This car is not a Bentley but a Princess IV or DS7, a vehicle created to cater to the needs of a lost England.
Alloy bodied, leather trimmed and powered by a very thinly disguised truck engine, it speaks of the unworldly ambitions of the giant British Motor Corporation in the late ’50s.
It truly believed it could challenge the likes of Rolls-Royce in the realm of the ‘owner-driver’ 100mph sports saloon; the perfect car for those hard-done-by upper-class types of the I'm-alright-Jack 1950s, who could no longer justify a Rolls or the wages of costly ‘staff’ to drive one.
Such people increasingly required large cars that were less tiring when they took the wheel themselves. This was the very reasoning behind the introduction of the Princess IV, the first British car to have power steering as standard.
Luxurious, refined and carefully made, the Princess IV was by no means a bad car; it just seemed doomed almost from the beginning, by its styling, by its pretensions and by its humble origins. Hence my fascination with it, I suppose.
That, and the fact that I spent hours playing in a derelict Austin Sheerline (the DS7 predecessor) in a Worcestershire field circa 1971. Decades later I missed the chance to buy a really good original DS7 that went, at an auction, for twice what it had been offered to me for privately.
They are not a Bentley alternative but are instead interesting and worthy in their own right. They’re also rarer than most Bentleys: a total of just 199 of them were built from 1956 through to May 1959, including 22 Touring limousines.
At the time, more famous and much longer-established names such as Armstrong-Siddeley, Lagonda and Daimler were also facing oblivion as they struggled to acknowledge the threat from Jaguar, which could offer a faster, sexier luxury saloon for £1000 less.
Priced at £3376, the 6ft-wide, almost 17ft-long Princess IV was advertised in the likes of Country Life as a discreet carriage ‘specially made for a well-defined group of people’.
Its roots are embedded in Austin’s first new post-war models, the 1946 DS1 A110 Sheerline (my Worcestershire play car) and the Vanden Plas-built A120 Princess.
Austin boss Leonard Lord had long harboured dreams of taking on America with a big 6-cylinder car. His factory-bodied, all-steel Sheerlines, with their huge free-standing P100 headlights, were the first Austins with overhead valve engines and independent front suspension. They failed to make much impression in America, but the Sheerline had its place as a formal car on the product-hungry British market.
The laughably unsuccessful DS7 might have been the last of the owner-driver Princess cars, but the stretched-wheelbase Princess limousines and hearses stayed in production until 1968. Handbuilt at the rate of two or three a week at the VDP Kingsbury factory in North London, there was a solid demand for these principally chauffeur-driven cars, which have to be deemed a success in a limited sphere.
Not so the DS7.
Sleek from certain angles but portly and slab-sided from most, it just looks wonderfully pompous now. In the metal they have presence and dignity, but are not really graceful. The wheels look small and you could understand how the ignorant could mistake a black Princess IV for a giant FX4 taxi cab.
Fortunately they drove better than they looked, wafting serenely along with a pleasing gurgle from the dual exhausts and the sort of smooth big car acceleration that was sufficient to impress the Hillman Minx or side-valve Ford drivers of 60 years ago.
Much was made of the fact that the DS7 would touch the then-magic 100mph, thanks to a mildly tweaked 150bhp engine. Known as the ‘D’ series, it had wartime origins: Longbridge engineers had, seemingly, merely ripped off the contemporary Bedford truck straight-six design (itself a derivative of the Chevrolet Stove-bolt) and introduced it in 1939 as Austin’s very own ‘High Speed’ engine for military use.
It was an extraordinarily inefficient engine when asked to propel the near-5000Ib Princess IV. The Autocar’s 1958 test of the DS7 returned 11.8mpg overall (even the 4.9-litre Silver Cloud managed 12) and was only giving 9mpg when cruising at 80mph.
The interior was always the true glory of the thing, with thick carpets, lavish use of wood big, chunky front seats massive rear legroom and an air of quality that was a match for anything.
The Princess IV was undeniably a failure, but it was also a significant step towards a different take on the owner-driver luxury saloon that was in many ways the solution to VDP’s problems. The answer lay with giving ordinary BMC-built bodies wood-and-leather snob appeal; long before Ford had Ghia BMC (and Leyland) had Vanden Plas.
At the very least, the Princess DS7 is a fascinating example of late-period English coachbuilding. It is sad to think that there are fewer than 20 left; the Vanden Plas Owners’ club only knows of 10 examples that run or have a chance of running in the future.
I drove one for a Classic & Sports Car feature some years ago, and loved it. Rarely am I moved to want to buy with my own money cars that are subjects of C&SC features, but this Princess IV seriously pressed my buttons.
If only I’d bought the one I saw at auction soon after; yet another case of the one that got away.
Images: Tony Baker