Events : Drive It Day 2015 and the Princess’ 40th Birthday Party

Mike Humble recently visited the MINI plant at Cowley for the 2015 Drive It Day event and grabbed a steer of a rather special, one-off Leyland Princess on the day of the model’s 40th Birthday Party…

The ultra rare pre production 2200 Wolseley took part in BL cold climate testing in Canada

Just a week after Pride of Longbridge and my escapades with a Maestro, I had to drive up to Cowley to deliver the freshly serviced and rejuvenated MG 1600 just in time to be on display for the 2015 Drive It Day event at the former Morris works – now home to the BMW Group’s MINI plant.

Drive It Day is a very informal event whereby owners of any classic or retro cars can just arrive and soak up the vibes and anecdotes of fellow car lovers. There are no prizes for concourse vehicles and no immaculate trailered vehicles that have only seen road action to and from the MoT station either – just old cars and their owners enjoying the love and affection for each others petrol headed antics. But this year saw a double event as the Princess’ 40th birthday was celebrated at the car’s spiritual home and many vehicles and former plant workers turned up to show their respect for Leyland’s royal run-about.

There was some lovely stuff on display from classic Minis through to later Rover Group models such as Maestro, Montego and Rover 75. My own R40 joined in the fun too, having been parked up in the corner of the factory all week since PoL – even though I had enjoyed some serious spannering (more on that coming soon) on the MG 1600, I was looking forward the journey home in dual-zone climated, burr walnuted comfort. But the day really belonged to the Princess and some mouth-watering examples were on display which ranged from part-restored through to almost factory fresh.

The Princess was well represented from rolling restoration to factory fresh.
The Princess was well represented from rolling restoration to factory fresh.

It was also good to catch up with Kev Davis who is the co-president of the models enthusiast website. We have only had dialogue in the past via email, so it was great to press flesh on the overcast and cold breezy car park of the Cowley plant. His car is fairly well known in Royal circles and on, a personal level, I have been a admirer of it for some time – the one off 2.0 twin carb “Princess ST”. Although never a production model, Kev’s ST looks good enough to pass off as a production model such is the depth and level of his modifications.

As many of you know, “ST” stood for Special Tuning – British Leyland’s own in-house department which developed works racing vehicles and produced tuning kits for BL cars. It was based at the MG plant just a few miles south of Cowley in the quiet rural Oxfordshire town of Abingdon. Special Tuning, along with MG themselves, were some of the early casualties of Sir Michael Edwardes’ recovery plan for Leyland. It would be fair to say that the Princess was anything but sporting in image but, get up close, and this DIY-made homage to a car that never was seems to make perfect sense.

Kevin Davis and his one off homage to Leyland's tuning division - The Princess ST
Kevin Davis and his one off homage to Leyland’s tuning division – The Princess ST

I asked Kev why he did it and got a very simple answer… “Why not?” he bluntly quipped back to me before adding: “it’s my car and I reckoned it would be an interesting twist on a theme.” There was no reason to disagree with him as he showed me the changes made – some subtle and some visually obvious like the specially-commissioned and printed ST decals, Powerflow rear silencer and the later optional alloy wheels which became standard on the Ambassador Vanden Plas. The Snapdragon Yellow paintwork with black decals and lettering works brilliantly and I was secretly hankering to own it.

On the inside there’s a pair of Recaro sport seats straight from an 800 Vitesse trimmed in one of Rover’s finest styles – Silverstone leather and cloth. The rear bench seat is of the same and was a challenge to sort but it looks properly fitted – which it is, of course, unlike many other owner-modified cars that end up becoming a mobile palace of body filler, pop rivets and aftermarket wheels. Kev has even fitted a rev counter where the analogue clock once resided and tastefully added a digital Ambassador unit in the floor mounted tray just ahead of the gear selector.

Allegro rev counter - Maxi steering wheel - Ambassador digital clock and 820 Vitesse seats. It all works really well and only the radio detracts from what looks like a factory prepared car - drives well too!
Allegro rev counter – Maxi HL steering wheel – Ambassador digital clock and 820 Vitesse seats. It all works really well and only the radio detracts from what looks like a factory-prepared car – drives nicely too!

