The name of Vanden Plas is one of the oldest in the motor industry, dating back to the end of the 19th century.
Here we look at how it came to be part of the sprawling BLMC combine and how, despite its mixed fortunes over the years, the name has never really gone away…
Vanden Plas: BMC’s pinnacle flies the flag
The coachbuilding firm of Carrosserie Van den Plas was formed in Belgium in 1898 by Guillaume van den Plas and his three sons, Antoine, Henri and Willy, with bases in Antwerp and Brussels. An English subsidiary was established in 1913, named Vanden Plas (England) Limited.
However, following the 1914-1918 War, this firm gradually foundered, entering receivership in 1923. A manager at Vanden Plas, Edwin Fox (along with his brothers Alfred and Frank), successfully acquired the name and goodwill of the company, relaunching it as Vanden Plas (England) 1923 Limited with Alfred as Chairman and Edwin as Managing Director.
Operating from a former aircraft works at Kingsbury, north London, Edwin built an enviable reputation for the company, forging close links with Alvis and Bentley in particular. In 1932, his 21-year-old son, Roland, joined Vanden Plas for a brief spell, before being head-hunted by Alvis later that year.
Vanden Plas joins forces with Austin
However, he returned to the family business in 1940 as Production Engineer, progressing to the post of Works Director during the war years. Alongside its car-building activities, the company had also formed an association with De Havilland during the 1930s, taking on work for the emerging aircraft industry and later making a valuable contribution to the war effort.
However, in the immediate post-war period, times were tough for Vanden Plas. A failed contract with Rolls-Royce had left them scratching around for work, when in 1946 Austin’s Leonard Lord made an offer of £90,000 for the company.
Lord was looking for someone to design and build the bodywork for Austin’s new six-cylinder chassis, and saw Vanden Plas as the ideal candidate. The Fox family accepted his offer, and Vanden Plas became a subsidiary of Austin, with Lord taking over as Chairman and Managing Director, while Edwin and Roland Fox became Directors, along with Austin’s George Harriman.
The first Princess emerges
The new car was launched the following year as the Austin A120 Princess, although within a matter of months its engine size was increased from 3½ to 4-litres, earning it the new designation A135. A programme of steady development followed, with the Princess II arriving in 1950, followed by the Princess III in 1953. In 1952, a long-wheelbase limousine version was launched, which quickly found favour with the royalty, both at home and overseas.
Following the death of Edwin Fox on 26 February 1954, Roland Fox was appointed as Managing Director. In 1956, the Austin A135 received all-new bodywork for its final incarnation as the Princess IV.
The following year, BMC decided to delete the Austin A135 prefix from the Princess IV’s name (and also that of the Limousine version) in an apparent attempt to give the car a cachet of its own, but the inescapable truth was that demand for cars of this size and type was waning in the post-war years.
Austin A105 Vanden Plas upgrades
In 1958, Leonard Lord reacted to market forces by sending a batch of 500 Austin A105 Sixes from Longbridge to Kingsbury, to be retrimmed to coachbuilder’s standards and sold as the Austin A105 Vanden Plas.
This toe-in-the-water exercise paid off, and from then onwards far greater emphasis would be placed on the re-trimming side of the business. 1959 saw the launch of the Farina saloon-based Princess 3-Litre, with distinctive new front-end styling devised by Roland Fox himself.
This car effectively replaced both the Austin A105 Vanden Plas and the Princess IV saloon, although the long-wheelbase Princess limousine would continue in production for another nine years.
Vanden Plas becomes a marque in its own right
Then, in 1960, BMC launched Vanden Plas as a brand in its own right (see ‘The Princess name’, below, for the reasoning behind this) and, by the middle of that decade, a credible range of three prestigiously-trimmed models had been formed:
- The ADO16-based Princess 1100
- The Austin A110-based Princess 4-Litre R (successor to the Princess 3-litre)
- The top-of-the-range Vanden Plas Princess 4-Litre limousine (the former long-wheelbase A135)
Indeed, the range could have been bigger still if some of the proposed prototype models had ever reached fruition.
On 2 June 1967, Vanden Plas (England) 1923 Limited lost its status as a subsidiary company when it officially became the Vanden Plas division of BMC, sitting within the Austin-Morris group.
Following BMC’s acquisition of Jaguar/Daimler the previous year, plans were now well-underway for Vanden Plas to assemble and trim the forthcoming Daimler DS420 limousine, which remained in production (latterly at Jaguar’s Coventry works) until the early 1990s. Launched in 1968, the DS420 replaced not only Daimler’s own DR450 but also the Kingsbury-built Vanden Plas Princess 4-litre Limousine.
Joining the British Leyland party
Of course, 1968 also saw the merger which brought Rover and Triumph into the fold, spelling the end for the Princess 4-Litre R saloon as well. Thus, as the Seventies dawned, Kingsbury was turning out just the DS420 and the Princess 1300, but Jaguar’s soon-to-be-Chairman Lofty England was already in discussion with Roland Fox about developing a new flagship model.
