Here we have it, yet another contender for one of the worst cars ever made thanks to British Leyland. In the same vein as the horrendous Austin Allegro and the dreary Morris Marina, this car promised so much but delivered very little, and became yet another nail in the coffin of our motor industry. I am of course talking about the indescribable horror that is simply the Leyland Princess.
But again, I must ask, is the Princess really as horrible as we remember it?
To trace this model range, you need to go back to the late 1960’s, where the then British Motor Corporation (BMC) attempted to emulate the unparalleled comfort and sophistication of the pioneering hydraulic-based suspension system used by the French car builder, Citroën. Hydropneumatic, or oléopneumatique, suspension was the brainchild of Citroën lead designer Paul Magès, and was predicated on the use of spheres filled with a nitrogen-based hydraulic fluid that would keep the car level through the compression of the fluid within the spheres. The result was a near flawless ride quality that had soon become a staple of high-end and luxury cars across the world.
Though it was first introduced partially on the 1954 Traction Avant 15H, it wasn’t until the creation of the legendary DS of 1955 that pretty much all systems within the car, including the suspension, power steering, brakes and gearbox/clutch were powered by hydraulics. Its success took the motoring world by storm, and soon major European car builders, including Rolls-Royce and Maserati, were implementing license-built versions of the Citroën system on their own models.
BMC, however, felt they could go one better by designing their own version of hydraulically powered suspension, this being dubbed Hydrolastic suspension. Hydrolastic suspension differed from the Citroën system by using alternate ingredients to form the hydraulic fluid, comprising instead of:
– 49% alcohol
– 49% distilled water
– 1% triethanolamine phosphate
– 1% sodium mercaptobenzothiazole
Hydrolastic suspension was first implemented on the Austin 1100, and was a fairly successful addition to this already charming little machine. However, following the merger of the UK’s main car builders to form British Leyland, the engineering team felt that the design could be improved further.
The result was dubbed Hydragas, a system which considered the use of nitrogen gas to fill the hydraulic spheres instead of an inert liquid composition. The means for pressurising the gas in the displacers was done by pre-pressurising a hydraulic fluid and then connecting the displacer to its neighbour on the other axle. This is unlike the Citroën system, which uses hydraulic fluid continuously pressurised by an engine-driven pump and regulated by a central pressure vessel.
This is where the Princess comes in.
In order to replace the 11 year old BMC AD017 range of large family cars, affectionately dubbed the ‘Landcrab’, British Leyland intended to build a machine of similar size but would be updated for the 1970’s, including the addition of the Hydragas system. BL chief designer Harris Mann, who had also penned the Allegro, was called in to design a futuristic machine that was largely reminiscent of the original Allegro concept drawings (before they were butchered by the management).
Coming under the codename ‘Diablo’, the car’s appearance was nothing short of striking; with a long, streamlined exterior, while internally it was fitted with a dashboard that was to be ergonomic and intelligently planned for ease of use. If anything, it looked less like a 1970’s family saloon and more like something out of Thunderbirds!
However, Mann’s optimistic ideas for the 18-22 sadly never made it beyond the concept stage, as BL management were quick to trim many of the revolutionary ideas down in order to fit their ever tightening budget. The ‘Wedge’ design was gradually altered to make it look less streamlined and more like a block of cheese, but the most damning design choice of all was the failure to fit a hatchback to the streamlined rear of the car; instead opting for a pathetically small boot. Mann had originally designed the 18-22 to be a hatchback, but the BL management, in their infinite wisdom, decided there should only be one hatchback in their model range, and that space was already filled by the Austin Maxi.
At least the engines were right.
In order to provide a car with more power and performance than the somewhat wheezy B-Series engine used on the outgoing Landcrab, engines comprised several versions of the BMC E-Series engine; with the base model fitted with the same 1.7L engine used in the Allegro, while top of the range models used the higher power 2.2L powerplant fitted to the Australian version of the outgoing Landcrab, the Austin Kimberley. The results, on the 2.2L, was a 0-60 of 11.8 seconds and a top speed of only 105mph; fairly standard performance for family cars of the time.
However, confusion kicked off in earnest by the time the car approached its launch. On its initial release, the car was available under three of the marques which had fallen into British Leyland’s clutches as part of the 1968 merger; Morris (18-22), Austin (18-22), and Wolseley (Saloon). Austin models differed from the Wolseley and Morris examples by the fitting of block headlights (instead of quad-round headlights), and the lack of a large chrome grille and corresponding bonnet hump. The grilles of the Morris and Wolseley models differed, but the fact that they didn’t suit the car’s streamlined profile remained the same. The Wolseley Saloon was the luxury version of the car, fitted with velour upholstery, the traditional light-up Wolseley badge, and was only available with a 2.2L Inline-6 engine.
Nevertheless, this new range of cars entered sales in March 1975, but even before the first examples had arrived at the showroom there were massive problems.
