Buying Guide : Princess/Ambassador

The Princess is one of those iconic cars which was ahead of the opposition, but has really only become recognised in the last few years, once it slipped under the classic car umbrella.

Keith Adams updates our quick run-down on what you should look for when buying yourself a nice family-sized slice of wedge.


Availability

Years produced: 1975-1982
Body style: 4-door saloon
Engine options: 1798cc: 1975-1978 Austin 1800, Morris 1800, Princess 1800L, 1800HL
2227cc: 1975-1981 Wolseley Saloon, Austin 2200, Morris 2200, Princess 2200HL, HLS
1695cc: 1978-1982 Princess 2 1700L, 1700HL
1994cc: 1979-1982 Princess 2 2000L, 2000HL, 2000HLS
Transmission options: Four-speed manual, three-speed automatic

Brief overview

Launching a car with no name can have its pitfalls. When it first hit the market in 1975, the Princess wasn’t a Princess at all – it was an Austin, Morris or Wolseley 18-22 Series. The name might not have readily tripped off the tongue, but the styling certainly got people talking. The low nose and truncated rump soon earned it the nickname ‘The Wedge’ – and, although the mechanical package underneath the masterful Harris Mann styling was familiar thanks to being similar to the BMC 1800/2200, it was more than a match for its rivals thanks to front wheel drive and interconnected Hydragas suspension.

The car was launched in the middle of a crisis for its maker and, as a result, plenty of mud was thrown at it by the press – despite a very strong set of attributes, such as roomy cabin, quiet cruising and superior ride quality. The badge-engineered models were dropped, and the seven-car 18-22 line-up was replaced by a slimmer four-car ‘Princess’ range.

Although many people refer to the Princess as an Austin, it was always simply a Princess. In 1978, it became the Princess 2 to coincide with the launch of the new O-Series engines in 1.7 and 2-litre form (replacing the 1.8-litre B-Series). Treated to continuous improvements throughout its life, the Princess eventually sprouted a hatch and was facelifted to become the Austin Ambassador in 1982 – a case of hello practicality, goodbye character. That car lived on a scant two years, and was replaced by the Austin Montego in July 1984.

Model availability

The Princess wasn’t changed much during its life (1975-1982), even if it was continuously improved. The Austin, Morris and Wolseley versions were short-lived and so are desirable. The general rule of thumb is the newer the car the better the quality, and the last of the line pre-Ambassador models were thoroughly sorted. There was only one body style and the only major differences came in the engine and departments.

The Ambassador was technically similar but, in place of the six-cylinder option, you got a hatchback – and a rather nice Vanden Plas version. Bag yourself one of the special edition Princesses, such as the SP, Special Six or Club 100, and you’ll be truly spoiled. The same but more so applies for the hatchback-converted Princesses by Torcars and Crayford Engineering…

What to look for

There are many pitfalls to look out for when buying a Princess but, if you go in with your eyes open, and check the obvious, buying one shouldn’t be too taxing. Here’s our guide:

Bodywork:
Princesses do rust, but not as badly as you might think. Check mainly the lower part of the body especially the sills and rear inner wheelarch where the rear suspension arm bolts to the body. Make sure it hasn’t been bodged with filler. Check door bottoms and rear arch finishers. Ambassadors are prone to rot on the roof above the rear quarter glass and on the A-pillar – that’s impossible to repair properly so avoid. Vinyl roof gets tatty, budget £300 for a new one to be fitted – though the correct vinyl can be difficult to source. Front wings rot at the corners below the bumper, new wings are the solution (£150 will buy a new one).

Interior:
On L and HL models, seat trim can fade and disintegrate; especially vulnerable are lighter colours, and later cars (1981 onwards) seem to suffer particularly. The HLS’s trim is the toughest. Wet front carpets mean shrinking and perished windscreen rubbers but new ones are hard to source, so make sure it’s a good one.

Engines and gearbox:
Of all the engines, the 2.2-litre Sixes are the most fragile, so listen for bearing rumble. 1.8-litre B-Series and  1.7 and 2.0-litre O-Series engines are very sturdy, though O-Series engines need a new timing belt every 48,000 miles. It’s very easy to replace on these. The four-speed manual gearbox is strong enough but first gear can be particularly awkward to engage – this is normal, though this can sometimes be caused by a worn clutch or slave cylinder.

Suspension and brakes:
Leaking Hydragas displacers cause sagging on the affected corner. £75 will get you a secondhand one. Rear displacers can be troublesome to remove. The non-assisted steering is very heavy; power steering can be retro-fitted quite easily but it’s worth hunting down a car with PAS. Powerful four-pot brake calipers are well up to the job, but can seize. Rear wheel cylinders can leak but are cheap and easy to replace.

