Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

In production : Vanden Plas Kingsbury Works

Between the two World Wars, the Vanden Plas factory at Kingsbury produced some very prestigious motor vehicles indeed – particularly Bentley, but also Alvis, Lagonda, Rolls Royce and others.

Here’s the fascinating story of the Vanden Plas Kingsbury Works…


Vanden Plas Kingsbury Works: a potted history

The Kingsbury Works originally sat in the grounds of Kingsbury House, a 19th Century house at Kingsbury, near Harrow in North West London, which had been an orphanage in the 1880s.

Note, though, that this should not be confused with the manor house built for the Duchess of Sutherland in 1899, which was also originally called Kingsbury House but was later renamed Kingsbury Manor. This house – pictured, right, in 1971 – still stands in Roe Green Park, and is currently a home for the elderly.

A variety of large workshop buildings had been constructed there during the First World War, which were used for the construction of aircraft for the war effort, the site also having its own runway. In the early 1920s, it briefly became home to the Kingsbury Engineering Company Limited, low-volume producers of a two-cylinder light car but, when that company folded in 1921, the workshops sat vacant for a couple of years.

Where it all began

The availability of the Kingsbury Works coincided conveniently with the acquisition of the Vanden Plas coachbuilding company by Edwin Fox, the entrepreneurial young son of a doctor from nearby Stanmore. In its former guise, Vanden Plas (England) 1917 Limited, the company had been operating from premises at Hendon, but had fallen prey to the post-war slump in demand for bespoke bodywork, exacerbated by the rise of mass-produced cars from the likes of the Austin and Morris companies.

Fox and his brothers had bought the name and goodwill of the company for a paltry £6 and relaunched it as Vanden Plas (England) 1923 Limited. They set about building a strong reputation for high quality coachwork and, in the course of doing so, forged an alliance with the Bentley motor company (then based just down the road at Cricklewood) which would see virtually all Bentley models of that era wearing Vanden Plas bodywork.

Indeed, WO Bentley himself had a marked preference for the bodywork produced by Vanden Plas, and the association between the two companies was further strengthened when parts of the Kingsbury site were leased to Bentley to provide the London-area service department and the racing-car preparation facility (the illustrious Le Mans Bentleys were all prepared at Kingsbury).

How Vanden Plas moved to Kingsbury

In 1925, Vanden Plas acquired the freehold of the Kingsbury Works and, a couple of years later, the company expanded further with the purchase of two former aircraft factories on the site. At the same time, they also bought Kingsbury House, along with its lake, garden and stables, giving them ownership of some 7½ acres in total. However, in the leaner years which followed in the early 1930s, this portfolio was curtailed, to focus on the site’s factory buildings which were central to the continuation of the company’s business.

During the Second World War, the Works was once again to play a key role in the war effort, with a contract from the de Havilland Aircraft Company (whose factory was in Stag Lane, Kingsbury) to build wings and other components for its Tiger Moth and Mosquito planes.

However, immediately following the war, a failed contract to build bodies for Rolls-Royce left Vanden Plas scratching around for new business. Salvation came in the form of Austin Chairman Leonard Lord, who was looking for a company to build the bodies for its new, top-of-the-range Princess six-cylinder saloon.

Post-War changes

In June 1946, a deal was swiftly signed which saw Vanden Plas become a subsidiary of Austin. Six years later, the formation of the British Motor Corporation (BMC) from the merger of Austin and the Nuffield companies meant that the Kingsbury Works had become a very small cog in a very big wheel. Nevertheless, with confidence riding high, the Kingsbury site acquired an impressive new headquarters building in the mid-1950s.

Occupying a prominent position at the main Church Lane entrance to the site, the three-storey building housed a showroom on the ground floor, executive offices on the first floor and a drawing office on the top floor. Its main entrance sat on the building’s southern end, alongside a radiused south-west facing corner featuring glazing which spanned all three floors, behind which could be seen a sweeping spiral staircase.

As the 1950s were drawing to a close, demand for coachbuilt cars like the Princess was beginning to wane, leading to the discontinuation of the standard-wheelbase A135 saloon in 1957. With only the long-wheelbase limousine version remaining in production, it began to make economic sense for Kingsbury to take on the assembly of the chassis, as well as building and attaching the bodywork, thus producing complete cars for the first time.

