The cars : Princess/Ambassador development history

The Princess never actually started out as such – but a marque-confused midliner to replace the slow-selling Landcrab.

However, BL’s wedge-shaped odyssey didn’t sell that well, either, although that was more down to the poor reputation of the company that built it – and early build niggles – than any weakness in the product itself. Born at a different time to a more highly respected maker, it could have ruled the roost.


Wedged in the future

The cars : Princess/Ambassador development history

(Picture: Kevin Davis)

THE ADO17 did not have a particularly distinguished career as BMC’s flagship front-wheel-drive model. Sales were disappointing because the car – which possessed a great deal of potential – simply did not appeal to the target buyers. Even though the car was an unreserved sales flop, BMC undertook no work into replacing the car, which meant that it would be down to Leyland to formulate plans – and because it was younger than the ADO16, it would have to take second place to it. Once Donald Stokes had finalised the company’s plans in the lower-mid-range, attention was finally turned to the ADO17 and how best to replace it.

First thoughts

Initial thoughts on the matter were put down on paper by Filmer Paradise on the 27th February 1970 (some six years after the launch of the ADO17) which was contained in a confidential memorandum, submitted to the members of the Product Policy Committee. Echoing the thoughts of John Barber, Paradise made it clear that the main growth in the car market would be in the upper-medium sector, referred to as the D Class and as the ADO17 needed replacing, it made sense to pitch its replacement further upmarket. This plan was, in the opinion of Paradise, one that Austin-Morris urgently needed to put in place and the design should be Euro-friendly to effectively meet the challenges of the late-Seventies.

Marketing thought the car should be rear wheel drive, but the decision to continue with front wheel drive was swiftly made by the Product Planning, who felt the ADO17 chassis and engine/transmission pack would form the ideal base for the new car. Besides, changing to rear wheel drive would send out the wrong messages to buyers after the company had done so much to pioneering front wheel drive.

At this time, the car was given the project name Diablo, encompassing a number of Harris Mann designs already on the table.

Once the mechanical package was settled, the new car became a much more serious study. Originally the 1750cc E-series engine was mooted as the entry-level power pack, as it had the advantage of a five-speed gearbox over the B-series powered ADO17. The upper models would use the E6 engine, already used in the Austin/Morris/Wolseley 2200, but with the addition of a five-speed gearbox. The body of the car was allowed to grow, to compete with the Opel Rekord, Peugeot 504 or Ford Cortina MkIII. More importantly, this enlargement would facilitate an improved driving position, allow a larger boot, and improve the car’s crash-worthiness. Importantly, it would have class-leading passenger space.

Stylish story

Original Harris Mann sketch shows just exactly where the lineage of the ADO71 originated. This drawing, produced for Project Condor in 1969, shows just how much Harris Mann believed in the wedge shape. The squared off wheel arches and air extractor at the base of the C-post also show hints of Allegro, which he had worked on the previous year.

Original Harris Mann sketch shows just exactly where the lineage of the ADO71 originated. This drawing, produced for Project Condor in 1969, shows just how much Harris Mann believed in the wedge shape. The squared off wheel arches and air extractor at the base of the C-post also show hints of Allegro, which he had worked on the previous year.

BL Board approval was given and development of the car continued apace. The man chosen to create a look for the ADO71 was Harris Mann. He had previously worked on the Morris Marina and created the Austin Allegro – and since the BLMC design studio had been moved from Cowley to Longbridge in 1970, had replaced Roy Haynes in overall charge of car design.

In 1969, after Mann had been asked to create a design for a futuristic sports car (which ended up as the BL Zanda, a good-looking design exercise for a sports coupe that had been presented to the press at the Earls Court motor show), he was asked to produce a saloon in the same vein. Unlike the Zanda, which became a full-size show prototype, the saloon car was nothing more than a paper study. However, the drawings were issued as part of a press release.

This saloon concept caught the attention of upper management and Mann was asked to develop the concept further. The idea was that the futuristic proposal completely captured the spirit of the upmarket aspirations that the company had for the ADO71 and so the styling work that Harris Mann had been working on was now transferred to this project.

First clay model, completed in November 1970 at Longbridge shows that unlike the Allegro, the lines of the Princess made it from concept to production reality without too much corruption from the production engineers. Harris Mann is stood to the far left in this picture.

First clay model, completed in November 1970 at Longbridge shows that unlike the Allegro, the lines of the Princess made it from concept to production reality without too much corruption from the production engineers. Harris Mann is stood to the far left in this picture.

Harris Mann worked on productionising his concept and within weeks, the design department had produced a full-sized version of the car. Even at this early stage in its design process, it was translating into an interesting a good-looking design. Notable Harris Mann trademarks were the pronounced “wedge” shape incorporating a low front, high rear and fastback tail.

Thoughtful design points were the concealed windscreen wipers, as well as a raised section towards the rear of the roofline, which reduced aerodynamic lift at speed. The initial styling study for Diablo actually incorporated a hatchback, and this would have enabled the ADO71 to compete more effectively with upcoming rivals, such as the Audi 100 Avant and Renault 20.

By December 1970, the BL Board had viewed the clay model and digested the technical specification and marketing plans and without too much procrastination, decided to give the ADO71 the go-ahead for full-scale production.

Board approval: Diablo becomes ADO71

Initial viewings of the ADO71 were conducted at Longbridge alongside its predecessor. This picture demonstrates just how much the contrast between old and new really was. One aspect of Harris Mann's wedge design was that it afforded excellent interior room whilst maintaining relatively short overhangs – something that continued BMC traditions of old.

Initial viewings of the ADO71 were conducted at Longbridge alongside its predecessor. This picture demonstrates just how much the contrast between old and new really was. One aspect of Harris Mann’s wedge design was that it afforded excellent interior room whilst maintaining relatively short overhangs – something that continued BMC traditions of old.

