Adspace : Princess, the ‘quite’ comfortable option

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Keith Adams

As memories of BL’s constant struggles throughout the 1970s begin to fade with the passing of time, we’re left with many legacies of a bright, creative and interesting car manufacturer that wasn’t afraid to introduce bold-looking and innovative cars. For younger fans, born long after British Leyland had gone to the wall, to be replaced by the all-encompassing Rover Group, the idea that the company which built these cars was wiped out so readily, can be a little difficult to comprehend.

But take a quick look through the site’s archive pages, and you’ll soon unearth what did it for BL between 1968 and 1986. There were the strikes, all-round industrial unrest, poor product quality and a messy model line-up that overlapped, was often not clearly aligned with the desires of buyers, and in some cases, were styled simply to lose. Okay, I am not going to point fingers at the Allegro and Maxi, because let’s face it, it’s no longer the time to come up with the same tired old knocking copy. Now, they’re quirky and appealing classic cars that you can buy for very reasonable amounts of money.

But looking at the dear old Princess (nee Austin-Morris 18/22-Series), I can’t help but cry a few bitter tears of regret. Why? Because I (vaguely) remember them being launched in March 1975, and as an impressionable five year old kid, I thought it looked sensational compared with my dad’s Cortina. Funny thing is now, that I still feel that way about the Princess – as you can see from the accompanying advert, in profile it’s still a remarkably handsome looking car, which in the context of its rivals, really was years ahead.

What tickles me about this advert is that the marketeers at British Leyland had clearly been struggling with the Princess’ USP – it was a supremely comfortable family car with acres of room and excellent handling. It was sized (certainly inside) to compete with the 2.0-litre executive opposition, such as the Ford Granada 2000, but was priced to fight the Cortina and Vauxhall Cavalier, for as we know, BL was great a straddling market sectors – and failing to conquer either as a consequence.

‘It doesn’t matter if you’re a 5ft ballerina or a 20 stone shot-putter, you’ll be quite comfortable driving a Princess,’ the advert tells us. Interestingly, the changing use of English over the years may have altered the meaning of that statement – back then, being ‘quite comfortable’ clearly meant very comfortable. But today, it comes across as being something rather more self-effacing. In the way that Telly Savalas told us that the view of Birmingham from the top of the Rotunda almost took his breath away, here BL tells us that its ambitious new product was pretty comfortable.

Of course, it could be concluded that BL missed the mark with this advert (and many others, such as calling it ‘not‘ the car for Mr Average), failing to make it appealing to the pushy reps queueing up to buy the inferior Ford Cortina. Their loss…

Today, I can’t help but love what we’re presented with, and as the happy former owner of a Princess, I can tell you that it’s more than quite comfortable.

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Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

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.
Keith Adams

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23 Comments

  1. I concur with everything in this article, once the quality was sorted by the launch of the O series engines in 1978, this was a good car. Nothing else in the Princess’s class was as comfortable, rode as well and provided such a relaxed drive( it was built more for cruising than speed). Also I don’t recall Princesses rusting at the same rate as their competitors. Indeed had British Leyland got the quality right at the start and launched the car as a hatchback, I think Ford would have been very worried.

  2. Funny how the 240 refers to the number of different positions that the driver’s seat can adjust to, whereas the images suggest no-one is actually driving.

  3. So Keith was 5 in 1975 – I was 19. Like Keith I recall the launch of the 18/22 series and seeing the first press photos in newspapers. Back then I was impressed by how much more modern it looked after the landcrabs. The Press as usual would say it was the BL car that had to succeed to turn the company’s fortunes around.

    I once rode in a client’s Princess in London and vividly remember how roomy and comfortable it was in the back. As well documented, a hatchback version from launch would have improved its appeal(?) but in those days, Hatch’s hadn’t started to catch on – they soon did though.

  4. But. Anyone jumping from a Cortina with its snappy gear change, light(ish) steering and relatively nippy performance in 2.0 litre guise would have thought the Princess, even in 2.2 6 cylinder form a bit of a slug with one of the worst gear changes on any production car and steering so heavy and low geared that only that 20 stone shot putter could park it. A better car than the Cortina? In many respects maybe, but these key fundamentals are what mattered to 1970s Company Car users.

  5. In answer to Paul – yes, you needed the PAS on Princess – with it it was fine. I ran several 2200HLS cars and never found them remotely sluggish – in fact surprisingly quick at the top end – once tailed a colleague in a Rover P6B 3500S down the M1 to London and he was very upset that he couldn’t draw away despite that big V8. Gearshifts were variable but never what I’d describe as the worst in any production car ( the clonky Talbot Alpine/Solara anyone?).
    Comfort was indeed its long suit, but the Ambassador, with significantly developed Hydragas was even better in this regard – as good as any big Citroen but without the complexity.

  6. The initial poor quality killed the wedges prospects.
    The late John Desborough, one time chief political correspondent of the Daily Mirror, told me his Princess was the worst car he ever owned!

  7. Such a shame that early cars tarnished it’s reputation. The ’78 princess 2 had sorted all the issues and was a decent car, as a motorway mile muncher they were sublime to ride in. Not many cars had proper aircraft style armrests fitted to the front seats like the Princess HLS did. It really did deserve better.
    I don’t remember the 2.0 O series cars being particularly sluggish, seemed fine to me..but as with any BL product, you either ‘get’ it or you don’t.

  8. A comfortable and spacious car… but not one which targeted the main Cortina market, and hence was another sales flop.
    If the Princess had been cancelled and the funds diverted to the more conventional ADO77 Marina replacement, I’m sure BL would have been in a much healthier state in the late 70s.

