Timeline : Princess/Ambassador
The Princess saw many detailed changes during its life – and here, we catalogue them for your enjoyment.
This timeline, compiled by Chris Bird, has put the car’s production history in the UK into factual order.
Developing the beast
|1975||March||18-22 Series 4-door saloon range introduced. Available as Austin 1800, 1800 HL, 2200HL; Morris 1800, 1800HL, 2200HL; and Wolseley (2200cc) models. 1800 models have 1798cc 4-cylinder overhead valve B-Series engine and optional power steering; 2200 models have 2227cc 6-cylinder overhead cam E-Series engine and standard power steering. 4-speed manual gearbox standard with 3-speed Borg Warner (model 35) automatic transmission optional on all models.All models share same unitary body shell with transverse engines, front wheel drive and Hydragas suspension. Austin versions with trapezoidal headlamps and low bonnet line; Morris and Wolseley versions with twin round headlamps, and humped bonnet and raised grille section (with illuminated badge on Wolseley). Standard instrumentation includes fuel and temperature gauges and seat belt warning lamp. Standard 1800 models (Austin and Morris) have vinyl trim, satin effect dashboard, heated rear window, multi-adjustable driver’s seat (240 positions) and inertia reel seat belts. HL models (Austin and Morris) have vinyl covered rear pillars, vinyl seats with cloth insets, satin effect dashboard, rear centre armrest, chrome embellishments (e.g. wheel arch extensions, window surrounds and wheel trims), centre console, clock and ammeter.Wolseley models have full vinyl roof, velour seats with front centre armrests, front head restraints, wooden ‘canaletto’ dashboard, tinted glass, chrome front and rear screen surrounds, multi-adjustable front passenger seat (240 positions), fully carpeted boot with light, rear passenger compartment lamps, rear cigar lighter, push button MW/LW radio, velour roof lining and ‘hockey stick’ door grabs.|
|September||Austin, Morris and Wolseley names dropped and range renamed Princess. Range now Princess 1800, 1800 HL, 2200 HL and 2200 HLS. Frontal styling as previous Austin models, with twin round headlamps (tungsten) on 1800cc versions and trapezoidal headlamps (quartz halogen) on 2200cc versions. New 2200 HLS derivative introduced to replace Wolseley models; trim and equipment as previous Wolseley.|
|1976||April||HL models now have cloth (nylon) seats (previously optional on these models only).|
|1978||March||Limited edition Special Six Automatic launched. Based on 2200 HL but fitted with HLS seats, wooden dash, rear courtesy lights and full length Webasto sunroof. Only available in Black and limited to 1200 units.|
|July||Princess Series 2 models introduced. New 1700cc and 2000cc (1695cc and 1993cc) 4-cylinder overhead cam O-Series engines replace 1800cc B-Series. Revisions to all models include improved Hydragas suspension, Triplex 10/20 laminated windscreen, twin door mirrors in satin black, new style rear badges and a side indicator repeater lamp on each front wing. Model range now 1700L, 1700HL, 2000HL, 2200HL and 2200HLS. Dashboard insert now matt black on L models and wooden on HL.|
|1979||January||2200 HL discontinued.|
|May||1700HLS and 2000HLS introduced, with similar trim and equipment to 2200HLS (including trapezoidal headlamps). Power steering remains standard on 2200HLS and optional on all other models.|
|1980||March||Radio standard throughout the range. Restyled warning lights. L models now have cropped nylon seat facings.|
|1981||February||Revisions to all models include improved seats, reshaped controls, new front/rear badging (depicting engine size in litres rather than cc), larger door mirrors, revised control gear and better sound insulation. Doorframe surrounds now body colour on L models and matt black on HL and HLS. New coachlines below waistline now one stripe for L, two for HL and three for HLS. Alloy wheels now optional. L and HL have Marle fabric seat facings. HLS versions have power steering as standard on all engine sizes, restyled front seats and radio/stereo cassette player.|
|April||1.7 HLS discontinued.|
|November||Princess range discontinued (in favour of Austin Ambassador, see below).|