Some fairly wide-ranging decisions needed to be made with regards to the production of the car at this point. The first was dropping the E-series engine from the engine line-up. Easily taken, this decision came about because sales projections (in hindsight, ambitious) indicated the Allegro and Maxi would use all of Cofton Hackett’s production capacity. In its place, the safe option was taken and the ADO17’s B-series unit would take its place.

The single carburettor version of the E-series engine was also considerably less powerful than the B-series, and because the ADO71 was nearly as heavy as ADO17, the newer engine was judged less-than ideal anyway. Long-term planning also meant this decision was expedient in the face of the upcoming O-series engine (at the time, still seen as a straightforward OHC conversion of the B-series). Using the older engine meant that the conversion to the O-series would be a relatively straightforward affair.

Two stages of ADO71 development. Left: The final clay model is analysed by a DEA computer for in order to produce an exact set of dimensions - this process will produce the digrams that will then go to Pressed Steel Fisher so that it could produce the body panels for the new car. Right: This development model is used for producing a final interior. If you look closely, you can just see a proposal for ADO73, a frontally facelifted Marina that never appeared. (Pictures supplied by Kevin Davis)

Two stages of ADO71 development. Left: The final clay model is analysed by a DEA computer for in order to produce an exact set of dimensions – this process will produce the digrams that will then go to Pressed Steel Fisher so that it could produce the body panels for the new car. Right: This development model is used for producing a final interior. If you look closely, you can just see a proposal for ADO73, a frontally facelifted Marina that never appeared. (Pictures supplied by Kevin Davis)

No hatchback?

The questionable decision to offer the ADO71 as a saloon and not a hatchback was taken at this time. As we shall see, there was a simple reason for this, but BLMC’s marketeers touted a string of alternative explanations, none of which got anywhere near the truth.

A statement released at the time of the 18-22 Series launch said: “Product planners felt that in the class that the car was aimed at, a hatchback was seen as being somewhat out of place (despite what Rover was doing at Solihull with the SD1 at the same time). The hatchback concept was being seen exclusively as the province of the small car, whereas the ADO71 was conceived to replace not only ADO17, but the Austin 3-Litre as well. Besides, BLMC was already well-served in the middle market with their hatchback Maxi; they did not want the new car to take sales away from it.”

It added: “The Engineering Department was also encouraged to shy away from creating the car as five-door model because it would have added extra weight and complexity, with only marginal improvements in accommodation. Market research for BLMC also indicated that a saloon was what customers wanted. Of course, the reality showed that by not producing a hatchback, the company may have done themselves out of sales, especially in Europe – the subsequent popularity of the format showed how wrong Austin-Morris was (certainly the sales success of the SD1 was not impaired because it was a hatchback).”

However, the truth was (as always) more disturbing. The Princess never received a hatchback because, as one senior insider at the time put it, “…I believe there was some politics about not conflicting with SD1. [A bit odd really, given that we’d had the Maxi since 1969, and ‘executive hatchbacks’ were still a bit daring.] There was a definite tendency to push Austin-Morris feature levels down from whatever Rover were proposing, instead of letting each model range achieve its best level on straight economics.” This story would also be echoed during the development of the Rover SD1 in relation to Jaguar.

‘Lastic upgraded to ‘Gas – a suspended story

Charles Griffin was placed in charge of developing the chassis of the ADO71 and the question of what system was to be used was an easy one to answer. Hydragas, as first seen in the Allegro was the obvious choice, differing only in detail from it in the set-up of its front suspension, which actually mirrored the Maxi.

To ensure pliant ride, the spring rates in this application were exceptionally soft. To back this up, the unusual step was taken to design the ADO71 to use wide, low profile tyres on narrow wheel rims; relying on lower than usual tyre pressures and the resulting flexing of the tyres’ sidewalls to add further ride softness. It has to be said that, if the intention was to achieve Citroen-like ride, the chassis engineers reached their aims very easily; the finished car had a ride quality that was almost in the same league as the Citro‘n CX – certainly, it had none of the bounciness that afflicted the Allegro.

Development work continued and some wind tunnel tuning of the shape was all that was felt to be needed, which must have been a relief to Harris Mann, who had seen his previous design, the Allegro corrupted on its way to production. The final shape that emerged was only slightly different from the original clay model of November, 1971 and its comparatively clean aerodynamic shape (co-efficient of drag was cd0.404) was testament to the initial “rightness” of Mann’s design.

Accommodation was also marked out as a strong point; seat room was as good as the ADO17 up front, only slightly worse at the rear and most importantly, the driving position was far more reclined than the sit-up-and-beg ADO17. In development, it is fair to say that all the aims set out for the car in 1970 were met – and a great deal of credit for this should be laid at the feet of Charles Griffin, who ensured that the ADO71 project did not lose sight of its objectives.

Launch story

The press launch for the ADO71 was held on 13 February 1975 where Mr Keith Hopkins, managing director of the Austin-Morris division spelt out British Leyland’s new upmarket policy for selling the division’s cars. ‘This upmarket policy may have been misconstrued by some people. What we are doing is a recognition of the fact that with an Austin Morris output of below one million cars a year it is just not sensible or realistic for us to try to compete head on with those of our international competitors who have output potentials twice or three times as big as ours,’ he said.

Mr Hopkins added that Austin-Morris’ policy was to improve product quality and refine engineering standards to a degree which justified the slightly higher price for each model: ‘We shall be seeking to create little niches in the world market place which are more profitable for us.’ He emphasized, however, that Austin Morris was not opting out of the volume section of the market and indeed intended to consolidate its position as leader of this sector.

