The wonderful wedge has just turned 40 and Mike Humble pauses for moment to reflect on one of British Leyland’s less talked about cars – the Leyland Princess…
Charge your glasses folks… for it’s birthday time again. This week saw the launch of the Princess range back in 1975 – this was another Harris Mann-styled car but one which, at least, stayed pretty loyal the artist’s original vision – unlike the Allegro two years earlier. The sleek aerodynamic body hid a thoroughly conventional drivetrain with power units carried over from the 18-22 Land Crab it replaced but the improved Hydragas suspension gave a superb ride which came pretty close to matching the very best for pure waft-ability.
Original engine options were the well-proven 1.8-litre B-Series and the 6-cylinder 2.2-litre E-Series with choice of a 4-speed manual or 3-speed automatic. Despite the car emulating the shape of a large five-door hatch, the Princess was launched only as a saloon – BL opted not to take the shine off the upcoming SD1 even though the car was envisaged to have a tailgate from the outset. Some say this hampered sales from word go and the huge amount of passenger room would have worked hand in glove with a tailgate, but we had to wait till 1982 for that to arrive as the Ambassador.
As expected with a new Leyland car of this era, the Princess soon got off to a somewhat faltering start. The six cylinder manual cars ate their inner C.V joints at such an alarming rate that BL were forced pull the model from sale while they investigated the cause. An engineering blueprint blunder meant that the angle the driveshafts operated were way beyond tolerance and consequently cost BL a small fortune in warranty claims and irate customers. All this was taking place as the company ran out of money and became part-nationalised.
The Princess 2 of 1978 received a needed boost with a brace of new engines – the O-Series in 1.7-litre and 2.0-litre guises, and the dropping of the Austin, Morris and Wolseley versions. It was also the only car in the British Leyland UK range that had no brand as such – its official title became Leyland Princess. Smooth and relaxing to drive with a colossal amount of interior room, the Princess was constantly praised by the motoring press for its comfort but thumped for its leisurely performance – even in 2.2-litre tune – while long-term magazine tests often found the car poor in terms of reliability.
The well-recorded, cash-strapped crisis with BL meant the Princess was, at best, only kept competitive through aggressive pricing and minor nips and tucks – O-Series engine aside. It never shrugged off a reputation of shoddy quality and other Leyland-related woes which was a crying shame as they drove so well in good fettle. They soon became known for rumbling wheel bearings, transmission failure, rust and pretty much everything a 1970s BL car was known for – unforgivable for a vehicle aimed at the lower end of the premium marketplace.
By the time 1982 came along, other rivals stood head and shoulders above the Princess for performance, quality and image perception – which was a real shame. The Austin Ambassador was heavily based on the Princess but sported that all important tailgate and radically improved engineering quality, but the game was up by now. Faced with technically superior rivals such as the Cavalier Mk2 and Ford Sierra, the Ambassador trundled on for another two years and retired from office in 1984.
Looking back with a forty-year hindsight, the Princess could have been a real winner.