Drive Story : Vanden Plas Princess
austin-rover.co.uk gets its second ADO16 for test; and after taking it for a quick spin, Keith Adams feels the need to espouse the car’s vitues. Yet again…
Written in 2004
THE best of British: it is an oft-used cliché, but does anyone really use it in conjunction with anything remotely good these days? Some years ago, things were different. Britain led the world in many, many fields, and could still hold its head up high in the world of manufacturing.
Look at Concorde. A world-beating aeroplane that neither the Russians nor the Americans could get close to. It showed that with some help from the French, the British could still build a passenger airliner, which was single-mindedly conceived to transport 150 executives across oceans in the shortest time possible. The fact that it was also achingly beautiful was merely co-incident; it was a machine built for a purpose…
So what does this have to do with a stubby 12-foot long BMC car of the 1960s? Well, like Concorde, the ADO16 was created by single-minded engineers, who envisaged a car that would transport a family of four in comfort, provide sure-footed handling for the driver and take up a minimum of road space, whilst remaining relatively cheap to run. Like Concorde, the ADO16 was the result of visionaries, and the inherent “rightness” of the design is the result.
Longbridge had a little help from the Italians, but given that this was in the styling department, nothing but good could come from such foreign cross-pollination.
So, should the old cliché, “Best of British”, be applied to the ADO16, as it should Concorde?
Perhaps the outcome is inevitable. After all, I found that the 1100 tested in the feature, “floating to revolution” stood up remarkably well in modern traffic conditions, and could not help but agree with Alex Moulton’s comment that it was, “extraordinary”. Of course, this 1963 Morris 1100 had weak points, not least its less-than-powerful engine, compromised driving position and too-short gearing. Therefore, The idea of driving a later ADO16, with a larger engine and longer gearing seemed to be the only way forward.
The car I chose to try is one that has whetted my appetite since the moment I first heard about it. Belonging to Alexander Boucke, this Vanden Plas Princess 1300 has been subjected to a raft of well-considered modifications. For one, its engine has been mildly tuned to about 80bhp, thanks to some porting of the cylinder head, and had been allied to a gearbox sporting longer ratios to best make use of the extra poke. Nestling behind 13-inch Allegro wheels, an uprated braking system (taken from a Maxi) makes sure it stops as well as it goes, whilst the suspension has been treated to the addition of supplementary dampers in order to tame some of its Hydrolastic bounce. Mechanically, then, there was very little left to criticise.
Cosmetically, it was a similarly positive story: being a Vanden Plas, the interior is extremely nicely appointed, featuring leather seats, deep pile Wilton carpeting and expanses of highly lacquered wood. Externally, this ADO16 featured the full-depth Vanden Plas radiator grille and oodles of chrome plated brightwork. Finishing off the effect, a pair of racing wing mirrors and a sport steering wheel (taken from a Triumph 2500). All in all then, this ADO16 has it all…
So, the sum of the parts looks good: take one 1100 add more power, equipment and improved damping, and the result must surely be close to perfection…
So the car looks good, and when you open the door, it smells good. All quality British cars of a certain age seem to have a variation of this smell; It seems to be a mixture of leather, wilton and oil. Either way, it creates a welcoming ambience, which instils a feel-good factor. However, that warm fuzzy feeling is soon shocked out of the system when you sit in that big, padded seat and adopt the classic “Issigonis” driving position. Comfortable, it isn’t.
However, the driving position does not demand the driver to perform unreasonable contortions, and once you acclimatise to the undignified hunch, it seems perfectly reasonable. The Vanden Plas ergonomics are not brilliant, thanks to small and messily calibrated instruments, and a raft of auxiliary switches in a bank to the right. Alexander has taken the time to install a bank of auxiliary gauges, but sadly, in the short drive I was treated to, I never got the chance to really use any of them.
To start up, you don’t so much turn the key and churn, a flick of the key is enough to prod it into life. Once started, the driver is greeted with that unique and instantly recognisable sound of a transmission-in-sump A-Series engined car. The Mini makes exactly the same sound, as does the Metro… and the Allegro. Almost immediately, and without engaging gear, I find myself warming to this car. Good job really, because first gear is initially baulky, and it takes a drop into second before it goes back into first smoothly. Mind you, once underway, the gearchange is smooth and stress-free, and never again does it struggle going in…
Power delivery is very nice indeed. Once underway, it is immediately obvious that this ADO16 is more powerful than standard: it pulls cleanly from low revs, but as soon as 2000rpm is passed, you are into the “torque zone”. First is merely needed to get underway, second delivers instantaneous acceleration from walking pace, and third is really effective from 15mph onwards: that torque zone really allows the Princess to be driven quickly and firmly without any real effort.
Gearing is longer than standard, too… considerably taller than the 1100 I drove last year, and yet because of the power characteristics of this engine, it does not feel overgeared in the slightest. My immediate seat-of-the-pants impressions were that this car was closer in performance, feel and sound to a 1982 MG Metro 1300, rather than the 1962 Morris 1100. It was also a world apart from the last A-Series Allegro I had the misfortune to drive.
