This is a 1970 Vanden Plas Princess 1300. It is the luxury derivation of a project called, poetically, the BMC ADO16. “16” stood for the number designation of the project, ADO stood for something I can’t be bothered to remember, and BMC, most importantly, stood for the British Motor Corporation, which later became British Leyland. That’s right, not only are we back in London, but we’re talking about a British car. It’s a wonder it’s taken so long to see a Princess in England (constitutional monarchy joke, check), not only due to my rigorously laid back schedule for writing these posts, but also because they sold a stupid amount of these things.
Perhaps it isn’t so strange though, because, like most British cars, Princesses were prone to some pretty severe rust and reliability issues, which might’ve tempered their ubiquity a bit. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The man who designed the vehicle that eventually became the Princess was named Alec Issigonis, who was famous for drawing the shapes for cars such as the Morris Minor and the original Mini (for which a post is coming in a couple of weeks, I promise). Issigonis actually designed this car around the same transverse engine layout, called the A-series, that was featured in the Mini. Everybody was pretty excited about this car in the time leading up to its launch. So much so, in fact, that Issigonis decided to ignore several prominent potential rust areas (which contributed hugely to the rust issue discussed earlier) in order to get the car to market faster. Anticipating high demand, the British Motor Company started production super early, which of course begged the question of where to store their new product before it went on sale. An answer was settled upon, brilliantly, by leaving the extra cars in a field behind the factory, sometimes for up to two years.
The Princess was introduced with a 1098cc, transversely mounted inline 4 cylinder, and was dubbed the 1100. Now, I mentioned it earlier, but the really interesting part of that last sentence is the “transverse” bit. Imagine that the cylinders your car form a line. Actually, don’t imagine that, it’s true, that is reality. All cars have their cylinders arranged in a line. There are two ways to orient an engine. There’s longitudinal, which, if you paid attention in middle school geography, you know means that the the line of cylinders are parallel to the length of the car. And then there’s transverse, where the line of cylinders are parallel to the width of the car. Here are some pictures of what I’m rambling on about. There are, of course, pros and cons to both, with longitudinal mountings usually finding themselves in high-power, rear-wheel drive cars and transverse setups occupying smaller, more economical front-wheel drive cars, such as the Princess. Transversely mounted engines are also cheaper to manufacture and more space efficient. This Princess has a slightly bigger, twin-carb engine, which was introduced in 1967 and has 1275cc’s (hence the “1300” moniker) of displacement. It developed something like 58 horsepower, which was alright for the time. Nothing special. It was also offered with an automatic gearbox (how fancy!) starting in the same year.
I’m going to do a brief interlude here to talk about that name: Vanden Plas. It’s so decadent. So luxurious. So British, really. The term itself is actually Flemish, disappointingly, and comes from the name a coachbuilding company from 1898 called Carrosserie Van den Plas, who started out making carriage axles. In 1913, the company established an English subsidiary named, in an earth-shattering creativity explosion, Vanden Plas England Ltd. Then, the parent company toppled, and the English subsidiary was renamed Vanden Plas England 1923 Ltd in, um, 1923. The company gained quite the reputation for ultra-luxury cars, an image that they held onto until, well, they didn’t anymore. A World War has a tendency to do that to an economy. In 1967 they officially were bought out by BMC (the British Motor Corporation), where they built things like the Princess and had a pretty close relationship with Jaguar. Some of Vanden Plas’ older vehicles where actually quite pretty, which you can of course read more about here, if you’re so inclined.
Someone in the West Kensingston neighborhood of London drives this car to work everyday. I know this because I
kept them under 24 hour intensive surveillance often walked by this particular street on the way to the Underground station, and the Princess was always in a different space. I bet it’s nice, owning a Vanden Plas, even one from their sell-out phase. In fact, I have a not-totally substantiated theory that this is the car that kicked off the trend of cheap-ish, compact luxury cars, which is a trend I happen to like quite a bit (I’m looking at you, Audi RS2). It combines all the frugality, maneuverability and cheerfulness of a entry-level car with the niceties of a much more expensive one. It makes a weird kind of sense, which is strange for a British car, I know. But don’t worry. It might be Flemish.
- This particular generation of Princess has its rearview mirrors mounted on the front fenders instead of the doors, which is never not awesome.
- Oddly enough, this car has a pretty substantial cult following in Japan. I’m not really sure why.
- The underpinnings of the Princess also were used by other BMC subsidiaries. Namely Austin, Innocenti, MG, Morris, Riley and Wolseley.
- This car, albeit the Austin version, not the Vanden Plas, was featured in one of the most iconic scenes from the very funny Fawlty Towers, which was Monty Python-alum John Cleese’s sitcom in the 1970s. Presented here without context.
- This platform (meaning all the car’s derivatives, not just the Vanden Plas) was on the best-seller list for 10 out of its 12 years of life, a fact which probably gave life to this weirdly passive aggressive ad.