Introducing BMC-based cars

Around the same time, a new idea was tried that would soon change the entire emphasis of the work carried out there. In 1958, a limited run of 500 Austin A105 Westminster saloons was sent to Kingsbury to be retrimmed in walnut and leather, emerging as the Austin A105 Vanden Plas. The success of these cars led to the launch of the Princess 3-litre saloon in 1959, based on the new Farina-styled Austin A99 Westmister.

The following year, the car was relaunched as the Vanden Plas Princess 3-litre, the Vanden Plas name having now become a marque in its own right. By 1964, many (but by no means all) examples of the Longbridge- and Cowley-built Vanden Plas Princess 1100 were passing through Kingsbury to have their upholstery and woodwork fitted, and their hand-painted coachlines applied.

BMC and Jaguar/Daimler had joined forces in 1966, and Kingsbury was subsequently selected to build the new Daimler DS420 limousine, whose introduction in 1969 finally spelled the end for the coachbuilt ex-Austin Princess limousine. In 1972, the DS420 was joined at Kingsbury by the Daimler Double-Six Vanden Plas, an upmarket version of the newly-launched long-wheelbase, V12-engined Daimler saloon (itself derived from the series 1 Jaguar XJ6).

The smaller Vanden Plas models

Trimming of the ADO16-based Vanden Plas Princess 1300 was also still underway, although within a couple of years it would give way to the Allegro-based Vanden Plas 1500, launched in June 1974. The following year marked the beginning of the end for Kingsbury. BLMC was in dire financial straits, and the Ryder Report, published in March 1975, recommended drastic rationlisation.

First victim of this thinking was the Wolseley marque, which ceased to exist when the 18-22 series was relaunched as the Princess range. Intentionally or otherwise, there was a certain irony in the choice of this new marque name as, up to that point, Kingsbury had been working on a Vanden Plas version of the car which was destined never to reach the dealers’ showrooms.

To closure…

Indeed, there would be no further models launched under the Vanden Plas marque and, by 1979, it was finally decided that the Kingsbury Works had become unviable. In March that year BL pulled the plug on the operation, with production of the Daimler DS420 moving to Jaguar’s Browns Lane factory in Coventry, and the retrimming of the Allegro-based models (now called the Vanden Plas 1.5 and 1.7) moving to the MG plant at Abingdon, which was by then also living on borrowed time.

Following closure, the Kingsbury site was inevitably sold for development, and all of the original workshops were demolished to make way for new industrial buildings. However, the impressive 1950s showroom building which fronted the site survives to this day: following refurbishment, it was taken over by a computer supplies company in the early 1990s, before being divided up into separate business units in recent years.


Many thanks to Andrew Minney and Jeff Maynard for their contributions.

Production models produced at Kingsbury since formation of BMC until closure (1952-1979)

Model Dates Notes
Austin A135 Princess II/III/IV 1950-1957
Austin A135 Princess limousine 1952-1968 Austin name was dropped in 1958 and Vanden Plas brand was adopted in 1960. Chassis was also assembled at Kingsbury from 1958 onwards
Austin A105 Vanden Plas 1958-1959 Limited edition run of 500
Princess 3-litre 1959-1964 Vanden Plas marque name added to designation in 1960
Vanden Plas Princess 1100 1963-1967 Available with 1275cc engine during Summer 1967
Vanden Plas Princess 4-litre R 1964-1968
Vanden Plas Princess 1300 1967-1974
Daimler DS420 limousine 1968-1979 Built at Browns Lane following closure of Kingsbury
Daimler Double-Six Vanden Plas 1972-1979 Finished at Browns Lane following closure of Kingsbury
Daimler 4.2 Vanden Plas 1975-1979 Finished at Browns Lane following closure of Kingsbury
Vanden Plas 1500/1.5/1.7 1974-1979 Finished at Abingdon following closure of Kingsbury

Gallery

The Site

Kingsbury Works photographed in the 1920s, when the area was still mainly rural. The area highlighted in yellow shows the approximate location of the HQ building which was erected in the 1950s (see below). Church Lane can just be seen running past the site in the bottom right-hand corner of the photograph.

