Impossible Princess – Vanden Plas 1800

Robertas Parazitas reports on one of the stars of this year’s NEC Classic Motor show.

Source: C&SC

Grim commerce and ‘investment car’ mania now dominate the annual NEC Classic Motor show, but search hard, seek the wisdom of the crowds, and strangeness and delight is there to be found. In Hall 4, a Restoration Theatre had been setup. I sat for a while, hoping for a performance of one of Congreve or Wycherley’s lighter works, but all that was on offer was a video of two elderly men in a dingy workshop explaining the intricacies of panel beating in what I imagined to be a satire on Puritanism.

If there had been fewer demands on my time, I might have waited long enough to be treated to a masterfully updated version of “The Provoked Wife”, with defter observations on the preoccupations of our times.

Source: autovia-media

My disappointment was short-lived. Not far away, on the Vanden Plas Owners’ Club’s small, out-of-the-way stand was a legendary artefact of the early British Leyland era, a rolling prototype of a Vanden Plas 1800 built using adapted boot and C-pillar panels from the BLMC Australia Tasman / Kimberley.

The car was registered on the first of August 1971, but the description provided by the car’s owner, Sandy Dalgarno, states that the one-off body – which started out as a Wolseley 18/85 and was reworked at the Vanden Plas works at Kingsbury – was “not unlike the soon to be announced Leyland Australia Tasman / Kimberley X6”.

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The X6 cars went on sale in Australia in November 1970, so at a reasonable guess, the Vanden Plas prototype originated the middle of that year. British Leyland as a corporate entity had by then existed for two and a half years, but the ex-BMC component of the business managed to build a convincingly complete and attractive prototype before the project was terminated on the grounds that it would bring unwelcome competition for the Rover and Triumph 2000s.

And thereby was lost possibly the best realisation of the Vanden Plas ethos.  I’m not even convinced that Vanden Plas was a cause worth pursuing in the British Leyland era, but this prototype presents a strong case for its survival.

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I find myself imagining what the car’s prospects would be had it arrived in, let’s say, early 1972.  It would soon face competition from the mighty Granada and Vauxhall’s Victor and Ventora FE. Volvo, Saab, and Audi were giving the ageing Rover and Triumph offerings a strong challenge.

The prototype has a single carburettor B series, but it’s certain that it would have had the 2.2 litre E6 in production form. Match that with a Borg-Warner 35 transmission and possibly the best application of Hydrolastic suspension to have gone into production, and it could have been a convincing compact luxury car, a front wheel drive counterpoint to its Canley and Solihull stablemates.

It was not to be. There’s an intriguing suspicion that if BL were considering using some of the Australian car’s panels for the Vanden Plas, they may have been considering adopting them for a home market ADO17 update.

Austin Tasman Source: Classic Cars

As we well know, they chose not to bother.  Continuing the timeline, the final update of the series arrived on the UK market in late March 1972.

Motor reported as follows:

“The Australian six cylinder 1800s (sic) – known as the Austin X6 Kimberley and Tasman have considerably modified 1800 bodies with restyled nose and tail treatment which increases the overall length from 13ft. 10in. to 14ft. 6.6in.  Even the most modest restyling these days costs a small fortune in body dies, and rather than incur such charges for the British versions, their sale price has been kept right down to a very competitive figure by retaining the 1800 shell with only grille and trim modifications.”

Should we applaud the firm’s self-effacing altruism? I think not. The development cost of the X6 has been reported as A$4.5 million, and the entry level six-cylinder Tasman was priced at just one Australian dollar more than the outgoing four cylinder 1800. An opportunity was missed, not least to buy time to sort out the upcoming ADO71, a.k.a 18-22 Series, a.k.a Leyland Princess, which was launched in the UK in March 1975.

It is relevant to note that ADO71 development and tooling costs were reported as £22 million, cheap by early to mid ‘70s standards.

Despair at the decisions of British Leyland is a useless emotion. Far better to thank Mr. Dalgarno for his impressive restoration work, and the time he spent with me at the NEC. His car enthusiasm extends far beyond the ADO17 and 71, but they hold a special place in his affections; he also owns an ADO71 ‘Wolseley Saloon’, and is restoring an Australian 1800 ‘ute’.