|1982||March||Austin Ambassador five-door hatchback range introduced. Same basic body style as Princess but with new rear end style (incorporating a tailgate), extra rear quarter-light windows, new front styling, new dashboard and revised seats. Engines carried over from Princess range but 2.2 litre engine discontinued.Available as 1.7L, 1.7HL, 2.0HL, 2.0HLS and 2.0 Vanden Plas (with single SU carburettors on L and HL models and twin SU carburettors with Automatic Starting Unit on HLS and Vanden Plas). 4-speed manual gearbox standard with 3-speed Borg Warner (model 35) automatic transmission optional on all models. Standard features include halogen headlamps, laminated windscreen, twin rear foglamps, reversing lamps, locking petrol cap and radio. HL models have velour seats, front door bins, side window demisters, black side body mouldings, front head restraints and rear centre armrest.HLS has electric front windows, central locking, tinted glass, rear wash/wipe, uprated seating, chrome wheel rims, remote-control driver’s door mirror, digital clock and econometer. Vanden Plas has crushed velour seats, velour headlining, deep pile carpet, tilt and slide/steel sunroof, chrome inset bumpers, alloy wheels, front fog lamps, rear head restraints and radio/stereo cassette player.|
|September||L and HL now have digital clock and remote-control driver’s door mirror. L also has front head restraints, passenger door mirror and new wheel trim. HL also has tinted glass, rear wash/wipe, remote-control passenger door mirror and additional brightwork. Vanden Plas has new coachline and rear seat belts.|
|1983||Spring||2.0HL uprated to twin carburettors with Automatic Starting Unit. All other models received upgrades; HL and HLS received chrome inset bumpers.|
|September||Range further improved with more equipment in lower specification models; Vanden Plas given wooden trim in similar style to Rover SD1.|
|1984||March||Ambassador range discontinued (in favour of conservatively styled, all new, Austin Montego range).|
What a shambles at the start of ‘Wedge’ production! Three different marque names (Austin, Morris and Wolseley) at the beginning, and before anyone could say Jack Robinson, the last ever Wolseley rolled off the production line and yet another marque by the name of Princess took care of the range! Austin and Morris were completely identical (save for badging and front-end treatment), and Wolseley was the badge-engineered upmarket version that became the HLS. The Princess was often erroneously referred to as the Austin Princess, when in actual fact Austin had nothing more to do with the car until the belated Ambassador hatchback came along in 1982.
Not to be confused with the big old Austin A135 Princess of the early-to-mid 1950s, Princess had actually become a marque name in its own right in 1957 and produced the 4-Litre Limousine for a few years before teaming up with Vanden Plas in creating the most luxurious versions of the 1100/1300 and A99/A110 Westminster ranges (as well as the 4-Litre Limousine), with full leather and walnut – including picnic tables! However, it was rationalisation in the 1970’s (after the take-over by British Leyland) that ended the competition between the different marques that tended to produce the same model ranges, which meant that the badge-engineered upmarket marques, such as Riley and Wolseley, were sadly killed off. Princess broke away from Vanden Plas and became responsible for the complete ‘Wedge’ range, while the latter was fortunate enough to be able to produce ‘luxury’ versions of the Austin Allegro until 1980.
The ‘Wedge’ range (originally referred to as Series 18-22) was the replacement of the ‘Landcrab’ range of Austin 1800/2200, Morris 1800/2200 and luxury Wolseley Six (2200cc) derivatives that used the same engines; the ‘Six’ title was dropped for the ‘Wedge’ version of the Wolseley and it simply became known as a Wolseley.
Three trim levels throughout Princess production – Standard (later the L), HL and HLS – but no ‘sporting’ derivatives. Series 1 Standard models (only available with the smallest engine) probably had similar trim and equipment to Super versions of Austin Allegros and Morris Marinas – for example, fully-carpeted interior, reclining front seats, dipping rear-view mirror, cigar lighter and reversing lights. Judging from the photographs on the websites concerned, the HL probably gained front seat head restraints as standard when cloth seats became standard on this model in 1976. Pity there was no rev counter on the HLS, whose competitors included the Ford Cortina Ghia and Vauxhall VX 2300 GLS. (If there was a GT or ‘Sport’ derivative, would it have received the 2200 engine, or some other engine? – it would surely have a rev counter as standard!)
