The Princess is one of those iconic cars which was ahead of the opposition, but has really only become recognised in the last few years, once it slipped under the classic car umbrella.
Keith Adams updates our quick run-down on what you should look for when buying yourself a nice family-sized slice of wedge.
|Body style:||4-door saloon|
|Engine options:||1798cc: 1975-1978 Austin 1800, Morris 1800, Princess 1800L, 1800HL
2227cc: 1975-1981 Wolseley Saloon, Austin 2200, Morris 2200, Princess 2200HL, HLS
1695cc: 1978-1982 Princess 2 1700L, 1700HL
1994cc: 1979-1982 Princess 2 2000L, 2000HL, 2000HLS
|Transmission options:||Four-speed manual, three-speed automatic|
Launching a car with no name can have its pitfalls. When it first hit the market in 1975, the Princess wasn’t a Princess at all – it was an Austin, Morris or Wolseley 18-22 Series. The name might not have readily tripped off the tongue, but the styling certainly got people talking. The low nose and truncated rump soon earned it the nickname ‘The Wedge’ – and, although the mechanical package underneath the masterful Harris Mann styling was familiar thanks to being similar to the BMC 1800/2200, it was more than a match for its rivals thanks to front wheel drive and interconnected Hydragas suspension.
The car was launched in the middle of a crisis for its maker and, as a result, plenty of mud was thrown at it by the press – despite a very strong set of attributes, such as roomy cabin, quiet cruising and superior ride quality. The badge-engineered models were dropped, and the seven-car 18-22 line-up was replaced by a slimmer four-car ‘Princess’ range.
Although many people refer to the Princess as an Austin, it was always simply a Princess. In 1978, it became the Princess 2 to coincide with the launch of the new O-Series engines in 1.7 and 2-litre form (replacing the 1.8-litre B-Series). Treated to continuous improvements throughout its life, the Princess eventually sprouted a hatch and was facelifted to become the Austin Ambassador in 1982 – a case of hello practicality, goodbye character. That car lived on a scant two years, and was replaced by the Austin Montego in July 1984.
The Princess wasn’t changed much during its life (1975-1982), even if it was continuously improved. The Austin, Morris and Wolseley versions were short-lived and so are desirable. The general rule of thumb is the newer the car the better the quality, and the last of the line pre-Ambassador models were thoroughly sorted. There was only one body style and the only major differences came in the engine and departments.
The Ambassador was technically similar but, in place of the six-cylinder option, you got a hatchback – and a rather nice Vanden Plas version. Bag yourself one of the special edition Princesses, such as the SP, Special Six or Club 100, and you’ll be truly spoiled. The same but more so applies for the hatchback-converted Princesses by Torcars and Crayford Engineering…
What to look for
There are many pitfalls to look out for when buying a Princess but, if you go in with your eyes open, and check the obvious, buying one shouldn’t be too taxing. Here’s our guide:
Princesses do rust, but not as badly as you might think. Check mainly the lower part of the body especially the sills and rear inner wheelarch where the rear suspension arm bolts to the body. Make sure it hasn’t been bodged with filler. Check door bottoms and rear arch finishers. Ambassadors are prone to rot on the roof above the rear quarter glass and on the A-pillar – that’s impossible to repair properly so avoid. Vinyl roof gets tatty, budget £300 for a new one to be fitted – though the correct vinyl can be difficult to source. Front wings rot at the corners below the bumper, new wings are the solution (£150 will buy a new one).
On L and HL models, seat trim can fade and disintegrate; especially vulnerable are lighter colours, and later cars (1981 onwards) seem to suffer particularly. The HLS’s trim is the toughest. Wet front carpets mean shrinking and perished windscreen rubbers but new ones are hard to source, so make sure it’s a good one.
Engines and gearbox:
Of all the engines, the 2.2-litre Sixes are the most fragile, so listen for bearing rumble. 1.8-litre B-Series and 1.7 and 2.0-litre O-Series engines are very sturdy, though O-Series engines need a new timing belt every 48,000 miles. It’s very easy to replace on these. The four-speed manual gearbox is strong enough but first gear can be particularly awkward to engage – this is normal, though this can sometimes be caused by a worn clutch or slave cylinder.
Suspension and brakes:
Leaking Hydragas displacers cause sagging on the affected corner. £75 will get you a secondhand one. Rear displacers can be troublesome to remove. The non-assisted steering is very heavy; power steering can be retro-fitted quite easily but it’s worth hunting down a car with PAS. Powerful four-pot brake calipers are well up to the job, but can seize. Rear wheel cylinders can leak but are cheap and easy to replace.
The parts situation:
The Princess has long since dropped out of the dealer network in terms of getting major parts, but specialists, such as Mac’s Factors, Kevin Davis of www.leylandprincess.co.uk, or the Princess and Ambassador Owners Club will be able to source most things.
Typical prices (supplied by Mac’s Factors):
Suspension displacer: £75 (secondhand with guarantee)
Sills: £40 per side
Front wings: £150 per side
Top/bottom radiator hoses: £8.50
Rotor arm (four cylinder): £8.50
Cross tube mounting: £25
Parts: Mac’s Factors, Andrew McAdam, 01553 841252, 07979 804970
Website: www.leylandprincess.co.uk, Kevin Davis’ excellent site.
Club: Princess and Ambassador Owners Club, www.princessandambassador.org.uk.
What should I pay?
In terms of picking up a good Princess or Ambassador for very little money, you have probably already missed the boat. The bottom line is that there are still a few good ones outside the club scene, which would potentially be bargains, but on the whole, because of its rarity, Princess values have been slowly but steadily rising. The ultimate in terms of value remains the Wolseley saloon, of which there are about a dozen left, and, when mint, they tend to change hands for around £5000.
Of the rest of the range, expect to pay £800 for an average needing work for its MoT, and between £1000 and £3000 for a good Condition Two car. The bottom line is, you might get lucky and find that proverbial bargain, but with the advent of eBay and increased interest in the Princess in general, it’s getting much more difficult.
Should I buy one?
You probably already know the answer to that one. If you like Princesses, you probably already own one, and love it to bits. If not, consider that, as a family hold-all from the Seventies, it’s absolutely vast inside, has the best ride quality you’ll encounter, this side of an XJ6 and its looks are totally unique. And although we love the Cortina and Cavalier Mk1, that is not something you could say about either of those cars…
Thanks to Kevin Davis and Andrew McAdam
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.