On September 17 in 1974, the renowned coachbuilder Vanden Plas unveiled its latest product – a small, front-wheel-drive saloon named the 1500. Although a few cynics were heard to mutter “Isn’t it just an Austin Allegro with a peculiar radiator grille?” the latest ‘VDP’, according to the promotional material, was “equally at home in Rome or Paris or Vienna”. Or a driveway somewhere in Marlow.
Austin acquired Vanden Plas in 1946 and 12 years later the coachbuilder began producing upmarket versions of standard Longbridge products. In 1971 its CEO Roland Fox sketched a proposal for a replacement for the ADO16 Princess 1300 based on the forthcoming Allegro.
The interior was to feature deep-pile carpeting and Connolly hide upholstery but not the famed Quartic steering wheel, which was deemed unsuitable for “the discriminating motorist”.
The bodies for the 1500 (they never wore Allegro badging) underwent two days of modifications at the Vanden Plas works in north London. Each car received the attention of a dozen quality control inspectors, while all the soft interior fittings were made by hand. Leyland boasted the “simple elegance puts cars twice its size to shame” while Tony Bastable of Thames TV’s Drive In thought it offered “Savile Row quality at an off-the-peg price”.
At £1,951 the 1500 cost nearly £500 more than an Allegro 1750 Sport Special, but the two models were aimed at entirely different markets. The former was, to quote Autocar, for motorists who sought “quality furnishings, excellent finish and low noise level” in a small car. The latter was for the up-and-coming property developer who wore Mungo Jerry sideburns and who donned leather driving gloves for the one-mile journey to the Post Office.
In October 1975, the 1500 Mk2 gained improved Hydragas suspension and a more spacious cabin, as well as folding picnic tables for the rear seat passengers to enhance the “distinctive air of good breeding”.
Four years later, the Mk3 gained twin carburettors and a 1,748cc engine stablemate called the Vanden Plas 1.7, but the famous works closed in November of that year. Production transferred to Abingdon before sales ended in the autumn of 1980.
Today, Andy Perman owns two 1500s – a 1975 model and this second-generation 1976 VDP, which he came across it in 2018. It is possibly the sole roadworthy example of the 1500 Automatic Mk2. He believes the VDP is a misunderstood car: “You can’t argue with the sales figures, as it shifted 11,000-plus to its target buyers. The 1100/1300 VDP was very successful, so it was inevitable BL continued that for the Allegro.”
Perman much enjoys VDP motoring, although the steering “can feel very heavy at low speeds”. He is also immune to the many and various ‘humorous’ comments from members of the public, from “Where’s the square steering wheel?”, to “The windows fall out, don’t they?” and “They all rust, they do.”
His response to the last-mentioned bon mot is to ask: “How come they are stood next to a 45-year-old car that has never been welded?”
The VDP carved a distinct niche as an affordable town car for the socially ambitious; think hostess trolleys and fondue parties. It appealed to those who regarded the Citroën GS Pallas as “too complicated” and the Ford Escort Mk2 Ghia as “too flashy by half”.
As for that grille, Fox believed it provided the driver with “a ‘proper view” of the highway”. It also helped to convince some gullible neighbours that you had just taken delivery of a miniature Bentley.