After the Princess received its O-Series engine in 1978, it was finally capable of battling with the rest of the best of the full-sized European opposition. The main target was the base model Ford Granada, but the Europeans were strong in this sector, too.
Keith Adams compares the Renault 20 and Ford Granada against the impressive BL ‘wedge’ to decide which is the best 1970s executive car and finds choosing a winner very easy indeed.
Pity the Princess. When launched in March 1975, its maker was embattled to the extent that it was becoming a national embarrassment. The Government needed to bail out British Leyland in the closing months of 1974, and had appointed Lord Ryder to come up with an industrial plan that would save the company. In many ways, the Princess epitomised the morass the company found itself in during those dark years – it was so very right, and so very, very wrong.
In the positive corner was its superb and bold styling – a wonderful answer to the blobby, compromised Allegro – front-wheel-drive drivertrain, enormous interior and cosseting ride. But downsides were the confused 18-22-Series marketing (which lasted six months before the Princess rebranding), the use of the asthmatic B-Series engine; the lack of a hatchback; the shoddy build quality… In retrospect, the Princess’s faults were merely niggles (unless you still have bad memories of being dumped on the hard shoulder on a rainy night in the 1970s) and, one by one, the company set about putting them right.
Our test cars hail from early 1978, and represent the moment in the time when the Princess really began to come good. The long-awaited O-Series engine had been been installed, and our car represented the mid-point of the range – a High Line spec car with the 91bhp 2.0-litre engine and four-speed manual. The build quality was coming good, and that meant drivers could really appreciate that luxurious interior without tripping over lifting carpet.
The Renault 30 was launched almost the same week as the Princess, and was nothing if not interesting. Under the skin, it was a significant move forward from the Renault 16 – so it was suspended by coils and wishbones, had a longitudinal engine, front-wheel drive, with the gearbox mounted behind the power unit (it was out front on older Renaults). And in this earliest form, a big, fat 2.7-litre Douvrin V6 that pushed out more than 140bhp.
The four-cylinder version, badged as the Renault 20, was introduced in November 1975. The 2.0-litre cars were powered by a 2.0-litre Douvrin engine, which would also find its way into the Citroën CX and Peugeot 505, but wouldn’t arrive here until 1978, leaving the entry-level cars to be solely powered by the 1647cc engine with four-speed manual, shared with the Renault 16 and 17. It was very much a known quantity and, although the idea of a 1.6-litre engine in such a large car back then must have been a little alien (and surprisingly fashionable now), with 96bhp, the 16TX-engined 20 should – on paper – be able to see off the Princess and Granada.
Ah, and finally to the new boy on test, the 1977 Ford Granada 2.0L. The sharp-suited Granada is easily the most conventional of the three cars on test – a 2.0-litre 100bhp Pinto under the bonnet, with four-speed manual gearbox, wishbone and coil suspension set-up up-front, with an independent semi-trailing arm set-up at the rear. Well-developed orthodoxy, but it’s a recipe that worked so well for more prestigious players like BMW and Opel…
This variance in engineering between the three cars is quite refreshing. Had this group test taken place ten years hence, we’d have been looking at the Ford Scorpio, Renault 25 and Rover 800 – and, although the Ford retained its RWD platform, the styling and engineering of all three had converged significantly. So, let’s rejoice that during the 1970s, there was still a genuine choice for the individual looking for a reasonably-priced executive-class car.
In the right colour, the Princess is still a great-looking car; its low nose, rising waist-line and high, stubby tail give it a great profile, while the quad-headlamp arrangement set in those trapezoidal cut outs suffuse the Princess with plenty of rear-view mirror character. Like all charismatic styling efforts, it evokes strong opinions in most onlookers, so you’ll need to get used to justifying your choice of car to all-and-sundry – they’ll either love or hate the Princess.
The Granada is far more conventionally handsome – and typical of Ford’s extremely well-styled mid-1970s efforts. Being a 2.0L, our car’s missing a lot of the visual jewellery that really sets a Granada apart from its more mundane counterparts. So, no neat alloy wheels; no additional chrome embellishment; and no Ghia badge on the bootlid. But the Granada’s character is rooted in its functionality. And the fact that it’s an old Ford that appeared in The Professionals – so it’s therefore rather cool.