When the ADO71 was unveiled to the public on 26th March 1975, just weeks before the publication of the Ryder Report, it did so to an embattled audience. Where there was a real sense of disappointment at the ugliness of the Allegro, the 18-22 Series, as it was named, emerged a good-looking and interesting car. The dealers must have shared the same sense of relief, because whereas the Allegro sales never got close to matching the sales ADO16, there was a real feeling that the new car would comfortably outsell the ADO17. Certainly British Leyland’s own forecasts reflected this view and the production facility at Cowley North works was greatly modernised with an increased production volume in mind.

After launch Harris Mann discussed the new cars style with David Benson of the Daily Express: ‘We set out to build a new truly international car, not a scaled down American car, but a car that would have a distinctive flavour and would sell well in this country and Europe. The wedge shape was inspired by Grand Prix cars but it is also very practical as it has been proved on the race track. It gives better penetration through the air and in our case better fuel consumption. I also wanted the car to look firm and eager even when parked at the kerb. It is built with its wheels out to the full width of the body, sitting firmly on the ground rather than pouring over the wheels as American cars do.’

Unfortunately for BLMC, Cowley was arguably its most militant plant. In January and February 1975 production at the plant had been disrupted by a four week strike of 250 engine tuners and rectifiers which restricted Cowley to 80 per cent of its normal output. In fact, it was during this dispute that the public got its first glimpse of British Leyland’s forthcoming car. In its 10th January 1975 issue, the Daily Express newspaper printed a photograph of an ADO71 car leaving the strike afflicted Cowley plant, a full two and a half months before its official launch.

On launch day itself, the Times newspaper published a photograph of Lord Stokes with the top of the range Wolseley, for he was still boss of British Leyland as the new car appeared in the hiatus between the first injection of Government money and the publication of the Ryder report. Some 8000 Austin, Morris and Wolseley versions were in the hands of the dealers for launch day. With the help of a night shift, production at the Cowley factory was running at about 1000 a week, and the plan was to build up to 1400 by mid-year.

Advert from March 1975 shows that seven years after the Leyland takeover, badge-engineering was still rife.

Advert from March 1975 shows that seven years after the Leyland takeover, badge-engineering was still rife.

Mechanically, the ADO17 offered no great surprises, with its choice of B and E6-series engines, four speed gearboxes and Hydragas suspension – the O-series would have to wait for the first facelift. The press lauded the car for its impressive stability at speed, superior ride quality and well-sorted front wheel drive handling.

Importantly, BL learned lessons from the ADO17 and fitted power assisted steering to the car, offering it as standard on the 2200 version and an optional extra on the 1800 – the fact was that the system made a huge difference to the driving experience and the heavy, low-geared manual set-up had dominated all driving impressions of the ADO17.

Interior accommodation was predictably praised and dashboard ergonomics – never a strong point of the ADO17 – were described as, “futuristic” by one publication. The question of the styling was unanswered, but few disagreed with the sentiment at the time, that it was considerably more appealing than the Allegro, Maxi and the ADO17.

When the morale at British Leyland, be it in the factories or the dealers, was at its lowest ebb, it was seen as genuinely good news that the company had something appealing to sell.

Testing times

After its test of the 2200HL on 29 March 1975, AUTOCAR summed up the car favourably: “All in all, this is a most satisfactory car, which should do much for Austin-Morris. We wish it well, and are confident that it will find wide favour with the both business man seeking a refined, comfortable mile eater and the family man who needs proper space for a growing brood.”

The new Austin-Morris 18-22 range together at launch: at the rear, the Austin, foreground right, the Morris and foreground left, the range-topping Wolseley. (Picture supplied by Kevin Davis.

The new Austin-Morris 18-22 range together at launch: at the rear, the Austin, foreground right, the Morris and foreground left, the range-topping Wolseley. (Picture supplied by Kevin Davis).

Interior of the top-of-the-range Wolseley model shows extensive use of plush carpeting and wood veneer. Also evident from this shot is just how much the new car had dropped the bus driver driving position of the old 1800/2200 model.

Interior of the top-of-the-range Wolseley model shows extensive use of plush carpeting and wood veneer. Also evident from this shot is just how much the new car had dropped the bus driver driving position of the old 1800/2200 model.

What was left unsaid in the test was that the 110bhp 2200HL version was blessed with rather less than sparkling performance; much was made of the excellent stability, superb ride and strong brakes, but the straight line speed – or rather lack of it – was carefully glossed over. The figures told a rather stark story, though: 0-60mph in 13.5 seconds, a maximum speed of 104mph, 50-70 in fourth gear took a yawning 13.2 seconds and an overall fuel consumption figure of 20.7mpg. Most price rivals were significantly quicker and to the customers that the car was aimed at, this was important.

Marketing the car did pose some raise issues for the company’s management, but the only problem was one of potential confusion in the minds of the cars customers. It would seem odd that after the proclamation given by Donald Stokes that the company would no longer enter into the practice of badge engineering, that the new car would appear in Austin, Morris and Wolseley guises.

By the end of the first week the new car had been on sale, British Leyland distributors and dealers were reporting so much interest in the company’s new model that they were predicting that it would become the best selling large saloon ever produced by a British company. A spokesman for Mann Egerton, one of the largest BLMC distributors in the country, said: ‘We are being offered Peugeots, Citroens and BMWs in part exchange for the new car. These are normally regarded as being up market of the Austin Morris range. We can sell every 1800/2200 we can get, but naturally we are being a little careful about the type of car we are taking in part exchange. We now have a car which, because of its advanced styling and comprehensive equipment, is more than a match for the importers. And at £2100 it is very competitively priced.’

A British Leyland spokesman added, ‘We don’t want to crow too early, but motorists’ initial response has been so good that we are all getting a little excited about the car’s prospects.’

