Woodall Nicholson Kirklees: The fat end of the wedge

Have you ever beheld a piece of obsolete technology and thought that time ought to have been kinder to it? Perhaps when you slide your favourite, home-recorded Minidisc into your still-functioning deck, or when you pass a once magnificent Sony WEGA CRT television as it sits, screen down, outside somebody’s house – it’s sheer weight having thwarted that inevitable final journey to the dump.
Some technologies and styles meet their natural end, but others seem to follow a far steeper trajectory into premature obscurity. ADO71 – the design more famously known as the British Leyland Princess – was one. It’s a car that adhered to no prior design rules, and wouldn’t inspire any real imitators, either. It was a complete evolutionary dead-end. Personally, I reckon Harris Mann’s wedge-shaped masterpiece was horribly underrated, and this point was rammed home violently when I encountered this fantastic stretched example at the recent Ipswich to Felixstowe classic car run.

This sensationally rare machine is, as you might have guessed, not a British Leyland product. It’s a hand-built stretch limousine conversion built by Woodall Nicholson, a coachbuilder that is very much still in business, and counts Coleman Milne (surely a household name for limos and hearses?) among its divisions. It was marketed as the Kirklees, named for an area of Yorkshire, the county in which the firm was based.
With its sombre (mostly) gloss black paint, you’d be excused for assuming this example to have a lived a funereal existence, but no. A typed notice displayed in a window outlined it history, explaining that its first keeper was a district council. Here it was used for mayoral duties, whisking multi-medallioned officials around in angular style and with legroom to spare. It later spent a while as a rental limousine, where it must have been a hard sell among the more obvious stretched Ford Granada competition.

It really does offer the full formal-limo package, though. It’s more low-key than the 80s American standard – there’s no TV, VCR or illuminated drinks cabinet, nor is there the fibre-optic lights, anodised poles and wipe-clean upholstery that characterise any stretch found loitering in dubious urban corners today. There is, though, a panelled wooden divider between the chauffeur’s cell and the passenger lounge, and a pair of occasional seats that boost accommodation should the mayor need his armed bodyguards to attend today’s supermarket opening.

In fact, given the front-wheel drive nature of the Princess, and the smooth transverse-mounted six-cylinder engine fitted to this example, the Kirklees must have been a pretty quiet machine in which to travel, with no propshaft twirling noisily beneath the floor, and that divider providing an extra acoustic barrier between engine and sofa. All told, the Woodall Nicholson Kirklees seems to present a relatively convincing case for itself. And now we come to the best bit.

Just look at it. The Princess, in its normal form, was never really truly embraced as a piece of forward-thinking design. Launched in 1975, if you include its post 1982 Ambassador reincarnation it actually survived almost a decade – alas managing only its final two years with the hatchback it should have had from the start. Yet, in this long-wheelbase form, it looks like it could have been conceived as a limousine from the outset.
Had the public not generally regarded the underlying Princess as a bit funny looking and crap, its limousine evolution might have enjoyed a rather more enviable position in life. Imagine it today, trundling along with a subdued six-cylinder woofle, perhaps riding on wheels that lend it more visual gravitas than those disastrously unstylish finned British Leyland hubcaps (which I think are fantastic, incidentally) and the Kirklees would make an impressively sinister and other-worldly means of urban transport for the more esoteric gangster.

In an alternative reality, one where the Princess had escaped from British Leyland mediocrity and risen to become genuinely good, the Kirklees Limo might even have become a national symbol. I can imagine it as a kind of British equivalent of the Citroen CX limousines that seem stylistically immortal. Both were spun from slightly eccentric originals, after all. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. The Woodall Nicholson Kirklees is perilously close to extinction, and this example itself is generously described as shabby. Worthlessness and indifference condemned most to death by banger-racing, where their limo credentials no doubt turned them into motorised targets for early annihilation.
After extinction, the Kirklees will live on as a beacon of hope. Hope that something truly splendid can spring from something that seems hopeless.
What’s the most unexpectedly glorious limousine you’ve ever clapped eyes on?
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2018)

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18 responses to “Woodall Nicholson Kirklees: The fat end of the wedge”

  1. Desmo Avatar

    Haha. Exactly this car is pictured in the german Wikipedia entry:
    About 20 or so years ago, I had a problem with a hearse (Mercedes). But Mercedes refused to even look at it, instead of that they sent me to Woodall Nicholson in Hamburg. Over there were high walls around the place and hearses galore. Maybe that explains why this stretch-hatch is so rare. Nobody buys a stretch limo from the guys who build your coffin carrier. (Nonetheless its brilliant of course).

  2. mdharrell Avatar

    For anyone contemplating a purchase: Despite the Princess name and the crown badge, the ADO71 is not a Vanden Plas and therefore is not recognized by the Vanden Plas Owners’ Club, except for the single prototype ADO71 Vanden Plas Princess 2200. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      It’s just magnificent.

    2. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      It would have been just like BLMC to have come up with unique headlights for their top model.
      That is more attractive than the short-lived Wolseley version.

  3. Alff Avatar

    Headlamp nacelles. Everyone should have at least two. I blame e-class Mercedes.

