Vanden Plas Princess 1100/1300

Sean O'Grady takes a trip down memory lane in the car of his youthful dreams, the spacious Vanden Plas Princess 1300
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I used to own one of these. In the early 1990s, when I found myself with a £1,000 windfall, I made the fairly irrational decision that I'd buy myself the car of my dreams: a Vanden Plas Princess 1300.

Even then, they were becoming scarce. They had last been made in 1974 and many had fallen victim to corrosion. The best ones were being shipped to Japan where, with the woody Mini Traveller, they have the status of minor Shinto deities.

The car was basically an Austin/Morris 1100, which meant rust traps galore. When Sir Alec Issigonis designed the car and Pininfarina styled it, neither seemed to have considered durability. Sir Alec was interested in maximum space, so the 1100 followed his Mini with front-wheel drive, a wheel at each corner and a "sideways" mounted engine. It was really roomy inside. Pininfarina was just a wonderful stylist who endowed the basic design with neat, pretty and fairly timeless lines. Even 1100s rotten to the core can look deceptively smart on the outside.

Even more so with the Vanden Plas. This was no ordinary 1100. It wasn't even merely an upmarket, relabelled, regrilled 1100 like the Wolseley, MG and Riley versions that were badge-engineered by the old British Motor Corporation soon after its launch in 1962 (the year I was introduced to the world too, as it goes).

No, your basic 1100 was taken from Longbridge to the Vanden Plas coachbuilding works in Kingsbury, north London, where it was properly hand-finished. The little Princesses would be going down the production line alongside their big sisters, the three- and four-litre "R" saloons and the Daimler and Princess limousines.

On went that big Bentley-esque grille, the spot lamps (very expensive to replace nowadays), a superb walnut veneer dash, proper heating, nice carpets, Connolly leather seats and - the winning touch - beautifully cantilevered walnut picnic tables mounted on the back of the front seats. There was a bit of a craze for this sort of "baby Rolls" package in the early 1960s, with Radford and Wood and Pickett putting everything on a Mini that the likes of Peter Sellers or The Beatles could wish for.

I came about 20 years late to that party. Mine was a late-1973 example in "teal blue", with the less desirable manual transmission. It had twin carbs, power-assisted brakes and one of those old silver stick-on heated rear windows. I did about 1,000 miles in that car over a couple of years and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Bakelite steering wheel was incredibly thin, and thus delightful to hold; it cornered much more mushily than the Mini I also had, and the hydrolastic suspension gave it a sort of bounce whenever I set off from the traffic lights. It was almost human.

What did for it was the rust, especially round the inner front wings, and it didn't last long after that was diagnosed. "Men Who Go Far Drive Vanden Plas" went the slogan, but at £1-a-mile it wasn't quite the mini-Bentley-on-the-cheap I'd hoped for. Still, it taught me that even the finest coachbuilders couldn't make up for the inherent flaws of a 1960s British car.

The origins of Vanden Plas went back to Carrosserie Van den Plas, formed in Belgium in 1898, and an English subsidiary established in 1913. In the 1920s it went bust but was refounded and prospered making bodywork for the likes of Bentley and Alvis.

After the Second World War it wound up in the British Motor Corporation combine and prospered. So successful was it that it became a marque in its own right in 1960.

Twenty years later, however, the works was closed down, its craftspeople discarded. The main reason, I think, was the failure of the Austin Allegro. There was a Vanden Plas version of that too, with the usual refinements. But the Allegro never sold in the volumes expected. So, like Riley and Wolseley before it, and Austin, Morris, Triumph and Rover after, the Vanden Plas name went to the grave. I miss it.

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