However, any illusion that the Cowley workforce would pull together and make the ADO71 a success were shattered on 18th April 1975, when 2700 workers walked out on strike. The latest trouble at Cowley stemmed from a management decision to curtail production of the Marina range by introducing a four-day working week in some areas of the plant. This was the first day that the Marina lines were closed, with 1600 production workers laid off. The dispute arose when the management decided that another 150 indirect workers who serviced the production lines-would also have to be sent home because there was no work for them. The Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) shop stewards then called-out the plant’s 2700 indirect workers, telling the management they intended to operate a policy of ‘one out. all out’. As a result, a further 3300 Cowley workers had to be laid off and all production, including the 18-22, was halted. Work resumed four days later.

Then, in early May, a strike at Dunlop, and a repeat of the 19th April strike restricted output – and by the middle of the month, all production had halted again. After the Dunlop dispute was resolved, the 18-22 resumed production, but then, on 4th July 1975, a strike at a British Leyland components factory in Hemel Hempstead brought production to a grinding halt once again. It was to be well over a month before production could be resumed.

Wolseley dies, a Princess is born

The marketing plan, however, dictated that it was necessary to launch the 18-22 Series, badged three different ways because of the fact that after seven years in existence, British Leyland still operated independent Austin and Morris franchises. At the time of the launch of the 18-22 Series, the ADO77 Marina replacement was still only in the early stages of development, but back in 1971 when the decision was made to offer the ADO71 in three varieties, the Marina had just been launched and product planners knew that there would be no new Morris cars for a very long time.

No apologetic advertising by the company following the launch of the Princess marque in September 1975: The company's management were still very proud of their newest product, even following the hasty name change. (Picture supplied by Kevin Davis)

No apologetic advertising by the company following the launch of the Princess marque in September 1975: The company’s management were still very proud of their newest product, even following the hasty name change. (Picture supplied by Kevin Davis)

The answer was unify the Austin and Morris dealerships – a process that had slowly taking shape anyway since the formation of BLMC in 1968. The matter was finally brought to a close in September 1975, when the Austin-Morris 18-22 Series would henceforth be known as the Princess. The re-branding exercise sadly closed the book on Wolseley, with the last of the long great line produced on 11th September 1975.

In response to the recommendations of the Ryder Report and its wish there should be a single unified” car company, the Princess name – a marque in its own right, apparently – was applied to the ADO71 range and used in much the same way as the Mini name had been since 1969. Now that the Austin-Morris Princess (or Leyland Princess, as it was known as by just about everyone) was firmly established on the market, it did not take long for the cracks to show.

The first disruption to Princess production ocurred in October. All production of Marina, Maxi and Princess (18-22 series) cars at the Cowley plant was halted, and 2500 assembly workers laid off by a 24-hour strike of 66 car testers, who wanted to be regraded. Then, in November, installation of a safety barrier provoked a stoppage on the Princess line at Cowley. One man refused to work because he said it prevented him reaching car parts he had to fit – and that led to 300 night shift workers being sent home.

A spokesman for Leyland Cars said the barrier was installed at the request of the factory’s safety committee. In early December, it was the turn of strikers at Oxford Radiators to bring the Princess line to a halt. Early 1976 was calm, and production relatively was uninterupted, until a strike at the SU Carburettor factory brought production to a halt in April. It would be easy to list the industrial disputes ad infinitum, and to continue would be repetitive – but the above only serves to illustrate how British Leyland managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The 18-22/Princess may have been the most desirable new car of 1975, but could you get one when you wanted it?

Poor reputation

Unreliability was a problem that had seemingly befell all British Leyland products since the Mini, but by 1975 the problem was so bad and so public – when the Princess started to develop faults, they became national news. Nightmare stories of collapsing suspension and driveshaft failures did not help BL at all and because the engineers seemed to take such a long time to cure the problems, company’s reputation further plummeted.

Because British Leyland was now controlled by the government and funded by tax-payers, special attention was paid by all the negative side of the company. As the Princess was its newest product, it attracted the most attention. The problem was simple: BLMC rushed the introduction of the Princess. One Cowley fitter put it in succinct terms: “the question of quality on the Princess was, in the beginning, really bad. The main problem was bad fit up of parts, and poor colour matching of internal trim. This improved fairly quickly once the launch of the car was done.”

This immaculate Princess demonstrates perfectly the fact that the wedge profile made the transition from styling exercise to production reality without any major changes - contrast that with the sad story of how the Allegro was corrupted by the production engineers. This late Princess sports a strident yellow colour that suits the car perfectly. (Picture supplied by Kevin Davis, courtesy of Retro Cars magazine.)

This immaculate Princess demonstrates perfectly the fact that the wedge profile made the transition from styling exercise to production reality without any major changes – contrast that with the sad story of how the Allegro was corrupted by the production engineers. This late Princess sports a strident yellow colour that suits the car perfectly. (Picture supplied by Kevin Davis, courtesy of Retro Cars magazine.)

The company did all it could do, but it was hamstrung by now-limited financial resources. One of positive action taken was to hire a new man, Brigadier Charles Maple, whose job it was to ensure all quality was as tight as it could be. Because the Princess failed so spectacularly and so publicly, it was all the easier for Maple to get down to work and make his presence felt; to act as an effective quality overlord.

Like the ADO17 before it – and the Austin Montego after it – this initial unreliability had predictable effects on consumer confidence in the Princess. People did not buy the Princess in large numbers; the sales never lived up to the expectations that British Leyland management had for it, but unlike the ADO17, which BMC left pretty much untouched for the duration of the production run, the Princess was the subject of a programme of continuous development.

