The Japanese took the BMC 1100/1300 (ADO16) to their hearts in a big way, leading to a mass exodus of decent examples to Japan in the 1990s.
And when the demand for the cars began to outstrip the supply of pukka models, a gaggle of ingenious reproductions began to appear…
BMC 1100/1300: big in Japan
Back in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, BLMC’s Japanese distributors Nichiei Jidosha offered a limited range of models from the group’s Morris, MG, Wolseley and Daimler marques, including the Mini, BMC 1800, MGB/MGBGT, and, of course, the ADO16 in 1300 guise.
Four 1300 variants were offered (above) and, as a result, the ADO16 built up a certain following there, riding largely on the reputation and universal appeal of the Mini which was much the bigger seller. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1970s, a wide range of ADO16 variants had established themselves on the Japanese classic car circuit.
Examples of the Austin, Riley and Vanden Plas models also found their way to Japan’s shores, presumably brought in by those looking for something a little different, and the car was fast acquiring a reputation as the ideal interpretation of the Issigonis small-car concept.
The 1990s afterlife
However, it was not until the 1990s that the ADO16 – and, in particular, the Vanden Plas Princess – was to enjoy a massive revival in Japan. Again, it was the Mini that proved to be the catalyst for this renewed interest, as during the late 1980s it had become the car to be seen in on Tokyo’s fashionable streets; indeed, it was this Japanese interest in the Mini that led to the eventual re-launch of the Cooper version.
By the early 1990s, though, the Mini was beginning to be seen as rather passé by the more fashion-conscious, and those seeking something more distinctive and exclusive turned their attention to the Princess 1100 and 1300, no doubt charmed by its quintessentially English ambience.
With its faintly ostentatious grille up front and the leather-and-walnut interior, it provided the essential elements of a pocket-sized Rolls-Royce: just right for the overcrowded city’s tight streets and even tighter parking spaces.
Cars flow from the UK to Japan
Back in the UK, word of the Japanese interest began to spread and prices of well-sorted Princesses soared as Japanese buyers scoured the classic car dealers, sometimes in person, but often by remote control.
At the height of the craze it was not unusual to see reportedly pristine VP 1300s advertised at prices of £8000 and upwards, occasionally hitting five figures; in the mid-1990s, one fully-restored Princess was reported to have been sold for 2.5million Yen, which was then the equivalent of around £14,000, while another was optimistically advertised for a ginormous £30,000…
Down to earth with a bang…
Several classic car dealers began to specialise in acquiring Princesses specifically for the Japanese market, and they would offer a fully-managed service, including making the shipping arrangements, for their very particular clients. Some would also offer a complete restoration service, which allowed customers to have a car rebuilt pretty much to their own specification.
One such company, Broadspeed Engineering of Colchester, Essex, had a long history and honourable history with the Mini, having produced the legendary Mini Sprint in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the company had started to specialise in exporting top-notch Mini-Coopers and Travellers to the USA and Japan, so it was well placed to cater for Vanden Plas Princess buyers.
Many of those purchases made at the height of the market would, of course, have been accompanied by the no-so-sweet smell of burning fingers. By the turn of the millennium, the bubble had burst and things had begun to settle down again. Today, prices are now far more realistic.
At the height of the ADO16’s mid-1990s popularity in Japan, a handful of specialist companies decided to cash-in on its success by producing a variety of lookalike models, which used the second-generation Nissan March (or Micra, as it was known in the UK) or the Daihatsu Mira as their basis…
Lotas Princess March
Launched in November 1995, the Lotas Princess (also referred to as the ‘Otua Princess’ in some sources) was the first of the Princess lookalikes. Available in both three- and five-door forms, the front end of the car was transformed into a fairly convincing copy of the original Vanden Plas version, although the circular indicators clearly owed more to the MG 1100.
At the back, the standard March tailgate was used, but it was embellished with an elaborate boot handle and twin number plates lights, all of which were given a chromed finish. The rear wings were drawn out to form vestigial fins, which were topped-off with MGB-like rear light clusters (which resemble those of the Mk1 1100), while the chrome bumpers, both front and rear, carried overriders which were styled to (loosely) resemble the original items.
The picture was completed with chrome hubcaps and a rather heavy-handed gold-coloured coachline. The options list included a wood-rimmed steering wheel, wooden door cappings and gear knob, spotlights and bucket seats. Standard colours were blue, black, white, yellow, green, silver and red, while two-tone paintwork was available to order. In 1998 the hatchback models were joined by a convertible version, which was based on the recently-launched March convertible.
Copel Ministar and Bonito
Specialist company Copel concentrated on turning out modified versions of Japanese production cars, and was already building the Antiguo (basically a Toyota Corolla estate with bespoke front-end styling that faithfully resembled the Series 1 Jaguar XJ6), when in 1996 it turned its attention to the Princess, launching a brace of tribute models in the September of that year.
The Ministar was a sort of half-way house: all panels ahead of the windscreen were replaced, with the rounded front wings, bluff front panel and grille, and the deftly fluted bonnet all providing a very acceptable imitation of the original design.
However, the rear of the car was much closer to the standard Nissan March, although it borrowed the cute rear light clusters from the Autech Bolero (another March-based special), and featured similar chrome fittings to those that adorned the Lotas Princess (see above). The Ministar also aped the Lotas in using circular front indicators, presumably because the cost of making authentic replicas of the original wrap-around units would have proved prohibitive.
The Copel Bonito (pictured above) used pretty much the same front end styling as the Ministar, but was also heavily re-worked at the rear. The March’s taligate was reskinned, with the lower half being modified to approximate to the angular shape of the 1100’s distinctive bootlid, while the rear wings incorporated slanting light clusters similar to those found on the Mk 2 ADO16s.
In fact, bearing in mind that this was, after all, a modern hatchback in disguise, it has to be said that the resulting design was quite faithful to the original (moreso from some angles than others), despite it having to retain the March’s entire middle section. The Bonito certainly went further than any other such car towards recreating the look of the Princess.
Both the Ministar and the Bonito were available with either 1.0 or 1.3 litre Nissan engines and in a range of five body colours (red, royal blue, white, black and silver). The interior was left pretty much standard, apart from the application of (probably imitation) wood trim to the dashboard, although Copel offered leather upholstery at extra cost.
In May 1998, Copel further expanded its range by offering the convertible version of the Lotas Princess as the Copel Bonito Fresco. Like the Crayford ADO16 from which it surely drew its inspiration, the Bonito Fresco was available only with the 1.3-litre engine. Three colours were offered: wine, silver and the bluey-green metallic seen here.
For those who preferred their latter-day ADO16 to be Wolseley-shaped (well, sort of), there was the five-door Mitsuoka Ray. Mitsuoka is best known for its oddly named – and even more oddly formed – Viewt, a March-based interpretation of the Jaguar Mark II. The Daihatsu Mira-based Ray was a rather more straightforward affair, with most of the changes reserved for the Wolseley-pastiche front end and the wood-clad interior.
There was also a three-door version of the Ray, based on the smaller Mazda Carol, which was intended to evoke the Wolseley Hornet, having a more rounded interpretation of the Wolseley front end. In 1999, the Mitsuoka Ray moved away from the overtly Wolseley-inspired styling when a revised version (based on the new Mazda Carol) was launched.
This page was contributed by Declan Berridge
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