Drive like a Professional in the Leyland Princess

The 1980 British Leyland Princess car owned by Simon Hayes.

The 1980 British Leyland Princess owned by Simon Hayes. - Credit: Simon Hayes

I’d like you all to meet 'Lisa'. She’s a Princess and 42 years old, says Let's Talk motoring writer David Clayton. She’s also something of a rarity today because she was part of British Leyland’s final years. Her proud owner is Simon Hayes from Lowestoft, in Suffolk, and she’s the culmination of a life-long love affair.

When Simon was a lad, back in the 1980s, there was a Princess in the family, and he loved riding around in it.

“I remember we made a trip to Norwich and my aunty took me into Langley’s toy shop and bought me a Dinky model of the car. I told her that one day I’d have one of my own,” he says.

The Dinky toy model of the Princess car.

The Dinky toy model of the Princess. - Credit: Simon Hayes

Then, as life carried on, Simon put the idea of acquiring his own car to the back of his mind. That was until the first COVID lockdown began, and he was watching The Professionals on TV. The series, you’ll recall, was a fast-action programme in the late 1970s. You’ll see it repeated regularly on one of the many TV channels we now have. Bodie and Doyle, immortalised by actors Lewis Collins and Martin Shaw, fought crime with their boss George Cowley, played by Gordon Jackson.

Watch any of those 1970s series like The Sweeney and Minder and you’ll see the cars we used to love, being thrown about in spectacular chases.

“I saw Cowley driving a Princess. It brought it all back. I had to have one,” says Simon.

With a bit more time on his hands, he started looking around and posted an appeal via the Princess owner’s site on Facebook. “I had lots of offers but many of the cars were rusted out,” he tells me. “There was even an offer of a car in Belgium.”

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Thinking the appeal would come to nothing, a couple of weeks went by, then a message arrived from a man who told him his father was trying to get rid of his old Princess. Simon asked for some pictures.

“It was lovely but was in Inverness.” He did some costings, and it was as much to transport the car the length of the country as it was to buy it.

“It had been with the owner for 28 years and he’d barely done 1,000 miles a year. They’d done quite a lot of work on it, but it needed more as it hadn’t been driven for four years.”

Simon was told he could buy the car providing he wasn’t going to use it for banger racing. He wasn’t.

“By hook or by crook I had to have it,” he says.

Quite a lot of Princesses, and cars like them, ended up being wrecked around banger racing tracks. The fact they were already susceptible to rusting away meant few survived anyway.

Simon recalls the day the car made the journey south on a trailer: “It was a Friday, and I was being sent photos of the car on its way down the country. I was pacing up and down like an expectant father,” he laughs.

The Princess on a trailer during its long journey from Inverness to Lowestoft.

The Princess on a trailer during its long journey from Inverness to Lowestoft. - Credit: Simon Hayes

The car turned up at 9pm and didn’t run very well. “The brakes were spongy and the electrics bad. I thought, what have I done?”

Simon isn’t a mechanic, but with the help of some friends, a Haynes Manual and his father’s old tools, he set about doing what was needed.

“I thought the brakes might just need bleeding to sort them out, but they needed a complete overhaul. He started replacing everything, but spares for a 1980 Princess were hard to find ...

“I got a brake master cylinder from Greece,” he says. He also drove from Lowestoft to Liverpool just to get an exhaust for the car.

He’s brought in professionals for some of the restoration work. One of the Princess’s selling points was its comfortable Hydrogas suspension.

“I decided anything to do with safety I wouldn’t scrimp on,” Simon explains, “Two mechanics from a specialist firm came all the way from Telford and they even had to stay in a hotel overnight to complete the work. It now drives like a dream. It’s mostly been guesswork and luck. I’ve done a lot of swearing and I’ve thrown my screwdrivers around.”

The driver's seat and dashboard of the Princess.

The brakes needed a complete overhaul and the indicators wouldn't work. - Credit: Simon Hayes

One of his most confounding battles was with the indictors which simply wouldn’t work. He tried everything and was about to give up when he sat there looking out at a previous restoration project, his Mini, and remembered he’d had a similar problem. It dawned on him that, in the end, it was the hazard warning light switch that was causing the problem. A quick fiddle and he’d sorted it.

For someone like me, who has been writing and broadcasting about old cars for decades, a Princess feels very recent and not particularly old, but when Simon took the car to have the tracking sorted, the 20-something mechanic had never seen anything like it and didn’t know what it was.

Strangely, the British Leyland Princess wasn’t called a Princess to start with. When the controversial wedge-shaped model was launched early in 1975 it had the anonymous name of the 18-22 Series which referred to the engine options. As was typical with British Leyland’s 'badge engineering,' you could get an Austin, a Wolseley, or a Morris version if you wanted. The car was launched in New Zealand with the Princess name, but not at that time in the UK.

It was a love-it or hate-it design. I remember thinking it looked angular and ugly when it first came out, but with the passage of time I think it’s grown into its looks. The car was originally designed to be a hatchback, but British Leyland still had the Maxi in production and felt another hatchback would detract from Maxi sales. They also thought the people who bought the Princess wouldn’t want a hatchback. They were wrong - to the extent one firm did an after-market conversion to give the Princess it’s much more useful fifth door. Had they gone with the five-door hatchback design from the start the car might well have sold better abroad.

Simon is having a huge amount of fun with 'Lisa'. The car is now old enough and the model distinct enough to turn heads producing all sorts of reaction wherever he takes it.

“What the hell have you got one of those for?” is what someone said to him, but on the other hand when he took it to an event at the British Motor Museum, at Gaydon, people flocked round it for a closer look.

The 1970s styling of the interior of the Princess car.

Enjoy the 1970s' styling of the Princess interior! - Credit: Simon Hayes

Simon uses it for what’s generally referred to as 'high days and holidays' and he doesn’t tend to take it on the road in wet winter weather.

“Driving it is like navigating the Ark Royal,” he explains, “it hasn’t got power steering.”

He’s happy with his lot. He spent £1,000 on the car, then another £1,000 to transport it from Scotland. He’s in it for another £3,000-£4,000.

“I don’t drink or smoke. I won’t sell. There’s too much blood, sweat and tears gone into it.”

His Mini was a restoration project, and he’s sorted out a good few more motors over the years. His friends refer to the process as “Simonising” the cars. His latest acquisition is another old British Leyland vehicle, an ex-Post Office red Sherpa van which he wants to convert into a camper.

Lisa got her name courtesy of the previous owners, the LSA letters on the number plate being the inspiration. “I’ve already christened the old Post Office van. It’s called Pat,” Simon laughs.