Vanden Plas prototypes
The coachbuilding firm of Vanden Plas had been purchased by Austin in 1946, and thus became part of the BMC empire which was created by the merger of Austin and Morris in 1952. Until the end of the 1950s, the factory at Kingsbury in north-west London was chiefly used for the production of Austin’s Princess range of large saloons and limousines, whose customers included heads of state and royalty.
Then, in 1958, BMC tried something new. Leonard Lord decided to send a batch of 500 Austin A105s to Kingsbury to be retrimmed to a high standard, and these cars were then marketed as the Austin A105 Vanden Plas. Following favourable press reviews, BMC decided to give the same treatment to its new Farina saloon.
By 1960, the company had decided to market these cars under the new marque of Vanden Plas Princess. For the following 20 years (until the closure of the factory in 1979), there continued to be at least one Vanden Plas model in the line-up of BMC and its successor companies.
The Vanden Plas models that weren’t built
Along the way, consideration was given to producing a Vanden Plas version of virtually every new Austin model. These galleries reveal some of the models that never made it into the showroom, plus some rather special, low-volume factory conversions.
Post-war austerity in Britain had a widespread and lasting effect. Upper-middle class society was changed forever, and conspicuous consumption became frowned upon. One of the changes that affected the motor industry was the sharp reduction in staffed households.
Without the means to employ a chauffeur, people were tending to drive themselves. They were also less inclinded to order bespoke bodywork from coachbuilders such as Vanden Plas. One way or another, this social change led to the birth of the executive class, with cars aimed squarely at the well-heeled owner-driver, and the company executive who had to drive himself at the weekend.
Commercial success for Vanden Plas
In 1959, the success of the previous year’s Austin A105 Vanden Plas convinced BMC to produce a similar version based on its new Farina saloon and, in the process, the Vanden Plas name became a marque in its own right.
A collaboration with Rolls-Royce saw this car become the 4-Litre R and, by the mid-1960s, a replacement based on the forthcoming Austin 3-Litre was being planned. However, a car pitched at this level in the range would not be allowed to survive following the merger of 1968, when its potential customers were expected to head for their nearest Rover showroom.
The executive class
BMC’s initial idea was to produce ‘Vanden Plas’ derivatives of the Austin A99 Westminster (top) and Wolseley 6/99 (above). Note the ‘crown’ emblems on the hubcaps of these cars. However, at the eleventh hour, Leonard Lord had the idea of aligning the new Farina-based model with the recently-established ‘Princess’ marque, which had effectively been created in 1957 when the large Austin Princess saloons and limousines produced at Kingsbury had been set apart from Austin.
Roland Fox recognised the brilliance of Lord’s decision, but had barely three months to put it into practice. He decided that the new car’s grille should be part-Bentley, part-Alvis in appearance, and Lord gave the new design the go-ahead. In October 1959, the car was launched as the ‘Princess 3-Litre’.
However, in the minds of the public, the Princess name was still firmly associated with Austin, so in a move to overcome the fact that the new car was being referred to as the “Austin Princess 3-Litre”, BMC took the bold decision to brand the cars as the ‘Vanden Plas Princess 3-Litre’ from May 1960 onwards and, in due course, the BMC coachbuilding subsidiary became known as ‘Vanden Plas Princess Cars’.
All future Vanden Plas Princess models would follow the style set by the 3-Litre.
This car also provides an interesting comparison with the Lancia Flaminia State Limousine (one of six produced by Pininfarina for the British royal visit to Italy in 1961) especially as it was the Lancia Flaminia that had originally set the style for the BMC Farinas. For British customers, however, the day of the stretch limo had yet to come…
Two years previously, Vanden Plas has converted a Princess 3-Litre saloon to shooting brake specification as a demonstrator for the Queen, keen to tempt her out of her Vauxhall estate cars. This evidently worked, as in 1966 a further order was received for a similarly converted replacement, this time based on the 4-Litre R; this car remained in service until 1969.
It is believed that a further five Vanden Plas Countrymans were produced, one of which was used by BMC Chairman George Harriman. Incidentally, once it had served its purpose, the 1961 demonstrator (registered 3030 MX) was despatched to Longbridge and was later used by Austin Chairman Leonard Lord; it has survived, and is today in the hands of an enthusiast.