Running one:

The parts situation:
The Princess has long since dropped out of the dealer network in terms of getting major parts, but specialists, such as Mac’s Factors, Kevin Davis of www.leylandprincess.co.uk, or the Princess and Ambassador Owners Club will be able to source most things.

Typical prices (supplied by Mac’s Factors):

Suspension displacer: £75 (secondhand with guarantee)
Sills: £40 per side
Front wings: £150 per side
Top/bottom radiator hoses: £8.50
Rotor arm (four cylinder): £8.50
Points: £5.00
Cross tube mounting: £25

Specialists:

Parts: Mac’s Factors, Andrew McAdam, 01553 841252, 07979 804970
Website: www.leylandprincess.co.uk, Kevin Davis’ excellent site.
Club: Princess and Ambassador Owners Club, www.princessandambassador.org.uk.

What should I pay?

In terms of picking up a good Princess or Ambassador for very little money, you have probably already missed the boat. The bottom line is that there are still a few good ones outside the club scene, which would potentially be bargains, but on the whole, because of its rarity, Princess values have been slowly but steadily rising. The ultimate in terms of value remains the Wolseley saloon, of which there are about a dozen left, and, when mint, they tend to change hands for around £5000.

Of the rest of the range, expect to pay £800 for an average needing work for its MoT, and between £1000 and £3000 for a good Condition Two car. The bottom line is, you might get lucky and find that proverbial bargain, but with the advent of eBay and increased interest in the Princess in general, it’s getting much more difficult.

Should I buy one?

You probably already know the answer to that one. If you like Princesses, you probably already own one, and love it to bits. If not, consider that, as a family hold-all from the Seventies, it’s absolutely vast inside, has the best ride quality you’ll encounter, this side of an XJ6 and its looks are totally unique. And although we love the Cortina and Cavalier Mk1, that is not something you could say about either of those cars…


Thanks to Kevin Davis and Andrew McAdam

Keith Adams

About the Author:

Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and watched it steadily grow into AROnline. Is the Editor of Classic Car Weekly, and has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, Classic Car Weekly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, and the the Motoring Independent... Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.

23 Comments on "Buying Guide : Princess/Ambassador"

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  1. john shea says:

    great i enjoyed ready this

  2. Hilton D says:

    I always love seeing photos of yellow YBJ243X… looks stunning.

  3. Fraser Mitchell says:

    Are there any left to buy ? I only ever see one or two very occasionally at car rallies, and at the Classic Car show in November.

  4. Glenn Aylett says:

    Well liked by managers at a local chemical works, who always opted for Princesses over Cortinas, as they looked more upmarket and had a far more cossetting ride.

    • Dave Dawson says:

      Remind me, Glenn, where you are talking of.

      My Dad spent virtually all his working life at Smith Brothers in Salterbeck, Workington – a packaging company. Barely anybody here drove the standard Ford company cars. Employees could, for a price, choose something more interesting (until one day it became a more usual company car scheme) Quite a few examples of the Princes about if I remember correctly.

  5. RichardF says:

    I ran an Ambassador 1.7 for about 50,000 miles, under a company scheme where (at that time) it was my only option! Spacious, comfy seats, good ride, secure handling ….. But oh, so underpowered, and undergeared (4 speed box only), compared to Cavaliers and Sierras, which even in 1.6 form were much more of a driver’s car and motorway friendly. In my unsympathetic hands, the breathless 1.7 needed a valve job at 35,000. Also, when thrown hard around corners (which most Ambassador drivers didn’t) the rebound straps on the rear trailing arms, which are like giant rubber bands with a hole in each end, would break, and hang down like….well, a spare something or other. In fairness, BL didn’t intend this car for drivers like me – but, nor did they offer anything else!

  6. Dave Dawson says:

    On a more general note – it’s a fine looking machine the Princess, especially in the top photo AND for the seventies.

    Shame the Ambassador spoilt it in so many ways. Yes, add the tailgate. Most likely the third side window too. To keep it in tune with the times a few bits of more eighties’ trim too. Why oh why though the altered bonnet line and Ital headlights?!

  7. Glenn Aylett says:

    @ Dave Dawson, most cars for middle management at Marchon were two litre Princesses, it was probably a case of wanting a comfortable, refined car for journeys between Whitehaven and Widnes, and they seemed popular enough. The former Smiths offices in Whitehaven seemed to have a few Princesses, although Volvo 240s seemed most populat with senior managers.

    • Dave Dawson says:

      Ah, yes, Marchon.

      I remember, as a lad, always trying to spot the later Princess 2. The few trim changes seemed to make a big difference. An HLS in white looked great, I thought.

  8. An says:

    Beautiful car.