Under the bonnet a pair of SU carbs from a 2200 with an Ambassador HLS/VDP air cleaner unit look like a standard fitment, only the hole drilled through the plastic airbox to accommodate the manual choke gives a clue – no unreliable auto start unit to be found here. The 2.0 O-Series runs really sweetly with an uncharacteristically quiet valve train -normally a quiet running top end on an O-Series indicates a tired engine, but not this one – it just runs really well. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating and Kev holds the keys aloft for a test drive.

I must admit that the large diameter steering wheel donated from an early Maxi HL and Recaro seats made it a snug fit for my rotund frame but, out on the road, the Princess ST drives well and turns heads as we mooch along the Oxford by-pass. Despite being fitted with the three-speed Borg Warner automatic transmission, the ST soon picks up a good head of speed and seems to have a good spread of torque. No bangs or rattles or squeaks – just a nice supple ride, an admirable lack of wind noise and a subtle burble from the performance tail pipe – if it was a manual it would be perfect.

Event organiser Tanya Field flanked by Ray Coles and Kenny O' Hare cut the Princess 40th birthday cake - It was a bloody cold day though!
Event Organiser Tanya Field flanked by Ray Coles and Kenny O’ Hare cut the Princess 40th Birthday cake – despite the radiant smiles it was a darned cold day!

Kev describes it as his 10 year labour of love and it shows. The Princess ST has been done to a very high standard, so much so that I overheard one or two spectators mention they never knew they built one. However, that’s exactly what Kevin set out to achieve from the start – a personal twist on a car that never was but maybe should have been. My own 75 is non-standard too and is in a form that I am happy with and, as Kev said to me about the ST, “it’s my car and I’ll enjoy it as I see fit too“. Fair play to him and an opinion that I wholeheartedly agree with.

After the drive round the block, we parked up again just in time to see Event Organiser Tanya Field cut the Princess’ birthday cake with the assistance of Kenny O’Hare and Ray Coles. Despite the threat of monsoon weather, it wasn’t a bad turn out on the day and I have added a few images of vehicles of interest below.

Thanks are due to the BMW Group, Tanya Field and Kevin Davis for their assistance and help in organising the event.




Mike Humble


  1. It shows of course that in the typical BL tradition they were close to giving the market something that actually it wanted.

    Princess always suffered from the model planning that expected the fleet car (Cortina) market to size up again and so at last make the BC 1800 the right size. Because of this features like 4 seed gear box, modest performance and low cost detailing like the bumpers, rear lights and flat door cards were acceptable on what was to be a “value” product.

    However the UK economic crisis of the 70’s and early 80’s kept the fleet market stuck on a 100” wheelbase right up until mid-80’s when 1800cc and fuel injection became company car must haves and so the Princess (and Ambassador) had to do battle in a class above where it lacked the performance and finish.

    It’s a shame that BL never had the faith and resources to sort it our properly, it was clear in 71 that Ford had to drag the market sector up to the Cortina Mk IV with aggressive pricing and that something was increasingly going wrong with the UK economy long before the Barber Boom let alone the 73 oil shock so there was time to add to the mix things such as a 5 speed gearbox, 1300 4 (for Allegro)/ 2000 6 L Series and firmer more engaging drive for relatively little and “sex it up” with only a little delay in the launch.

  2. Love that “ST” interior. What a teriffic car the Princess nearly was. I thought that they ruined the lines with the Ambassador mods and for me the Princess was the better shape. Must admit that I would love one as a daily drive just for the distinctive style. 2 litres, twin carbs, manual choke, rev counter and 5 speed manual. In red or pageant blue please.

    • The thick rear C pillar gave the car an air of class, albeit at the expense of rear visibility. A trick later employed by VW on the mk2 onwards Golfs.

      Adding another glass pane may have given a brighter interior though.

      The frontal aspect of the Ambassador looked quite Ital-like, though not neccessarily as distinctive as the twin headlight / quadrilateral headlights of the Princess.

  3. Once it was sorted in 1978 and the O series engines introduced, the Princess became a good car. While the Cortina was a decent enough car, the Princess rode better, had massive interior space, looked more distinctive and probably wasn’t any less reliable. In six cylinder form the Princess might not have been able to outrun a V6 Cortina, but was an extremely relaxing car to travel in.

  4. If only it had a hatchback from the start, I thought that they would have learnt with the Maxi, but unfortunately not – until the Ambassador came along.

  5. I have always thought that the princess should have been taken a liitle up market at the beginning and been sold as a compact Rover. In the 70’s the public were aspiring for something a little better; Princess had the style… but not quite the right packaging or name.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.