  4. Windbüchse Avatar

    Reminds me of an embiggened Elite.
    If Lotus wanted to get in the limo biz, they could have stretched this: https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0dd37384d8eabf436140ea42c15d960034a044e2e5205d205c8e8e8b0b9d132b.jpg

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      I was thinking a stretched (as in grab each end and pull) 1980s Metrocab. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/647c7d8edee6e5c9ae0fb6fef6f1e072bc6aadbcf37d28603436ad3900f2a705.jpg

  5. Rover 1 Avatar
    Rover 1

    A very good article on the excellent AROnline website on the history of these cars. /www.aronline.co.uk/cars/austin-morris/princessambassador/princess-development-story/
    In the comments, it’s pointed out that the development story is a series of poor assembly, what-ifs and poor development and management decisions that, like many BLMC developments, spoiled what could have been a great car.
    The top engine in these cars, as in this example, was the ‘E’ series six, designed for transverse application, but in the UK only ever a 2.2 litre, and only ever paired with the four speed manual or auto. It’s a torquey, economical, long stroke engine even in 1500(4) and 2200(6) capacities
    In Australia, using the same, (longer),stroke as the 1750 E4, they made a 2700 E6 fitted to the Marina Six and P76. This 2.7 OHC six was also used in South African Rover SD1s and Land Rover Series IIIs.
    If paired with the 5 speed Maxi gearbox,which was designed for the E series, the 2.7 in the Princess would have given BLMC a unique competitor to the Citroen CX, Lancia Gamma, Renault 20/30, Volvo 264, E12 BMW 525, Peugeot 604, Saab 99, and perhaps more pertinently, the Rover SD1 and lower spec Jaguar XJ6s .In Europe where sixes of less than 2.8 litres had taxation advantages, (the PRV V6 was a 2.7), a technically advanced British car could have sold well. What could the Italian Innocenti version have been like? But since the 2.7 wasn’t UK developed, it was never even looked at.
    Volkswagen doesn’t seem to have any problem pitting it’s divisions against each other, indeed it’s become the largest car company in the world whilst doing so, as it was for GM before it.. BLMC’s caution in this area of internal model competition, cost them dearly and IMO was one of the reasons the company failed.
    As I said, a series of what-ifs.
    Crayford did offer a hatchback conversion for the Princess, not cheap, but for some people just what they wanted until the ‘lumpen’ Ambassodor arrived with ‘O’ series four cylinder power and no more E series six.
    Yes, despite having an OHC four of medium capacity, with an assosciated six already developed BLMC went ahead and designed an OHC version of the ancient ‘B’ series giving the company all the disadvantages of internal competition and duplication,( and waste), with none of the sales advantages.

    1. tonyola Avatar

      Even the Austin Ambassador hatchback you pictured was an unmitigated flop when it debuted for 1982. The shape was old-looking, less distinctive as you mentioned, and the interior was said to have been very plain and dull. British Leyland (or whatever they were calling the company that week) still couldn’t get it right and the car died after two years. The superb AROnline website referenced above gives the whole gory tale.

      1. mdharrell Avatar

        I believe that week the data plates said BL Cars (the successor, more or less, to Leyland Cars, itself more or less the successor to British Leyland) but that this part of the company had already moved on to become Austin Rover Group (the successor, more or less, of BL Cars). I wouldn’t swear to any of this, though, despite owning cars made right in the middle of this whole mess.

  6. P161911 Avatar

    I don’t think that there has been a limo made in America without power windows since the 1940s.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      Don’t forget this was bought by a local council, that would have been highly sensitive to spending money unnecessarily, hence buying an Austin limo in the first place. They would have been able to say “See, it doesn’t even have electric windows! We are spending your money responsibly!”
      I knew a guy who became mayor of one of the local councils here, and chose a Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible as a promotional exercise, and was criticised for getting a convertible instead of the usual Holden Statesman. Criticism disappeared when it was pointed out that it would cost the Council less money!

    2. Hubba Avatar

      IIRC the Henney built 54 Packard in The Godfather has crank windows. I’ve seen a couple other 54 Packards with crank windows.

  7. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    Clearly, the practical inspiration underlying the Lagonda.

  8. dukeisduke Avatar

    It’s funny you mention the Sony WEGA CRT HDTV – I just put one out at the curb a couple of months back. It was a 34″ widescreen, and weighed 202.5 lbs (from the specs in the owners manual). I paid $1800 for it in 2005, and it was pretty much trouble free for 13 years, until the blink code on the front LED indicated that the high-voltage section had died. It took me and another guy, with a dolly, to get it out to the street. I still miss that TV. Replaced it with an LG 43″ 4K LED, and it only cost $300.

  9. dukeisduke Avatar

    The headlights almost look like they could have come from the Peugeot 504. And I do like those wheelcovers (and the Kelly tires made me think of an old Kelly Springfield ad with a song that started out, “We’re good and tough, we’re the Kellys…”)
    But, crank windows in the back? They missed something there.
    Edit: That tire is DOT marked – can you look at the original photo and see if it was made in the US? I’m thinking it was.

    1. mdharrell Avatar

      In the higher-resolution version of the photo available by clicking on it, the tire says Made in Germany. I’ve encountered quite a few tires made for other markets (and had a few of them shipped here in order to get the correct size) that nonetheless are marked DOT.
      My Austin Maestro VP also has power windows in the front and manual in the back, so I assume that was simply the British (Leyland) expectation at the time.