Bad marketing and low power kept the Princess off the motoring throne, says Keith Adams

During the Golden Jubilee celebrations in London on 4 June 2002, that most misunderstood of Princesses finally came face to face with her Queen. A pristine 2200 HLS, vibrant in orange, rolled up the Mall on the back of an AA truck - and half a billion people experienced a snapshot moment that said it all about our car industry in the 1970s.

But was it right to lambast the Princess in such a way? After all, when it was launched in 1975 this sleek, wedgy marvel was considered the pinnacle of British Leyland's achievements. It had so much going for it - keen steering, acres of room, smooth, soft Hydragas suspension and confidence-inspiring front-wheel drive handling.

Sadly, the answer is yes, because as good as the Princess's design was, flawed engineering and slack production meant that many who wanted to make a statement about themselves by buying one ended up being badly stung by the experience.

When it was launched, it wasn't a Princess at all. Summing up the confusion that reigned within BL at the time, the car was actually called the 18-22 Series, and came in Austin, Morris and ultra-plush Wolseley forms.

The marketing may have been confused, but the message the car conveyed certainly wasn't. It was a bold and confident design, fitting perfectly into the brave new world that also brought us the Triumph TR7, Austin Allegro and (soon) the Rover SD1. Buyers clamoured for the new car, and at the time many considered it a design masterpiece.

Harris Mann created his wedge in 1970, under the code name Diablo, and had set out to produce a car as roomy as its Tardis-like predecessor (the BMC 1800/2200), but with a better driving position, improved under-bonnet access and a larger boot. He also wanted it to be exceptionally stylish, as it would be expected to compete against the cream of the European two-litre class - and in all those aims he hit the target square on.

The Princess was roomy and safe, and rode and handled like no other car in its class. Top-of-the-range models came with an inline six-cylinder engine smoother than silk. In Wolseley form it had all the luxury you'd ever need - and a bit more besides. From the moment it was unleashed, people referred to it as the Wedge, and although the two-box fastback shape was deeply fashionable in the mid-Seventies, its nose-down stance took the concept a stage further. The stubby tail hinted at a hatchback - and if Harris had got his own way, the Princess would have received one.

However, the Princess story quickly went sour. In a recurring BL theme of the time, bits fell off. Quality wasn't as bad as it had been in the Allegro, partly because the Princess was a much more solid design, but there were still niggles. The workforce at the Cowley factory had been demotivated by years of union-led strikes, and as a result the Princess lacked any of the care and attention that an executive-class purchaser expected in his new car.

The first signs of marketing panic showed themselves in September 1975, just six months after its launch. The Austin, Morris and Wolseley marque names were dropped, and from that point on, all models would be known only by the Princess name. People became confused - was it an Austin, a Leyland, or what? Wolseley fans quietly mourned - the introduction of the Princess saw their marque finally shuffle off this mortal coil.

But Princess sales didn't meet expectations. BL continuously tinkered with it to make things more palatable, but the addition of 1.7- and 2.0-litre O-Series engines in the 1978 Princess 2 didn't register on the radar. An upturn in quality was also ignored by buyers who had already been scared off by the many tales of woe associated with anything BL.

There are probably plenty of reasons why people stopped buying Princesses. Most potential buyers would have been pushy sales reps, constantly late for their next meeting - and the Princess was far too stately and relaxed to cut it in the fast lane of the M1 against 2.0-litre Cortinas and Cavaliers. In 2,000cc form, it put out a miserable 93bhp, and no self-respecting area manager would get out of bed for less than 100bhp.

There was also the continuing ineffectiveness of the marketing team: if you found yourself perusing a Princess brochure in 1978, the major strapline on the cover was "Princess: Better Than Average".

As if that wasn't lame enough, the image of a stricken Princess, bonnet up, recovery services in attendance, was used to sell the advantages of BL's extended warranty known as Supercover. What kind of message was that? Then, in 1982, the Princess had a facelift. She was given a hatchback and endured the indignity of a sex change to become the Ambassador. This meant that all the car's character and essence was squeezed out - a case of hello rationality, goodbye personality. Does anyone actually remember seeing one on the road?

Today, none of that matters. The Princess has a small but enthusiastic following, and if you take a drive in one, it is easy to see why. It rides like a limousine, feels safe and sure on the road, and has a ridiculous amount of legroom for a car so compact in length. But, more important than that, it looks like nothing else on the road - and for anyone under the age of 25, untainted by all of BL's negative publicity, the Princess will be an object of curiosity, simply because it looks so cool.

The Queen may have laughed inwardly at the sight of that wounded Princess strapped to the back of an AA truck, but you can bet that William and Harry were impressed.

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