The long gearing also has the side benefit of allowing relatively peaceful motorway cruising. Whilst the 1100 was limited to a comfortable 55mph, thanks to its ultra-short top gear, the Princess quite happily sat at 70mph. Yes, the engine noise was a tad intrusive by modern standards, but for a car built in the 1960s, it was very impressive indeed. As was the feeling of stability and security. It tracked arrow straight along a heavily cambered section of motorway and remained unaffected by truck turbulence when overtaking. Given that a comparable Cortina or Viva had the tendency to be thrown across half a lane by the bow waves of trucks being overtaken, it is a very impressive achievement indeed. Indeed, the 1100 was light years ahead of the game back then, and driving this car reminds me yet again of the scale of BMC’s achievement.
Motorways are not the ADO16’s strongest suit, though, and I was more keen to take it along the local test track – I mean A509.
Thankfully, the Princess did not disappoint here. The steering, as delightful as ever does not seem to have been corrupted by the wider tyres fitted. In fact, once under way, there is very little difference in weight, only an additional amount of feel. Considering that the original was hardly shy in telling the driver what it was doing, this makes for a very entertaining drive. Combined with the low-roll suspension, the communicative steering and throttle response offer up a three-channel sensory overload for the driver: On a twisty road, it almost feels alive.
Consider this: on a 60mph bend, you could place the Princess to within millimetres of where you wanted it. Just turn, aim and go. At sane on-road speeds and in the dry, there was not a trace of understeer, and certainly nothing to indicate the possibility of a lively rear end. Some people may call this boring. Trust me, it isn’t.
Still, terrific cornering was always going to be on the cards with this car: the magic ingredients were always there. A sterner test lay ahead when venturing onto less well surfaced local unclassifieds. Turning off the A509, I chose a demon little road, which offers a combination of undulations, adverse cambers, corners and abrasive surfaces, packaged together to form a perfect test for any car’s suspension set-up. To give an idea of context, a Rover 75 is just about on the ragged edge of body control on this stretch at 75mph. Lesser Citroens can just about run up to about 70 if you’re brave, and anything less than accomplished in the suspension department (such as a Rover Sterling) would feel decidedly uncomfortable at 60.
How did the Princess do? Well, I decided not to really tax it, but at 60 (tough in some larger cars, remember), it felt composed and in control. The 60-degree bend, which plunges down and to the left after a long stretch of mixed-frequency undulations (just to unsettle the car even more) was comfortable and agreeably flat. All good news, and very, very impressive when viewed in the context of the car’s age. However, what really blew me away was how much the supplementary dampers worked for this car. On similar roads in an unmodified 1100, the car would be reasonably composed, but the Hydrolastic bounce would begin to prove tiring. In this car, that up-down motion was massively reduced, although not quite eradicated.
I was impressed nevertheless. Even more so, when Alexander, along for the ride, stated in his amusingly dry way that these dampers really were quite old and were almost certainly due for replacement.
A testament to the advantages of interconnected suspension. Such complication may not be a necessity these days, but in the 1960s when the leaf spring ruled the roost, interconnected cars really did offer the common man a taste of true sophistication. And thankfully, the common man liked what he saw (and felt) and quite rightly bought these cars in bucketloads.
Verdict: Perfection in a twelve-foot package?
In a word: nearly.
In essence, the Vanden Plas Princess 1300 is a wonderful, wonderful car. There really is little to criticise it for: performance is acceptable, roadholding is excellent, ride is also good. Add in the reasonable accommodation for a family of four and its all-round daintiness, and you have yourself a very appealing package. Age does not seem to have wearied the style on bit either: still crisp and elegant, without a trace of flab or excess to its name. Imagine the effect of putting such a large grille on the front of any other car and you see what I mean.
It also possesses something that is very hard to define: charisma. It is obvious that the by-product of the genius that went into it is character in spadeloads. You almost want to hug it because it makes you feel good.
It even makes a sensible classic car because it is cheap to run, and although it has a reputation for voracious rust, any remaining examples with an MoT will most certainly have had these issues sorted. So a complete thumbs up, then? Yes, just about…
If this car were food – imagine it to be the finest steak cooked to perfection. Nice to look at, and better to smell and taste. Mouth after mouth of perfection until… until you come to the gristle… With this Princess, that flaw must rest with the driving position, which seemed even worse than the last 1100 I piloted. An aching knee after 30 minutes is not a good sign, but thanks to the hideously off-set pedals, it happened, and it took the shine off the drive.
Still, if that is all one can find to criticise a 40-year old BMC design, then it is a very big achievement. Imagine if it had been a Vanden Plas 1500 I had driven; the story would have been very, very different. I would have criticised everything but the driving position…
Greatest BMC>Rover ever? It’s up there…
With thanks to Alexander Boucke for the drive of his car…