Vanden Plas

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A fragment of the past in the modern world of British Leyland.

With the introduction of their new Vanden Plas 1500, a replacement for the Vanden Plas 1300 based upon the Allegro, British Leyland chose the opportunity to show a party of journalists round Vanden Plas’ historic Kingsbury, North London, factory. Apart from Mulliner-Park Ward, whose now combined names serve Rolls-Royce and Bentley, Vanden Plas is the only one of the famous old coachbuilding firms to survive into the 70s, and even if it has become part of a huge conglomerate, it is still very much alive and kicking in its own right. In these days of rationalisation by manufacturers it was quite surprising to find how this old company has managed to retain its own personality and identity whilst being part of the big British Leyland group. Indeed, until his retirement, this company had been run by Roland Fox, the son of Edwin, founder of Vanden Plas (England) 1923 Ltd., and employees must be relieved that instead of British Leyland replacing him with a new broom, as they have in so many of their companies, the job of Plant Director has gone to the Rolls-Royce trained Bill Peel, who has been with Vanden Plas since 1946.

The current Vanden Plas range includes the big Daimler Limousine, which offers a handbuilt, luxury motor car for a modest £7,400, only £200 more than a new BMW 3.0 CSi, though you’d need to be able to afford a chauffeur to enable you to sit on the right side of the division, the Daimler Double-Six Vanden Plas saloon and now the 1500. It is ironic in these days when advertising is accepted as the only way to market any sort of project that Vanden Plas never advertises, yet this is one section of British Leyland which always has full order books and remains highly profitable. For the past decade the Princess 1100/1300 range has been the factory’s major breadwinner, almost by accident rather than design: Roland Fox initiated a prototype of the Princess 1100 which was shown at the 1963 Motor Show more or less as a design exercise. The result was an astonishing display of interest, forcing BMC, the then owners of Vanden Plas, to put the model into production. Since then no less than 40,000 of these hand-finished vehicles (including the 1300) have been sold.

British Leyland anticipate that demand for the new 1500 from Vanden Plas’ particularly selective clientele will be tremendous in terms of a fairly low volume production car and asked that roughly 1,000 be produced ready for the launch on September 17th, so that all dealers could be supplied. This indicates quite a degree of faith in the model, for maximum production will be a modest 80 a week. However, demand for the 1300 was always greater than its similar weekly production figure, largely from customers who returned time after time.

Mechanically, the new Vanden Plas 1500 (the Princess name has been dropped) is identical to the four-door 1500 Allegro, this engine being chosen rather than the 1750 version as being more suited to the usually less ambitious performance demands of typical customers. This 1485 c.c., long stroke, five-main bearing, overhead camshaft engine, with a single SU HS6 carburetter, develops 69 b.h.p. at 5,600 r.p.m. and drives through either a five-speed, manual gearbox or the optional AP four-speed automatic gearbox. The Hydragas suspension, disc/drum brakes and rack and pinion steering remain pure Allegro, but a conventional round steering wheel replaces the Allegro’s square device. Clearly, this is to avoid offending the more sensitive customers.

This special Allegro model stands out in a crowd by virtue of a streamlined version of the Vanden Plas 1300 grille, tilted forwards slightly at the top to give an up-to-date family resemblance to the leaping grace of the Vanden Plas Double-Six grille. There is a small spoiler under the front valance, two halogen auxiliary lights are fitted and Vanden Plas nave-plates trim the wheels.

Of course this car’s raison d’etre is its luxury interior. The seating faces of the thickly padded seats and fold-down front and rear armrests are trimmed with the same quality Connolly hide used in the Double-Six and Limousine, though other surfaces are trimmed with practically unidentifiable Ambla, the dashboard is of highly polished burr walnut, as are fillet pieces in the door caps, the roof is covered with brushed nylon cloth and the deep, beautifully tailored and bound Evian carpet sits upon needleloom felt. There is liberal use of sound-deadening felt, each rear passenger has his own reading light, the boot is carpeted and there are pockets in the doors and the reclining backs of the front seats, but those neat, walnut picnic trays of the Princess 1300 have disappeared.

