Between the two World Wars, the Vanden Plas factory at Kingsbury produced some very prestigious motor vehicles indeed – particularly Bentley, but also Alvis, Lagonda, Rolls Royce and others.
Here’s the fascinating story of the Vanden Plas Kingsbury Works…
Vanden Plas Kingsbury Works: a potted history
The Kingsbury Works originally sat in the grounds of Kingsbury House, a 19th Century house at Kingsbury, near Harrow in North West London, which had been an orphanage in the 1880s.
Note, though, that this should not be confused with the manor house built for the Duchess of Sutherland in 1899, which was also originally called Kingsbury House but was later renamed Kingsbury Manor. This house – pictured, right, in 1971 – still stands in Roe Green Park, and is currently a home for the elderly.
A variety of large workshop buildings had been constructed there during the First World War, which were used for the construction of aircraft for the war effort, the site also having its own runway. In the early 1920s, it briefly became home to the Kingsbury Engineering Company Limited, low-volume producers of a two-cylinder light car but, when that company folded in 1921, the workshops sat vacant for a couple of years.
Where it all began
The availability of the Kingsbury Works coincided conveniently with the acquisition of the Vanden Plas coachbuilding company by Edwin Fox, the entrepreneurial young son of a doctor from nearby Stanmore. In its former guise, Vanden Plas (England) 1917 Limited, the company had been operating from premises at Hendon, but had fallen prey to the post-war slump in demand for bespoke bodywork, exacerbated by the rise of mass-produced cars from the likes of the Austin and Morris companies.
Fox and his brothers had bought the name and goodwill of the company for a paltry £6 and relaunched it as Vanden Plas (England) 1923 Limited. They set about building a strong reputation for high quality coachwork and, in the course of doing so, forged an alliance with the Bentley motor company (then based just down the road at Cricklewood) which would see virtually all Bentley models of that era wearing Vanden Plas bodywork.
Indeed, WO Bentley himself had a marked preference for the bodywork produced by Vanden Plas, and the association between the two companies was further strengthened when parts of the Kingsbury site were leased to Bentley to provide the London-area service department and the racing-car preparation facility (the illustrious Le Mans Bentleys were all prepared at Kingsbury).
How Vanden Plas moved to Kingsbury
In 1925, Vanden Plas acquired the freehold of the Kingsbury Works and, a couple of years later, the company expanded further with the purchase of two former aircraft factories on the site. At the same time, they also bought Kingsbury House, along with its lake, garden and stables, giving them ownership of some 7½ acres in total. However, in the leaner years which followed in the early 1930s, this portfolio was curtailed, to focus on the site’s factory buildings which were central to the continuation of the company’s business.
During the Second World War, the Works was once again to play a key role in the war effort, with a contract from the de Havilland Aircraft Company (whose factory was in Stag Lane, Kingsbury) to build wings and other components for its Tiger Moth and Mosquito planes.
However, immediately following the war, a failed contract to build bodies for Rolls-Royce left Vanden Plas scratching around for new business. Salvation came in the form of Austin Chairman Leonard Lord, who was looking for a company to build the bodies for its new, top-of-the-range Princess six-cylinder saloon.
In June 1946, a deal was swiftly signed which saw Vanden Plas become a subsidiary of Austin. Six years later, the formation of the British Motor Corporation (BMC) from the merger of Austin and the Nuffield companies meant that the Kingsbury Works had become a very small cog in a very big wheel. Nevertheless, with confidence riding high, the Kingsbury site acquired an impressive new headquarters building in the mid-1950s.
Occupying a prominent position at the main Church Lane entrance to the site, the three-storey building housed a showroom on the ground floor, executive offices on the first floor and a drawing office on the top floor. Its main entrance sat on the building’s southern end, alongside a radiused south-west facing corner featuring glazing which spanned all three floors, behind which could be seen a sweeping spiral staircase.
As the 1950s were drawing to a close, demand for coachbuilt cars like the Princess was beginning to wane, leading to the discontinuation of the standard-wheelbase A135 saloon in 1957. With only the long-wheelbase limousine version remaining in production, it began to make economic sense for Kingsbury to take on the assembly of the chassis, as well as building and attaching the bodywork, thus producing complete cars for the first time.
Introducing BMC-based cars
Around the same time, a new idea was tried that would soon change the entire emphasis of the work carried out there. In 1958, a limited run of 500 Austin A105 Westminster saloons was sent to Kingsbury to be retrimmed in walnut and leather, emerging as the Austin A105 Vanden Plas. The success of these cars led to the launch of the Princess 3-litre saloon in 1959, based on the new Farina-styled Austin A99 Westmister.
The following year, the car was relaunched as the Vanden Plas Princess 3-litre, the Vanden Plas name having now become a marque in its own right. By 1964, many (but by no means all) examples of the Longbridge- and Cowley-built Vanden Plas Princess 1100 were passing through Kingsbury to have their upholstery and woodwork fitted, and their hand-painted coachlines applied.