19 thoughts on “Impossible Princess – Vanden Plas 1800”

  1. In retrospect, the X6 bodyshell was an opportunity to place some clear water between the 1800-series and the Maxi. Appearance aside, the Maxi shared little with its larger sibling, but owing to its visual similarity, the perception they were essentially the same car never quite faded.

    In my view the most sensible option would have been to delay the Maxi until such time as the revised gear linkage could be readied and to combine it with the introduction of the larger, more imposing and better proportioned X6 body for the 1800. With the higher output B-series and the 2200 E-series units, it would almost certainly have offered a more appealing proposition than the incumbent model and perhaps avoided losing sales to the cheaper Maxi model, once that car had hit its (admittedly modest) stride. 1970 sounds about right. However, I get the sense that Stokes and his new model army were more interested in hammering home their victory over the BMC contingent than producing vehicles the public might actually want to buy.

    The X6 was better proportioned, but both nose and tail styling of the Kimberly / Tasman were awfully generic, appearing to copy contemporary trends rather than trying to establish an identity of its own. Roy Haynes had been drafted in from Ford as Styling chief and his influence was plain to read.

    On another tack, I never understood why the Maxi platform couldn’t have been modified to underpin the Allegro, which would not only have saved time and money, but would have given BLMC a (slightly) bigger, and potentially better proportioned car than the too small for the market Allegro, which had erroneously been pegged to its predecessor’s dimensions.

    As the author points out, picking over BMC / BLMC’s product planning failings is futile, but that doesn’t stop it being a fruitful manner to while away a few hours. One thing is clear. Better decisions could have been made than the ones that were taken, given there was no shortage of ideas or sensible heads to carry them out. Sadly, the heads of those taking the decisions were in the clouds.

    1. The X6 could have finally allowed the 1800 to fulfill its true potential as a 2-litre+ car, along with also allowing for a production version of the Maxi 4-door saloon prototype that was ditched on the basis of being a potential threat to the 1800/2200 in 1.75 E-Series form.

      Have doubts on the notion of a Maxi-based replacement for the 1100/1300 in place of the Allegro or properly updated 1100/1300, the Maxi was to originally be powered by a 1.3 E-Series engine (allowing for a 2-litre E6) however the car was heavy / underpowered and it was decided to enlarge the E-Series to 1.5 (later 1.75) for the production Maxi.

    2. My understanding regarding the E-Series engine was that owing to Issigonis’ decision to allow for a transversely mounted in line six cylinder version, the bores were by necessity siamised, which in turn had adverse affects on the engine’s breathing. It’s known that tuners managed to extract quite impressive performance from the 1500 cc E-series, which also struggled in the standard-tune Maxi. This suggests that it wasn’t so much a matter of swept volume but cylinder head, carburation and exhaust design. Other, better engineering minds than mine may have more to impart on this matter, but the evidence of the likes of Downton and BL Special tuning suggest the expense of developing the 1750cc unit may have been money poorly spent, especially since the latter unit put the Maxi in direct competition with the 1800 model.

      Regarding the three volume Maxi saloon. I regard that as a bullet swerved. If the hatchback was visually challenging….?

    3. Part of the problem is to do with BMC’s intention to replace their A/B/C-Series engines with just the E-Series that can presumably be mounted transversely in FWD cars, however engine design was said to be Issigonis’s weak point from the Morris Flat-4 and Alvis V8 to the E-Series and some say even the Mini 9X and 10X 4/6-cylinder engines.

      In reality the ideal E-Series would have been in essence a 1.6 4-cylinder (akin to the later R/S-Series) and a related 2.4 6-cylinder at best with possible turbocharged and dieselized variants, allowing for the B/O-Series to take over the 1.8-2.0 4-cylinder and Blue Streak derived 2.7-3.0 6-cylinder end of the range.

      Have read some claim the E6 was capable of being enlarged to about 3050cc, while 1797-1803cc versions of the 4-cylinder E-Series were considered at one point along with E-Series units as small as 1100-1160cc (that is not even mentioning the 3-cylinder E-Series prototypes).

