Theme: Brochures – Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R

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.

1964 Vanden Plas 4-litre brochure. All images – author’s collection.

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:


1964 Vanden Plas 4.0 litre engine

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.

Vanden Plas 4.0 litre engine section

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

Gentler times: All this luxury, but you still had to wind your own windows and lock the doors one by one.

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.

16 thoughts on “Theme: Brochures – Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R”

  1. This is a remarkable car. It seems as if they did go to quite some trouble to embellish the basis body – it’s a pity about the engine’s frailty. I don’t think the VdP had to compete against the Riley and Wolseley. This kind of car is best seem as a “Brougham”, a top-spec model to fill a price point. With improvements to the engine there’s no reason they could not have carried on at the sales rate it had established.

  2. One perception problem I remember at the time was that the Vanden Plas engine was a variant of the military power unit used in certain vehicles.

    In hindsight, that could have been put to some advantage. A sort of “our boys deserve the best and can’t afford to be let down by unreliability” sort of thing (even if it wasn’t the case). But to a little techno-snob like I was back then, it immediately got pigeonholed as a jumped up truck engine and I imagined the owners all cooing ‘oh yes, it’s got a Rolls-Royce engine you know’ oblivious of its coarseness relative to the ‘real thing’.

    As with many things, the passage of time makes you tolerant and it seems an inviting old barge now. And I’m a sucker for facsimiles of self-important signed statements of intent by company Chairmen.

  3. The ‘MoD surplus’ myth was prevalent during and well after the time when the 4 litre R was on sale, but the story of its origin, and the nature of changes made from the B60, are clear enough evidence that the FB60 engine was intended for an upmarket passenger car. It also gave the Princess a fair turn of speed: 115mph and 0-50 in 9.1 seconds, according to Motor. A 3.8 litre Jaguar S-Type automatic managed 116mph and 8.5 seconds from 0-50.

    The FB60 had an unlikely fan in Donald Healey, who built three examples of the Healey 4000, an Austin-Healey 3000 widened by 150mm and fitted with the FB60 engine. Fred Llewellyn Smith even allowed Healey to use aircraft style “Powered by Rolls-Royce” badges on the cars.

    In Peter Garnier’s biography “Donald Healey, My World of Cars” he expresses regret that BMC had managed to extricate themselves from the Rolls-Royce engine supply contract with very little financial penalty, thereby denying him a supply of engines and allowing the Big Healey to continue in production to give BMC a way of avoiding financial and reputational embarrassment. There is a bit of ‘previous’ here – some of Len Lord’s enthusiasm for the Healey 100 was driven by the opportunity to use surplus engines and other parts intended for the disastrous Austin A90 Atlantic.

    Healey also mentions a promising but doomed development of the engine:

    “Rolls-Royce even made a one-off twin overhead camshaft cylinder head for this engine – you could imagine what it must have cost them”

    The engine was intended for the ADO30 ‘Fireball XL5’ which Healey describes as “the most ill-conceived sports car prototype ever built”,

    “I immediately sent over to Longbridge with the urgent request ‘get hold of that engine’ but it had already gone to the scrap heap. With this specification the car (‘Rolls-Healey’ 4000) would have been a world-beater but it had come too late”.

  4. Did the VDP lumber, Robertas?I see it as a very British kind of failure: a good idea executed poorly. The special interior and a RR engine are very convincing hallmarks for a sub-brand. The Lancia Thema 8.32 might be a later equivalent. Ford don’t do enough with the Mondeo Vignale – a special engine would be just what is needed. Had things worked out differently, they might have deployed a LR V6 (not a Jaguar) or even Volvo’s Yamaha V8.

  5. I’ve never heard of the 4 Litre R being praised highly for its chassis competence, but Westminsters served as rally barges, and the 6/110 was much favoured by police forces so it must have been at least acceptable.

    Nearly all the British big car makers were swapping and borrowing engines: Rootes used an Armstrong-Siddeley design for the Super Snipe and Imperial, which very nearly got a Ford Windsor V8. Jaguar couldn’t resist borrowing new acquisition Daimler’s V8, and thereby made the best Mk.II of the lot. Bristol used Chrysler V8s, and Rover went for Buick V8 power.

    That last can only be described as a very British kind of success…

  6. The BMC ADO30 ‘Fireball XL5’ is a tale in itself. Reputedly schemed to ultimately replace the Healey 3000 in the US market, development carried on in fits and starts for some considerable time and following the BMH ‘merger’, even embroiled Jaguar’s engineering department; Malcolm Sayer drafting schemes and costings for variants of this car powered by the XK six, and both Daimler V8’s. All happening when Browns Lane really should have been concentrating their resources on dreaming up a replacement for the E-Type. It seems, from what I’ve read about it, that Harriman apart, nobody was enthusiastic about this project. Classic & Sportscar ran an interesting piece on it a number of years ago. I’ll have to dig it out of the archive at some point.

  7. The full horror of the 4 Litre R’s failure is described in Barney Sharratt’s “Men and Motors of the Austin”.

    Cylinder liners coming loose, leaking blocks, cylinder head studs pulling out of the block when tightened to the correct torque.

    Harriman insisted on making 200 cars per week, Kingsbury could manage only 120, so a second line was set up at Cowley. Rolls-Royce took on inexperienced workers to meet the demand from BMC for engines.

    All the time stocks of unsold cars were building up at dealers. When they refused to take any more, they were stored at Oakley Airfield in Buckinghamshire, numbers reaching about 1400 by mid-1965.