BMC and Jaguar/Daimler had joined forces in 1966, and Kingsbury was subsequently selected to build the new Daimler DS420 limousine, whose introduction in 1969 finally spelled the end for the coachbuilt ex-Austin Princess limousine. In 1972, the DS420 was joined at Kingsbury by the Daimler Double-Six Vanden Plas, an upmarket version of the newly-launched long-wheelbase, V12-engined Daimler saloon (itself derived from the series 1 Jaguar XJ6).
The smaller Vanden Plas models
Trimming of the ADO16-based Vanden Plas Princess 1300 was also still underway, although within a couple of years it would give way to the Allegro-based Vanden Plas 1500, launched in June 1974. The following year marked the beginning of the end for Kingsbury. BLMC was in dire financial straits, and the Ryder Report, published in March 1975, recommended drastic rationlisation.
First victim of this thinking was the Wolseley marque, which ceased to exist when the 18-22 series was relaunched as the Princess range. Intentionally or otherwise, there was a certain irony in the choice of this new marque name as, up to that point, Kingsbury had been working on a Vanden Plas version of the car which was destined never to reach the dealers’ showrooms.
Indeed, there would be no further models launched under the Vanden Plas marque and, by 1979, it was finally decided that the Kingsbury Works had become unviable. In March that year BL pulled the plug on the operation, with production of the Daimler DS420 moving to Jaguar’s Browns Lane factory in Coventry, and the retrimming of the Allegro-based models (now called the Vanden Plas 1.5 and 1.7) moving to the MG plant at Abingdon, which was by then also living on borrowed time.
Following closure, the Kingsbury site was inevitably sold for development, and all of the original workshops were demolished to make way for new industrial buildings. However, the impressive 1950s showroom building which fronted the site survives to this day: following refurbishment, it was taken over by a computer supplies company in the early 1990s, before being divided up into separate business units in recent years.
Many thanks to Andrew Minney and Jeff Maynard for their contributions.
Production models produced at Kingsbury since formation of BMC until closure (1952-1979)
|Austin A135 Princess II/III/IV||1950-1957|
|Austin A135 Princess limousine||1952-1968||Austin name was dropped in 1958 and Vanden Plas brand was adopted in 1960. Chassis was also assembled at Kingsbury from 1958 onwards|
|Austin A105 Vanden Plas||1958-1959||Limited edition run of 500|
|Princess 3-Litre||1959-1964||Vanden Plas marque name added to designation in 1960|
|Vanden Plas Princess 1100||1963-1967||Available with 1275cc engine during Summer 1967|
|Vanden Plas Princess 4-Litre R||1964-1968|
|Vanden Plas Princess 1300||1967-1974|
|Daimler DS420 limousine||1968-1979||Built at Browns Lane following closure of Kingsbury|
|Daimler Double-Six Vanden Plas||1972-1979||Finished at Browns Lane following closure of Kingsbury|
|Daimler 4.2 Vanden Plas||1975-1979||Finished at Browns Lane following closure of Kingsbury|
|Vanden Plas 1500/1.5/1.7||1974-1979||Finished at Abingdon following closure of Kingsbury|
Kingsbury Works photographed in the 1920s, when the area was still mainly rural. The area highlighted in yellow shows the approximate location of the HQ building which was erected in the 1950s (see below). Church Lane can just be seen running past the site in the bottom right-hand corner of the photograph.
The headquarters building
The 1950s-built HQ block, photographed during the late 1960s or early 1970s. The elegant lettering on the side of the building seems a little at odds with the obligatory British Leyland roundel mounted just to the left of the tall windows.
During the early 1990s the former HQ building was occupied by the computer supplies company Technomatic, who renamed it Techno House and used this striking image of the three-storey corner windows in their product catalogue. The railings which can be seen in this photograph look remarkably similar in design to the original ones, which may indeed have been recommissioned for this purpose.
The area behind this building, which used to be home to the Vanden Plas workshops, is now an industrial estate; sadly, none of the original workshop buildings remain.
Still instantly recognisable today, the building has thankfully survived intact as a business centre. The interior has been subdivided into business units which are rented out to companies requiring serviced offices but, as can be seen below, the reception area has lost none of its sense of impact. The building is now called Kingsbury House, echoing the original name of the manor house in whose grounds the old workshop buildings on the site were erected during the First World War. The road in the foreground is Church Lane.
This panoramic interior shot shows the building’s reception area as it is today, but also gives a clear idea of the scene which would have greeted visitors to Kingsbury in the Vanden Plas days. The main entrance doors are on the left, while those on the right would have led through to the ground-floor showroom. The base of the sweeping staircase can be seen in the middle, following the curve of the distinctive three-storey corner windows as it ascends.
Vanden Plas Princess 3-litres undergoing final assembly in 1961.
The upholstery shop in the 1960s, where top-quality Connolly hides were selected, marked-up and cut, prior to being sewn into coverings for seats, door panels and other interior surfaces. Cutting is a highly-skilled process, with the patterns used having been carefully designed to ensure that costly wastage is kept to an absolute minimum.
19 June 1974: end of the line for the Princess 1300, and for the Princess name itself within the Vanden Plas domain.
Daimler DS420 limousine bodyshell undergoing its dip in the primer bath.