-loser the Princess' entire life.

Mechanical Details

Engines fitted were typical and uninspired; the base engine was the 1800cc pushrod B-series engine, already quite long in the tooth and notably lacking in power, though torque was reasonable. The larger engine, fitted to upper models in the range, was a 2200cc E-series SOHC inline six, very smooth and a much more modern engine, but still not hugely powerful. The Princess was a big car, and the engine choice gave lacklustre performance. This wasn't helped by the provision of only a 4-speed manual gearbox (a Borg-Warner automatic transmission was an option, but performance with this was positively lethargic). Bigger engines and a 5-speed would have made the Princess a much more exciting car and helped sales. Notably, if you look under the bonnet of a Princess, there's a huge amount of unused space; they could definitely have fitted more of an engine in there.

Suspension used BL's Hydragas system, and was very soft and smooth; the intention was to offer as smooth a ride as the Citroën CX and this was almost achieved. The Princess' ride was excellent, and comfort in general was a selling point; the car was roomy, reasonably well-appointed for the time, the seating was comfortable, and overall the driving experience - provided you didn't care that much about performance - was excellent.

Launch in Three Varieties

Launched in March 1975, it was not originally named the Princess; the original designation was the unwieldy and uninspired '18:22', referring to the engine sizes available. For the first six months of its production life, it was produced in three badge engineered variants, for Austin, Morris and Wolseley. Dealer networks of the three brands had not been consolidated, and all three needed a new car of this size. The differences between the versions were minor.

The Austin variant was really the 'standard' one, with no styling changes from the original. It had square headlights and a simple, horizontally-barred grille. The Morris and Wolseley cars had a raised 'hump' permitting a larger, styled grille for each model; the Morris one was a simple chrome rectangle with 'Morris' in the lower right-hand corner, while Wolseley's had a center chromed vertical bar with a Wolseley logo on it, with narrower vertical bars, set slightly back, filling in the chromed surround. Both of these versions had four round headlights, and the Wolseley model was only available with the six-cylinder engine and luxury trim.

Leyland Princess

By September of that year, the silliness of producing three so-similar cars was abundantly obvious, and the process of unifying Austin and Morris dealerships was advanced, so the three versions were scrapped and a single version, the Leyland Princess, was built henceforth. A crown badge was affixed to the point of the bonnet and the script word Princess was affixed to the grille, the thick vinyl-clad C pillars and the boot.

Unfortunately, for all the good words said at the model's introduction, worse times were ahead. Build quality was often atrocious, exacerbated by bitter industrial disputes, and the Princess quickly developed a reputation for unreliability that would dog it for the rest of its production life. The styling, praised upon introduction, was soon labelled 'ugly' by most. Good cars with 'edgy' styling always have their admirers, but cars with a bad reputation are always considered horrid to look at. Most of the Princess' flaws were corrected over time, but the damage to its reputation was done.

Princess 2

In 1978 the Princess was revised to become the Princess 2. The ageing 1800cc B-series engine was replaced by new power units, the O-series overhead cam 1700cc and 2000cc. Power was scarcely improved despite the switch, and the six-cylinder 2200cc version continued unchanged. The 'Princess' script was removed from the grille and C-pillars, and the boot lid lettering was changed. Minor improvements were made to the Hydragas suspension, and a new laminated windscreen was fitted. This was the total extent of the changes, bar some interior tweaks. None of the Princess' major flaws, the lack of a hatchback and the lack of performance, were addressed.

In October 1980 some more minor appearance changes were made, but this would be the last year of the Princess. Production was stopped in November 1981.

The basic Princess design lived on for a few more years in revised form as the Austin Ambassador.

Today, and Conclusions

The oldest Princesses are now 28 years old, while the youngest are 22; definitely, now, pushing into classic car territory. At 25 years old or more, it's generally time to look again at a vehicle at a dispassionate distance, take the historical perspective, and re-examine it. From the modern-day perspective, it certainly can be argued that the Princess deserves recognition as a classic car. Its styling is notable, and Seventies style is now passing its stage of being merely outdated and tired and is now regaining recognition. A Princess is now old enough to start pushing into fashionably retro, rather than just old. Mechanically, they're pretty good; underpowered, maybe, but the owner of a classic car is way more tolerant of that! They're simple, easy to maintain, and mechanical parts are easy to get hold of in England, and cheap. Their size is an advantage, because there's more room inside a Princess' engine compartment than pretty much any other car I've ever seen. Their handling and springing is that of a cruiser, almost American in style, and tight cornering and manouvering at speed isn't really their thing, but know their limits and they're nice to drive. Comfortable, too, and very large indeed inside.

Throughout most of the Eighties and Nineties a Princess was so undesirable as to be almost worthless, with the result that there are precious few left in good condition. Most have long since been scrapped. Despite their rarity, if you can find a good one you can probably pick it up rather cheaply indeed - they certainly haven't reached the point of being 'recognised' yet.

My father had one for a few years in the Eighties, second-hand, an ex taxicab in one of the horrible Seventies colors they all came in - mud brown, in this case. It was a pretty good car, and us kids loved it -- LOTS of room in the back seat even for three kids in their early teens. I don't remember any serious mechanical problems with it, and it served us well until my Dad traded it in for a year-old Volkswagen Golf which eventually became mine.

Would I buy one, today? Maybe, though I suspect in California I'll never see one! I have my hands full with my 1967 Ford Thunderbird, besides. If you were a child of the 70s and feel a little nostalgic for that time, though, and wouldn't mind something cheap and rather retro, you could do a lot worse than getting hold of one of these.

Help from the Princess web site at http://www.leylandprincess.co.uk/, other websites, and my own memories of my dad's one.

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