    4. While some or indeed all of that may have been possible with the E-series, it wasn’t done and what was done doesn’t seem to have been done all that well. I don’t think anyone believed the E-series was a particularly nice engine, but as a family of engines it could have been a very useful one. Yet following the massive investment in the Crofton Hackett factory, the E-series was massively under-utilised in few BLMC models when it should conceivably have been rolled out throughout the entire range to amortise cost and improve economies of scale.

      So having been responsible for its creation, Issigonis apparently got bored with it and embarked upon 9X – an entirely new engine family, essentially duplicating that of the smaller capacity E-series and incorporating a 1.3 litre in line six. He may have had his reasons and for all I know they may even have been sound ones, but by then nobody was listening, and to some extent, who could blame them?

      In addition from having him forcibly removed from any styling studio, dear Alec should never have been given responsibility for engine design. Not without a responsible adult at hand anyway…

    5. The Marina could have certainly benefited from the 1.5-1.75 E-Series used in the Australian models or at least a 1.6 version to sit between the 1275cc A-Series and 1.8 B-Series (ideally should have been a 2-litre from outset prior to O-Series).

      There were suggestions that either the Maxi or the Allegro could have potentially received the E6 had the money and inclination existed, not sure what prevented the MGB or even the MG Midget from using the E-Series engines beyond the shelved mid-engined sportscar project. Otherwise not sure how the E-Series could have been better utilized, yet it could have indeed been very useful in 1.6 4-cylinder and 2.4 6-cylinder forms.

      Have to admit that an X6 with a 2-litre B/O-Series and 2.4-litre E6 is a rather appealing alternative to the Rover P6 and Triumph 2000/2500, especially in Vanden Plas form when one considers the original 1800/2200 project was RWD and could have potentially made the Austin 3-litre obsolete despite not having the latter’s 3-litre engine.

      The 6-cylinder 9X engine apparently had a range of around 1.2-1.5-litres though the later MG Metro 6-cylinder prototype was a 1.3 putting out 100 hp, at best it would have probably been a curiosity had it reached production though the 9X engine would have been better off as a proper 0.75-1.4-litre 4-cylinder K-Series precursor (with possible scope for a related 3-cylinder variant).

  2. Much has been written about the enigmatic and perplexing E series (or ADO32 in its inchoate form) and I worry that further contribution would be superfluous. However I’ll impertinently offer a few facts I think are pertinent.

    It needn’t have been as narrow as it was:

    The E6 was intended to fit in the ADO17 engine compartment with a side-mounted radiator and cooling fan, as used with the B series powered cars. Good sense prevailed and the E6 engined cars got a front-facing radiator and electric fan. The extra space would have easily allowed the cylinder centres to be increased by around 6mm, but it was far too late to make the change.

    The E series has 3.25inch (82.5mm) bore centres, and in all versions, 3 inch (76.2mm) bores. Another 6mm between the bore centres would would have made one hell of a difference. The VW EA827 has 88mm bore centres, and it’s as close as can be imagined to every engine you could ever need.

    It wasn’t meant to be grossly undersquare:

    In 1969 the Maxi 1500 E series was universally berated for being undersquare when Ford, GM, Fiat et. al. were making massively short-stroke engines. The 1485cc (and 2227cc) E series dimensions are 76.2 x 81.3. The 1471cc EA827 in the 1972 Audi 80 had dimensions of 76.5 x 80.0. Nearly 50 years on, it seems that BMC and VAG were right.

    The E series block was weak for a reason:

    The E series was designed to be used in the Issigonis “bunk-bed” configuration, sitting atop a hefty casting which housed the sump, gearbox and final drive. The designers took the opportunity to save weight and cost in the block by using the transmission housing to reinforce the crankcase.

    They hadn’t anticipated the Australian Marina E4 application, hence these cars’ massive cast aluminium sumps. Exactly the same trick was used in the short lived ‘end-on’ R series used in the early Maestro. The S series which replaced it in 1984 had a stronger, but lighter, block which used the crankshaft to reinforce the bottom end. (I have LJKS’s word on this, refer CAR June 1984).