Production was carried out at the former Morris factory in Cowley near Oxford, and this gained national notoriety as a plant that refused to do anything it was told. By 1975, BL were in dire straights as militant unions and frequent strikes crippled the company. This industrial unrest was arguably the most prominent at Cowley, where a strike between January and February of that year disrupted production for four weeks. Stoppages, however, were the least of the 18-22’s worries. The malcontent workforce and their belligerent nature meant that the quality of these brand new models was utterly abhorrent, especially with regard to the Hydragas suspension.
Hydragas had first made its debut on the Austin Allegro, and proved to be a brilliant concept, resulting in a smooth and comfortable ride akin to contemporary Rolls-Royces. However, while the idea worked well on paper, the realities of British Leyland’s hopeless build quality meant that the Hydragas system never truly worked. Due to the poor build of the spheres and pipework, the Hydragas solution would often leak, resulting in the car taking on a notable lean that rendered it practically undriveable.
Regardless, early press reviews of the 18-22 were fairly warm, considering the car satisfactory at most, but nothing particularly revolutionary. However, in the fullness of time, criticisms of pretty much every aspect of the 18-22 range came in thick and fast. The first major bone of contention was the styling, which was considered innovative at best and horrendous at worst. Although the car had made it to production largely resembling its original concept (unlike the earlier Allegro), it was still lambasted; particular criticism aimed at the fact that it wasn’t a hatchback. Issues regarding the performance and pricing were also raised, the 18-22 being notably slower than much of the competition, including the likes of the Ford Consul 2500L and the Fiat 123GLS, while being significantly higher in both cost and fuel consumption.
Either way, the 18-22 was now in production…
…and then it wasn’t.
On April 18th, 1975, only a month after launch, all production at Cowley came to a grinding halt when 2,700 workers marched out on strike; the reasons being the management’s decision to curtail production of the Morris Marina range by introducing a four-day working week at some parts of the plant. The result was nearly 5,000 workers, both directly and indirectly employed by BL, being sacked, and production of both the Marina and the 18-22 stopped for four days. Further strikes throughout mid-1975, including a strike at the Dunlop factory in May and another strike at the BL Component Parts factory in July, only served to hamper both the quality of the car and its chances at selling in adequate numbers.
However, the main problem that the 18-22 faced, and one that was hurting its sales most of all, was the fact that it was available under three different marques for no discernible reason. It had been 7 years since the formation of BL, but the company continued to insist on maintaining the marques of those companies which had been merged to form it, partially done to try and avoid the wrath of the unions if attempts were made to discontinue the larger Austin or Morris marques.
Eventually, BL got the idea and decided to unify Austin and Morris dealerships; effective September 1975. The rebranding saw the discontinuation of both the Wolseley Saloon (which had only been in production for 6 months) and the Wolseley brand itself; bringing an end to one of Britain’s most cherished car marques. As for the 18-22 overall, this was renamed the Princess, available as the Princess 1800 and the Princess 2200. Contrary to popular belief, the car was not sold in the UK as the Austin Princess; that term being used in an official capacity only in New Zealand. In Britain, the car was sold as as the Leyland Princess, though it was almost unanimously referred to as just the Princess.
However, a change in name did nothing to solve the ongoing industrial action that was plaguing the car’s already poor reputation. In October 1975, only one month after the launch of the Princess, 2,500 assembly workers were sacked after calling a 24-hour strike, while in November, following the installation of safety barriers, the complaint of just one man, who felt his work was being made more difficult by the presence of these barriers, resulted in 300 night shift workers being laid off. Stoppages at Cowley were seemingly never ending, and put the Princess on the front pages of Britain’s newspapers for all the wrong reasons. This, coupled with the car’s utterly woeful reliability and build quality, saw its sales plummet within the space of only a few years.
Attempts to reinvigorate interest through a 1978 facelift, with the car now being dubbed the Princess 2, fell flat on their face; probably due to the fact that they still didn’t fit the car with a rear hatch. In fact, by the end of the 1970’s, many independent mechanics had started a service to help convert people’s Princesses into the hatchbacks they were rightfully meant to be. A variety of other concepts also failed to make it to production, including the Vanden Plas 2200, a luxury model built in the same vein as the Allegro-based Vanden Plas 1800 whereby a small shopping car was fitted with a huge chrome nose and given interior refinements, such as leather seats, walnut upholstery and rear picnic tables, carried over from the Jaguar XJ. There was also a sporty variant with a strange overall glass roof known as the Triplex 10/20 Glassback, but this was more a demonstrator vehicle for the then-new Triplex safety glass.
The writing was on the wall for the car, and after a major company reorganisation under the leadership of Sir Michael Edwardes, following the bankruptcy and nationalisation of BL in 1975, the Princess range was slated (along with the Marina and Allegro) as a poor performing model in desperate need of replacement. The result was the ongoing development of the ‘M-Car’ project; which would eventually come to fruition in the form of the Metro supermini, the Maestro family hatchback, and the Montego saloon. In the meantime, BL was in full damage-control mode, and thus the M-Car project (with the exception of the Metro) was pushed back to at least 1983 so as to conserve funds. For the interim, BL elected to replace the Princess range with a facelifted version called the Austin Ambassador in 1981.
