To The Manor Borne Humber takes on Vanden Plas in a very British head-to-head Andrew Roberts is smitten with a couple of finely crafted coachbuilt British saloons from Humber and Vanden Plas, but which one does he prefer? Photography Tony Baker.
Humber vs. Vanden Plas - Stately Imperial battles 4 litre R
Sitting upon their drives in mortgaged splendour, proclaiming their status to the dull and the curious, these were the ideal transport for the man who did not know what he wanted, but wanted it now – the Vanden Plas Princess 4 litre R and the Humber Imperial. These prime mass-produced large saloons combined 1960s-style conspicuous consumption with coachbuilt trimmings – all for less than the £2000 threshold for claiming tax relief on a ‘business car’.
The Vanden Plas and the Humber managed the balancing act between affluence and vulgarity with élan at a considerably lower cost than a Jaguar MkX. If neither has the understated grace of a Rover 3 Litre – with its cherry-wood veneer cabin – then at least they escape the overt vulgarity of the ’1965 Zodiac MkIII Executive. The Ford was undeniably well appointed, but it conveyed the distinct aura of a car for a Flash Harry who began his career selling tinned pilchards “that fell off a lorry, Guv” on a bombsite. In contrast, even the names Princess and Imperial carried an air of the British Establishment and, indeed, the Humber was used by Harold Wilson during his premiership, while the London Metropolitan Police Commissioner favoured the 4 litre R.
Carrosserie Van den Plas was formed in Brussels in 1870 and it opened a British subsidiary in 1913. Austin acquired the firm for £90,000 in ’1946 and Vanden Plas bodied the A135 Princess at its Kingsbury works. By 1957, the Princess IV had lost its Austin badging – in an attempt to further reposition the model upmarket – and the following year Longbridge sent a small batch of A105 Westminsters to Vanden Plas for conversion into budget-conscious gentlemen’s transport. This experiment in appealing to the socially ambitious was successful enough to have both cars replaced in 1959 by the Princess 3 litre. For 1960, it was rebadged as the Vanden Plas 3 litre, the coachbuilder becoming a marque in its own right.
The key to the Princess’ appeal was the Roland Fox-designed grille that distanced it from the A99 Westminster it was based on and made it look vaguely like a Rolls-Royce from a distance. Ironically, the result of discussions in 1961 about possible future collaborations between Crewe and BMC was that the Vanden Plas’ replacement would be powered by the R-R FB60 ‘six’, an all-alloy version of the B40 unit used in the Austin Champ military vehicle. The Princess 4 litre R made its debut in ’1964 and, to ensure refinement, a new engine-cum-suspension subframe was linked to the bodyshell at five points to accommodate the extra torque of the engine.
The 4 litre R gained a new hypoid rear axle, too, and the already handsome Farina styling was subtly altered. To increase headroom, there was a more upright rear screen and a new roof panel, while rear passengers would also enjoy extra legroom. Integrating the foglamps into the front valance and eliminating the 3 litre’s tailfins gave the 4 litre R a distinctly formal demeanour and such modifications helped to justify a price increase of £500. Dealers could always point to the sumptuous cabin, however, with the West of England cloth headlining covering sound deadening material, an example of ‘a class of motor car which has hitherto only been within the reach of the very wealthy’. The Vanden Plas sales blurb cleverly appeals simultaneously to a driver’s social insecurity and their company-car allowance. There was also the significant power increase over the BMC C-series engine and, of course, the cachet of owning a car with either a Royal or a Rolls-Royce connection, according to how the ‘R’ suffix was interpreted.
As for the Vanden Plas’ nearest rival, the first Series Humber was introduced in 1957 as the four-cylinder Hawk, which Rootes claimed was Britain’s largest monocoque-bodied car. The 2.6-litre Super Snipe – with a ‘six’ designed by Armstrong Siddeley – was introduced in ’1958. The following year it gained front disc brakes and a capacity increase to 3 litres. For 1961, the Super Snipe became the first British car to be fitted with four headlamps in a lateral plane and, in late ’64, the Humbers received a facelift involving a razor-edged roof and six-light styling. This made them look rather svelte and somewhat less like Coventry’s interpretation of a 1955 Chevrolet. There was also a new flagship model in the form of the Imperial, a Super Snipe converted by Thrupp & Maberly, the London coachbuilder acquired by the Rootes Group in 1926. It was managing director’s transport that was neither staid nor Vauxhall Cresta-style cod-American.
The previous Imperial of 1948-’1954 had a decidedly municipal appearance, although the latest iteration was a car with an instant appeal to the traditionalist with a streak of flamboyance. Many owners were tempted to spend an extra £8 15s on the whitewall tyres to complete the effect.