    The 2.6 litre E6 was almost a new engine:

    The restrictions of tooling meant that the 3″ bore remained, but the block was far stronger, but not much heavier. No need for an alloy sump, a steel pressing sufficed. The head design, with these odd “knock-kneed” valves wasn’t changed signficantly, but ancillary locations were changed to suit longitudinal RWD use. The 2.2 was only used in front wheel drive cars., the 2.6 was engineered for RWD applications and 4WD in the case of some South African Land Rovers. It never found its way to the Northern Hemisphere; a lost opportunity as it was compared favourably to the PE166 “job creation” engine in the Rover 2600 – South African SD1s got the E6.

    Returning to the Vanden Plas ADO17, we should just be glad Hopeless Harriman was no longer in charge. He’d probably have asked Rolls Royce to make a 2606cc FB40 ‘four’, and set unattainable sales targets. Unsold Princess 2600s would still be found decaying in the undergrowth on the edges of former airfields to this day.

    1. So FWD versions of the E6 would only have been able to reach a maximum displacement of 2.4-litres at most, while there was possible scope for the RWD / AWD focused 2.6-litre E6 to achieve further enlargement beyond its existing 2.6-litre displacement given it was almost a new engine?

      How would the increased bore centres have helped salvage the E-Series, would it have made lower and displacement versions more viable propositions compared to the existing 4/6-cylinder engine?

      Apparently dieselised versions of the E-Series were considered from proposed 1.5/1.75 4-cylinder diesels to a 2.4-litre 6-cylinder diesel, the same with the 1.6-litre S-Series that was said to be capable of using turbochargers in petrol form as well as planned to feature Twin-Cams.

      The question that comes to mind though was the necessity of making the E-Series engine tall and heavy, which negatively impact the Allegro and largely precluded it from being used in the Mini outside of the Andy Saunder’s 1750cc Mini one-off.

      Regarding the Vanden Plas 1800, either that or the 106-117 hp 2606cc Rolls-Royce FB40 would have been used by Austin-Healey as a smaller 4-cylinder version of the FB60 6-cylinder powered Austin-Healey 4000 prototype, perhaps upgraded to 178 hp G40 Twin-Cam form.

    2. I hesitate to prolong the E-Series banter further, but I feel a visceral compulsion to share that it was indeed the nastiest engine I have ever experienced. In 1.5l form it propelled an Austin Maxi in which I learned to drive and then of which I had the use whilst a 6th former (I know, I should count myself lucky to have had access to a wheelbarrow at that age and so should not be complaining). Whilst the Maxi had many excellent qualities (yes, really!), the engine and gear-change did their very best to distract from them. The engine really did feel and sound like it was made from masonry (rarely has the expression ‘engine-block’ been so aptly applied), with no desire to rev whatsoever accompanied by a hoarse wheezing as the engine speed crept upwards even with the throttle planted through the bulkhead. Funnily enough, it seemed to produce negligible power and torque in the process, and progress was in any case further hampered by the world’s worst ever gear change which managed to be long winded, heavy, imprecise and – well, just crap! The S-series – as covered by LJKS in Car (I remember that article, it was in the Montego launch edition) – was a miracle given that it was indeed the grandchild of the E.

    3. ‘Iron with chips’ … the title of that LJKS article: those were the days!

  3. There’s something wrong with the entire ADO17 range, it doesn’t look right anywhere. It’s proportionally wrong in every direction, every dimension is just that little bit off and slightly skewed. It’s too long and too wide and with too much of a spaced out wheelbase. The front is too high and too short and too stumpy. Any which way you look it’s too much or too little of something. I’m actually impressed they manager to be so much off base anywhere you look, can this be the worlds most unfortunately disproportioned car?

    1. That’s sums it up. I may not dislike the car either. It’s a study in what happens when a no-nonsense engineer is let take hold of the reins of what is properly the work of an applied arts expert. “no nonsense” means no sales. I saw the same thing on the grille of the 1300 cars and the awful mix of radii on the Maxi’s sideglass. Here’s the resultant question. There are a good few examples of what we’d call engineering-led cars such as the R4, 2CV and the Panda. None of them are horrible. They are at least acceptable. The ADO cars show that even an engineered car needs finessing.

    2. Ingvar, I wholly respect your opinion, but wouldn’t the automotive world be far poorer without those cars which defied the rules and ignored the fashions prevalent at their time?