Within a couple of years, these talks came to fruition when the Vanden Plas name was applied to a Daimler for the first time, with the launch of the XJ6-based Daimler Double-Six Vanden Plas. Placed at the very top of the Daimler range (costing even more than the grandiose limousine), this car sat on a longer wheelbase than the XJ6, and had the advantages of the new silky-smooth, Jaguar-developed 12-cylinder engine and a Kingsbury-trimmed interior that was very plush indeed, even by Daimler’s standards.
Jaguar saw this model as being able to compete with the top-end Mercedes-Benzes, and felt that it might even steal some sales from the far more expensive Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. One thing was for sure, though: within the BLMC group, Vanden Plas was becoming far more closely associated with Daimler than its traditional mentor Austin, and in 1974, responsibility for it was formally transferred to Jaguar Cars Limited.
The Allegro joins the fray
It was 1974 that saw the end of the line for the last Vanden Plas car to carry the Princess name – the still-popular 1300. At the time of the aforementioned reorganisation, work was already underway to replace the Princess with an Allegro-based model, and these plans proceeded apace.
After all, the little car was still generating over a third of Vanden Plas’s turnover – a chunk that Jaguar could not afford to ignore. However, strict budget limitations imposed before the transfer had meant that only one panel could be altered in the process of restyling the car. And so it was that the Vanden Plas 1500 was launched in the summer of 1974 with a reshaped bonnet following the outline of its ostentatiously over-sized grille.
It has to be said that, despite its now-traditional walnut, leather and Wilton interior, this new car lacked the grace – and appeal – of its well-loved predecessor. Nevertheless, it sold steadily throughout the late 1970s and, when the decision was taken to close the Kingsbury plant in 1979, production of the 1.5/1.7 (as the 1500 had by then been re-designated) was transferred to the MG plant at Abingdon.
The car survived for another year or so, but plans to launch a revised version in line with the Mk3 Allegro were dropped.
The end of Vanden Plas?
With the demise of the 1.5/1.7, the Vanden Plas marque was laid to rest in 1980. However, the name hadn’t really gone away. For a start, Daimler’s range still had a range-topping Double-Six Vanden Plas model (in Series III form, and produced entirely at Jaguar’s Browns Lane plant).
In the USA, the Daimler models had long-since been marketed as the ‘Jaguar Vanden Plas’, so as to avoid any potential confusion with the Mercedes models of Daimler-Benz.
Moreover, before the year was out BL had decided to apply the Vanden Plas name to a Rover for the first time, launching the Rover SD1-based 3500 Vanden Plas to replace the V8-S. Over the next few years, new Vanden Plas-badged models in the Austin and Rover ranges followed thick and fast.
A brief resurrection
However, the tide started to turn in 1984, when Jaguar and Daimler were returned to the private sector and the Vanden Plas name was dropped from their home-market models. Then, in 1988, the Austin marque was consigned to the history books, and with it went any mention of Vanden Plas in the cars’ nomenclature.
During the following year, the sole remaining Rover car to carry the name – the 213/216 range – was discontinued, and the Vanden Plas name had finally disappeared from the UK. And that would have been that… except that in the spring of 2002, MG Rover announced a new, special-order only flagship model for its 75 range: the Rover 75 Vanden Plas.
The Rover 75-based Vanden Plas lasted a year until MG Rover rebranded it the 75 long-wheelbase – which left Jaguar the only manufacturer using the name, which it did until 2009, when the final XJ8 Vanden Plas was manufactured.
- Also read: Rolls-Royce/Bentley collaboration with BMC
- Also read: Vanden Plas 1800 prototype
- Also read: Vanden Plas prototypes
The Vanden Plas name
Why is Vanden Plas often abbreviated to ‘VDP’ (rather than just VP)? What does it actually mean? And how should the name be pronounced? These questions can be answered (or at least illuminated) by delving into the origins of the name.
Firstly, to dispel some fairly common misconceptions, the name is not French, German or even Dutch, but Flemish, hailing from the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. In plain Dutch it would have been spelled as ‘van den Plas’ (and alphabetically sorted under ‘P’).
However, Flemish capitalises the V (sorting it under ‘V’), and also contracts ‘Van den Plas’ to ‘Vanden Plas’ and sometimes even to ‘Vandenplas’. Incidentally, in modern Dutch usage one would say ‘van der plas’, but Flemish family names are never updated to reflect more modern spelling (whereas there used to be a tendency to do this in Holland).
Not just a name…
Next, the meaning. In his book ‘Vanden Plas – Coachbuilders‘, Brian Smith gives the literal translation as ‘of the pond’.