Continuous development

One happy side-effect of the creation of the Princess marque was simplifying the production variations. Now that there was not the plethora of Austin, Morris and Wolseley models to contend with, the quality soon improved. According to one assembly line worker at Cowley: “The other problem was the product mix, i.e. low-line, medium-line and high-line trim levels. This was on the Austin and Morris versions. Many wrong parts were fitted to the early cars just to make up the numbers for launch. Once the 18-22 series was dropped and the Princess name came in and the trim levels when to low-line [L], high-line [HL] and high-line super [HLS], things improved no end.”

Interestingly, a run of 50 diesel-powered Princesses was produced during 1977, with the sole intent of recapturing the private-hire taxi market, which had been all but surrendered to Ford. Although these B-series diesels were trialled across the country, the plan was soon dropped. The one contribution the Princess 1800D did make to the overall story of the car was the improved bulkhead insulation, which would find its way onto the Princess 2, improving refinement levels considerably.

In July 1978, the Princess 2 finally appeared, sporting the new O-series engine, which was available in 1.7- and 2-litre forms to run alongside the existing 2227cc E6 power unit (the six cylinder would be phased out before the Ambassador was launched). Various running changes were also made to the Princess and even though customers still found the car’s lack of pace a turn-off and its styling challenging, sales continued running at a reasonable, if unspectacular level. Due to this continuous tinkering by the backroom boys, the Princess did eventually come good even if sales in the UK took a dive in 1979 due to the Iranian crisis.

What Car? magazine tested the 2000HLS in 1980 and were quick to point out that the Princess had undergone a process of subtle improvements and did not hesitate recommending it (with reservations) against a couple of obscure rivals: “…to concentrate on the BL car’s faults – and it has all too many, still – would be to ignore its one overwhelming advantage, that of excellent passenger space and ride comfort, unrivalled at the price. It may not be the most prestigious, attractive or advanced alternative available, but for the motorist who places practicality above speed and excitement it must be still the best bet.”

1980s improvements – and Ambassador

In the post-Austin Metro shake-up of the range, money was released in order to freshen up the Princess. The company knew that in order to maintain sales, nothing less than a serious facelift would be the order of the day. Work began on the project in 1980 and the main intention of the facelift was to give the Princess a hatchback, because BL managers were by now openly admitting that the lack of a fifth door was costing the company sales.

Because the reputation of the Princess was just about on the floor by 1980, it was also decided that the facelift would be far-reaching enough to warrant a change of identity – and in the case of the ADO71, a change of gender – from Princess to Ambassador in one fell swoop.

When the Ambassador appeared in March 1982, the extent of the changes took most BL-watchers by surprise; most people expected that such a low-budget makeover would result in only cursory changes to the car – something similar to the transformation that had taken place on the Morris Marina to become the Ital in 1980. But what they actually got was a car that had every body panel changed (barring the outer front door skins), monocoque changes at the rear to accommodate the addition of the tailgate and a vastly different front-end appearance.

One of the significant contributors to the new look was the bonnet line, which had been lowered. Harris Mann‘s styling studio was responsible for the tidy restyle, but what is less known was that there were plans to radically alter the marketing of the car: “Serious consideration was given to re-introducing it as a Wolseley rather than an Austin – and Ray Horrocks was quite keen at one time on an illuminated front badge, whether Wolseley or the Austin-Morris chevron… There was an abiding memory at Longbridge that the Wolseley ADO71 sold better in its 6-month life than the subsequent 2200 HLS ever did…”

The lower bonnet-line was made possible by the fact that there was no need to accommodate the tall E6 series engine. It resulted in an improvement in aerodynamic penetration, but it did mean that the cleverly concealed wipers of the Princess were now lost. Some of the undoubted character of the Princess styling was absent, but it was certainly an effective facelift – and the extra ãlightä in the C-post eliminated a huge blind spot and contributed to a new and airier interior ambience.

The interior makeover, however, was disappointing. Whereas the 1975 Wolseley Six had superb, multi-adjustable front seats that sported the extravagance of front seats that could be adjusted through 240 positions, the Ambassador made do with far more ordinary cut-priced chairs. The Princess also had a traditional looking, but well-planned dashboard, which was discarded in favour of a low-cost Allegro-esque item in the Ambassador, which not only managed to look and feel cheaper, but also conveyed less information to the driver – even the top of the range VDP version lacked a rev-counter.

Ambassador managed to look different to the Princess, but like just about all end-of-term facelifts of ageing cars, it did not improve on the original. The addition of a hatchback made a vast difference to the practicality of the car and overall, the Ambassador was a useful improvement over the Princess. But by 1982, did anyone care?

Ambassador managed to look different to the Princess, but like just about all end-of-term facelifts of ageing cars, it did not improve on the original. The addition of a hatchback made a vast difference to the practicality of the car and overall, the Ambassador was a useful improvement over the Princess. But by 1982, did anyone care?

The lack of such a basic item as a tachometer reflected the fact that the people behind the car’s facelift seemingly did not understand the needs of their clientele. Most professional drivers wanted a car that felt quick and firm to drive – and the Ambassador was neither. One of the biggest criticisms of the Princess was its lack of go and this criticism was not addressed in the Ambassador – its most powerful version was now the twin-carburettor version of the 2-Litre O-series engine, and that could only muster 104bhp. The intended main seller, the 1.7-Litre version could not crack 100mph and its 0-60mph time (always important in bar room conversations) as claimed by the manufacturer was 14.8 seconds. Compare that with the all-conquering Vauxhall Cavalier 1600’s 107mph and 10.8 seconds and one can see why people were ignoring the Ambassador in such large numbers.

That was the fundamental problem with the Austin Ambassador, though; it was just not what people wanted.

