The 1964 brochure describes it as “A golden milestone”, but BMC’s Rolls-Royce powered luxury flagship had a curious history and turned out to be a white elephant and an embarrassment to the reputations of both companies.
My copy of the brochure is rather dusty and faded, but is a splendid thing, printed on heavy, high quality paper, with a stiff card cover. There are thirteen fine hand-painted illustrations – not one photograph in sight – and fulsome letters from the managing directors of the new car’s proud parents, Sir George Harriman of BMC, and Dr. Fred Llewellyn Smith, of Rolls-Royce’s Motor Car Division.
George Harriman deserves dishonourable mention. In 1961 he succeeded Len Lord at the head of BMC, after many years as his right-hand man, with a solid background in engineering and manufacturing, and a reputation as a tough and effective negotiator. The former England rugby international was debonair and gentlemanly in his character, unlike his socially awkward and notoriously abrasive predecessor.
However, whereas Lord had an instinctive talent for product planning, Harriman squandered vast amounts of money and engineering resources on abortive sports car projects, and “poor man’s Rolls Royces”, while most of BMC’s product range was either advanced but unprofitable, or antiquated and uncompetitive. Harriman should have done better, and much the same is true of the Princess 4-litre R.
BMC already had the Princess 3-Litre, an upmarket version of the Austin Westminster and Wolseley 6/110. The 4-Litre used the same chassis and core structure, but the body was revised substantially, with a straightened-out waistline, and a new roof pressing which eliminated the characteristic Farina ‘peak’ over the rear screen. New horizontal tail lights appeared, and the rear fins were reduced to vestiges of the extravagant originals.
The reason for this is that the upgrades evolved from a 1961-2 joint project with Rolls-Royce to develop a smaller Bentley saloon. When the project was abandoned, BMC decided to proceed with elements of the design, and Rolls-Royce willingly offered them the engine they had developed for the car. There is much more on this at The World’s Most Plagiarised Automotive History Website:
The 3909cc, 175bhp Rolls-Royce engine is a curious cul-de-sac in the company’s engine roadmap. The B60 straight sixes which were produced until the arrival of the V8 in 1959 have origins which can be traced back to the 3127cc unit in the 1922 20hp Rolls-Royce, and retained that engine’s and 4.5” (114.3mm) stroke 4.15” (105.4mm) bore spacing throughout the series’ production life.
For post-war production the engine was re-worked into the modular B40/B60/B80 range of four, six and eight cylinder variants giving capacities of 2838cc, 4257cc, and 5675cc. There was a new alloy cylinder head with an inlet-over-exhaust valve configuration.
The Vanden Plas engine is codenamed FB60, with the ‘B’ said to stand for BMC, although all were produced in Crewe alongside the Rolls-Royce V8s. Where it breaks with tradition is that the cylinder block is aluminium, and the stroke is reduced to 3.6” (91.44mm). The bore of the 3909cc engine was the same as the Silver Cloud SI’s 4887cc six, at 3.75” (95.25mm), making it slightly oversquare.
The illustration shows the inlet-over-exhaust valve (IOE, OISE, F-head) arrangement with perfect clarity. By 1964, only Rover were using a similar design in their 2.6 and 3 litre sixes. Previously Coventry Climax, Kaiser-Jeep, and Hudson had made engines of this type. The Rover connection is significant as during WW2, Rover and Rolls-Royce were very much ‘brothers-in-arms’.
I’d unkindly describe the head design as the worst of both worlds: as complex to work on as an ohv engine, but with the awkward combustion chamber shape of a side valve unit. Others will defend it as it allows a large valve area. Valve area was something of an obsession in the ‘30s and ‘40s British engine design, understandable when cars were taxed on cylinder bore, resulting in very undersquare cylinders. In the mid ‘60s, in an oversquare engine that was never going to go racing or drive a fire pump, a conventional ohv design would give perfectly adequate valve area.
It is even said that the contorted F-head combustion chamber can burn the mixture with surprising efficiency. In this case I’ll refer to the 15.4mpg fuel consumption figure in Motor’s August 1964 road test. The ohv 6230cc V8 in the Silver Shadow managed 11.3mpg, but has another 2.3 litres, and around 70 more bhp. (‘Sufficient’ in this case is estimated at 220bhp (net), and I think BMC’s 175bhp figure is ‘gross’ or SAE.)
Interior ambience was where Vanden Plas excelled, and they did a fine job for the 4 Litre R. Quality was well short of Rolls-Royce standards, but BMC were not charging Rolls-Royce prices.
In June 1966 a Princess 4 Litre R cost £1995, neatly slipping under a Purchase Tax threshold. Nearly three times that figure was needed to buy the cheapest Rolls-Royce, the Silver Cloud III standard saloon. The Princess’s more self-effacing sister, the Austin A110 Westminster, is listed at £998.
The 4 Litre R was not short of competition in June 1966:
Jaguar S Type 3.8: £1813
Jaguar Mk.X 3.8: £2067
Humber Imperial: £1796
Rover 3 Litre Mk.II Saloon: £1708
Vanden Plas as a marque, rather than a coachbuilder had only come into being in 1959; the preceding Kingsbury-bodied limousines were sold as Austin Princesses. The decision of Leonard Lord to introduce a new luxury brand, rather than develop the better established Wolseley and Riley product lines, is an indication of the spiteful side of Lord’s character, and the deep and enduring divide between the Austin and Nuffield sides of the British Motor Corporation.
The 4 litre R was entering a shrinking market when it arrived in August 1964. Armstrong Siddeley had ended car manufacturing in 1960. Demand for the big Humbers was fading, and production would end in March 1967. This cutting from the classifieds in Motor of June 19 1965 illustrates the problem all too clearly.
Britain’s upcoming managerial and professional class had no longing for a stuffy, lumbering “poor-man’s Rolls-Royce”. Their objects of desire were the Jaguar Mk.2, and the Rover and Triumph 2000s. The 4 Litre R’s reputation was blighted by unreliability issues, particularly catastrophic overheating of the all-alloy engine.
Total production of the Vanden Plas Princess 4 litre R was 6,555, including one estate car for HM The Queen, who is said to have greatly preferred her Vauxhall Crestas.
Given her loyal subjects’ similar distaste for the Austin Westminster with ideas above its station, it was no surprise that production ended in early 1968, not long into the British Leyland era.