August 2011

The Price of Fuel and a Vanden Plas Princess 4-Litre-R

With photography by Matt Howell

If I were to pop a pound into the fuel fund of the 4-Litre-R every time someone said to me ‘it costs over eighty quid to fill my tank now’, that fund would cover the Princess’s thirst for quite a lengthy continental tour. Yes, petrol is expensive. Irritatingly, much of what we’re paying is fuel duty. I don’t think I’m being over controversial when I say that this duty is a ‘green tax’, a tarnished notion if ever there was. The leftie/liberal tree hugging lobby, so powerful in government circles, seems to have convinced the political elite that ridding our roads of fossil fuelled vehicles would be a big step towards ‘saving the planet’. That, of course, is poppycock and more and more experts are coming out of the woodwork and expressing the view that global warming is cyclical and mainly due to the activities of that big orange thing in the sky that can give us a burnt nose if we forget our tweed caps while roaming the countryside in our roadsters on a summer’s day.

Frankly, despite the present government making noises about it, there doesn’t seem to be much sign of the creation of a fair fuel policy. If anything, there is a definite sense that the motorist will be continually clobbered from every angle possible – mainly in the form of congestion and parking charges, speed cameras and increased road tax. And it isn’t as if these taxes contribute to the improvement of our roads and transport infrastructure generally. No, this is just a means of extracting more and more cash out of the beleaguered motorist who may already be struggling in a difficult financial climate anyway. There are moments in my life when I see some green zealot/hyper fascist appearing on our TV screens and broadcasting to the nation in doom laden tones, ‘Classic fossil fuel powered vehicles shall only be allowed on the public highway for three hours per year and for a maximum of 12 miles and for this privilege the owner will be charged a reasonable fee of £5000. Otherwise, these machines should be locked away in a sealed storage facility, so that their oily, petrolly oldness does not contaminate the earth. Should any of our inspectors detect the merest whiff of longbridgy classic cowleyness, owners shall face fines of up to £100,000!’ Then I spring upright in a cold sweat and moan with gratitude that this has only been a nightmare. Well, I hope I am wrong but I fear it may only be a matter of time before the historic vehicle movement is specifically targeted by…. Guess who? Yes, you’ve got it, that wrecking ball for our economy and culture, that faceless bunch of overpaid bureaurocrats known as the European Union. And as you are probably all well aware, it doesn’t matter who holds the balance of power at Westminster. Whether it’s the alleged labour party, the con-artists or the lib dims, they are all unpatriotic and appear to want to carry out to the letter anything the unelected commissars of the Fourth Reich, sorry I mean the EU, decree. Interestingly, there is a Parliamentary classic car club. We can only hope they love their vehicles as much as we do and that they can convert that passion into some form of clout.

But I digress, the fact remains that with the general trend of fuel prices heading in only one direction, it seems that most of us will be in a position to use our more thirsty classics less and less frequently. I choose to look at the situation from a different and more optimistic angle. If you are as passionate about classics as I am (I’m sure most of you are,) a gallon of go-juice in the tank of your favourite gas guzzling classic is still actually great value. Let’s consider a fifteen mile meander in the 4-litre-R. For that distance you would use up about a gallon of petrol which is very nearly £6’s worth. At an average speed of 30mph, that would be a rather pleasant way of spending half an hour. So, what other ways are there of spending £6 in half an hour? A lunchtime cookery class perhaps? Messing about in a pedalo on the Serpentine? A cash gobbling blast in an amusements arcade maybe? Or what about a rapid couple of pints of good ale in your local hostelry (if you still have one)? For me, the drive in a rolling piece of motoring history would easily win the day, every time.

In a transaction which involved swapping a BSA Rocket Gold Star ‘replica’ plus some cash for a 1965 Princess 4-Litre-R ‘with history’, it is difficult to know which party achieved the best deal. However, having considered the car’s provenance and overall condition, I am happy to say that I feel quite privileged to be the current guardian of this interesting vehicle. Directly replacing the ageing Princess 3 Litre Mk 2, the Vanden Plas Princess 4-Litre-R, announced in August 1964, was the embodiment of a technical collaboration between BMC and Rolls-Royce, designed at giving both organisations a new stake in the luxury car market. Essentially, the car consisted of a Rolls-Royce six cylinder engine (FB60) developed from its range of military engines and fitted under the bonnet of a re-worked Mk2 hull. Whether it was down to unreliability or the car’s identity crisis leading to buyer disappointment, after an initial surge, sales declined rapidly and production ceased in 1968.

This particular car is the only example made in medallic grey and it was owned by Col. Arthur Waite, ex racing driver, former BMC board member and indeed son in law of the great Lord Austin. There is most certainly a time warp feel about the car and I don’t believe it has ever needed a full restoration. Sitting in the driver’s seat there is a strangely powerful ambience that makes me feel almost spiritually connected to the soul of the British motor industry. Although there have been a couple of owners between myself and Col. Waite (who died in 1991 in his 97th year), it sometimes feels as if the car still belongs to him. What musings and discussions has this vehicle witnessed and what secrets will it never divulge? Of course, my thoughts inevitably turn to whether he considered the joint BMC/Rolls Royce venture to have been a wise idea. And more specifically, how did he like driving the 4-litre-R? I think it is safe to say that he found it rather different to the supercharged Austin 7 in which he won the 1928 Australian Grand Prix!
As perhaps one would expect, the Princess’s interior oozes ‘joint venture’. The seats, auto box selector and deep set instruments are very Rolls-Royce, while the large steering wheel and switchgear are definitely BMC – right down to the Morris 1000 indicator stalk! Overall, despite the cut price Rolls element, the airy cabin is an extremely comfortable place.

I have some experience of Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars and compared to the six cylinder motor in a Silver Cloud 1 or its V8 successor in the Cloud 2 or 3, the FB60 is certainly less quiet. This is no bad thing of course as the sound of an engine is one of the key factors in the enjoyment of things mechanical. To be in the presence of the FB60 as its beefy growl develops into a steady purr is quite a joy. On the move, the 4-litre-R is definitely happier on motorways and big, straight roads and felt as if it could cruise all day at the legal limit with plenty more on tap if required.

These are early days in our courtship and I am still becoming acquainted with the Princess – the jaunt to Calshot and the National Motor Museum with the Practical Classics team was the first time we have covered any meaningful distance. If I were to sum up my early findings, I would have to say that the dominant manifestations at the beginning of the day were BMC and military vehicle but the further and faster we travelled together, the more the Princess became a Flying Lady.

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