These 1500s are produced in untrimmed (except for the fascia), but mechanically complete form on the ordinary Allegro production line and are subsequently driven (using slave seats) to the Kingsbury factory, the idea being that this will help to run the cars in and show up any mechanical faults which might exist. As an asides it was interesting to hear that while common-or-garden manual Allegros receive a “road test” only on rollers at the end of the production line, in common with most other mass-produced cars, automatic versions are properly road tested to ensure that the gearboxes are correctly adjusted. Once within the Vanden Plas factory, the internally naked cars are progressively trimmed, starting with the carpet and sound-deadening felt, carpets, roof trim and finally seats. Painting to Vanden Plas’ specification has previously been completed on the British Leyland assembly lines, but at Kingsbury the finishes are buffed up by hand and meticulous attention paid to rectifying flaws. For instance we saw one car with a paint run on the centre pillar partly masked by the doors, which would have been ignored on a normal production line, but at Kingsbury was sent for rectification, while a rejected (stick-on) coach-line looked perfectly straight to our eyes. Twelve production line inspectors are employed, a high ratio to production output which is doubtless another reason why many customers have found that it pays to buy the Vanden Plas version of ordinary production cars. It takes two days for a 1500 to complete the Vanden Plas treatment.

All the soft interior furnishings are made by hand at Kingsbury. Connolly leather hides average 45 square feet each and each square foot costs 84p so that clever planning of the cutting is required to avoid wastage. Nevertheless, roughly one-third of each hide is wasted because of damage by barbed wire (“we wish farmers would stop using it”), warble fly and even operation scars, though some customers have been known to ask for scars to be left in to prove the genuineness of the leather!

A similar method of production is involved for the Vanden Plas Daimler Double-Sixes, which are driven from Browns Lane via a circuitous route to add miles. However, their immaculate special finish coachpainting is carried out at Kingsbury. A new one was being prepared for Lord Stokes (his third) during our visit. The Daimler Limousines arrive as bare shells from Motor Panels Ltd., Coventry, and after being dipped and thoroughly rust-proofed are assembled and trimmed in their entirety by Vanden Plas, each one taking several weeks to complete. Suspension sub-assemblies and 4.2-litre straight-six/Borg-Warner automatic engine/transmission units are delivered from Jaguar-Daimler in Coventry, of which British Leyland division Vanden Plas is a member. Incidentally, the 1500 customer should be pleased to know that exactly the same members of Vanden Plas’ 300-strong work force and exactly the same materials are involved in the trimming of their cars as in the Limousine.

Vanden Plas’ origins lie in Belgium, where in 1870 Guillaume Van den (sic) Plas began to make axles for carriages in a Brussels smithy left to him by an uncle. In 1884 Van den Plas advanced into making complete carriages in Antwerp and later in Brussels again, by 1913 employing 850 people who turned out 750 car bodies a year until the Germans overran Belgium. In England, Van den Plas-designed bodies were being built by Vanden Plas (England) Ltd., formerly Theo Masui Ltd., of Grosvenor Road, Westminster, this company being taken over by the Aircraft Manufacturing Co. Ltd., (where Geoffrey de Havilland was the Designer) at Hendon Aerodrome, at the outbreak of the Great War. When AMC went into liquidation after the war, one of its managers, Edwin Fox, raised £6,000 with the help of his two brothers to acquire the name, goodwill and work in hand of Vanden Plas from AMC’s receivers. So Vanden Plas (England) 1923 Ltd. was founded in Kingsbury Works, another old aircraft factory near Hendon. From 1919 to 1922 the works had been used by the Kingsbury Engineering Co. Ltd. to produce the Kingsbury Junior light car, powered by a 1,021 c.c., twin-cylinder, horizontally-opposed, Koh-i-Noor engine. In the huge, brick hangar in which the 1500s, Daimler Double-Sixes and the trim for all the cars is produced today, Edwin Fox went on to offer special coachwork on many marques, including Alvis, Daimler, Lanchester and the Editor’s favourite, the Leyland Eight. At least two of the Leyland Eights built (the 1921 Motor Show exhibits), carried Vanden Plas coachwork.