      My brief list of recusants: Tatra Tatraplan, Tatra 603, Chevrolet Corvair, Renault 16, NSU Ro80, Dino 206GT, Jaguar XJ6.

      My contention was that the 1800 Mk.1 was close to the ideal set for the XC9001 of a British DS, a fluid-suspended grand routier. Issigonis and Moulton were fixated with Citroën, but had their own vision of how the ideas could be applied.

      ADO17 is the most outré of the Issigonis creations, and unquestionably his favourite, according to Dr. Moulton. The proportions are far from the norm – it’s not called the Landcrab for nothing – but the objective of a comfortable, spacious, and safe long distance cruiser with a minimal footprint was delivered successfully.

      What Issigonis, Kingham, and Moulton failed to understand was that the principal reason for buying big cars was that they looked impressive, rather than their functional advantages.

      That notwithstanding, ADO17 was not an abject failure. Peak sales were in 56,876, in the 64/65 model year. and 387,283 were produced over a ten year lifespan.

      Some of the purity of the original was lost along the way, but Greek Al would have been proud to see the transverse six make it to production. Writing this, I feel some shame at praising a facelift which turned something truly original into a simulacrum of a Cortina Mk.2. File under “desperate times, desperate measures”…

    3. Of course the world would be poorer without them, my gripe comes from tough love. I really want to love the guy, but Issigonis is such a harsh mistress. He was his own biggest enemy, and he really let ego and prestige take the better of him, right until the end. And I really like an engineer driven product, if the underlaying thought have been let to its most logical progression.

      The Eiffel tower is beautiful in its sheer audacity, what you see is what you get, showing the steel girded structure in all its glory is the end goal of the mission itself. While the concrete structure of the BT Tower in London was clad in a mock glass facade, obviously to placate some sort of forlorn victorian modesty. Either you go all the way or not do it at all, because half measures makes nobody happy.

      In that vein we have cars like the R4, 2CV, and Panda that I think are actually beautiful because they are the most logical progression of an uncompromised line of thought. They are beautiful just because they are uncompromised.

      At the other end we have cars like the Tatra, NSU Ro80, R16 and so on, that may have defied convention and breaking new ground. The difference is that they are clearly styled, sometimes fashionably so. They are the work of an applied arts expert, as Richard said.

      The problem with the ADO17 is that it falls in between, hampered by its own inadequacies. It is a compromised half measure, it’s neither fish nor fowl. If they wanted a DS, they didn’t go all the way. It’s Still too short or too long, still too little of something or too much of it.

      It’s like seeing someone dress up for dance with no sense of fashion, and dancing awkwardly no less. It is an abject failure from a design point of view, it really showed the emperor had no clothes. And if Issigonis had been a better man, he should’ve let Pininfarina have a hand in it from the start. I say the car signed the downfall of the man, and he should really have known better.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Paul. Interesting thought. But where would that have left the Maxi?

  4. Paul – you could be right on the hatch matter. It seems BMC were looking at a Maxi-like ‘estate’ early in ADO17’s life, going by the ‘1966’ on the show numberplate.

    Could it be another case of spreading “aperture engineering” wider? The 1800 is around 70mm. With a bit of ingenuity a hatch could be made to fit both. AROnline says it was abandoned on grounds that the 1800 estate would be too close to the Maxi. I wouldn’t doubt it given what we know of Harriman’s deranged product planning; vast sums spent on white elephants, funding denied to inexpensive ideas which could have made money.

    1. BMC missed a trick in not fully capitalizing on the FWD layout’s space efficiency by making them all hatchbacks, rather than the 1800 “estate” being too similar to the Maxi and Nomad to justify production it could have been argued that all of them plus a hatchback Mini would have basically featured a (possible Austin specific) family look of sorts at the rear.

      That is not to say the three-box saloon layouts like on the Vanden Plas 1800 would be useless, rather they would be more suited to be utilized by only Vanden Plas specific or possibly Morris versions.

    2. Going by the AUS on the numberplate maybe it was, like the Nomad, intended for the Australian market. Certainly one of the persistent gripes downunder was the need for more luggage space.

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