Luckily, small improvements were made to the suspension system – and if nothing else, the sheer comfort and ride-absorption qualities of the Ambassador demonstrated that Alex Moulton’s Hydragas system could be made to work most effectively and the car would stand as a monument to the effectiveness of Moulton’s system.

The end…

When the Ambassador was discontinued in 1984, to make way for the Austin Montego, it had been in production for barely two years and such was its lack of popularity, that it was not even produced in left-hand-drive form.

Lessons were seemingly learned from the ADO71 and it appeared to BL that mid-range cars should be conservative in order to compete effectively in the fleet market. That was only a single factor. When the Montego first rolled out of Cowley, the company assumed that conservatism for the sake of it would be a winning sales formula; they would be proved wrong. Why the Princess failed was not because of its adventurous styling, its lack of a hatchback or even the fact that it was not fast enough; simply put, it failed because it had a lamentable record for unreliability, which once gained, could not be lost – no matter how hard they tried. If Austin-Morris had built it well from the outset, the story may have been entirely different – but the same could equally be said for so many other cars produced by the company before and since.

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.

37 Comments on "The cars : Princess/Ambassador development history"

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  1. Sid Vicious was my roadie | Rocket 88 | 11 October 2012
  1. Kev. says:

    The Princess had a difficult job in try to straddle two market segments; the upper echelons of the Cortina range and the lower levels of the Granada range and all the other manufacturers cars also in that segment. The Cortina was available in such a bewildering array of combinations customers were spoilt for choice, from a 1300 poverty spec right up to a 2.3 Ghia. The Princess only came with two (eventually three) engines and three trim levels, take it or leave it!

    BL’s attitude was that instead of maximising the sales potential of each model they had something across their whole range of cars to suit everyone, ignoring the fact that customers did want the modern and stylish Princess with a hatchback and didn’t want an out of date, poorly styled Maxi.

    Supply problems meant in some cases they were unable to supply their customers with the car they ordered but something ‘as near as’ instead. But then, BL did have a habit of launching cars before they were ready and the 18-22 Series was no exception, as supply problems with trim meant many cars left the production line with odd bits missing and mismatched trim. And then there was the drive shaft issue which brought about the Princesses notoriety thanks to its weekly appearance on the BBC’s That’s Life TV programme.

    The Princess was allowed to drift along without too much attention being paid to it by Leyland, and the lacklustre marketing only added to its image problem plus its full potential was never realised. ‘Not the car for Mr Average’, and indeed it wasn’t. He wanted a Cortina. Many critics blamed the advanced styling for the Wedges woes, but underneath it was all pretty basic stuff, but too many engineering aspects of the car were left to chance such as suspension interconnection pipes being of poor quality or being fitted incorrectly causing rather catastrophic suspension failures that were so easily avoidable and giving the car a bad reputation. So disappointing really. We won’t even get into the 5-speed gearbox issue, but it so needed it. Why give the Maxi and Allegro five gears, and your premium product only four?

    The Princess eventually came good in its final year of production but no one was really interested by this time, and when the Ambassador was launched no one fell for Austin Morris’s attempt at disassociating it from the Princess. Everyone wanted a Cavalier anyway!

    Today though, it’s different. With so few around now it’s surprising how many people remember how roomy they were, and most have forgotten its bad reputation and see it as a sharp piece of ’70s styling that should have been a success. The younger generation are particularly interested as they have no pre conceptions about British Leyland due mostly to the fact that they have never heard of it!

  2. Ian Nicholls says:

    I’ve just been told by a gentleman that the Wedge was the worst car he ever owned . The engine block had to be skimmed among its problems . At the time he was Parliamentary correspondent for the Daily Mirror…….

  3. Matt says:

    My dad had a Princess, identical to the gold one on the right of the top photo. I remember the number plate was AAX 6T, which for some reason I thought was dead cool at the time (I was eight). My dad loved the car and eventually traded it in for an Ambassador. Oh dear…

  4. Rickerby says:

    Its almost as if BL took a look at the 1800/2200 Landcrab and thought here we have a car that doesnt fit any defined market segment, sells badly, is misunderstood by the car buying public, is heavy to drive and has an overcomplicated mechanical layout that the market doesnt need. We need to build a modern version of this car for the 70s! They would have been far better cutting their losses and building a proper 3 box RWD saloon aimed sqaurely at the Cortina. It could have replaced the 1800/2200 and the Marina (already 4 years old by 1975) and formed a basis for a replacement Dolomite. Compared to the Princess they would have effectively got 3 cars for less than the price of one. Spend the money saved on turning the Maxi into the Aquila and something resembeling a coherant range begins to appear.

  5. Jamie says:

    I take slight issue with the statement under the Ambassador picture that says all attempts at facelifts detract from the original design. This may be true for BL cars, but usually other manufacturers improve their designs. Certainly the current trend, see the MkII Focus as a perfect example is that, the facelifts are given to the public in reverse order, i.e. the purest design is kept back and a toned down version is sold for the first few years. The “facelifted” model is then launched and the “full potential” of this design comes to the fore. This really is the way to sell cars, not fiddle with a good design.
    A lot of poor facelifting was done by BL, because the initial design was best but there was not a proper Mk II around the corner (no money) and just a tampering exercise was performed on already well worn designs.
    That sort of thing was done with all Jags more or less until 2005, just rehashing the floorpan and designing new panels for the virtually the same suspension and running gear, since the XJ6 first emerged…

  6. Chris Baglin says:

    @5 Jamie,

    Yet the Jags got better looking with each restyle- with arguably the Series 3 and the X300 looking the best- and the XK40 being an exception.

  7. Hilton D says:

    I’ve said this before… that shot of YBJ243X looks really good in yellow and makes the Princess look a nice car despite the adverse comments the series attracted. Never owned one but have been a passenger in some and they were comfy & roomy.

