We look at BL’s big, Wedgey family saloon
British Leyland’s 1975-1981 18-22 series started life as a choice of Austin, Morris and Wolseley models before becoming the regally-named Princess. The name was ‘borrowed’ from Austin and Vanden Plas, which led to confusion as to the parentage of the cars, so the Princess became better known by its ‘Wedge’ nickname. This referred to its distinctive shape, penned by Harris ‘Mr Allegro’ Mann and more radical than any BMC or BL car before it.
With front-wheel drive and spacious interiors – thanks to transverse engines, including a six-cylinder – it was a world away from its Cortina and Granada rivals. However, it was also a world away from Ford in terms of quality. Despite being intended as a hatchback, it was felt this would steal sales from the Maxi, so it was saddled with a boot instead.
PRINCESS 2200 HLS
Power (bhp@rpm) 110bhp@5250rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 125lb ft@3250rpm
Top speed 105mph
Gearbox 4-speed man/3-speed auto
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
Check for rust in the air intake behind the numberplate, as well as where the front valance meets the wings. Rusty wheelarches can also strike, as can bubbles down the trailing edge of the wings; replacements are difficult to source. A-pillars can corrode, and it’s a difficult spot to repair. Door bottoms are likely to have rusted from the inside out, and the boot lid often suffers. Sills should be checked, with particular reference to the front and back areas. Front and rear inner wings normally start to evaporate inside the wheelarch. Brightwork isn’t known for its quality, and does the Wedge have all four of its chrome wheelarch trims (if applicable to the model)? Vinyl roofs and/or quarter panels – it depends on the spec – can split. Black ones seem more resilient than brown.
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the 2.2-litre six-cylinder engines that are the weakest, but on all types, look for smoke from the exhaust and listen for loud tappets and rumblings. The 1.7- and 2-litre engines are both O-series types and quite rugged, although cambelts should be changed every 48,000 miles. All the four-cylinder engines are a little on the agricultural side, so expect some vibration, but the six-pot should be very smooth and refined. Check hoses and radiators for signs of leaks and look at the coolant – a rusty colour points to a car that hasn’t been looked after. This in turn may lead to overheating, so watch that temperature gauge and check the electric cooling fan does its job, especially on the hot-running 2200s. Listen carefully for whining from the rear, too.
Automatic Princesses have a Borg-Warner 35 gearbox – tried-and-tested and generally sturdy, assuming its light pink fluid has been changed when required. Changes should be smooth and decisive, and make sure the kickdown works as it should. Manual gearboxes also hold out well, but a notchy vagueness will set in with high mileages, and first gear can be difficult to find if the clutch or slave cylinder is past its best. Brakes are known for their effectiveness – they should be strong, with no sponginess. On bends, listen for the clicking of a worn CV joint and follow this up with a visual inspection of the boots for any splits. Suspension is Hydragas all around, so a car that is leaning to one side may just need a pump up. However, it could also mean the pipes are leaking or the displacers need replacing. They can be both difficult to find and to fit. All 2200 Princesses came with power steering, so check it’s functioning.
On well-used Wedges, the driver’s seats may have begun to sag from age, and the backrests fade and deteriorate, especially on HL models. The dashboard on the HLS versions is genuine wood, but this can fall victim to scratches, fading, lifting varnish and chips. Lower-spec variants don’t have the wood dash, but their plastic surfaces are prone to cracking. Headlining goes saggy with age, often accompanied by discolouring and rips. You should check the front footwells under the carpets – perished windscreen rubbers will allow in water and this is where it collects. Electrics are quite simple, and most faults can be put down to dodgy contacts – there are only eight fuses, in a panel under the bonnet. Check the gauges all function properly, though.
If you don’t get the whole 1970s BL cult, then nothing on earth will tempt you near a Princess. However, if you’re a Leyland sympathiser, then the Wedge is one of the peaks of the company’s output. In 2200 six-cylinder form, they’re smooth to drive, have superbly supple suspension and boast generous amounts of interior space. Above all, there’s that striking and idiosyncratic shape; really and truly, nothing else looks like a Princess. Dare we say it: it’s the British equivalent to the Citroën DS.