road test: 1976 Leyland Princess

PrincessThe story starts back in the late sixties, with Austin-Morris’s intention to replace its ADO17 mid range car. Launched in 1964, the unflatteringly monikered ‘Land Crab’ was proving a poor seller – thanks in no small part to its awkward ‘Austin 1100 on steroids’ styling. It was clear that a fresh start was in order, and new blood was drafted in to do the work. Harris Mann, a young stylist with a passion for esoteric Italian supercars, was enlisted. He’d previously fashioned the Allegro – although the design that made it to production was but a poor shadow of his original sketches – and had contributed to the Morris Marina. In the Princess, and his subsequent Triumph TR7, he would be allowed to take his futuristic ideas further.

Austin Morris’s planners had decided that the main growth in the seventies car market would be in the upper-medium sector (known as the ‘D class’, effectively anything over 1500cc). So the replacement would need to be just as spacious as ADO17, but more modern and ‘European’ looking. Thanks to Austin-Morris’s numerous existing front wheel drive platforms, and its distinguished record in this sphere, early plans to use rear wheel drive were soon abandoned. ADO17’s chassis, engine and transmission package was duly enlisted, and an entry level E-Series aspirated model proposed, with the benefit of the Maxi’s five-speed gearbox. To partner this, the E6 power unit from the top Land Crab would get a five speeder too.

The car was duly given an Austin Drawing Office number – ADO17 – and a name, Diablo. Harris Mann’s early 1969 drawings must have looked stunning at the time, and obviously resonated with the planners’ intentions for the new car, as he was quickly asked to start work on ‘productionising’ them. By November 1970 the design department had produced a full-sized clay model which showed off his trademark ‘flourishes’. The Italian sportscar wedge, so beloved of Giugaro, was obvious, complete with its low nose and high raked ‘fastback’ rear end. Neat aerodynamic touches abounded, like the Rover P6-style concealed windscreen wipers and a raised section at the rear of the roofline which added downforce. Intriguingly, there was also a hatchback rear end, which eventually appeared on the Ambassador over a decade later. Aside from being aerodynamically sound, the new shape afforded excellent interior room and good crashworthiness. It was such a success that the final design was signed off in December.

Thus began a range of decisions which took the Princess to market. The single carburettored E-Series engine was dropped because of supply problems and lack of power, and the B-series chosen instead. This would make for an easy transition to the forthcoming O-series power units. It was also decided not to offer the hatchback, because it wasn’t thought in keeping with the sector the car was selling to. This is a fascinating contrast to the Rover SD1 project, being developed at the same time by Rover-Triumph, whose designer David Bache saw the ‘fastback’ body as an asset. It’s also likely that Austin-Morris was worried about threatening Maxi sales, too.

Charles Griffin was charged with chassis development, and wasted no time in opting for a similar suspension system to that found in the Allegro and Maxi. All four wheels were independently sprung with interconnected Hydragas spheres front and rear. The front upper and lower suspension arms and rear radius arms pivoted on rubber bushes, and springing was achieved by compression of either nitrogen or hydrogen gas housed in the upper chamber of the suspension units. Damping came courtesy of flow restricting valves between the front and rear suspension units.

Interestingly, he also chose wide, low profile tyres on narrow wheel rims running at unusually low pressures, to compliment the car’s soft spring rates. The result was near-Citroen CX levels of ride and handling, which was no small feat. Wind tunnel testing gave a c.d. of 0.404, an excellent figure for the time, and a testament to the inherent rightness of Harris Mann’s wedge profile. The body also offered almost identical legroom front and rear to its cavernous ADO17 predecessor.

The car was launched on March 26th 1975 as the ‘18-22 Series’. Sold in Austin, Morris and Wolseley Guises, the various cars were differentiated by their front nose treatments and trim levels. This was curious – especially remembering Donald Stokes’ proclamation that the company would no longer enter into the practice of badge engineering, but has its own ‘twisted’ logic. The fact was that British Leyland still ran separate Austin and Morris franchises at the time, and because the Marina replacement was still many years away, it was obvious the dealers would need something to sell!

The new 18-22 was clearly an Austin (with its front wheel drive Land Crab/Maxi DNA) but this would have left Morris dealers at a real disadvantage, so it was sold through both Austin and Morris dealers jointly. The Ryder report – with its dictate for a “single, unified” car company soon put a stop to this, though. In September 1975 the 18-22 Series was renamed the Princess and the Wolseley marque was killed off. Indeed, “Princess” would become a brand in itself – something it manifestly failed to do. Rather, it became commonly known as the Leyland Princess.