However, while the Princess looks striking and interesting, the Ford is cohesive, neat and ultimately a bit dull. But then, back in 1978, the Ford lacked the whiff of failure that afflicted the Princess – and the international sales figures reflect this clearly. A more relevant comparison might well have been with a top-of-the-range Cortina rather than a bottom-of-the-range Granada, but then this demonstrates the Princess’s weakness in terms of marketing (and one BL and its successors were continuously guilty of) – it straddles sectors.
And to the Renault. Or could we call it Plain Jane, Superbrain? The Renault 20 celebrates its huge practicality with a near-unadorned two-box body, all glass and angles. All of the flamboyance of the car it replaced, the 16, seems to have been replaced by a 1970s pragmatism that subsequently swept across Renault’s range (bonkers 14, aside). Of course, it’s near-extinct in the UK, and only a select band of car aficionados would ever recognise a 20 today (most of whom, probably read AROnline), and for some, that’s going to be instrumental in the appeal of this car.
Out of the three, though, it’s an easy win for the Princess – it’s not just an old car, it’s a classic old car.
We’ll make this a short and sweet one, as none of these cars are going to be bought for their outright pace. In fact, they’re all about cruising, and maintaining progress on the motorway. Of the three, the Granada is marginally the quickest, with a maximum speed of 105mph and a 0-60mph time of 12.5 seconds – a great achievement considering its size and weight and lack of overall power. Being a Pinto engine under the bonnet, progress is not that refined but, as we’ll see, in this company, it’s not much of a handicap.
Next up is the Princess, which with a mere 93bhp on tap, fails to get on terms with the Granada. But being the comfort-oriented car that it is – and the fact that if you wanted a little more potency, your friendly Austin-Morris dealer would be happy to direct you into the sweet-sounding six-cylinder model – a 100mph maximum and 0-60mph time of 13.1 seconds was probably enough.
Among these rivals it was anyway. Put it alongside a 2.0-litre Cortina or Cavalier, and the Princess wouldn’t see which way its repmobile rivals went. Perhaps, given its more refined station in life, this was how it was supposed to be. Someone should have told potential customers, though.
Bringing up the rear is the Renault. Considering its healthy power and torque outputs, it’s left struggling on the road, with a 0-60mph time of 14.4 seconds, even if it has a competitive top speed of 103mph. The main problem with the Renault is that it’s undergeared, and never really settles down to a happy cruise – a shame considering how vivacious the 1647cc is in the 16TX. But then, it’s dragging along nearly 1200kg of full-size hatchback body in the 20TL.
In classic terms, it’s probably fair to say that all three cars would be infinitely more desirable in six-cylinder form – especially the torque-steering, tyre-smoking Renault 30! But as we’re saddled with four-pots, we’re left with Hobons’s choice: and given the Princess’ engine is the most well insulated of the trio, and suits its laid back character the most, it’s a winner here.
Or, more precisely, the best of three losers.
Handling and ride
First to go is the Granada. In Mk2 form, the Granada is a supremely-sorted executive saloon that easily has the measure of the BMW 5 Series or Rover SD1. So why is it so easily dismissed? In 2.0-litre form, and blessed with less than sparkling handling and narrow tyres, you’re never really able to exploit the slightly sporting chassis. And that means the less than brilliant damping and thump-thump from the rear axle just becomes an annoyance.
On the motorway, the 2.0L is reasonably settled, but never does it feel truly relaxed. And that’s why the front-wheel-drive pair here are so much more appealing.
The Princess’ Hydragas suspension system is superb. At speed, it absolutely demolishes ruts, bumps and undulations in a way that only big Citroën owners will be truly familiar with. It’s a soft set-up, but rolls far less than you’d imagine in corners, which means a sympathetic driver can cover distances very quickly in the Princess without upsetting their passengers. And as this 2000HL is fitted with power-assisted steering, it also feel pretty chuckable – although not quite as much fun as a PAS-equipped Landcrab – once you learn to drive around the inevitable understeer.