‘Plas’ is indeed the Dutch for pond, so this is probably correct, but it should be noted that it is also used for any body of water from a puddle upwards. For instance, the Dutch for ‘to pee’ is ‘een plas doen’, spilt water would be described as ‘plas’ on the floor, and even the ocean is sometimes referred to as ‘de grote plas’ (the great ….).
However, there is a further possibility that should not be dismissed: in a family name it could very well be a corruption of a similar-sounding word with an entirely different meaning…
How to pronounce it?
Many people in English-speaking countries wrongly assume that the final ‘s’ is silent, pronouncing the name as ‘Vanden Plah’.
The correct pronunciation (both in Flemish and in plain Dutch) has a rather sharp ‘s’ at the end, as in the English word ‘kiss’. Both ‘a’ vowels in the name are pronounced the same way, as in the English colloquialism ‘yah’, so phonetically we should say something like ‘Vahnden Plahs’.
However, Flemish will in this case put a slight stress on the first syllable of ‘Vanden’, whereas plain Dutch would stress only the ‘Plas’ quite heavily.
Many thanks to Hendrik-Jan Thomassen, Bert Vijn and Erik Nooij for their contributions on this topic
The Princess name
It started out as a model name, became a marque name, was then unceremoniously demoted to some kind of secondary marque status, before eventually being dropped altogether – only to re-emerge a year later with its marque status restored. Such is the history of the Princess name within BMC>MGR.
Princess was a rather unusual choice of name for Austin’s 1947 A120 model. Apart from Invicta with their Black Prince, no other British manufacturer was using royalty as the inspiration for its model names at the time, yet within a few years it seems that something of a trend had been set: Daimler introduced their rival Consort model in 1949, and would later use names such as Regina, Majestic and Sovereign, while at the other end of the scale, Reliant amusingly chose the name Regal for its 1952 three-wheeler.
The Austin model was nevertheless deserving of such a high-ranking name, its coachbuilt bodywork having being designed at Kingsbury, whose highly-skilled workforce also assembled the cars and fitted them out to a very high standard. Appropriately enough, Vanden Plas would soon be supplying Austin A135 Princess Limousines to royal households, both in Britain and overseas.
The limousine Princesses
In 1957 – by which time the Princess name had adorned four successive incarnations of Austin’s A120/135 saloon, as well as the long-wheelbase A135 limousine introduced in 1952 – BMC decided to set its flagship model apart from the Austin brand. To this end, the Princess name was promoted to marque status and the saloon model became known simply as the ‘Princess IV’, while the traditionally-styled long-wheelbase version became the ‘Princess 4-Litre Limousine’.
Two years later the A99-based ‘Princess 3-Litre’ was added to the range, effectively replacing the Princess IV. However, despite BMC’s insistence that these models were Princesses, plain and simple, the public had other ideas and invariably referred to them as Austin Princesses, such was the strength of the association between those two names.
In mid-1960, BMC hit back by establishing the Vanden Plas name as a marque, and thus the Vanden Plas Princess 3-Litre was born. The Vanden Plas 1100/1300 and 4-Litre R models which followed also bore the Princess name, rendering it more of a secondary marque than a model name. Indeed, the lettering on the side of the HQ building at Kingsbury proudly announced it as the home of ‘VANDEN PLAS PRINCESS CARS’.
And to the ignominious end…
In 1974, the Vanden Plas Princess 1300 was replaced by the Allegro-based Vanden Plas 1500, and thus the Princess name had been dropped. Why? Well, by this time over 60 per cent of the Vanden Plas division’s turnover was being derived from Daimler models (the DS420 limousine and Double Six Vanden Plas).
Earlier that year responsibility for it had been transferred from BLMC’s Austin-Morris group to Jaguar Cars Limited; Vanden Plas’s new masters at Jaguar (correctly) saw the Princess name as having strong Austin associations, so it had to go.
Barely a year later, though, Leyland Cars would give the name a new lease of life, when it was chosen as the marque name for the former 18-22 series cars; it was finally laid to rest in 1982, when the Princess was transformed into the Austin Ambassador.
The Vanden Plas-branded models
|Austin A105 Vanden Plas
This was the car that provided the inspiration for the Vanden Plas marque. In 1958 Leonard Lord decided to send a batch of 500 Austin A105 Sixes to Kingsbury to be retrimmed to a high standard. This represented something of a departure for Vanden Plas, which had previously concentrated on its coachbuilding activities, but the car’s favourable reception paved the way for an influential follow-up…
|Vanden Plas Princess 3-Litre
Originally introduced in 1959, this car became the first to carry the Vanden Plas marque name when it was relaunched the follwing year. It also set the style for the 1960s models which followed.
