How could two cars wearing the Invicta badge be so dramatically different? If you remember, we featured the aggressive 4.5-litre S-type Low Chassis in the October 2004 issue of Motoring, a pint-sized piece of automotive dynamite that made you sprout extra chest hair just looking at it. And here was this blowsy, sedate and genteel saloon that evoked sleepy country lanes and afternoon tea. What’s even more surprising is that one of the chief engineers who worked on the S-type was mainly responsible for this Invicta too.
The S-type was like an extremely powerful go-kart of the 1930s, while this, the Black Prince, did not want you to even change gears! The initial Invictas were famously engineered to be tractable – once you got into top gear, there was no need to downshift. But by offering an auto-box, this was taking the Invicta philosophy a bit too far. Unlike most other vintage/classic cars I have driven, where there’s a lot of activity taking place and you have to keep fiddling and fidgeting just to stay on your side of the road, this one was like a dream. Throttle and steering, that’s all you needed to do. The Black Prince offered a plush ride, like that of a barge on a placid lake or the high seas depending on where you were driving. For an Invicta, it was not involving to drive, the excitement being provided only when your heart started beating fast – the brakes were palpably slow. But that’s because this car is more than 57 years old. Today, I appreciate the fact that it’s so easy to pilot, but in those days, the very premise of making a car absolutely effortless to drive could have been a mistake.
We have the unfair advantage of retrospection, where we can look back in time and say, here, this is where it went wrong. Considering the circumstances of the birth of the Invicta Black Prince, it’s surprising how the car came into existence even when failure was staring at it in the face – no foresight was required. Yet, its unfortunate fate makes it extremely rare today. The most reliable estimates suggest that only 17 units were manufactured, of which 13 survive, in various conditions. And only a handful of them come close to the state this 1948 Black Prince is in.
Yet, it’s not just the model’s rarity or that of the marque that makes it virtually priceless. The Black Prince was ahead of its time, showcasing the finest of automotive technology of that era. And that was one of the main reasons why it was doomed. Oh, it was gloriously flawed too.
It was the period when Britain was recovering from the Second World War. Materials were in short supply, there was not enough money going around, buildings had to be rebuilt and roads had to be re-laid, but it looked like nobody told William G Watson about the world outside. Watson was one of the main engineers of the Invicta Car Company, which died a sad death before the war. It was revived afterwards, its fortunes riding on the car that Watson was re-hired to create. A car that would boast the finest engineering and technology, a car that would resurrect the glorious Invicta marque.
It was grandly called the Black Prince, the name borrowed from Edward, a 14th century English prince who was extremely successful in his conquests and who’s reported to have worn black armour during battle. The tragedy of this blue blood was that he passed away prematurely, before he could inherit the throne from his father, Edward III, the king of England. Perhaps the directors of the newly set-up Invicta Car Development Company weren’t superstitious, giving their all-important product such an inauspicious name. Well, even the early death of Noel Campbell Macklin in 1946 – the original founder of the Invicta marque, though now unconnected with the new firm – a few weeks after the announcement of the introduction of the new car didn’t certainly stop them from going ahead.
Supposedly, a fabulous sum of about £100,000 was sunk into the Black Prince’s development, so it’s no wonder bad omens were given the heave-ho. Watson obviously had a free hand and the money to play with. He developed an automobile that Autocar in October 25, 1946 declared, had ‘design which bristles with interesting and unusual points.’ An understatement. The ‘points’ which the Black Prince bristled with included the impressive sounding Brockhouse HydroKinetic Turbo Torque Converter – a complex automatic transmission somewhat like today’s CVT gearboxes, a refined 3000cc inline-six with double overhead camshafts in addition to twin-spark ignition and triple SU carbs, unique independent suspension all round, aircraft-style body construction and even 24-volt electricals.
When it was launched officially in 1947, the Black Prince was the first post-war British car to feature ‘two-pedal control.’ ‘The World’s most advanced car,’ announced the initial advertising, and the copy went into hyperbole, ‘...brilliant acceleration, scientific braking, superlative roadholding combined with luxury, simplicity and freedom from mechanical trouble.’ The motoring press also went gaga over it. The Motor commented in October 23, 1946 that, ‘the fitting of an automatic transmission on a sporting type of car will undoubtedly rouse controversy... but it certainly gives the Invicta unique characteristics.’ And The Motor Trader wrote on November 20, 1946 that the Black Prince is ‘designed for the enthusiast who is prepared to forego the pleasure of gear changing in the appreciation of smooth performance and good roadholding...’
