My Other Pride And Joy – The Vanden Plas 4R

My Mk 6 B40PV shares a garage with a 1964 Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R. This is a car I have wanted since I was about 10 years old (I only heard of Mk 6 Bentleys a few years later).

I had been passing the car on the way to and from work for around five months. She was sitting, looking rather sorry for herself, on the forecourt of a petrol station and garage in Norbury, near Croydon, come rain or shine, her condition visibly deteriorating almost weekly. I decided something had to be done. One evening I pulled into the forecourt on the way back from work and had a close look. Clearly the car had recently been expertly repainted at huge cost but exposure to the Croydon climate had taken its toll. However the interior was as new and had obviously been expertly reupholstered, also clearly at huge cost. There was excellent new headlining. All interior woodwork was in good condition (apart from a few cracks which are typical of Vanden Plas, who I feel always applied too much lacquer). The engine was solid as a rock although the mountings had perished and the oil hadn’t been changed in years. Tappet chatter was however awful – fairly typical for many 4 Litre Rs.

The mechanic at the garage explained that the owner was in his 90s and under orders not to drive any more. He had been asked to sell the car on behalf of the owner, a lay preacher from the local congregational community in Balham. After thoroughly examining the car I bought it.

The body needed nothing more than T-Cut and twenty hours of elbow grease. The car was then driven to the 4 Litre R specialist Mick Dearing near Spalding. New bushes, mountings, a few days work on the engine, a reconditioned back axle, a change from the original 13 inch rims with vile crossplies to 14 inch rims (from an earlier Vanden Plas 3 Litre) with radials, transformed the car into a taught, well-behaved 60’s saloon. The car is now so much more nimble (although like contemporary Cloud IIIs and Shadows they still prefer to be driven in a straight line). The only missing item was the ‘R’ badge for each front wing, which I finally found via Ebay from a VP enthusiast in Sacramento.

Since then I must admit that the car has given me more pleasure even than my Mk 6. 20W/50 oil changes every four hundred or so miles and frequent filter changes (filters are cheap and easily available) cleared the tappet chatter.

These engines are, contrary to popular and unwarranted gossip, bulletproof and staggeringly reliable. Fuel consumption is nothing to write home about, being comparable to an early Silver Shadow. Generally speaking, spares simply haven’t been a problem and whatever I have needed I have been able to get hold of. The car has been cheap to own, easy to work on. It is important to keep the car constantly on the move so it gets at least one weekly drive around Westminster, close to home. The car attracts admiring glances from so many tourists on the Mall and when wafting around St James. And with double thickness insulation, Wilton carpets and lambswool overrugs the car is as quiet as a Silver Shadow inside.

The car was displayed at the Rolls-Royce plc 100th anniversary celebrations at Donnington Park in 2004. Goodwood called me in 2005 and asked if I could exhibit the car at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. It was on special display there with selected touring cars of the 60s such as the Facel Vega and Maserati Quattroporte. Unfortunately the week before Goodwood, the drivers door suffered a nasty bash but everything is repaired again.

In early 2006 the engine was removed and totally rebuilt, engine bay restored, gearbox rebuilt, servo overhauled, front subframe removed blasted repainted and re-bushed, new bonnet damper pad woven and fitted. The car is quieter now than it ever was and tappet chatter has now gone (the oilways were blocked with Mk 6-type sludge which had caused oil starvation). The cost of getting the car to this condition by a Vanden Plas specialist has been at most a quarter of what it would have cost if one of the Rolls-Royce and Bentley specialists had done it. The car is so much cheaper to own than a Rolls-Royce and gives me just as much pleasure. I now sometimes use it as an everyday car.

