The Vanden Plas Princess 2200 is a fabulous one-off, and it’s a wonder why on earth this vehicle was produced at all.
You won’t need reminding that British Leyland’s was a line-up which was hardly short of luxury cars, given what Rover and Jaguar were producing at the time. Here’s its story.
Vanden Plas Princess 2200: the one that got away
What we have here, in essence, is a flagship car designed as range-topper for the new Austin-Morris 18-22 Series (ADO71) of cars. Designed to sit above the Austin, Morris and Wolseley versions of the handsome Harris Mann-penned ‘Wedge’ range, it would be sold as the big sister to the Allegro-shaped Vanden Plas 1500, launched in 1974.
Unlike the Austin, Morris and Wolseley 18-22 Series models, the Vanden Plas Princess 2200 was designed with bespoke front-end styling and an interior swathed in leather and wood. It was an unashamedly opulent take on a brand-new car.
It would have been sold at a price above the forthcoming Rover 3500 (SD1) at launch in June 1976, and would have offered a level of luxury that the mass-produced mainstream executive alternatives couldn’t have come close to matching.
Vanden Plas Princess 2200: development
In 1974, Vanden Plas launched the Austin Allegro-based 1500. The new car followed the same formula as all previous Vanden Plas Princess models. The cars were taken from Longbridge and shipped to Kingsbury where the bodywork would be painted to a far higher standard, fitted with a bespoke wood veneer and Connolly Hide leather interior, stuffed with sound deadening and trimmed with thick-pile carpets.
The Vanden Plas 1500’s bodywork changes were limited to a towering Vanden Plas grille and new bonnet – in short, it was an opulently-finished miniature limousine sold at a healthy premium.
At the time of the Vanden Plas 1500’s launch, it cost £2312 compared with £1939 for an Allegro 1500 Super it was based on – a healthy 15% price rise. But what became clear quite early in the car’s life was that it was profitable for British Leyland at a time when every penny counted.
That’s why Vanden Plas pressed on and built a prototype version of the Allegro’s larger counterpart, the 18-22 Series (ADO71). It had tried to build its own version of the previous-generation car, the BMC 1800/1200 ‘Landcrab’, based on the Australian-market Austin Kimberley, but that car failed to make production. That was a shame, because it looked infinitely better than its donor.
The Vanden Plas Princess 2200 prototype followed the same formula, but the undoubted modernism of the ADO71 was a far more interesting starting point. It was put together in mid-1975 just weeks after the Austin-Morris 18-22 was launched – and was based on a Morris 2200 in manual form.
Following the same formula as the Vanden Plas 1500, the larger car’s bodywork changes were limited to the use of a Vanden Plas 1500 grille (more suitably sized for this car) and refashioned bonnet – with a smattering of badges and bespoke Aubergine paint job. New headlamps that blended in with the new front-end styling completed the transformation.
What’s under the skin?
The real magic happened under the skin, though – with an all-new interior, dashboard, Wilton carpeting and lashings of soundproofing completing the picture. It must be said that, although the exterior is surprisingly appealing and far better resolved than the Vanden Plas 1500, inside it’s even better – Vanden Plas replaced the ADO71’s dashboard with a traditional-looking plank of wood veneer, and finished it off by fitting new instrumentation.
The beige leather seats are supremely comfortable, while the commodious rear allows the passenger to stretch out and make proper use of Vanden Plas’ signature polished wood picnic trays. On top of that, the Vanden Plas Princess gained electric windows all round, and was every inch the scaled down luxury car needed in an era of rampant inflation and fuel price rises – and perfect for mid-level Government ministers.
Time and circumstances, though, weren’t on the car’s side. When the Kingsbury-developed 2200 was presented to management, it received a firm ‘no’ for production. Although development costs had been minimal, and a limited run of these cars could have been profitable for the company, it was a victim of the rationalisation of British Leyland’s range in the aftermath of the Government bailout at the beginning of 1975. There were uneasy noises made about who would buy this car – at its anticipated launch in 1976, it would be expected to cost around £4200 at a 15% markup over a top of the range ADO71.
To put that into perspective, a Ford Granada 3000 Ghia cost £4588, a Rover 3500 SD1 weighed in at £4750 and a Triumph Dolomite Sprint was £3636. And with that, it was cancelled. Ignominiously for Vanden Plas, the Princess name ended up being applied to the entire 18-22 Series in November that year, following a facelift of its newest car just months after launch. That was that – the Vanden Plas Princess 2200 was dead on arrival.
What’s its legacy?
The Vanden Plas Princess 2200’s legacy is quite a sad one. It’s the final car in a long line of dignified luxury motors that proved there was profitability in this type of vehicle. The Vanden Plas 1500 might have been the final bespoke production car by Vanden Plas’ Kingsbury works, but the Princess 2200 could have been a far more suitable epitaph for Vanden Plas, had it made it into production.
Consequently, historians might have looked on Vanden Plas in the 1970s in a much kinder light, too. As an end-of-line vehicle for its maker, its preservation at the British Motor Museum is both welcome and necessary. When Vanden Plas ceased building its idiosyncratic line of luxury cars in 1980, the name would end up living on as a trim level for mainstream Austin Rover models. The first of which was the Rover SD1, which featured the leather and wood trim that made Vanden Plas famous, but none of the bespoke appeal.
This was followed by Metro, Maestro and Montego Vanden Plas models in the UK and Europe, as well as being used as a trim level in North American Daimler models, before fading away in the 2000s at the hands of a short-lived long wheelbase version of the Rover 75.
Photography (interior and details): Stuart Collins