The Ambassador was essentially the same car, though it saw a size increase and was finally fitted with that much needed rear hatch to give it the practicality it deserved. However, the car’s lack of refinement and internal equipment, combined with the ongoing issues of build quality and reliability, made it a sales catastrophe. The Ambassador would hold the fort until 1984, after which the Montego was finally launched and the 9 year old 18-22 Hydragas range could be put out to pasture.
Today, the Princess is seen as a completely worthless car. By the middle of the 1980’s most had been sent to the scrap heap, and by the 1990’s the number of survivors were dwindling. Of the 224,000 examples produced, only 46 are known to still be licensed on the UK roads, though there may be a few still roaming the streets of New Zealand; the only nation this car was exported to.
The car has, however, seen some media attention as of late. In the BBC sitcom Terry and June, the eponymous couple owned a 1976 Princess 1800, while in the Long Good Friday, corrupt Police Chief Parky drives a 1978 Princess 2 1700. It’s the car’s appearance in a 2008 episode of Top Gear, however, that has really brought these machines back into the public consciousness.
In this episode, commemorating the 40th anniversary of British Leyland’s formation, the trio attempt to prove that BL made a good car by buying three cheap cars (with their own money!) and subjecting them to a series of challenges. Clarkson ends up with a 1981 Rover SD1, Hammond with a 1974 Triumph Dolomite Sprint, and May with a 1978 Princess 2200. While the car is mocked constantly for being slow, looking like a block of cheese, and for showing a noticeable lean due to an apparent Hydragas leak (more on that later), the Princess proves itself to be the winner overall; truly British Leyland’s greatest car (apparently!).
With regard to the car’s prominent slant, this wasn’t because of poor build quality as the show suggests. Apparently, the gentleman who owned this particular Princess (and who is also the founder of the Leyland Princess enthusiasts website) was approached by the BBC in 2008 for the purchase of one of his many 18-22 models for use in the show. The BBC, however, made a point of asking him how to release pressure from the Hydragas so the suspension would be lowered, to which he obligingly instructed them. As such, the BBC crew released the pressure in one of the spheres in order to give the impression that what was otherwise a perfectly restored and well looked after machine was in fact a bucket of bolts with a faulty Hydragas system. Furthermore, the gentleman in question asked whether or not he’d be able to get his Princess back after the filming of the episode, to which the BBC replied; “After we’re finished with it, you really won’t want it back.” Therefore, after the car had been filled with water and covered in egg throughout the course of the episode, it eventually ended up at the Beaulieu National Motor Museum; where it now resides alongside many other weird and wonderful Top Gear inventions.
Not a particularly important side note, but just something of general interest for all you British Leyland car buffs like me!
Overall, the Leyland Princess, like many other British Leyland concepts, was one built with an interesting premise that was sadly eclipsed by the company’s utterly abysmal worker relations. In spite of the flaws endemic to the car itself, its controversial styling, confusing use of badge engineering and its lack of a rear hatch could be forgiven with the fullness of time. However, what was truly unforgivable was the utterly terrible build quality and reliability issues. The Princess was built at the wrong time by the wrong people; a lamentable workforce who spent more time sabotaging their own employment instead of building cars.
If thing’s had gone according to plan, the Princess, at most, would’ve been a run of the mill family saloon that would likely have been forgotten in the same way few people remember the Ford Consul or Renault 12. However, it’s the car’s attempt at being revolutionary combined with its dreadfully turbulent production life that help cement this machine’s place as one of the worst cars ever built in British automotive history.
- Looks – 4/10 – While it looks futuristic from some angles, the car is neither handsome nor endearing (at least it wasn’t butchered as much as the Allegro)
- Comfort – 7/10 – Rear legroom’s a touch constrained, but when the Hydragas suspension does work properly it truly lives up to its name
- Practicality – 3/10 – The car is able to seat five, but its terrible bootspace is what lets it down
- Features – 2/10 – Aside from the Hydragas suspension, it’s very limited in terms of internal goodies
- Reliability – 1/10 – The reason for its infamy
- Efficiency – 5/10 – 20mpg is reasonable for a car of its size
- Quality – 1/10 – Shambolic at best; indescribable at worst
- Speed – 2/10 – 0-60 comes in 11.8 seconds and it’ll only do 105mph
- Handling – 3/10 – It wallows and rolls around corners with the precision of a drunken elephant
- Price – 10/10 – Being such a derided car means its always a cheap pickup
- Value – 1/10 – Only enthusiasts or motoring masochists would willingly submit themselves to the will of the Princess
- Total – 39/110 – Unlike its namesake, the Princess is not a regal machine. At least it’s better than the Allegro and the Marina!