Despite selling reasonably well since it was launched the Princess had gained a rather poor reputation for reliability, though Austin-Morris believed that the concept of the Princess was right and there was no need to make styling changes for changes sake. But if there was one thing that Austin-Morris needed to do with the updated car it was to convince buyers that the new Princess 2 would be reliable. To this end BL spent most of 1977 and the early part of 1978 ensuring that the Princess 2 was durable, particularly its new O-Series engines. In a bid to improve buyer confidence the car was promoted as a product of Austin-Morris and not of British Leyland. After an extensive engineering programme the Princess 2 range was launched in July 1978.
From an external point of view the cosmetic changes were minimal, lazy even, and a new range of colours were the only real visual improvement. However, 2 new engines were launched to replace the ageing 1800 B-Series: the four-cylinder O-Series 1700 and 2000. The 1700cc unit had already been launched in the Morris Marina, but this was its first transverse application, the 2000cc unit debuting in the Princess 2. The 2200cc E6 engine continued unchanged.
Other changes were mostly under the skin and production of the Princess was scrutinised to improve electrical reliability of components. This included a pre wired dashboard that was tested before installation with improved, industry standardised connections for easier assembly and longevity and the wiring was concealed under the facia (previously, wires had been left to dangle down onto the lower parcel shelf!). Other improvement areas were a better paint finish and better door sealing. The Hydragas suspension also received some minor tweaks to improve ride compliance and the new Triplex 10/20 laminated windscreen was fitted across the range.
Despite the new engines however, the single biggest improvement that could have changed the fortunes of the Princess was still noticeable by its absence - a rear hatchback. BL still regarded the Maxi as the five door in its range and saw no reason to produce a bigger version in the Princess; completely ignoring the fact that customers did want a stylish and modern Princess hatchback and didn’t want the out of date, poorly styled Maxi. Though, there was concern within the group that a hatchback 2200HLS Princess could steal sales from the lower spec Rover SD1 models.
Some felt that the makeover didn’t go far enough and the shortcomings of the previous Princess models were left wanting. Where the Princess had scored against the competition was that of its accommodation allied to the quality of its ride. On those two counts almost nothing could rival it. Unfortunately it takes a lot more than just a good ride and lots of space to sell a car and in areas like performance and driver enjoyment the Princess was - certainly in four-cylinder form – wanting compared to its rivals.
Motor magazine tested the new Princess 2 2000HL in their 15th July 1978 edition and said, “In short, there is still a good car in there trying to get out, but BL Cars will have to give the new engine still better performance and refinement, improve the gear change, and redesign the interior before it finally succeeds.” It was obvious that the 2 litre desperately needed a twin-carburettor option to be more competitive in the 2 litre class. Austin-Morris also failed to address other areas of the market with models such as a sporty Princess ‘S’ version, the likes of which a majority of other manufacturers were offering their customers.
The sales figures for the Princess 2 make stark reading; it never sold as well as the old 1800 and 2200. In fact the 1980 figure of 14,732 was less than half of 1979’s 37,128 cars. Despite mostly good press reports and a huge marketing push for the car, the earlier Princesses reputation for poor quality had been well earned and it seemed that no amount of new engines and boasts about improved reliability would sway the car-buying public’s opinion. A mid life revamp of the range saw the deletion of the 2200HL and the 1700 and 2000 were made available in HLS trim in a bid to improve the desirability of the car.
Testers and customers alike also criticised the lack of a five-speed gearbox and were asking why the lesser Allegro and Maxi could be had with five gears and yet Austin-Morris’s premium product could only be had with four. In any case, many buyers opted for the three-speed Borg Warner automatic option, despite the extra cost, as it suited the car far better than the notchy manual ‘box.
And it’s worth mentioning that Princess 2 sales were probably hampered by a marketing campaign that suggested it was ‘not the car for Mr Average’. Indeed, Mr Average continued to buy the average - almost mediocre - yet reliable Ford Cortina instead. Ultimately, Austin-Morris failed to maximise the full potential of the Princess range until it was too late.
The new seven model Princess 2 line up.
The new O series engine wasn’t quite greeted with the enthusiasm that Austin-Morris had hoped for. The lack of a five-speed gearbox was a serious omission.
Princess 2 was tested extensively for durability and a TV and cinema commercial was made showing the cars on test.
New colours were launched with Princess 2 and black trim became available.