The headquarters building


The 1950s-built HQ block, photographed during the late 1960s or early 1970s. The elegant lettering on the side of the building seems a little at odds with the obligatory British Leyland roundel mounted just to the left of the tall windows.

During the early 1990s the former HQ building was occupied by the computer supplies company Technomatic, who renamed it Techno House and used this striking image of the three-storey corner windows in their product catalogue. The railings which can be seen in this photograph look remarkably similar in design to the original ones, which may indeed have been recommissioned for this purpose.

The area behind this building, which used to be home to the Vanden Plas workshops, is now an industrial estate; sadly, none of the original workshop buildings remain.


Still instantly recognisable today, the building has thankfully survived intact as a business centre. The interior has been subdivided into business units which are rented out to companies requiring serviced offices but, as can be seen below, the reception area has lost none of its sense of impact. The building is now called Kingsbury House, echoing the original name of the manor house in whose grounds the old workshop buildings on the site were erected during the First World War. The road in the foreground is Church Lane.



This panoramic interior shot shows the building’s reception area as it is today, but also gives a clear idea of the scene which would have greeted visitors to Kingsbury in the Vanden Plas days. The main entrance doors are on the left, while those on the right would have led through to the ground-floor showroom. The base of the sweeping staircase can be seen in the middle, following the curve of the distinctive three-storey corner windows as it ascends.

Production


Vanden Plas Princess 3-litres undergoing final assembly in 1961.


The upholstery shop in the 1960s, where top-quality Connolly hides were selected, marked-up and cut, prior to being sewn into coverings for seats, door panels and other interior surfaces. Cutting is a highly-skilled process, with the patterns used having been carefully designed to ensure that costly wastage is kept to an absolute minimum.


19 June 1974: end of the line for the Princess 1300, and for the Princess name itself within the Vanden Plas domain.


Daimler DS420 limousine bodyshell undergoing its dip in the primer bath.

Declan Berridge

Without Declan’s hard work, this site simply wouldn’t exist. An avid car enthusiast with a fleet including two ADO16s and a pair of classic Fiats, Declan’s choice of classics is second to none…

Latest posts by Declan Berridge (see all)

17 Comments on "In production : Vanden Plas Kingsbury Works"

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  1. Hilton D says:

    Great story of another famous British automotive name, sadly no longer with us. Good to see the office building survives even if not related to its original purpose. My first employers office building still stands too, although now sub divided into units for numerous tenants. The good memories of a bygone era are still fresh though.

  2. steve stanford says:

    Worked at Vanden plas from 1968 till it wsa closed in 1979 lots of very good memorys.

  3. Rochelle Richarde says:

    Steve Stanford-did you know my dad Raymond Richarde as he worked at Vanden Plas Kingsbury 1963-1978?
    If you can answer look me up on facebook as it would be nice for my dad to revive some old memories
    thanks
    Rochelle

  4. tony church says:

    I had an uncle who worked at The Kingsbury Lane factory in the 60s and I sometimes went to the factory on Saturday morning’s and used sit in these car’s as they were being put together, wonderful place, My Uncle Alf Hodkingson who retired and moved to Bury St.Edmunds.
    Did anyone know Him ?
    Thanks.
    Tony.

  5. Christopher Storey says:

    I think there is just one error in the story : the A135 standard wheel base car did not finish in 1957 . Between late 1957 and 1959 there was a small run ( I think about 200 cars ) of the Austin Princess IV, which was rather more streamlined particularly at the rear end than the earlier car and had the 4 speed Hydromatic box ( as also fitted to the 541S Jensen ) as standard. I am pretty sure that these cars were all built at Kingsbury, and one sees the odd survivor come up on the classic car websites from time to time

  6. paul Leclercq says:

    Worked in the Trim Shop until the plant closure, nice people, nice cars
    such a shame it closed

  7. Colin Campbell says:

    Started work at Vandies 1972 straight out of school work in trim shop spent most of my time working on the line 1300/1500 Limo & double six .best times working with the mad man Ron Orchard.