Vanden Plas claim to have bodied nearly a quarter of all “W.O.” Bentleys, including all five Le Mans winners, and the connection between the two firms was close indeed, for Bentley leased part of the Kingsbury Works (built in the grounds of the early Victorian Kingsbury House) for his Spares and Service Depot. Bentley’s wooden buildings still stand, partially used as stores for Vanden Plas brightwork, but the Bentley ghost at Kingsbury, though hidden, is far from imaginary. The story goes that when work in the Service Depot was slack one day, Bentley gave his men instructions to build up a retaining wall to stop subsidence alongside the main wooden building. And to beef it up the men used a load of Bentley spares. This must be one of the most valuable walls in existence and Vanden Plas have had to turn down offers to buy it.

During the Second World War the factory was turned over to making de Havilland Mosquito wing covers and spars and Tiger Moth wings. After the war Edwin and Roland Fox looked around for a product to use the war-time tooling, the Austin Motor Company were looking for somebody to build a coachbuilt saloon body on its new 4-litre Sheerline chassis and as a result Vanden Plas became a subsidiary of Austin in 1946 and the Austin A135 Princess made its debut at the Geneva Show in March 1947. In various guises this car was to survive (finally as the Vanden Plas Princess) until 1968. To be accurate, the Princess went out of production for a year in the early 50s when orders for 300 disappeared overnight when Purchase Tax on higher price cars was doubled. The Foxes gave orders for 50 to be completed and these were mothballed for a year until Purchase Tax was eased. Meanwhile they’d been fortunate enough to secure a contract for building Venom fuselages from that man de Havilland again, a lucrative contract which came to an end in 1954 after those two disastrous Comet crashes forced de Havilland to stop all sub-contracting.

The 60s are remembered for the continuing success of the Princess limousine, which like its Daimler successor, must have been the most popular Embassy/Royalty car in the World, the Princess 3-litre based on the Austin Westminster and the Rolls-Royce 4-litre engined Princess based on a modified version of the Westminster shell. Reading between the lines, we gathered that certainly some of Vanden Plas’ employees feel that BMC would have been wiser to continue production of the 3-litre and buried the Rolls-Royce-engined car. Nevertheless the latter still has a faithful following, and many of them continue to be maintained and renovated by the Service Department at Kingsbury. A major task to be tackled shortly by this department is the complete restoration of one of only 17 Princess Laundaulettes built, rescued recently from Sierre Leone. Elsewhere in the factory, craftsmen were building the second Daimler Limousine Laundaulette for an African Head of State. The hood of this new model took craftsmen 300 hours to develop in Vanden Plas’ own Development Department . . . although monocoque construction cars are now the mainstay of the company, the Kingsbury Works remains one of the few breeding grounds for true craftsmen. – C.R.

* * *

In the world of the more mundanely constructed Allegros a twin-carburetter version has been announced. As this is being written we have not received full details from British Leyland, but we understand that the single-carburetter 1750 Sport and 1750 Sport Special models have been superseded by the twin-carburetter Allegro Sport and Allegro HL (Highline) models. The engine and five-speed transmission unit in these is identical to that used in the Maxi HL. Maximum power is 95 b.h.p. at 5,350 r.p.m., maximum torque 107 lb. ft. at 3,500 r.p.m., the compression ratio is 9.5:1 and the carburetters are SU HS6. The HL has a most comprehensive specification, including such items as tinted glass and both models have round steering wheels. Lack of production capacity for the HL engine is given as the reason for the twin-carburetter Allegros not making their appearance when the model was announced.

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