    Harriman refused or neglected to cut production. The matter finally came to a head when Len Lord, then Honorary Vice President of BMC, a largely ceremonial position, got wind of the scale of the problem at a celebration to mark Harriman’s knighthood, and berated the Chairman about his inaction.

    Production was reduced to a trickle after Len’s no doubt forthright intervention, but the damage was already done.

    1. Robertas. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m in awe of your library – and greatly appreciative of what you do with it. But, though I’ve often thought of reading more about the detailed history of the UK industry, it’s stories like that that sum up why I don’t. It is just so fucking depressing.

    2. That´s beyond satire, isn´t it? Insisting on making more cars than could be sold and making them badly. Can I infer that some cars had properly made engines and some didn´t? If so, all the duff ones must be gone by now. Didn´t BL make the same mistake with the Stag V8? And didn´t the Imp suffer from quality problems for the same reason? And the Alfa Romeo Sud and the DeLorean? There´s a lesson in all that.

    3. You sounds like you have knowledge 4 liter, I have a 1965 vanda plaz looking to replace the engine do you have any knowledge where I can purchase one, any help from you would be grateful appreciated. you can e-mail me at the mane is Jimmy thakn you for your time.

  8. What an excellent brochure. And history, including the comments. You can read a great deal of regurgitated waffle on the car and engine on the web today, making it out as some amazing almost unbelievable vehicle and engine. My recollection at the time was that the vehicle fizzled like a damp squib in the marketplace.

    One thing that always puzzled me was why RR went to the F Head after WW2. Royce used perfectly adequate OHV heads on his prewar sixes and seemed to have some keen insight into combustion chamber design. After he died in 1934, some twit, whose name I refuse to remember, tried to get his own crazy idea called the ramp head onto the V12 aero engines. Luckily, he was removed/overruled before the Merlin was finalized. Perhaps he was still around after WW2 and went F head, a complete dead end. Willys made the Jeep engine an F-head to not much avail, and Rover, well, they were off in their own world.

    The US made some aluminum block sixes in the early 1960s. Both Chrysler and AMC used high pressure diecastng and suffered porosity issues. They also used iron heads for cheapness. GM used low pressure die casting for the Corvair and Buick/Olds 215 V8, and still had some porosity issues. Rover went to sand-casting the V8 block as a way to get consistent quality in low production numbers, then stuck twin SUs on the result when a $37 4 barrel Holley would have been far better. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

    So how this FB60 RR lump was cast I don’t know. But studs pulling out of blocks suggests poor castings or poor design/undersized studs, and iron wet liners never have seemed to work properly in an alloy block subject to everyday use without thousands upon thousands of hours of development (Merlin). Still, it’s a reminder that the Alloy RR V8 was no great shakes either as a reliable engine as it leaked badly both internally and externally. That took decades to get right. Meanwhile, the exception proving the rule, Daimler put out two V8s that were far too good, so Jag dumped them as soon as it could after the takeover. Dumb. Been many a mile in the 2.5 V8 Jag Mk II. The 4.5 l was a real cracker. So let’s replace it with a 700 pound lump of 1948 long stroke chuntering six made on secondhand tooling, thought Sir William Lyons in one of his less clear moments.

    On the face of it, the Americans had reliable engines down pretty pat in the 1950s. I spent hours playing with a Ford 272 FE on a dyno during university, subjecting it to full power tests in 200rpm increments. And ten other two-student teams did as well that year. Yes we made it sweat and it had been sweating for a decade or more in the lab. Still made a true 152 hp net and never croaked. The 948 cc BMC A made 34 hp net and got quite unhappy, you’d have to run the tests quickly, nor was its BSFC as good as the Ford. Talk about run-on, dear oh dear. About the same bhp/litre, you’ll note. We were given a brand new Volvo B18D by the Volvo factory two miles away, but it never got hooked up while I was there.

    Small manufacturers like Rolls or Jag had nowhere near the resources of the bigger ones. When the Princess came out, the FB60 weighed 450 pounds, but the 1963 289 Ford V8 with thinwall iron casting weighed only 500 and never went wrong, while having more advanced design all round. Those were the days when some people thought bespoke was higher quality due to excellence of assembly. Unfortunately, assembling a poor design in outstanding fashion is a waste of everyone’s time.

    1. Hello Norseman: yes, it was also new to me. I find the cars strangely likeable. You might almost want to pick one over a Silver Shadow just to show your good taste. The drawings make the car seem even more alluring.

  9. Fascinating! My Dad had a 6/110 and my Great Uncle a 4 Litre R so I remember the cars well.
    I met someone recently who ran Bristol cars but used an A110 Westminster as his daily ‘hack.’ I was talking to him about the somewhat ponderous handling of the car. He told me he had fitted Spax adjustables which transformed the feel of the car. The actual suspension geometry and location itself looks fine, so I can believe this.

    1. On the face of it ‘ponderous’ seem a strange choice of wheels for the ‘sixties Plod in their long love affair with Wolseley badged cars. On the other hand the Met clung to the 6/80 years after the intro. of not only the 6/90 but also it’s successor the Farina bodied 6/99. ‘Oh how I love those B&W movies depicting a grim faced copper wrestling the ‘wheel of a 6/80, Winkworth clamouring up front & the observer’s monotone voice on the RT with a handset akin to a household/phonebox version.

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