But at that time – and perhaps even now, except for the US – there were not many such enlightened enthusiasts around. Double de-clutching was perhaps an acquired art! Still, everything would have been hunky-dory, had the magnificent Brockhouse HydroKinetic Turbo Torque Converter worked well in the Black Prince. In theory, the motoring press was justified in praising the transmission, but in real life, the multi-stage torque converter was a pain to shoehorn. A switch on the dash simply said N-D-R, but getting into reverse – something not many people could achieve – required a separate geartrain altogether. One more thing, if you got into reverse, it was virtually impossible to get back to moving forwards! That’s not all. Thanks to the S-type’s torquey engine, there were expectations from the Black Prince’s new Meadows powerplant too. Though the 2997cc straight-six boasted twin cams and light alloy construction, and extra massaging by twin-spark ignition and three carburettors allowed the engine to develop 120 bhp at 4600 rpm and about 18 kgm at just 2300 revs, it still wasn’t enough. Definitely not for an Invicta. Besides, it’s only now that automatic gearboxes are smart enough to reduce transmission loss, but we are talking about a different era altogether. Transmission loss further emasculated the Invicta’s performance.
There was a reason why it was called the most advanced car in the world. The flat floor and seats were engineered separately from the body shell, and were mounted to the exceptionally rigid chassis independently. The body shell, crafted using light-alloy sections to save weight vis-à-vis wood, was mounted to the floor using rubber mounts, thereby being free from stress – similar to principles of aircraft construction. And all the panels were riveted from inside, to give the Black Prince a flawless skin outside (just the opposite of the S-type!).
The all-independent suspension too was ingenious. Telescopic pillars in front and back held fabricated hubs and were mounted at the bottom on forged wishbones. Additionally, long torsion bars were provided along the side-members of the chassis’s X-form. And to reduce unsprung weight, the massive brake drums were mounted inboard, within the X of the chassis (to access them, you had to go through the boot). Besides this, the Black Prince came with 24v electricals (using two 12v batteries) that were used for starting the car through a dynamotor (dynamo/starter combo) mounted at the front end of the crankshaft, for lighting and for activating the four hydraulic jacks that came as standard.
Obviously, there was a cost for all this. The chassis was priced at £1,850 and for this completely bodied Byfleet 4/5 seater drophead coupe, the price went all the way up to £2,500. Only Rolls-Royce and Bentley cost a little bit more, and the Black Prince was way too expensive. But it doesn’t end here. What finally killed it even before it got into proper production was an extremely heavy purchase tax (£1,390 in this case), that took the final price of the Invicta way beyond any prospective customer’s reach.But one particular customer had all the money in the world to buy the car he desired. He was Jaichamarajendra Wodeyar, the Maharaja of Mysore state, who picked up this Black Prince to tour the country. Since then it has changed hands repeatedly. Today, the car in front of me has everything miraculously intact, except for the gearbox, of course. Most Black Princes have different gearboxes, the Brockhouse unit consigned to history. This one has an automatic Jaguar tranny which activated by a quaint horizontal switch mounted on the right side of the dash. It’s got a low ratio too, that helps the Black Prince over sharp inclines/descents.
When you shift the switch to D, through P and N, the Black Prince actually shudders into attention and has already started moving. Just depress the accelerator pedal and it picks up speed quite rapidly. After that, there’s really nothing else to do, other than modulate your braking to control its eagerness. The steering, like all large cars of that era, requires more input than what you’d give to even today’s non power-steered cars. It has that delightful vagueness, but it’s easy to get used to. For a car that sits on a massive 10-foot wheelbase, the Black Prince achieves its main objective of offering ‘effortless high performance driving.’ Well, 120 kph is as fast as it would go.
Like its namesake, the Invicta Black Prince’s story has a sad ending. It pulled the firm down, making it bankrupt and with all of its assets auctioned off in 1950. Instead of a victory parade, the marque’s return ended with a mournful dirge.