BL’s most important mid-sized car for a decade was a mid-1970s technical tour de force, but what the Princess lacked was a diesel version. But 50 were built, and went out testing.
The diesel Princess
The Princess went on sale in March 1975, it wasn’t actually called a Princess at all. The wedge shaped saloon arrived in Austin, Morris and Wolseley forms and was collectively known as the 18-22 Series. It seems confusing now, but back in the mid-‘70s, it was all about supplying cars for competing Austin and Morris dealer networks. Yes, they might have been built by BL, but they were sold by rival companies.
By November 1975, it was clear that BL was a contracting company and could no longer afford the luxury of such a ridiculously diverse retail set-up. Austin and Morris were merged, and their garages went under the Leyland banner. The Princess was created, and a streamlined new range went on sale to go fighting Ford on the marketplace. The car was offered with two petrol engines, a 1.8-litre four (also used in the MGB) and a silky-smooth 2.2-litre six (related to the Maxi engine).
Both Princesses were powered by petrol – and given that diesel accounted for less than two per cent of the UK market in the mid-‘70s, no one really noticed. Shortly after the arrival of Princess, the engineering team at Longbridge started working on a diesel version of the car – it was a straightforward conversion of existing BL hardware, and like so many of the company’s car at the time, did a very good job of making the most of the parts-bin.
Its engine was a dieselized version of the 1.8-litre B-Series. Commercial operators might have been familiar with this engine as it powered the Sherpa van, but as a car power unit, it was an all-new proposition. Its forerunner, the 1.5-litre B, also sired a diesel unit, and this found its way into a small number of export market Marinas, Cambridge and Oxfords, but with 40bhp on tap, these cars were sloggers, suited for little more than urban taxiing.
And it was for the cab trade that the diesel Princess was conceived. A run of 50 cars was built at the Cowley factory and distributed to a number of hand-picked trade customers for evaluation as a full-scale production proposition. Several of these cars were pressed into the trade and were clearly excellent at job in hand: the Princess possessed a huge interior and a magic carpet ride, and with the B-Series diesel under the bonnet, it was capable of 40mpg all day long.
In the end, all 50 Princess Diesels were returned to BL after their trials, and never saw the light of day again. Why didn’t the Princess Diesel make it into full time production, given its excellence as a taxi? The market for big diesels in the UK was tiny, and BL simply couldn’t justify the expense of homologating a new car with a potential of a few hundred units a year. Besides, the company was in crisis, having just fallen into government control, and with public funding every new model programme was put under fresh scrutiny. The Princess Diesel fell by the wayside, making way for what would later become the Metro and Maestro – so perhaps that was no bad thing.
Either way, it was another missed opportunity for BL – albeit a minor one in a catalogue that’s so packed with them that there’s enough material to fill a book… or a website!
1976 Princess 1800 Diesel
Price in the UK: N/A
Engine: 1798cc four-cylinder diesel
Power: 50bhp at 4000rpm
Torque: 69lb ft at 2000rpm
Maximum speed: 88mph
0-60mph: 18.7 seconds
Fuel consumption: 42mpg