Devonport in Plymouth is the largest naval base in western Europe, according to the Ministry of Defence, but nestled into the fold of the city's military might is quite a different fortress belonging to Princess Yachts – founded on the very spot 50 years ago.
The growth of a West Country boat builder
In 1965, a man by the name of David King picked Newport Street in Plymouth as a place to build and fit out a boat from the hull and deck mouldings of a Senior 31. He established a company under the name ‘Marine Concepts’ and after he sold that first boat, the Concept 31, for £3,400, his vision and ambitions began to expand.
Having established himself as a builder of high-quality sea cruisers with the production of several similarly sized craft throughout the 60s, the end of that decade saw the introduction of the company’s first aft cabin flybridge model. Sizes continued to increase, with the 55 in the mid 80s and the 65 in 1990.
The new V class sports line then arrived in 1994 courtesy of the 39 and 52 – and in the year 2000, following the appearance of the Princess 40 in the 007 film, ‘The World is not Enough’, the V65 became the new flagship of the fleet. By the time of its 40th anniversary in 2005, the company boasted 81,000 square metres of space, 1,450 employees and global sales in excess of £140 million – and yet the modern Princess narrative was far from finished (see the latest V class reviews on boats.com, including the Princess V-48 and the Princess V62-S video on yachtworld.com).
In 2011, the first of the new M Class yachts announced Princess’s entry into the superyacht sector and that was quickly followed by the landmark 40M (see the full review of the Princess 40M on our sister site yachtworld.com) – not just the largest resin-infused leisure yacht the UK had seen but at the time, the largest recreational motoryacht ever built in Britain. At more than 130-feet, this tri-deck monster was a flagship out of all proportion to anything that had gone before – and yet in a welcome move, that same year also saw a very canny re-investment in the company’s roots with the overtly sporty V39. Despite big moves at the top end, this was the first sub 40-foot sports cruiser produced by Princess in more than a decade.
Developments behind the scenes
In order for the product line to develop so dramatically, there had to be some major developments behind the scenes – and key among them was the company’s purchase in 1981 by South African businessman, Graham Beck. For 27 years, he expanded operations to such an extent that by the time Marine Projects became Princess Yachts International in August 2001, the company operated not just from its newly rebuilt HQ in Newport Street but also from manufacturing plants in Devonport, Plympton and Lee Mill.
In 2008, Beck would eventually go on to sell a 75 per cent share in the business to L Capital 2 FCPR, a division of international luxury group, LVMH – and that also proved to be a very productive union. The French LVMH Group already owned more than 60 elite international brands, from the likes of Moet Chandon, Fendi and De Beers to Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton. Later that same year, it would also go on to bring the famous Dutch Superyacht yard, Feadship, into the fold – so it came as no surprise that the sale heralded a shift for Princess toward the very highest echelons of the market. In fact, within a year, South Yard, a 15-acre waterside site that had formally been part of the Royal Naval Dockyard, was acquired on a freehold basis, enabling plans to be put in place for Princess to build boats that would finally break the magic 100-foot mark.
Green but bespoke
However, the story is not all about a headlong crusade for grandiose escalation in size, because despite the company’s radical expansion in scale of production, variety of craft and length of model, Princess was also the first major European boat builder to be awarded ISO 14001 accreditation for environmentally sound management. In order to achieve that, they apparently carried out a year-long investigation into their own processes and products. They then worked with suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint, cutting back on waste and limiting both noise and weight on their motoryachts in a bid to improve performance without exacerbating the ecological impact.
However, while the efficiencies of common hull lengths between product lines and increased industrial capacities no doubt played their part in achieving this, modern Princess is by no means about easy, ‘paint-by-numbers’ boat building or off-the-shelf solutions. On the contrary, when you view a Princess alongside other craft of a similar order, what really sets it apart is the level of bespoke individuality in the fit-out. Even the simple things, like a freestanding table in a superyacht saloon, are given the same treatment – not specced from a trade brochure but designed and built from scratch.
Princess Yachts moving forward…
From that original Project 31, conjured into life in a Plymouth rental shed 50 years ago to the largest resin-infused production motoryacht ever built on British shores, the progress of the Princess yard has been extraordinary. With more than 2,400 employees across six sites, it has become one of the biggest employers in the South West, with a complex distributor network covering more than 65 countries around the world. More to the point, with a modern fleet of 23 models across four product lines, comprising everything from the sporting V39 to the tri-deck 40-metre flagship, Princess has pushed itself to the very forefront of the world’s luxury motoryacht industry – and with high-profile awards across all three of its primary product lines in the last ten years, it has the trophy cabinet to prove it.
Of course, like so many British success stories in the manufacturing, marine and automotive sectors, its continued development has been inextricably linked to the input of large, well-moneyed foreign investors – but its range is still designed and built in and around the original Plymouth HQ by a British workforce employing local expertise. And while its elevation to the market’s premier league has seen its prices become ever more exclusive, its fleet has continued to exhibit the build quality, customisation potential and seagoing ability upon which 50 years of success have been based.