The Humber and Vanden Plas were marketed in terms of finish and equipment. While the 4 litre R is luxurious – with its power steering, automatic transmission, two heaters (the passenger unit under the driver’s seat) and map lamp – the Imperial is positively decadent. Humber rear passengers have their own cigar lighters and adjustable reading lamps, plus a nylon rug to cover the deep-pile carpets. There is an MW/ LW radio with speaker balance and an electric aerial, plus Selectaride adjustable rear dampers controlled from a dashboard knob. Both have the rather odd feature of child-locks on all four doors and the era of their designs is revealed in some Heath Robinson-style features. The Humber’s front seat height adjustment is via a spanner and the rear-screen demister is operated by a switch adjacent to the driver’s door.
These were cars aimed at those who preferred to be driven and the Vanden Plas was ideal for those who still favoured bowler hats, as depicted in the brochure. To be reacquainted with the 4 litre R is to be reminded just how well balanced the Farina’s styling is and of the high standards of its craftsmanship. As you settle on the Connollyhide trimmed armchair and adjust the backrest via a chromed handle under the seat, you feel the need to straighten your tie. The vast wheel infers that the Princess will not be the easiest of town cars and, while some road-testers reckoned that its assisted steering was over-light, you might be forgiven for thinking them slightly deluded. Once the 4 litre R is really under way, it shows its true mettle. On A-roads its refined character is both palpable and understated. The brakes are very efficient, too. As the accelerator is prodded, a pale sun pokes impudent marmalade fingers through the ’screen, and sends the shadows scurrying.
The Hampshire countryside vanishes as the 4 litre R glides along, cosseting the occupants in the manner of a car costing twice as much. One of its major achievements is that it makes you quickly forget its humble origins, although the Vanden Plas still lurches through curves at speed. At least the folding armrests on the front seats help to anchor you in place.
That the 4 litre R was launched at the same time as the Mini Moke and the Austin 1800 displays the diversity of thinking at BMC – the first two looked to the future, but the Vanden Plas was aimed at buyers who thought David Frost a dangerous anarchist and who hoped that The Beatles would see the error of their ways and join the French Foreign Legion. It is an imposing machine where the ‘smooth elegant lines conceal the surging power inside’, according to the brochure at any rate, while its Humber rival looks a little more louche with its vinyl-clad roof. As with the Vanden Plas, much of the pleasure of the Imperial is in the detailing – from the red lights in the doors to the silver kickplates.
Leather was a no-extra option, but the usual West of England cloth trim equally suits the Humber’s air of ‘supreme luxury’, as Rootes’ publicity department modestly described it.
Once facing the walnut dashboard studded with adjustable warning lamps (another nice Rootes touch), it is time to move the column-mounted selector into Drive and what comes as a surprise to the novice is just how light it feels. As the Borg-Warner transmission kicks down, the 3-litre ‘six’ is as smooth as a Matt Monro ballad and, as one road tester once noted, the ticking of the clock really is louder than the powerplant. The Imperial is powered by the Super Snipe Series V engine, which was fitted with a Weslake head and twin Zenith Stromberg 175CD carbs to give acceptable rather than brisk performance.
The Humber is a tad heavier than its BMC rival, but it is more manoeuvrable at low speeds – in addition to sporting rather enjoyable road manners. Earlier models were softly sprung, but the range was fitted with a rear anti-roll bar from ’1964 and, although the Humber would never purport to be a sports saloon, it feels more dynamic than the Vanden Plas. This is not at the expense of refinement, either: the Selectaride damping means that the Imperial’s suppleness can be varied from Soft to position 4 (firm). To a 1965-vintage driver, altering the switch as you cruised down the M1 would inform passengers that you were truly a motorist of the jet-set. When the Humber was launched, Chrysler had acquired 46% of the ordinary shares of the Rootes Group and 65% of its non-voting shares.
One of its decisions was to cancel the Imperial’s planned 5.1-litre V8 replacement. The marque lived on until ’76 with the Sceptre – basically a Hillman Hunter Super De Luxe to the power of 10 – but, when the car that provided ‘A new conception of executive luxury’ ceased production in ’1967, it marked the end of an era for one of Britain’s most famous car-makers. Conversely, the challenge for BMC was to develop Vanden Plas as a prestige brand to compete with Jaguar and Mercedes. Had the Princess not suffered from build-quality issues, this might have worked. Production of the 4 litre R stopped in 1968 and over the next three decades too many examples fell into the hands of banger racers, though some reformed individuals are now restoring them.
In an ideal world, one would be chauffeured to a day of corporate drama and four-hour expense-account luncheons in the Vanden Plas and take to the wheel of the Humber at weekends. There can be no overall winner for such is their appeal that if I had all of the money that I’ve spent on old cars over the years, then I would spend it on these two. They are big, thirsty and ostentatious – and there aren’t enough of them left.
Thanks to owners Chas Thompson (Humber) and Graeme Blackmore (Vanden Plas); John Lakey, Cambridge Oxford OC: www.co-oc.org; Vanden Plas OC: www.vpoc.info; The Elvetham Hotel in Hartley Wintney: www.elvethamhotel.co.uk