The most obvious differences were the revised rear styling and the fog lamps mounted in the front panel, in place of the 3-Litre’s circular grilles (and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Vanden Plas must have found the Volvo 164 of 1968 very flattering indeed). Less noticeably, the car also gained a new, longer roof panel which, combined with the revised positioning of the rear seat, liberated an extra three inches of legroom for back seat passengers.
The ‘R’ was a reference to this car’s Rolls-Royce FB60 engine, which had been developed by Rolls-Royce from their B-Series military engine, and became available to BMC as part of the doomed collaborative venture.
This is the Bentley Java prototype, which shows how this car would have looked had Rolls-Royce not backed out of the project. It is widely thought the development of Rolls-Royce’s first unitary-construction car, the Silver Shadow, benefited from the experience gained during Project Java.
The car is something of a curate’s egg: while the front appears to have benefited from the restyling, the decision to install a wraparound rear screen in place of the Austin’s six-light arrangement has served to upset the balance of what many observers consider to be the original car’s most attractive viewing angle.
The project was cancelled as a result of the 1968 merger with Leyland. The 1960s brought another new direction for Vanden Plas, when a commission from Fred Connolly, whose company supplied hides to all the top motor companies, led to the production of a luxuriously trimmed version of the new Morris 1100.
By the end of the decade, the Vanden Plas range had been reduced to just the 1300 version of this car (although the Kingsbury factory also produced the Daimler DS420 limousine). When production of the 1300 ended in 1974, it was replaced by an upmarket version of the Austin Allegro, the Vanden Plas 1500.
The small cars
The Morris 1100 produced for Fred Connolly had been extensively retrimmed, with Connolly hide, walnut panels and picnic tables, but when BMC decided to display a Vanden Plas Princess 1100 at the London Motor Show in 1963, the team at Kingsbury set about giving the car a more upmarket look. This initial attempt amounted to nothing more than a new, glitzier front grille, and was rejected in favour of the style that had been established by the Princess 3-Litre.
At the time, its purpose was simply to demonstrate the capabilities of Kingsbury workforce, but such was the level of order enquiries received at the show that the company had little option but to manufacture the car. Few changes were made in the transition to the production model, although this car clearly lacks the wraparound rear bumper and rakish rear over riders.
Also, its two-tone colour scheme (in this case, Sherwood Green over Dark Green) would be seen on very few production models, which were predominantly finished in one colour.
When the Vanden Plas Princess 1300 was replaced in 1974, the new Allegro-based car was simply called the Vanden Plas 1500 (it was later joined by a 1750 version). This was therefore the first Vanden Plas car since the marque has been established in 1960 not to be called a ‘Princess’.
This move coincided with the Vanden Plas operation being moved from the Austin-Morris division of BLMC to the Jaguar group, to reflect the fact that two-thirds of VDP’s turnover was generated by its Daimler products. The 1500’s styling also marked a significant departure from what had become the typical Vanden Plas look, due in no small part to development cost constraints which had dictated that only one panel (the bonnet) could be altered. Vanden Plas Managing Director Roland Fox had sketched the new front end after seeing a prototype Allegro in the early 1970s, taking his inspiration from the Daimler Double-Six.
This 1979 prototype 1500 wears the revised bumpers, spoiler and rear lights of the Allegro 3, but they were not adopted for the Vanden Plas car. (Formerly part of the BMIHT’s collection at Gaydon, the above car was sold at the auction held on 29 June 2003; it went for £4650.)
Indeed, the 1500 was destined to be the last model produced under the Vanden Plas marque: in 1979, the Kingsbury factory was closed, and production of the 1500/1700 was transferred to the MG plant at Abingdon, until that factory also closed the following year.
The Vanden Plas name re-emerged towards the end of 1980, as the top-of-the-range trim designation for the Rover 3500. It was then applied to various Austin-Rover cars throughout the 1980s, and was also used on export-market Jaguars. In February 2002, Rover announced that the name was to be reintroduced on a flagship Rover 75 model.
The concept of a mid-range Vanden Plas saloon, elegantly styled and luxuriously appointed, would surely have attracted enough buyers to merit its production? However, following the 1968 merger, this territory was staunchly occupied by the Rover and Triumph marques.
The medium-sized cars
This page was contributed by Declan Berridge
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