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Who remembers the name Vanden Plas? Part 1

5 October 2023

Vanden Plas’ famous ‘Kingsbury Works’ was opened in 1923.
To celebrate what would have been the factory’s centenary we examine this often misunderstood name, which profoundly affected British automotive history and pioneered an aspect of the modern car industry.  

Vanden Plas factory, Kingsbury, 1965

Vanden Plas, that most English of coachbuilders, had their roots in Belgium; a country which, let’s be honest, has an image problem in the UK. In the early 1980s, Audi spent a fortune on their UK ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’ campaign to combat market research that had shown many British consumers believed Audi were Belgian in origin! Similarly, when writing ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, Douglas Adams chose the word Belgium to be the single most unmentionable swear word in the entire universe. He was tapping into a genuine element of the British collective psyche; Belgium just isn’t cool, man – apart from when talking about chocolate.

That, however, had not always been the case. Carrosserie Van den Plas, of Antwerp, Belgium, were the toast of the embryonic European Motorshow scene at the beginning of the 20th century; the very essence of style and sophistication. The firm’s owner, Guillaume Van Den Plas, had inherited his Uncle’s Brussels-based blacksmith shop in 1870 after serving his apprenticeship. He transferred the business to Antwerp in 1884 and began to make whole carriages. Joined by his three sons, who had travelled the world training in coachbuilding, he soon spotted the potential of the motorcar and began building bodies.

Theo Masui set up ‘Vanden Plas (England) Ltd’ in 1913 to build the highly regarded bodies under licence and act as the exclusive importer for the Belgium-built bodies. The Great War intervened and the fledgling company spent the duration engaged in aircraft component manufacture for Geoffrey de Havilland’s designs. ‘Vanden Plas (England) 1917 Ltd’ was set up after the war and commenced building car bodies. The company’s books from this time show they also sold firewood (presumably body frame offcuts) at a shilling a bag! That level of parsimony didn’t save them, however, and the company folded in early 1923. The manager, Edwin Fox, acquired the assets from the receivers for £6,000 and moved into the Kingsbury Works on 23rd August 1923, registering the company as, ‘Vanden Plas (1923) Limited’.

Julian Majzub racing his 1927 Bentley 4 1/2 litre short-chassis at Goodwood in 2019. The car is one of the few made originally on the short 9 ft 9 1/2″ wheelbase and was fitted with a Vanden Plas body from new. It was later owned by Keston Pelmore, one of the founders of the Bentley Drivers Club.

Throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s, now with no link to the original Belgian Company, Vanden Plas flourished. Their bodies clothed all five of Bentley’s Le Mans winners and they forged a reputation as one of the finest coachbuilders in England.

A 1938 Alvis 4.3-Litre Short Chassis Vanden Plas Tourer is typical of the high-quality work Kingsbury was producing before the war. Pic: Alvis Car Company.

As Europe plunged back into war Vanden Plas again linked with De Havilland, working on the Mosquito. They also undertook many smaller MOD contracts including the production of 950,000 spike bayonet scabbards, more than any other supplier…
Post-war, Vanden Plas found themselves in a potentially difficult position. The future of car building was clearly in high-volume monocoque bodies. During the war, Edwin’s son Roland had joined the company and together they’d looked for projects that could give Vanden Plas a long-term future. Fred Connolly, of Connolly Hide, suggested they meet his friend Leonard Lord, then chairman of Austin, who wanted to build a limousine. Lord offered the Foxes two options; a contract to build a run of limousines or the chance for Vanden Plas to join Austin as a subsidiary company. They chose the latter and became Austin’s first subsidiary in June 1946.

The brochure for the 4-litre Princess Limousine was a work of art in itself and included a subtle gold embossed BMC logo on the rear page.

The first fruit of this new relationship was the Austin Princess, named because the young Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were newsworthy and Fox felt it would, “lift the product to the top”. It was launched on 18th December 1946 and was a coach-built machine designed by the Vanden Plas stylist John Bradley and Roland Fox based on Austin’s first post-war chassis, the Sheerline. It lasted, in a variety of guises, until 1968 and fulfilled Leonard Lord’s stated aim, “to build a Bentley at an Austin price”. Ironically Princess limousines continue to be mislabelled as Bentleys or Rolls-Royces by millions of wedding guests and, most infuriatingly, cult film critics who often refer to the Princess in the opening titles of ‘The Prisoner’ as a Bentley.

The Vanden Plas Princess Limousine is still a popular car in the modern wedding industry, being simpler to maintain than the more expensive and complex Crew-built rivals it superficially resembles and is often mistaken for.

Initially, Princess chassis were built at Longbridge and transported to Kingsbury for completion but in 1958 chassis construction was also moved to Kingsbury, thus Vanden Plas were making a whole vehicle for the first time. The cars were badged purely as ‘Princess’, the Austin name having been dropped in 1957 and not replaced. John Bradley had drawn the coronet badge to represent the Princess range, but the public still tended to call them ‘Austin Princess’ anyway.

Austin effectively took over Morris to create BMC in 1952 (although it was portrayed as a merger of equals it was anything but) and Vanden Plas thus found themselves a minnow coachbuilder among a portfolio that also included Austin, Morris, MG, Wolseley and Riley. BMC embarked on a major programme of rationalisation, initially by sharing components such as engines and gearboxes which meant, for instance, that the Morris Minor gained the legendary Austin A-Series engine. This was naturally extended to badge engineering new groups of cars as they were announced because most towns had an Austin dealer and, often quite close, a Morris (or Nuffield group) dealer. These local dealers had customers and sales staff loyal to particular brands, so the Cambridge and Westminster-derived Farina cars were offered in a variety of badges as were, in due time, the 1100 and Mini ranges, so that those loyal customers were not lost.

Few examples of the Austin A105 Westminster Vanden Plas remain, but it started a dynasty of more luxuriously trimmed Vanden Plas versions of mainstream production cars that would be produced in Britain for over 50 years.

Late in 1957, Sir Leonard Lord (he was knighted in 1954) asked Vanden Plas to produce a one-off, more luxuriously trimmed version of the 2.6-litre Austin A105 Westminster, Austin’s most prestigious saloon, for his personal use. He was so pleased with the result that, after consultation with dealers, 500 cars were commissioned. These cars were sold as Austin Westminster A105 Vanden Plas and featured a luxurious wooden dashboard as well as extra sound deadening and unique paint schemes. The special edition A105 was a success and Vanden Plas was becoming integrated into BMC’s developing range hierarchy. As the 1960s dawned, the Kingsbury works were about to get even busier.

You can read part two here

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