Appropriately enough then, the dreaded build quality issues reared their ugly head soon on, and the car fast developed a reputation for unreliability. To the loyal British taxpayer it was galling – in the Princess, Triumph TR7, Rover SD1 and Jaguar XJS the British giant had four of the best cars of their types in the world, all of which were torpedoed by shoddy assembly quality and finish. Stories of collapsing suspension and driveshaft failures plagued the Princess.

The quality was sorted – belatedly – but by then the damage was done. Unlike its ADO17 predecessor, the Princess received a raft of detail improvements through its production life, the most important of which was the O-Series engine for which it was originally designed. Available in 1.7 and 2.0L sizes, along with the ancient 2227cc E6 transverse in-line six, the range offered a decent choice between reasonable economy and fair pace. Even the 2.2 version was far from fast, though, thanks to its heavy body. The slippery wedge shape helped its top gear acceleration times, but it was still a good way behind its Ford and Vauxhall rivals.

In truth, this really wasn’t the point. The Princess’s talents lay in its amazingly generous interior space – better than today’s BMW 7 Series – and extremely relaxed cruising abilities. Although no tarmac shredding road burner, the six cylinder car was incredibly smooth, quiet and totally unflustered at motorway speeds – by comparison, even BMW and Merc sixes weren’t obviously more comfortable. Only cars of the Citroen CX, Rover SD1 and Jaguar XJ6 ilk were appreciably better, and these were far more expensive.

Throughout its life, the Princess received a range of reviews, all complimenting its grace and space, but lamenting its (lack of) pace. Another recurring theme was the absence of a hatchback. Ironically, the 1976 Rover SD1 transformed the executive sector by offering a stylish body with the practicality of an estate car – so, from very early on in its life there was no longer any excuse for the Princess not to have one. This point was constantly reiterated by the motoring press, finally prompting the new ‘Austin-Rover’ group into action in 1980 when work was begun on a replacement.

After 186,000 Princesses, the Austin Ambassador appeared in March 1982, surprising many with the extent of the modifications. Far more than a ‘Princess 3’, it had every body panel changed (save the outer front door skins), structural changes to facilitate the tailgate and an appropriately anonymous, blockish new nose. A lower bonnet line (due to it no longer having to accommodate the six cylinder engine) gave it better aerodynamics, but lost the neat concealed wipers, while the extra window in the C-post lost some of the original’s sporty, Italianate look. Worst of all, the interior lost its classy and characterful dashboard for a nasty corporate BL item that hinted at the miseries of the Maestro that was soon to follow. It was undoubtedly more practical, but overall a far less charming car.

Worse still, after 43,500 units, the Ambassador was discontinued in 1984 for an even less endearing machine, the Austin Montego. It’s a testament to the brilliance of the original 1969 design that the Princess was a far more radical, dramatic and charismatic design than the car that finally replaced it some fifteen years later. Tragically, it’s yet another ‘what could have been’ story from our last nationalised car maker. Every time 1970s Leyland Cars are mentioned, it’s a case of ‘brilliant design, terrible execution’, and the 18-22 Princess is no exception.

Both of Harris Mann’s famous wedges – the Princess and the Triumph TR7 – enjoy very strong, safe bodyshells of all steel welded construction. The Princess and Princess 2 have 4 doors with a capacious rear boot, whereas the Ambassador is an extensively re-designed 5 door hatchback that’s slightly longer. Both models boast superb interior space thanks to the use of transversely mounted engines and that famous wedge shape. Princess trim levels varied from low rent to very plush – the original base models had vinyl seats, whereas the Wolseley and 2200HLS models were a sea of velour and wood.

A range of engines was used, from the 4 cylinder 1,798cc B-series OHV with five crankshaft main bearings and single SU carburettor (as found in the MGB and Marina), to the 2227cc in line 6 E-series with seven crankshaft main bearings, chain driven overhead camshaft, twin SU carburettors. Both had a compression ratio of 9:1. Most Princess 2 models and all Ambassadors used the 4 cylinder O-series with five main bearing crankshaft, and belt driven overhead camshaft in 1700cc or 1994cc capacities and a single SU carb. A choice of four speed manual or three speed automatic transmissions completes the picture. All are reliable if serviced properly, and give between 24-32 mpg depending on engine size and driving style.

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