Looking beyond the styling, the Princess was a rather dull car based on old mechanicals (or tried and trusted, if you want the BL speak), it was rather slow, it wasn’t very exciting to drive, and its reputation for quality was, along with most BL products of the time, lamentable.
The spectacular wedge styling was ahead of its time but in terms of packaging, it offered little more than the outgoing 18-22 ‘Land Crab’. The design brief for the new 18-22 range was to take all the things that made the Land Crab attractive to customers and place it in a more stylish body. The old Land Crab may have been dull to look at, but it did have a cosy ‘rightness’ about it which allowed it to blend into any background.
Compared to its forebear, the Princess was right in your face with its sleek, drooping bonnet line and dynamic wedge profile. In fact it was so dramatic that it probably put off the staid clientele that the car was aimed at, which is no bad thing because it should have made it more attractive to younger buyers. But when they saw the rather lacklustre performance figures and compared them with rivals, it was clear that the Princess was, well, slow. For example, a 2.0litre Cortina could get to 60 in 10.8 seconds whilst the Princess got there in 13…
Acres of interior space are no compensation for being last away from the line at the traffic light Grand Prix. Even mid-range Allegro’s and Ital’s were blessed with a rev-counter, yet BL thought that the average Princess driver wasn’t interested in this most basic of instruments, presuming the time of day was more important than whether it was time to change gear.
The Princess range was pretty much left to its own devices during its life as far as styling goes; mild tweaks were made to trim and badging, but nothing significant happened. The only significant mechanical change was the replacement of the old 1800 B-Series engine with 1700 and 2000cc O-Series units in 1978, complementing the straight-six 2200. Journalists were hoping that these two new engines would add a bit of sparkle to the range but unfortunately, despite their technical merits they were still saddled with the old notchy four-speed gearbox, and were really no better in day-to-day use than the old 1800 ‘B’.
If you wanted a performance Princess you could always ask the Special Tuning division of Leyland for the bolt-on Pluspac conversion, which replaced the single carb on the four cylinder cars with a twin-carb set up. Performance was markedly improved with 60 coming up almost 3.5 seconds faster than the standard car (11.6seconds); the 1800 B-Series conversion tested by Autocar in 1978 easily out accelerated an MGB, though the standard Princess handling and steering were left untouched, as was the interior.
There were hot versions of the Marina (TC) and Maxi (HLS), not to mention competitors cars like the Ford Cortina 2.0 and 2.3S, which were enhanced by simple bolt on accessories like twin carbs, sporty wheel trims or wheels, and racy looking cloth seat trim. So, why didn’t BL offer a performance version of the Princess to accommodate the press-on driver? It was so easy to do, as the Princess 1800ST proved. But even basic items such as alloy wheels weren’t available on the Princess until late 1980 – remember this is five years after the car was launched!
It’s possible that a complete lack of funds within BL meant that any thoughts of increasing the Princess range with more versions was impossible as they had enough on their hands trying to sort out reliability problems with the models that were on sale. But it would have addressed the rather lacklustre performance issues that put off potential customers, who instead opted for cars like the far more dynamic Vauxhall Cavalier. I also wonder why BL chose the Princess name for the wedge, although it does suit the car you can’t say it’s an exciting moniker.
In fact the only official special edition Princess was the 1978 Special Six Automatic, which was launched in desperation to replace manual gearbox versions of the 2200, which were taken off sale whilst engineers tried to fix its unhealthy appetite for driveshafts, but it was just a ‘bitsa’ model, made up from a mix and match of HL and HLS trim and only available in black.
In 1982, the similarly styled though fairly characterless Austin Ambassador arrived; out went the 2200 engine and in came a twin carburettor 2.0 litre O-Series engine. Was this the answer to the performance problems? Alas, no. The extra weight of the tailgate and other structural changes, plus all the extras like electric windows and central locking meant that the Vanden Plas Ambassador was some 150kg heavier than the outgoing Princess 2000HL.
1982 also saw the re-emergence of sporting heritage from Leyland; MG. Though this time the badge was applied to a souped up version of the Austin Metro, it pointed the direction for future sporting derivatives of Austin cars, and although the MG purists greeted it with disdain, the public loved it and it became one of the best-selling hot hatches of the Eighties. The success of the MG Metro was carried over in 1984 to the O-Series engined Maestro and Montego; both received the MG treatment to great effect.
Could the Ambassador have received the MG treatment? Perhaps, but as it was no more than a stop gap product between the Princess and Maestro there was never any plan to do so, but it would have been a nice diversion in the range and would have complemented the MG Metro as a sports hatch for grown-ups. Transforming the Austin Metro into the MG Metro was quite a cheap marketing exercise, so slapping a few MG badges on the Ambassador and adding some sports seats wouldn’t have cost too much, and tweaking the engine up to about 130bhp and putting firmer dampers in the displacers would’ve finished the job. But the Princess and Ambassador just wasn’t that sort of car, but then neither was the Metro and Maestro.
The advanced wedge styling hinted at so much, but it simply never lived up to it.
This page updated 1st January 2010.