  9. My Father had two of these; a 1978 Princess 2200 HL and a 1981 Princess 2 2000 HLS. The first example was a very reliable car that did not miss a beat and by the time my Father sold it in 1983 had covered 100,000 miles. The second example bought when it was just two years old was in a different league when it came to quality, however. As with the first example it was purchased from a Manager working for Austin Rover Group and it had covered a fair few miles in those two years. However, rust was its biggest problem, with established rust scabs on the outer door skins around the wheel arches and even on the bootlid’s outer skin. Thankfully Champagne Beige was an easy colour to match in but it lacked the corrosion resistance of the previous car. In May 1985 it was sold on having covered 80,000 miles to make way for a company-owned MG Montego EFi.

    A month after my Father sold the Princess privately he received a phone call from the new owner who told him that the rear suspension had collapsed, and what was he (my Father) going to do about it? Quality control was clearly an issue with this latter example, which was a shame as it otherwise proved to be every bit as reliable and capable as the E6-powered version.

    Despite this, my Father revived memories of how reliable these two cars and his subsequent MG Montego and two Rover 800s were when having a rant at the Mercedes Benz dealership in Exeter last year when the rear suspension on his three-year old, 17,000 miles E350 CDi estate collapsed. “Thosee Princesses, Montegos, Maestros and Rover 800s lived up to my expectations and rarely put a foot wrong,” were his words to the Service Manager who wanted to bill him for the fault! If only my Father had written those words down too for me to show him the next time he moans about me wanting to buy another Rover Group/MG Rover Group vehicle!

  10. For passengers the Princess is great. If you’re driving the car the level of comfort depends on whether it has power steering or not. If it doesn’t you’ll need to drive it at everywhere at speed when it’s fine – at low speeds or parking it’s terrible.

  11. I always thought that the Princess looked fantastic and the interior space was brilliant. However, the driving dynamics were pretty poor and by the time I was old enough to afford one, they were terminally tarnished. I was also never a fan of hydragas or hydrolastic suspensions. I would rather have a good conventional suspension any day.

    I wonder how an updated wedge would fare in todays blandmobile market with decent mechanicals?

  12. PAS was only really fitted to top of the range cars in the seventies, so the argument is academic as most cars had non power assisted steering then. Yet getting a Princess with PAS would have made life a lot easier.

    However, once the quality issues were sorted, these were good cars and well liked by their owners.

  13. The Ambassador which succeeded it was a really splendid car, with an unrivalled ride , good handling , good economy and , again, unrivalled spaciousness. But it was not an exciting car – in that respect it was ahead of its time because show me an exciting family car today – and I suppose that was why it was a failure in the market

  14. My Dad had an ‘S’ reg Princess finished in black when I was a kid, I personally have vivid memories of it belching out clouds of black smoke… Other than that it was a comfortable car for us as a family. My Dad recalls that when he was buying it (in the dark I might add…) the chap he was buying it from informed him that the offset seat, to the controls, was a ‘safety feature’, where in actual fact the seat frame was broken, lol! My Dad has always been crap at buying cars!!

    He also had Marinas, Mini’s and a brand new Metro, finished in hearing aid beige, shortly after he bought a brand new Nissan Datsun Sunny Estate and didn’t touch BL products again 🙂

  15. ‘Now back to the driver, and HIS fingertip controls.’ Adverts back then often assumed the driver was male. Kind of fights the egalitarian theme of this advert

  16. Remember them being used by Oxford taxi drivers. I spoke to a few of them whist being ferried around and they liked them. They found them reliable, apart from universal joints on early ones, and liked the B series engine the best. Obviously they were prefect for rear passengers.

  17. My own Princess was extremely comfortable – unless you were following it, in which case you needed breathing apparatus in order to maintain sanity. I never did get those valve stem oil seals fixed…

  18. @ Darren, but couldn’t the Princess represent the safe, suburban Conservative voting world of Terry and June and people who watched this show, which actually was the third most watched programme in 1987. I’d hardly expect him to be driving a Citroen 2CV with CND badges.

  19. The Princess was never meant to straggle across two markets, when it was planned the thinking was that Ford having successfully moved the “Rep Car” market by half a size with each Cortina from Mk1 to Mk3, they would do the same again.

    When one takes this into account the Princess makes a lot of sense, roomy comfortable car with a prove powertrain. The “cheap” detailing in areas such as the bumpers, rear lights, door cards would not have looked out of place nor of course was the four speed gearboxes, no power steering and sub 100 mph performance of the 4 cylinder models.

    The problem was that the Fuel Crisis and UK economic Crisis of the early and mid 70’s killed any expansion in the “Rep Car” for a decade.

    The Princess was thus saddled by being too big and expensive for the Cortina customer and not classy enough for the Granada customer.

  20. I was brought up with two – my Father had two the first a dark green 1800HL WPE47S and the second a russet brown 2000HL XFF570W both from new

    Being a little older I can remember the second being collected new from Charles Clark in Aberystwyth ……my Fathers first task was to disconect the seat belt warning light!

    Anybody know if WPE47S and XFF570W are still around I note they have not been taxed for years

    Anybody remember them?

    • The old arguments about seatbelts, I do recall opinion being really split over them in the seventies. You either saw them essential for saving your life in a head on crash, or saw them as an uncomfortable nuisance and the chances being in a crash were small. Yet by the late seventies, when belts had switched to the more comfortable and more effective inertia reel design, and the government really pushing hard for people to belt up in some hard hitting PIFs, the majority of drivers were wearing seatbelts. Also the warning lights fitted on many British Leyland cars at the time must have nagged people into belting up.

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