  8. daveh says:

    I dont think the style of the Princess was wrong, just think the execution was. If it had been a hatchback to match the style, and estate version and poss a three box, and been built properly (http://www.leylandprincess.co.uk/notchback.htm), and had PAS it could have been a world beater.

  9. WereWoof says:

    Some time back I had the choice between buying a Princess 2200 or an Ambassador 2.0VDP, I went with the Ambassador as it had a hatchback against my Fathers wishes as he preferred the saloon Princess, I had the car for 4 years covering a high mileage, replaced the gearbox and then rebuilding a couple of valves when the cambelt broke before it should have, 3 up with 2 dogs and a trailer full of camping gear it was a joy to drive and even though it only had a 4 speed gearbox was surprisingly economical, Even my father who was more of a Ford man realised what a sound car it was and I always have regretted parting with it. Would I have another? The answer to that is resounding YES!!!! Funnily enough I used to prefer BL cars over other makes as I actually found them MORE reliable and on the occasions when they did need repairs parts were a lot cheaper than Ford Vauxhall etc. and not needed so many specialised tools.

  10. Markh6643 says:

    Some points have alteady been made, however, I owned a Ambassador 2.0 Vanden Plas manual, had it for sometime, although the gearbox went wrong, was a nice comfortable car. I like the fact it had a little logic circuit which detected a bulb failure and the the brakepad wear alarm, both nice touches on the revamped princess.I never worked out why they did spend time and money on a 5 speed gearbox, and also didnt have proper delay wipe like the Maxi did ( that was the previous car I owned before my ambassador) I wondered if BL made the car in too guises in the saloon and hatcback in the first place, may of temped some of the buying puplic to buy BL, and could of made a sporter model too perhaps. I own one of the very last Princess 2.0 HLS, and a rare 1978 2.2HL in vermillion red, Corgi Classics/Lledo have actually produced my car!!. Good feature, regards Mark

  11. Chris Baglin says:

    @8, daveh,

    Excellent link. There is a very good interview with ‘the Mann himself’ there.

  12. The Wolseley Man says:

    I remember when the 18/22 came out first a Salesman friend of mine brought one along for me to try. It had been released about a week at this point and as we descended a steep hill he applied the brakes. The car made no attempt to slow down although there was a ‘whooshing’ noise. What’s that noise said I? That’s just the rear wheels locking up, said he. And then came the inevitable words “they are all like that!”
    Obviously there was a problem of some sort but it does add fuel to the history of problems that the company went through.
    If only we could all go back and do it again! Would we make the same mistakes? Would BMW be so mighty?

  13. Paul says:

    A pity product planning didnt lsten to marketing. This car with rear wheel drive and steel suspension would have aligned far better with market expectations in the mid 70s. The car would have had lighter, higher geared steering and a snappy gear change. Both things the Princess lacked. Would have been a bit smaller inside and wouldnt have had as good a ride, but these things didnt matter to target Cortina/Granada man.

  14. Nate says:

    Does anyone have the BHP figure for the Princess 1800ST by British Leyland’s Special Tuning division?

    While the following link below has the Princess 1800ST being 3.3 seconds faster from 0-60 (at 11.6 seconds) than the standard Princess 1800 and 1.9 seconds quicker than the Princess 2200, if it is the case that the engine of the 1800ST is in a similar state of tune to the MGB than how comes it totally demolishes the 110 hp Princess 2200 on the performance front?

    http://www.leylandprincess.co.uk/1800st.htm

  15. Dominic says:

    Time for a rant I’m afraid. That OUTLOOK advert bar that pops up on every bloody picture, over the caption in some cases is BLOODY ANNOYING. If you need to raise revenue by selling ad space fine, but just put it at one side of the page and NO right in the middle of what people are reading.
    Also, when I use the site search facility, and the list of results pops up, WHY does the top story picture still display OVER the results I’m trying to read?
    Please sort it out, it’s things like this that can utterly ruin a site and drive people away.
    Rant over.

  16. Michael Edwardes says:

    *Cough, cough* AdBlock, cough, cough…

    *Cough, cough* a little ‘x’ button on the search pop-up, cough, cough…

  17. Dominic says:

    No Michael, I’m not sure you see what I mean, unless there’s an adblock tab somewhere that I have to go looking for to stop the Outlook ad appearing at the bottom of each picture, and if that’s the case-why? just put it somewhere less intrusive.
    You can’t X out the picture that rolls to different stories at the top of the home page. When the search result pane comes up it remains over the top of it meaning you can’t read the search results. it’s as though it’s saying “You WILL look at this”.

  18. I’ve got to say, the picture of the yellow Princess….. actually looks pretty damned cool!

  19. Dominic says:

    @19 Don’t feel embarrassed, you are not alone Phil. It looks superb, just goes to show what the right colour and wheel combo can do..

  20. Glenn Aylett says:

    The Ambassador became a fleet car for middle managers at a large chemical works near me and was also the mayor’s car in Whitehaven for three years. It might not have been perfect, but it was an improvement on the Princess and the huge boot made it popular with owners. Maybe with better detailing and a bit more power it could have delivered the fight to Ford more as it was a good car.
    The Montego, well, having owned one and experiencing a heap of problems from the underdeveloped new engines, the Ambassador was like a paragon of reliability in comparison.

  21. Glenn Aylett says:

    Carrying on Whitehaven’s love affair with these cars, prior to the Ambassador, the Princess was the middle managers fleet car at Marchon Chemicals, the town’s biggest employer. Also the Princess seemed popular with large families in middle class areas, who appreciated the huge space it offered over a Cortina( these being pre people carrier times).
    However, I still have to admit for all the Princess was a spacious and well equipped car for the money, unreliability on early cars and the lack of a fifth door held it back and the Ambassador addressed these problems.