  9. Glenn Aylett says:

    The last generation Princess was a sorted car and that yellow late model looks excellent. Always preferred the four headlamp look to the trapezoidal lights as the four headlamp set up on L and HL models made the car look more upmarket and sporting. I often wonder what the 2200 would be like with fuel injection and five speeds, it would probably have beaten the V6 Cortina hands down.
    As for the Ambassador, the hatchback was a welcome addition and the car continued the fantastic ride quality and interior space of the Princess. However, it should really have received a five speed gearbox to improve economy and refinement and the lack of a rev counter, even on the Vanden Plas model, was a false economy. Yet not a bad car by any stretch of the imagination and more reliable than the Montego that replaced it.

  10. Dave Dawson says:

    The Ambassador could have created a much better impression with just a few detail changes. The new interior would have looked far, far better with a full instrument pack, different steering wheel, more attractive switchgear around the centre console. Outside, a more characterful snout would have helped in a big way even with the lower bonnet line which I don’t think fit too well.

  11. Glenn Aylett says:

    The Ambassador was compromised by not having a five speed gearbox and by not being powerful enough, the 2 litre could be easily outrun by a 1.6 Cavalier and the 1.7 struggled to reach 100 mph. Also as Dave points out, it was let down by a cheap looking dashboard and a lack of driving instruments, you’d expect the Vanden Plas to come with a rev counter and an ammeter and oil pressure gauge, as these were standard on top of the range Fords and Vauxhalls of the era. However, you could overlook this for the massive boot, huge interior, Jaguar like ride and a refined if slow drive.

    • Hilton D says:

      I agree with Glenn, the round twin headlamps looked best on the Princess. Also, as mentioned here, the Ambassador could have been a better car if it had a better dash & rev counter, 5 speed box etc. However, as with all generations, you accept the technology that’s available at the time.

  12. Richard Davies says:

    The lack of a 5 speed gearbox is something that surprised my about the Princess & Ambassador, considering the Maxi had one from the start.

    The last time I brought it up I was told BL didn’t have a 5 speed box to deal with the amount of torque produced by the O series IIRC.

  13. Glenn Aylett says:

    @ Hilton D, it has to be said most cars still came with four speed gearboxes in 1982 and they only became commonplace on family cars in the mid eighties, when the Ambassador had gone. Also developing a five speeder for the Ambassador,as has been pointed out above, would have been a costly exercise for a stop gap car. Yet if the transmission had been created when the Princess received the O series engines in 1978, it would have made the Princess/ Ambassador range an even nicer car to drive.
    As I’ve said above, there is so much to recommend the Princess 2 and Ambassador on. The O series engines were a step forward from the B series in terms of refinement and economy, reliability issues had been beaten by 1979, all cars were well equipped and had the armchair comfort you associated with a Rover, and they looked distinctive and more upmarket than something like a Mark 1 Cavalier. Some people could put up with the leisurely driving experience when the car rode so well and was so comfortable.

  14. Kev says:

    It does make me wonder why Austin Morris went to the trouble of modifying the teeth profiles of the four speed gearbox for the Ambo to make it smoother when they would probably have been better off outsourcing a 5-speed from another manufacturer, as they did with the Montego/Maestro.

    The frontal styling was dictated by Harris Mann being told to use as many ‘off the shelf’ parts as possible, which hindered it slightly, but it was of the time when launched.

  15. Glenn Aylett says:

    @ Kev, British Leyland was still recovering from the nightmare years of the seventies, and the Ambassador was only a stop gap. Yet if they’d launched a hatchback Princess in 1978 and maybe endowed the car with a five speed gearbox, then Ford could have been given a real fright. It could have proven, with three hatchbacks in the range with fwd and five speed gearboxes, that British Leyland was moving with the times instead of relying on rwd saloons like Ford.

    • Kev says:

      Princess was laid out with a hatchback in mind. However, it was changed to a booted car to stop it competing with SD1. Mr King felt that SD1 with smaller engines would have lost out to the larger engine ADO71 derivatives.

  16. Richard16378 says:

    At times BL seemed to be scared of having too many hatchbacks, while almost the whole Renault range came with one, apart from the 12 & 18.

  17. Glenn Aylett says:

    Spotted on tonight’s episode of The Professionals, a now very rare Wolseley Saloon used as transport for an Arab sheikh in Britain. Mercifully the car didn’t get destroyed in the car chase that followed and it was nice to see what in 1980 wasn’t that common a Princess type model as it was only produced for eight months.

  18. Richard Davies says:

    As mentioned in our feature, Ken Campbell drove a Wolseley wedge in Fawlty Towers.

  19. Glenn Aylett says:

    @ Richard Davies, the one where he referred to Basil as Bazille, or something like that. I suppose the Wolseley would have considered as upmarket as a Rover or big Triumph in those days and probably had more room for the golf clubs. No doubt when it became tired, it would have been traded in for an equally nice Princess 2200 HLS.

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