The cars : Princess Special Six Automatic (1977)

Keith Adams tells the story of the Princess Special Six Automatic. It was a perfect range-topper, opulently trimmed and looking sleek and timeless in black. 

And thanks to Stephen Harper, we have some new images of the design themes for its side graphics.

Princess Special Six: The sleekest of the sleek

The Princess had been on sale a mere two years when the Special Six Automatic made an appearance on the marketplace in March 1977. The changes that came with this model were not far reaching – extra equipment, additional trim and a full-length Webasto sunroof – but it served a strategic purpose. As 1970s limited editions went, this was was pretty top drawer.

However, there was a serious side to the Special Six – ever since the name change from 18-22 Series to Princess in late 1975, and the subsequent bad press it received (simply for being produced by a Government-controlled car company), the new car was given the task of upping demand for straight-six Princesses with automatic gearbox.

But why? By the end of 1976, it was clear that, in manual form, the six-cylinder Princesses had developed a healthy appetite for driveshafts, and there was an underlying design fault at the root. The simplest solution was to withdraw the manual versions from sale while the Engineers rushed to get a fix into production. The Princess Special Six Automatic was, therefore, concocted to drive buyers into self-shifters. In the end, the solution was to re-mount the engine.

Special Six equipment

As you can see from the Stephen Harper sketches above and below, early plans were for an even bolder-looking car, along the lines of the Allegro Equipe and Mini 1100 Special but, in the end, the complex graphics and blacked-out doorframes were dropped in favour of something more sober looking.

According to the Leyland Princess website, its equipment tally was as follows:

  • HLS seats available in all colours.
  • Rear passenger courtesy lights.
  • Wooden dashboard insert.
  • HLS wheel trims and chrome rim embellishers.
  • Standard black paintwork.
  • Unique silver coachlines.
  • Full-length Webasto sunroof.
  • Limited to a production run of 1200 cars.

Actually, it was a sensible decision, and offering the auto-only constriction as a positive was actually something of a master-stroke. As can be seen from the accompanying sketches by Stephen Harper, a fair amount of work went into the configuration of the side graphics, with some very striking options considered. In the end, the stripes chosen to go on the Special Six were quite understated in comparison.

More interesting is the sketch below – also dating back to the same period. Clearly, Harper was keen to use a six-light design to increase airiness – if nothing else, that predicted the side styling of the later Ambassador…

Keith Adams


  1. I knew someone who used to own a BL garage in the 1970s and they said that 500 examples of the Special Six Automatic were built.

    However, their own particular example did not have the Webasto sunroof, or any sunroof for that matter, but definitely did have the Black paintwork and special badging on the bootlid.

  2. Wow, what a good looking car with the six-light configuration, add a hatch and what could have been!
    I’d love to see one in the flesh (A special six) are there any left?

  3. I always thought they were such pretty cars. Not advanced looking, since I was still a little kid when the ambassador gasped its last, but just pretty. Something a little bit different and special (in the not dribbling during PMs questions sense of ‘special’ of course).
    I’d love another classic.

  4. what a depressing pile of rubbish,the “princess”looks like a cross between a peageot,at the front,and a semi detatched house at the back.ive noticed reading my real life crime magazines,the “princess”was a favorite car for peadophiles.the rover sd1 was such a better car.

    • Putting aside your spellling and lack of upper case letters, how “real” do you think your favourite reading material is? Not only “the names have been changed to protect the innocent”! Where can I find a “peageot”? At my greengrocer’s? It is much more likely that those who make a living out of writing such stories favour certain cars; it’s the way THEIR minds work.

      • Too right, if you do not like it then do not bother commenting, let alone making such vile unsubstantiated rubbish claims, oh, yes, Oxford Press make a lovely Dictionary.

  5. Going on the internet is a favourite pastime for Paedophiles, but that doesn’t make all of us Paedo’s. Stick to your crime mags.

  6. In 1978 I was a salesman with a BL garage in Wales and in July that year I had one of these – in November of that year I wrote it off in a big way! Wearing seat belts was optional in those days and after hitting a bank at about 100 I was thrown out. Broken ribs, punctured lung and fractured skull. Car was squashed and resembled a banana after somersaulting. I wasn’t very popular and never went back! Reg. No. PFF 353S – beautiful car!

    • I suppose you buckled up after that terrible accident, in the same way a teacher at school skidded on ice in his Fiat 127 and hit a skip. While he didn’t do a full dive through the windscreen, his face smashed into the dashboard and he resembled someone who’d been hit by Frank Bruno for several weeks. After that, he vowed always to wear a seatbelt and gave talks about how important it was for front seat passengers to wear a seatbelt.

  7. My dad had a lovely Princess special six when we were kids and always swore it was his favourite car. Even now he would take it back in a heartbeat! The reg number, if memory serves me right, was VOC 600S, anybody know anything about it? Especially if it still exists! Though I can’t imagine it does.

  8. Would the C-pillar window treatment shown in the sketch above that later appeared on the Ambassador have been an improvement for the Allegro (let alone ADO22 – albeit based the sketches available)?

  9. There was fundamentally nothing wrong with the Princess. It was a striking looking car, drove and handled well, and was a relaxing car in bigger engined form. Hpwever, issues with drvieshafts hurt sales, and even when these were sorted by the series 2 car, buyers were wary of committing to a Princess.