  8. roger hudson says:

    Ah, the time when London had a manufacturing sector ! Cars, white goods, even electronics.
    It’s not just the North and Midlands that lost out.

    • Glenn Aylett says:

      London was a big manufacturing centre until the mid seventies, when the decline in manufacturing hit the capital big time, although a massive expansion in services saw London avoid the worst of the downturn. I do recall London producing goods as diverse as radios( Fidelity) and tobacco pipes( Dr Plumb).

      • Chris C says:

        London was also a big vehicle manufacturer in the guise of Lesney = Matchbox… The Vanden Plas name lived on for some time as a Jaguar model sold in the States.

        • Will M says:

          As a child of the 80s, some of my earlier models were Macau made.

          “On July 11, 1982, after years of difficulties due to the economic climate in Britain at the time, Lesney went bankrupt and into receivership. Competing companies Mettoy (Corgi) and Meccano (Dinky) also suffered the same fate. The Matchbox brand as well as Lesney’s tooling were bought by and became a division of Universal Holdings/Universal Toys, where the company re-formed as “Matchbox International Ltd.” Tooling and production were moved to Macau.”

          I believe Jag had to use VP to sell Daimler models in the US, presumably sidestepping legal issues with Daimler Benz?

          • Richard16378 says:

            I remember having Matchbox cars made in Macau as well.

            Quite a lot of my toys were made in Hong Kong, Taiwan, & some other places, before the Chinese started to attract investors.

            As for industry in London I imagine the East End had a lot of factories as the docks made supplies of raw materials & distribution easy.

          • Glenn Aylett says:

            It’s interesting what London used to manufacture and I do remember the Matchbox factory in Hackney. Also you had factories producing television sets and radios, a whole set of factories supplying the capital’s considerable motor industry, breweries, food processors, Royal Ordnance armament works and even brass instruments. Sadly mostly gone now.

        • Paul Francis says:

          Back in the late seventies/early eighties, there used to be a private service known as the “Matchbox Bus” trolling ’round Basildon picking up workers at the Lesney factory which was in Rochford I think, maybe Rayleigh; both were far-off exotic destinations to me at the time.
          It was around 1983 that the “Superfast”/”75” range stopped being displayed in those exciting plastic display cases in the shops and just dangled off a hook in a blister pack with no order or seemingly no consistency of colours or liveries. That’s when they started saying “MADE IN MACAU” underneath.
          For a good few years after that there was a range of older 70s models with black windows and no interiors sold under the name “Super GT” and were still made in England..

          Later in life I was privileged to find myself working alongside one of the drivers of the Matchbox Bus, a very nice man with many tales to tell.. Getting back to the subject, one of the original founders of Lesney was Jack Odell. He went on to found Lledo models, which (last time I looked, approx 1989) are made in England and have the old Matchbox style lettering underneath.

          Other notable London manufacturers of model cars were Lone-Star & Budgie. Nowadays I expect that the only souvenir Routemaster or FX4 model you can buy is from China,and nowhere near as crudely made, but lacking something..

    • Paul Francis says:

      I bought an Armstrong 626 receiver from a small ad in the back of my father’s HiFi World magazine when I was a student in the early nineties..
      It soon became unstable due to age but after a quick internet search (it was all written out on paper in those days and scattered far & wide) I discovered the same company was still in existence in E17 and although operating as a general electrical repairs shop were very happy to see one of their products from happier days. I still feel warm thinking about it, although the resulting burns were fairly minor and didn’t occur until much later.

      Uninterestingly that reminds me of Britain’s, a maker of toy soldiers and farm animal replicas that also had a factory in Blackhorse Lane, Walthamstow. I used to write for their catalogue every year and it would come (eventually)so sharply pressed and neat that I was afraid to touch it without washing my hands; the front bit with Autoway(1:32 scale motorway repair blokes), then a bit of army stuff, then the proper farming equipment and most importantly the tractors. Tractors are pretty dull to most people admittedly, but when you’re 8 and there are so many different makes all conveniently coloured by brand it’s more fun.
      Probably. Then there were the implements..

      All their (out of scale) stuff is made in China now.

  9. Sandy Garcia says:

    My great grand uncle used to tell me stories about the factory. I wonder how it could have been if it did not close down.

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