Back then, I was a mere nipper, not even of secondary school age. However, because my father ran a Ford agency, I was nevertheless very interested in motor cars. I had all the brochures so I could compare notes! When the Austin (18-22) Princess "wedge" was introduced by the Austin-Morris division of British Leyland, we were keen to see what all the fuss and hype was about. It was on the 26th March 1975 that the world first beheld the 18-22 Series when it was unveiled to a largely unprepared world. I first saw the new Princess at a BL showroom in Colwyn Bay (M&K Motors - Meredith & Kirkham). I recall seeing a green one and a 'Blaze' (orange) example. I remember how soft and comfortable the seats were. They were lovely. How I wished I could drive but I was only eleven years old!
The 18-22 Series was usually referred to as the Wolseley, the Princess or following a bit of gender realignment and a hefty demotion from the heady ranks of Royalty, the Princess became a mere Ambassador. At that same time, the Princess also went through a bit of a Shrekish metamorphosis and ended up looking decidedly uglier than its initial incarnation.
Sadly, the Austin Princess tends to be tarred by the same brush as the Austin Allegro and the Morris Marina. These models are often held up as prime examples of the worst cars ever produced by Britain’s beleaguered 1970's motor industry. But the good old 'wedge' did differ from these somewhat infamous models especially if we momentarily park up any Brit-bashing biases. Closer scrutiny reveals that the Austin Princess was actually a rather nice car.
In 1977, Autocar rated the six-cylinder 2200 HLS as one of the finest cars it had put through its testing regime that year. Autocar discovered that the Princess held up well against its immediate rivals, such as the Ford Granada despite the big Ford's enduring popularity. Compared to the Princess, the Ford offering looked and indeed felt somewhat dated. The Princess' strengths were copious interior spaciousness, sublime ride comfort, road holding, quality interior furnishings and an air of general refinement. But of course, the gremlins came free of charge in the BL camp.
During an elaborate advertising campaign, Austin/Morris had touted the 18-22 Series as "the car that’s got it all together". Of course, this was an ad line that was bound to tempt fate. It was basically inviting trouble, which duly arrived in the form of failing rear suspension mountings and a hefty appetite for driveshafts. The driveshaft problems resulted in the whole drivetrain being slightly relocated so that the mechanical geometry actually worked in later versions.
I recently took a refreshing new look at these lovely old cars at the annual NEC indoor classic motor show in Birmingham. It turned out to be a surreal experience to find myself once again standing amidst some gleaming examples just like those long ago days with my Dad at the M&K showroom in Colwyn Bay. But nowadays, the Princess is a car we hardly ever see in the flesh anymore and suddenly there were six of them lined up on the specialist stand, including two especially rare Wolseley versions. These were the last cars to sport the famous glowing Wolseley badge on their grills. A couple of the cars were in the process of being extensively and painstakingly restored which was wonderful to see. The efforts of enthusiasts will be well worth it because there's no doubt that these models are now already unbelievably rare.
Like them or lump them, these cars are now fabulous historic icons from a bygone era of motoring. I can scarcely believe it's nearly 50 years since they first saw the light of day because I remember the model so well. Seeing them again is actually quite a heartwarming and even emotional experience for me. They are akin to a sort of time machine that whisk me all the way back to boyhood days. I just loved this experience.
To make the NEC experience even more magical, the Princess enthusiasts had been joined on their stand by the car’s creator, Harris Mann. This is the chap who not only designed the Austin Princess but he also penned the Morris Marina, the Austin Allegro as well as the Triumph TR7. Quite an impressive creative record which has made this incredibly modest gentleman rather famous in the automotive world. Some would describe his designs as being somewhat infamous but as the man himself will always readily point out, by showing us examples of his original blueprints, his plans for the Austin Allegro and the TR7 were markedly different from what BL eventually managed to produce.
Quietly, Mr. Mann declared that the Austin Princess had become his favourite. This is because it's the car that most closely replicates his original design concept. "We simply wanted to take BL into the modern age," he declared. This push towards modernity was clearly demonstrated on the NEC stand with a large photo of an Austin Princess "wedge" parked next to its predecessor, the venerable Austin 1800 'landcrab'. The photograph was taken way back in 1971, no fewer than four years before the 18-22 Princess was launched. In the photo, the Austin 1800 was parked next to a clay model of the Princess, which looked decidedly 'space age' compared to the frumpy old landcrab.
Sadly, as with so many other BL cars, the 18-22 Series was plagued by similar issues which had blighted the company's past models. Like many other BL (and later Austin-Rover cars) the new Princess enjoyed an enthusiastic and positive reception from both the motoring press and the car-buying public. However, three-month-long waiting lists soon grew within just a few weeks of launch. So, the model's promising potential was ruined by a series of destructive strikes which only succeeded to create an even more demoralised workforce that produced cars plagued by quality issues.
All this flack honed yet another BL model a rather poor reputation amidst growing ranks of disgruntled customers already cheesed off as they waited for new cars that simply weren't being produced quickly enough to satisfy the demand.
Sadly, the model never really recovered from all the bad press. I remember Harris Mann telling Princess enthusiasts at the NEC stand that inept BL management had taken far too long to resolve all the issues that confronted the company. It was clear that Mr. Mann had high hopes for all the cars he'd designed but felt that his ambitions were frustrated by the way the company was run.
If you ever get the opportunity to examine some of Harris Mann's sketches, you can see for yourself the disparity between his visions and what BL management and their battalions of bean counters were willing to actually commission. It's thought-provoking stuff. I still feel that here in the UK we squandered our motor industry's excellent potential. And that still perplexes me to this day.
Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring.