The older you get, the more there’s temptation to try and forget about birthdays, and I  quite understand why you might prefer to forget this one: the British Leyland Princess range is celebrating its 40th birthday this year. 

Yet revisiting a difficult birth at one of the most turbulent times in British motor industry history reveals the Princess as a determined survivor – in the face of ineptitude, financial crises, three name changes inside 10 years, and – in its first year of existence – having the misfortune take the leading role in the swansong of one of Britain’s most famous car marques. 

By the standards of the conglomerate which produced it, the Princess is unusual in having only one predecessor, just one close and short lived descendant – and no real successor. Its unmistakeable style sprang from the drawing board of one Harris Mann, a key player in BLMC car styling as the 1960’s moved into the 1970’s. 

His career had begun as an apprenticed draughtsman at coachbuilding firm Duple, encompassed time with Raymond Loewy associates in the US, national service, and Ford in the 1960’s – before moving to BLMC’s Cowley drawing office. 

After early work on the aborted ADO74 Mini replacement, other project work included the car that became the Morris Marina, and the Allegro, which we’ll leave for another day.

Somewhere in between was Zanda… a stylishly sporty coupé, built as a motor show concept car in GRP, demonstrating computer aided design capability at BLMC subsidiary Pressed Steel Fisher. 

Essentially, Zanda was Harris Mann’s take on the likely future direction of 1970’s car design, featuring a low front and appealingly smooth, wedge shaped side profile. Its striking style led to a series of sketches for a saloon based version, known initially as project Diablo, and later, officially as ADO71. By 1971 a full sized clay styling buck existed, its distinct wedge profile already clearly recognisable as the outline of the car which entered the showrooms after a fraught development process on 26 March 1975.

Conceived as a replacement for the ageing Alec Issigonis designed ‘Landcrab’ Austin Morris 1800 and 2200 range and its Wolseley luxury derivative, BLMC anticipated much growth in this larger car sector, so the new range was pushed upmarket. At launch all models carried ’18-22 series’ badging, with Austin and Morris marques offered in three trim levels, with available options including power steering and Dunlop Denovo run-flat tyres. 

Initially a unique luxury Wolseley version headed the range, but after just six months on sale, in September 1975, the Wolseley marque was abandoned. 

Coinciding with this, the Princess name was adopted across the range, though Austin and Morris nameplates carried on elsewhere.

Power units proved an Achilles heel of this range: with no other suitable engines available, the brand new car was launched with its predecessors’ faithful but elderly 1800cc B-series engines and four speed transmissions – with the Wolseley getting the corresponding earlier E series 6-cylinder unit. Throughout its life, press and indeed buyers were critical of relatively modest performance, a problem compounded by a particularly vague and often irritatingly obstructive gearchange. Soon after launch a round of old BLMC chestnuts began surfacing, with early cars displaying achingly familiar issues with quality, fit, finish and reliability. 

These problems received attention for Series 2 versions, available from Autumn 1978, complete with new ‘O series’ engines, which in a masterpiece of mis-timing, were  still in development when the car was originally launched.

But reputational damage was done, sales were suffering, and unanswered questions remained. Where was the five speed gearbox… and why was such a space efficient car, its wedge-like style seemingly custom made for a hatchback, offered only as a 4-door saloon with such awkward boot access? 

Harris Mann is on record saying the design was conceived as a hatchback: still today theories abound over quite what happened here, with the success of the mid-1970’s Renault 16 showing the market wanted improved flexibility. 

The 18-22 and Princess thus appear as yet another entry in the still-definitive BL handbook of ways to snatch car sales defeat from the jaws of obvious victory. 

If there are valid mitigating circumstances, this was a car born when the corporation was staring into the abyss of financial ruin, and produced during the years which encapsulated the most troubled depths of BL’s entire existence.

Perhaps the cost of incorporating a complex reinforced rear structure with tailgate simply fell foul of strait-jacketed bean-counters.

The work was eventually undertaken, and in March 1982 a hatchback finally appeared on the new Austin Ambassador… a surprisingly well-executed re-take on the Princess theme – but by then up against strong competition. Commentators suggested this was the car the Princess should always have been – albeit now far too late. The ageing six cylinder engine was not offered, but a new Vanden Plas derivative headed the four model range, echoing the old Wolseley traditions. Production ended in 1984 having plugged a two year gap until the delayed Austin Maestro and Montego were both on sale.

This time the bean counters must have been resting: with just 43,425 sold, the Ambassador surely never recovered its development costs. 

One other memorable, edgy and sometimes maligned design was created by Mann at BL, the TR7 sports car. Despite a troubled manufacturing history, with 114,512 examples built, this is the most successful Triumph sports car ever. 

He also worked on the Maestro and Montego, before leaving the company in 1983 for a successful freelance career encompassing everything from ERF lorries to channel Tunnel locomotives. 

The Oxford Mail reported that Harris Mann, now 76, attended the Princess 40th birthday celebrations earlier this year at BMW’s plant Oxford, just across the road from the now redeveloped Cowley site which built over 267,000 Princess and Ambassador models. 

Not many remain today – just 11 examples were on show for the crowd which gathered there to mark the car’s fortieth  anniversary.

References Project Zanda is a glass reinforced plastic buck, and is an exhibit at  the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust, Heritage Motor Centre, Banbury Road, Gaydon, CV35 0BJThe Princess’ Wikipedia entry is here 

This is an owners club site. Much of the background to the Princess story can be found here, including the development story, notes on the Ambassador, and information on the work of Harris Mann. A book on the Princess can also be purchased. The site contains links to other sources of information on the car, its production and its designer. 

This is another owners club site, with plenty of pictures of the cars and some original brochures…www. 

A report on the 40th Birthday celebrations at BMW Plant Oxford is here: 

There were also reports on the 40th anniversary in the Daily Telegraph on 27th March and 4th April, and in Autocar magazine on March 27th 2015  This website can be searched to find how many of any particular marque/model are still licensed for British road use. It makes depressing reading in many cases….This link takes you to the Ambassador page, where it shows a total of 16 cars remaining licensed in 2015 – thats just 0.0036% of those built…

Dave Moss
Dave Moss

Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.

Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…

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