As a very affordable, hugely luxurious, smart, eminently reliable classic car, the 4 Litre R is in a class of its own. And mine has increased in value threefold since I bought it two years ago. Good ones like this are in demand, so a little investment pays off. The 6-cylinder in-line FB60 (also known as the F60) Vanden Plas 4 Litre R engine (which during its development stage was nickname Reg was given 24 hours to calculate the torsional stiffness of the crankshaft, using only what was available in those days – logarithmic tables and slide rules. Amazingly, after an agonizingly long and tense night and within 24 hours the calculations had been done and were almost spot-on, using a ‘short-cut’ formula devised by Rolls-Royce engine designer Charlie Jenner (who had been a member of Sir Henry Royce’s personal design team). Issigonis insisted on dealing only with Reg Spencer, who took his drawings to Longbridge the next day. From this period onwards the idea of using the engine in the personnel carrier was dropped (eventually it used a Jaguar engine) and all subsequent development of the engine was carried out exclusively for the car which was to become the Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R.

Experience of hydraulic tappets used in the FB60 was recent, given the fresh development of the V8 and this experience was transferred to the FB60. The engine was designed with an off-centre camshaft to allow good water circulation around the bores, a consideration which wasn’t necessary with cast iron blocks. The exhaust valves were designed to rotate at each stroke, not merely to prevent wear but to dissipate heat from the bathtub design of the side exhaust chamber.

The derivation FB60 comes from ‘F’ for f-head engine, ‘B’ for BMC and 60, being the standard Rolls-Royce identification for a 6-cylinder engine. Note that the B in FB does not mean ‘B Series’. An experimental FT60 engine was also derived from the FB60 which had one Solex carburetor was designed for a truck. There was also an FS60 (‘S’ meaning sports) which was destined for a Healey and which was intended to be raced at Le Mans and to be driven by Paul Frere (the French racing driver) which had carburetor and exhaust modifications. There was also the G60 engine with a twin overhead camshaft which was used in a few modified and widened Austin Healey 3000s, known as Healey 4000s, however the idea to build these commercially was dropped after Sir William Lyons objected on the grounds that it would trounce the E-Type (another example of competing interests and personalities at BMC causing the company to strangle itself). The G60 was principally designed by John Astbury of Rolls-Royce. One of the few remaining examples of these is still at the Hunt House – the headquarters of the Rolls-Royce Enthusiasts Club.

There is a common misunderstanding that the FB60 was a military engine, or that it shared the same engine as the Austin Champ, or a tank. This hopefully busts the myth. Note that although production FB60 engines all have a serial number beginning ’40FB’, there is no such thing as an FB40 engine.

Unfortunately, BMC paid scant regard to the changed weight distribution as a result of this lighter weight engine, as compared to the 3 litre Austin engine, resulting in suspension difficulties, plus other problems of which Rolls-Royce tried in vain to make BMC aware. In the end, Rolls-Royce were not at ease with the BMC marketing department’s emphasis on the car’s Rolls-Royce engine and tried to distance themselves. However at all times, the FB60 was built in Crewe to the highest Rolls-Royce standards alongside the 6230 cc V8 engine which powered the Silver Cloud II, III and the earlier Silver Shadows. Despite the fact that the FB60 is an inline six, it bears more similarity to the light allow 6230 cc V8 than to the B Series.

Perceived quality problems with the resultant car (and the more dynamic nature of the Jaguar, which more captured the mood of the time) meant that the 4 Litre R never sold well (only 6555 were built in its production run of 1964-68). Corrosion problems meant that few examples survive. However, the few good surviving examples, if run on 14 inch radials, and with a little tlc, drive as well and almost as quietly as a Silver Cloud or early Silver Shadow for a fraction of the price. Typical Vanden Plas armchair front seats make them equally as comfortable as a Silver Cloud.

There was also a failed joint development project between BMC and Rolls-Royce to produce a cheaper Bentley using a body derived from the Vanden Plas Princess 3 Litre. This project was known as Java, but build quality problems persuaded Rolls-Royce to pull out. This is another story altogether.

Visit the Vanden Plas Owners Club.

Giles Usher