|Vanden Plas Princess 4-Litre Limousine
Dating from 1952, the long-wheelbase Princess gained the Vanden Plas tag (along with the newer 3-Litre) in 1960, by which time it was the last surviving link with Vanden Plas’s coachbuilding past. The Royal Mews took delivery of several over the years, one of which hit the headlines in March 1974 when it was ambushed and damaged in a failed attempt to kidnap its occupants: Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips.
|Vanden Plas Princess 1100/1275/1300
Despite having never been part of BMC’s product plan, the Princess 1100’s blend of a high-quality trim in a compact package soon won it many admirers. The 1275 model was available for a few months in 1967, before the MkII-style 1300 was launched that autumn.
|Vanden Plas Princess 4-Litre R
Replacing the 3-Litre, the 4-Litre R gained new rear-end styling, extra rear legroom and a Rolls-Royce engine. However, the 1968 merger rendered it surplus to requirements, so it was not replaced.
|Daimler Double-Six/4.2 Vanden Plas
This came about on the personal initiative of Jaguar’s Lofty England, as a flagship for their new V12 engine. Introduced towards the end of Series I production, fewer than 400 were built before the Series II was launched a year later. From June 1975, a 4.2-litre became available, still trimmed to same high standard at Kingsbury. Meanwhile, in the US all Daimler saloons were sold as the Jaguar Vanden Plas – and still are.
|Vanden Plas 1500/1.5/1.7
Less successful and much-villified follow-up to the Princess 1300, this was the last car to be made under the Vanden Plas marque.
|Mini Vanden Plas
BL-offshoot Leykor pioneered the idea of using the Vanden Plas name purely as a trim level identifier when they launched the ‘most luxuriously-equipped Mini ever seen in South Africa’.More…
|Rover 3500/2600 Vanden Plas
After the closure of Kingsbury and the subsequent demise of the VP1500, BL revived the Vanden Plas name on the top-notch Rover, replacing the short-lived V8-S. The 2600 version was added in mid-1984, but when the 800 series replaced the SD1 in 1986, the name ‘Sterling‘ was chosen for the flagship model (although Coleman-Milne later used the Vanden Plas tag on its semi-official long-wheelbase 800).
|Austin Ambassador Vanden Plas
The next model to get the latter-day Vanden Plas treatement was the stop-gap Ambassador, and it could be argued that this had been a long time coming. Back in the mid-1970s, Kingsbury had produced a prototype Vanden Plas 2200 based on the Ambassador’s antecedent, the 18-22 series, but following the Ryder Report, the plug was pulled on badge-engineering and the range was relaunched as the Princess.
|Austin Metro Vanden Plas
1982 was a significant year for the Metro. As well as introducing the sporty MG version, BL topped-and-tailed the range with the cheap-as-chips City and the plushly-trimmed Vanden Plas models. There was also a limited edition of 500 ‘VP500’ versions in 1983 to mark the 25th anniversary of the orignal run of 500 A105 Vanden Plas models. The Vanden Plas was replaced by the non-Austin ‘GS’ version in 1988.
|Austin Maestro Vanden Plas
Such was the success of the Metro Vanden Plas that it was a foregone conclusion that the Maestro range would also include a VP version. Available from launch, the first-series models were more opulently trimmed, although the post-1985 versions were better-built. Former owners include one Keith Adams, who recalls a friend describing his example as the ‘Vanden Plastic’…
|Austin Montego Vanden Plas
Like the Maestro on which it was based, the Montego was launched with a luxurious Vanden Plas version, available in both saloon and estate form; indeed, this was the first (and so far only) time the Vanden Plas name had appeared on a production estate car. As with the Maestro, the dropping of the Austin brand in 1988 spelt the end for the Vanden Plas version too, leaving the Mayfair with the top slot in the range.
|Rover 213/216 Vanden Plas
Effectively replacing the Triumph Acclaim, the Honda-based 200-series was introduced as a smaller partner to the SD1 range. The availability of suitably trimmed and specced Vitesse and Vanden Plas versions helped to reinforce the message these cars were now Rovers. Gave way to the R8-type 200 series in 1989, by which time the ‘GS’ nomenclature was in vogue for the upmarket versions.
|Rover 75 Vanden Plas
After the name had lain dormant within the Rover Group for over ten years, the reborn MG Rover company announced a new long-wheelbase version of its 75 saloon, to be called the 75 Vanden Plas. The conversion work, carried out by the coachbuilding firm S MacNeillie & Son, saw 200mm added to the length of the rear doors, and the car was to be available only to order, with a list price of just under £28k.
This page would not be complete without a brief mention for the German progressive rock band Vanden Plas; first formed in the late 1980s (just as Rover were about to lay the name to rest, incidentally), 2004 marks the tenth anniversary of their first album release.
When asked how they had chosen their band’s name, forty-something guitarist Stephan Lill replied: ‘It’s just a Dutch name like Van Halen or Vandenberg. We liked the name because it sounds different.’
So, not a tribute to the best that BMC could offer, then…