Leyland Princess (1974 – 1980)


Here we have it, another contender for one of the worst cars ever made thanks to the good folks at British Leyland, another one of those mighty cars like the Allegro that promised so much but delivered so litte. I am of course talking about the undeluded horror that is simply the Leyland Princess.

The Austin 2200, distinguishable by its block light clusters.

But again, I must ask, is it really as bad as people make it out to be?

In an attempt to claw back what little innovation they had left, British Leyland decided to go back to a previous idea and toy with the fitting of Hydragas suspension to its cars, their prior attempt being with the Austin 1100. Hydrolastic suspension (as it was previously known) is basically an attempt by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) to give their cars the smoothest of rides in order to compete with the likes of the Citroen DX. Hydrolastic comprised of the following ingredients:

– 49% alcohol
– 49% distilled water
– 1% triethanolamine phosphate
– 1% sodium mercaptobenzothiazole

British Leyland later developed Hydragas from this original concept, using displaced spheres of Nitrogen gas to replace the conventional steel springs of a regular suspension design. The means for pressurising the gas in the displacers is done by pre-pressurising a

The Morris 2200 differed by way of a different grille and appropriate bonnet alterations.

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.

It was a brilliant concept, and the ride was indeed smooth and comfortable, but let’s not forget that British Leyland built these cars. The terrible quality of the spheres and pipework that contained the hydraulic fluid meant that the Hydragas solution would always leak, meaning that the car would start to lean, or practically capsize completely, rendering the car undrivable.

Marry these problems with a car designed by a group of people who obviously never met

The luxury Wolseley Saloon, the last product of the illustrious company.

and powered by an engine that was already 5 years out of date, and you have a match made in Hell.

The Princess however proved quite a popular buy in it’s first year, but by 1976 the writing was on the wall as people turned to the far more reliable and popular alternatives. Like many other British Leyland designs, cars built during strike periods were particularly poor, missing components, suffering from faults in the electrics or mechanical failure.

Eventually, after several relaunches, the Princess was replaced by the Austin Ambassador and construction ceased in 1981. Today it is near impossible to find variations of the Princess as by the time 1980 came around most of them were long outdated and practically worthless. If they hadn’t rusted away by 1985, they had succumb to the failures of the Hydragas suspension, and since Hydragas components are increasingly hard to come by, replenishing the stock was difficult.

The version depicted here is one of the initial three versions dubbed either the Morris, Austin or Wolseley 1800 and 2200, the only things differentiating them from one another was the trim specifications, the radiator grill and the light cluster layout.

The rear of the Princess range was often considered its least flattering angle.

The Wolseley 18-22, sometimes referred to as the Saloon, was the top of the range model, embellished with chrome and with a much more plush interior, and, if I’m honest, it’s my favourite version of the Princess range as it was a very good car, despite its faults. Mixed with some very smooth upholstry combined with the soft Hydragas suspension, this car was indeed one of British Leyland’s top machines. Even the Wolseley badge lit up with the headlights! However, production only lasted from March to September 1975, in which time only 19,000 examples were built. After this the range was named the Leyland Princess, and thus the proud name of Wolseley disappeared into the history books.

Side note, I was in discussion with the owner of this Saloon and the Morris 1800 behind, and was able to procure information about a certain episode carried out by Top Gear a few years back, and a bit of fraudulancy on their part. Apparently the gentlmen (who is the founder of the Leyland Princess website) owns several Princesses, and was approached by the BBC in 2008 for purchase of one of the cars to be used in the British Leyland challenge episode. 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 oblidged, thus afterwards the BBC crew let the pressure down on the Princess so as to give the impression that the car had been poorly built and the Hydragas had leaked, resulting in

A late Princess 1800, noted by its four circle headlights.

its prominent lean throughout the episode.

Additionally, the gentleman also asked whether or not he would 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”, and thus the car, after being filled with water and covered in egg, now resides in the Beaulieu National Motor Museum along with 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!