  22. Christopher Storey says:

    My Mother had an Ambassador 1.7L . As she was getting on a bit by then, the lack of performance was never something she mentioned , but it was a super spacious car with a wonderful ride and a very good degree of refinement – far better in that respect than the 2 litre Cavalier which replaced it . It was comfortable and reliable – all the things AR cars were supposed not to be . I think this lends credence to the view expressed on another thread at the moment , that it was the reputation acquired in the 1970s which it could not shake off which ultimately was fatal for AR

  23. Richard Needham says:

    I learned to drive in my father’s Ambassador,a late 2.0 HL twin carb model,(bought in early ’84 ,after production ceased,at a huge discount). In spite of owning several more up market cars subsequently,he maintained,until the day he died,the Ambassador was the most comfortable and relaxing car to drive that he ever owned. Personally,I thought it’s only failings were a lack of a fifth gear,and not enough sound proofing.In other respects it was highly satisfactory,and the power steering was better than most cars I have driven since(even though it did whistle and wheeze).The ride quality was superb,and it proved very reliable. I still remember the car fondly,as it had several unusual features,not least a fresh air vent system for the front footwells that I have never found on any other car.

  24. Richard Needham says:

    Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing. When you compare the styling of the Princess to comparable 1975 models,(Cortina MkIII,Granada MkI,Victor FE,Triumph 2000Mk2 Rover P6,etc) How dated and old fashioned they all look in comparison. Perhaps Harris Mann was right after all,even if too few of the good old british car buying public appreciated it at the time. I think,perhaps,we were quite prepared to accept ‘avant garde’styling from more ‘exotic’ foreign manufacturers like citroen or lancia for instance,but not from our own, which would suggest that BL had underestimated the conservatism of the british buyer,possibly as an overreaction to the poor sales record of the ‘landcrab’,which was blamed on it’s bland(if not ugly)styling. This is strange when you consider the positive reaction to the Rover SD1,which was just as great a departure from it’s predecessor as the Princess was from the ‘landcrab’. Perhaps the Princess ‘ploughed a furrow’for the SD1 so that people were not so shocked by it’s styling. It’s only a theory…

  25. Ol says:

    The sad thing is, by the time the Princess 2 facelift came along in 78, the car was pretty much sorted out reliability wise. We had a 2.0 HLS for years, it never missed a beat and the ride was sublime. Seriously, nothing this side of a Citroen DS rides as well.
    Of course, what with all the tales of driveshafts snapping and engines falling out, buyers stayed away in droves and used values were on the floor.
    There really was a good car trying to get out with this one.

  26. Glenn Aylett says:

    @ Ol, it had come good by 1978, and new engines provided better economy and refinement. Also the Princess never seemed to rust that badly. Indeed in rust surveys of the time, Austin Morris products seemed to do quite well, as a Cortina that hadn’t been properly undersealed, could rust quite badly after a few years.
    Would I have bought a Princess at the time, if I had the money and the option of a trendier 2 litre Cortina? I would probably say yes as for all the Cortina had more power and looked more aggressive, the Princess was probably similar for reliability and build quality, but was roomier inside, rode better, had more space and traded a lack of out and out performance for a more relaxing drive.

  27. Carl Noel says:

    The princess is my all time favourite car, it may have have problems, but the ride, seats, engine, parts made it simple to fix, and I love the colours, l honestly wish I buy one and keep it for years, miles better than today cars, a all time great, my advice buy a true classic UK car, I would of love to own one

  28. mike price-james says:

    Princess vs Carlton vs Cortina road test, there can only be one winner….I think.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/triggerscarstuff/6812909237/in/photostream/

  29. mike price-james says:

    Austin Ambassador HLS – Rover 2000 SD1 & Saab 900 GLS Group Road Test 1982

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/triggerscarstuff/6875192703/

  30. Glenn Aylett says:

    Nothing, except probably a Jaguar or a big Citroen, rode as well and was as comfortable as a Princess or an Ambassador. Certainly it lacked the sting in the tail of the Cortina and the ride harshness of smaller Austin Morris cars. Rather like big American cars of this era, the Princess was designed for comfort and cruising at the national speed limit than outright performance.
    Even a 1.7 could prove to be a refined and acceptable motorway cruiser.

  31. chris says:

    I know they are flawed in many ways,but the gold one in the 3 way pic at the top of this feature looks spot on,just perfect,x.

  32. Glenn Aylett says:

    I’d much rather have had a second generation Princess 2200 HLS over a Rover 2300 in the late seventies. The Rover might have had a bigger boot and a more sporting image, but was a meanly specced car with hopeless reliability and didn’t ride as well as a Princess. A Princess 2200 HLS with its near silent engine, wood and velour interior, fantastic ride and massive interior space would do it for me then.

  33. Hilton D says:

    I get your point Glenn… but I suppose there was more kudos of the “Rover” badge even in those days, like it is for BMW, Merc, Audi nowadays. I agree the later revised Princess range was getting more likeable though.

  34. Glenn Aylett says:

    @ Hilton D, Rover was the BMW of its day, but the base 2300 was fairly spartan for a luxury product, I’m sure early ones didn’t have a radio, while for similar money the Princess 2200 HLS came fully loaded and was a relaxing and refined car. Also the E6 didn’t suffer from the same sort of reliability issues as the Rover straight six and the Princess’s driveshaft and suspension issues were sorted by 1978.
    If you wanted more economy and only slightly less performance, there was always the 2 litre O series HLS to consider.

  35. James says:

    Can’t believe no-one has mentioned John Shuttleworth! The Ambassador immortalized in song…

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