It’s not perfect, though. Low speed ride is fidgety, and sharp irregularities like railway crossings shudder though the structure. And some passengers will complain of car sickness thanks to vertical pitching under acceleration and braking.
And for that reason, the Renault just aces it. But only if you want the ultimate in comfort. The ride is fractionally softer than the Princess’, and it rolls just a little more in bends, but there are fewer dynamic compromises in achieving this balance than there is with the Princess. However, wind it up to the legal maximum, get yourself onto a sweeping A-road or motorway, and few things this side of a warm bath are more relaxing. How alien that must feel compared with an equivalent modern…
Cabin and controls
The Renault’s ugly dashboard, shapeless seats and baffling rear seat-fold system mean that it can’t be treated seriously as a rival to the Granada or Princess. It’s a shame, because the same instrument binnacle used in the 30TX looks great, thanks to being stocked by a myriad of round dials – but, in the base model 20, well, it just looks forgettable. It’s a roomy thing, though, and if you’re used to a 16, you’ll love the additional practicality that the 4.52m long body gives – especially in the boot. But there’s nothing here that makes you feel special.
The Granada is nothing if not functional. Like the Renault, it’s roomy for passengers, and the interior is well screwed together. It also has a huge boot. But the main annoyance in buying a 20 is that you’re reminded of all the equipment you’re missing by not going further up the range – there are blanks everywhere, and even the glovebox lid is missing. As for a rev counter, you’re missing that, too – as you are on all three cars – but you do get a nice big quartz clock in its place.
And it’s another easy win for the Princess. How could it not be? Okay, so if you look closely, you’ll see some rough edges in the build and trim quality, but the overall appearance is one of luxury. The seats are big, supportive and well-trimmed, while the dashboard looks cohesive and well styled. There are some niggles when it comes to switchgear placement and reflective instruments, but overall, it feels like an altogether more ‘special’ proposition than the other two cars.
The only downside – and it is a big one – is the small boot opening. Once again, we cry, why the hell didn’t it have a hatchback?
None of these cars are going to be cheap to fuel. Expect 25mpg in urban situations from all three, with the Renault just eking out a few more miles from its petrol on the motorway. But getting 30mpg from any of them is going to be some achievement. And that does have one asking – again – why go for an ‘economy special’ when there’s a six-cylinder alternative in the offing?
That’s an easy one to answer now – there is no reason not to go for a six-pot. But back then, when budgets were tight, and company car policy was a whole lot more strict than it it is now – employees were often limited by engine capacity.
For parts, the Ford and Princess are about equal in terms of availability, with the Renault a bit of a struggle, unless you’re a fan of French eBay. And as for classic insurance, all three are eligible with similar policies of around £200 per year for a safe, middle-aged driver.
Of our group tests, this has been by far the easiest to choose a winner for. Back in 1978, the Princess was considered the nicest of the three cars to own, and the same holds true to this day. It’s not that the Ford or Renault don’t have their own points of interest, and both have plenty of appeal for retro car fans today – but the Princess is not only a characterful car, it also has bags of ability.
For a start – it’s roomy, comfortable, looks quirky, drives well around town or on the motorway, and is a real conversation starter at parties – so we’re told anyway. If we had a long journey to go on, and had to choose one of the three here (with a fuel card, of course), the Princess would win out every time. And it’s no irrational decision – the Granada and Renault are both far more desirable in V6 form, and deliver all their promise thus equipped. The Princess does just fine as it is in two-litre form, proving that it’s a sound concept, even if choosing rivals for it was (and is) very difficult.
Which is a good way of explaining why it never sold in the numbers it should have. But perhaps if the Marina had been any good, the Princess wouldn’t have been pushed into the role of unwilling Cortina rival – instead being sold as a sweet and comfortable executive instead of rep thrasher, a role it was just not cut out for.
Anyway, for now – we love the Princess; and in this test, it’s a winner…
[Original photo, thanks to What Car? magazine]