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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.