    • Except that it wasn’t what most British buyers wanted, which was a conventional 3 box saloon…

      • @ Maestrowoof, yet had it been well built from day one and production not interrupted by strikes, the Princess could have done well as all the reviews were positive. It was light years ahead of the elderly ADO17 in terms of styling, dashboard ergonomics and driving abilities, and could have been a worthy contender to top of the range Cortinas and large Vauxhalls, which probably were its intended targets. I’ve always been a Princess fan, even forgiving its poor start as the car was so good otherwise.
        Thew Ambassador, though, for all it was given a well overdue hatchback and carried over all the good points of the Princess, the detailing was dire and the interior was like something out of an Allegro.

  10. The leyland princess special six are a beautiful car. I believe I own the last special six on the road! She is the one on the photographs on this page. She is still in very good condition, drives beautifully and very comfortable. Just wondering is there anyone eles that has one. Her English number was ADX227S, her Irish reg is ZV9450, it’s a vintage reg.

  11. I always thought using Princess as a stand alone brand was always weird as nearly everyone called them Austins. The Austin branding should have been used for the basic models, with the HLS models continuing with the Wolseley Six branding that was used on very early versions of what became the 2200 HLS. I could never get why Wolseley was dropped as the brand had strong recognition in the mid seventies as a more upmarket alternative to Austin Morris.

    • I guess by the mid 1970s the Wolseley brand was seen as old-fashioned, & BL wanted to shed another brand from their overcrowded portfolio, especially as the Austin & Morris dealer networks were being merged at the time.

      My Dad remembered the situation being odd, with the car being launched without much of a name leading to the “Wedge” nickname, then being re-launched as the Princess just a few months later.

      The Austin branding returned with the Ambassador.

      • Yes you’re probably right but when BL/BMC had model ranges,with Austin as the entry level to the product range and the top of the heap was Vanden Plas,it was obvious to where a punter was it the pecking order. But when the 1100/1300 was replaced by the Allegro with it’s multiple trim lines,it was not that clear apart from the price difference what level they were in. Just as important their colleagues or neighbours would likely to be more impressed/envious if you rolled up in a Wolesley rather than an Austin,with trim levels no one knew or cared

  12. Strange look due to a mix of wedge and waves and a lack of glasswork. Why did they reject the Pinifarina proposal which led to the Citroën Cx, Lancia Gamma and even SD1 ?
    So far from the original Westminster A110, 6/110, Princess 4L R …

    • Never liked them and can’t see what others apparently can in the styling. When I was a boy a neighbour exchanged his beautiful Triumph 2500TC for a Wolseley 1800 example. I use to hate hearing it’s droning B series as he passed by. Such a step down from the mellifluous Triumph motor.

        • I don’t know. If so, it must have been a Morris. It was dark green and had an automatic transmission. All these years I’ve been sure it was a Wolseley. His brother ran a red Austin 2200 version. They both worked at the local BL plant so presumably got a discount.

  13. I can recall the problem with the 6-cylinder cars and driveshafts, both from an owner and a dealer mechanic, the mechanics were happy to do the fix, it was a good payer, as it was booked as a warranty price of either 2.5 or 3 days work, the mechanics got is down tp a day.
    The work was substantial, new front subframe, driveshafts, exhaust system, and probably more. The fix repositioned the engine in the new subframe to save the driveshafts.
    Minis were disliked by fitters due to the number of skin injuries from alkl the sharp edges under the bonnet

  14. The Princess was a fine car once the reliability issues were sorted out and the ageing B series was replaced by the O series and a mid range 2 litre option was introduced to chase the 2 litre Cortina. Never a car for someone who loved grand prix starts from the traffic lights, the Princess was aimed at the motorist who wanted to cruise in comfort at the motorway speed limit, and the bigger engined cars were relaxing to drive. AIRC they seemed to have really comfortable seats.

  15. 110bhp was fairly weak for the seventies, but neither “B” inherited box nor driveshafts could hardly afford the power and torque, otherwise there was a 2600cc variant available in NZ and fitted in the … Marina (how scary !).

  16. The 2.0 Cortina only had 105 bhp but it had more torque than the longer stroked B and O series engines, which meant it was quicker in the company car top trumps.

    I, myself have always liked the Princess. It looked modern and like nothing else on the road.

    • According to this Car comparison test, the Cortina had 102bhp and 112lb/ft against the 93 bhp and 113lb/ft of the 2-litre Princess. The twin carb Ambassador had 100bhp and 120lb/ft. The 2200 had 110bhp and 125lb/ft. The bane of the Princess was the poor gearshift. A pity BL didn’t upgrade the Maxi 5-speed for the Princess 2200, or develop an uprated AP 4-speed auto. Both would have helped reduce it’s thirst.

      • The 2200’s main selling point was the silence of the engine, which added to the Princess’s good points of a very comfortable ride and comfortable seats. It was quite thirsty, with an average of 22mpg reported on early cars, where a Cortina V6 would average 25 mpg. I reckon the 2 litre O series could do most of what the 2200 was capable of, with lower fuel consumption and not much difference in performance. Possibly this was one reason the E6 was dropped for the Ambassador.

        • Car magazine compared the Ambassador to the Rover SD1 2000, and commented on how much smoother the O-series was compared to the Princess. I wonder what AR did to improve it?

  17. Glass’s motor trade guide lists manual 2200 production as temporarily halted in Jan 78, then Special Six launched Feb 78 with PN4SGJ code (which seems to be normal for 2200 HLS). As the handful of Special Six photos I can find on a quick online search are all S plate, spring 78 looks a more accurate date than 77??

  18. Hello Declan,

    Hello Declan. If you ever decide to sell your special six, please contact me first.

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