Late model Series 1 Princess 2200s were only available with automatic transmission due to rapid drive-shaft wear on many of the manual 6-cylinder models, which became apparent in 1977. Hence the limited edition ‘Special Six Automatic’ in Spring 1978. (This problem was rectified in time for the launch of the Series 2 by re-positioning the power unit.)
Series 2 (1978) – the unlettered 1800 became the 1700 L (it should have been known as the L from the start, as the HL was always second in the line-up). Though the O-Series 1700 and 2000 replaced the 1800, the 2200 had to soldier on for a little longer (as, for example, the Rover SD1 2300 engine couldn’t be used). The 2200 engine was rather big for the medium-sized body and fairly spartan HL trim level (radio – still an option!), so it was soon dropped and the HLS finally made available with the smaller engines. Last Princess revamp in early 1981 saw power steering made standard with all engines on the HLS, which also got a useful radio/stereo cassette player as standard equipment (not mentioned on the websites concerned but nevertheless listed in my old 1987 car price guides).
The hatchback Austin Ambassador finally came in 1982 – better late than never – but apart from the tailgate, was little more than a further facelifted Princess. And it lasted for a mere two years before being ousted by the Austin Montego (saloon and estate only – no hatchback). The main reason for the ‘delay’ was that the Austin Maxi hatchback was still in production, and was not deleted until 1981 (it could have gone earlier as it looked rather dated by the mid-1970’s – it was only a tad smaller than the Princess). The old 2200 finally went (replaced by the twin carburettor 2.0 litre), though they was never a 5-speed manual gearbox option on any Princess or Ambassador model (much unlike the Austin Allegro and Maxi, where five forward gears were standard on all Maxis and the larger-engined manual Allegros). An additional top-of-the-range model was introduced, known as the Vanden Plas (there were also Vanden Plas versions of the Austin Metro, Maestro and Montego, and Rover 200 Series and SD1, since VDP had ceased to be a marque name in 1980).
But perhaps the most striking feature of the ‘Wedge’ Princess and Ambassador cars was that not a single model was made available with a rev counter – not even the top-of-the-range Austin Ambassador 2.0 Vanden Plas was given a rev counter (it was the top model of the entire Austin range of the time, not just the Ambassador range)! It is true that there was no ‘sporting’ (e.g. GT or MG) derivative of these cars, but by the mid-1970s, a tachometer was normally fitted as standard to mainstream ‘luxury’ models, such as top-line E, GXL and Ghia Fords and Vauxhall’s Magnum and Ventora models. It is worth pointing out that the HLS and VDP versions of the Ambassador were given an econometer instead (which works a bit like a rev counter) – what they should have done is offered an option (perhaps a no-cost option) between an econometer and a tachometer on those models instead! In contrast, Ford had experimented by giving rev counters to XL versions (roughly equivalent to Leyland’s HL) of their Escorts and Cortinas for a short period in the 1970’s – the 1973 Ford Escort 1300XL even had an oil pressure gauge and ammeter in addition to a tachometer. On the 1983 Vauxhall Carlton, a rev counter, oil pressure gauge and voltmeter was standard equipment on even the cheapest L model (excluding diesel versions). Even the early Morris Marina 1.8 Super De Luxe (and not just the TC, GT and HL) had a rev counter as standard, as were HL versions (renamed HLS in 1979) and various sporting derivatives of the Austin Allegro.
On the other hand the ‘Wedge’ cars were not alone (even among their contemporaries) in possessing ‘luxury’ or even ‘performance’ derivatives without the hallowed dials so beloved of sports car fans. Not a single Wolseley car was ever fitted with a tachometer before leaving the factory. The Vanden Plas 1500 (luxury Austin Allegro) lacked one, the Vauxhall Chevette GLS lacked one, the twin-carb Austin Maxi 1750 HLS lacked one, even the 1960s Austin and Morris Mini Cooper S cars all lacked one, and the same goes for even the more recent examples of Rolls-Royce cars. (The latest Rolls-Royce Phantom is fitted with a ‘power reserve’ gauge instead of a rev counter.) But what is even more amazing about the twin-carb Austin Maxi 1750HLS (of 1979-81) was that it not only lacked a rev counter, it also lacked a clock! And the Maxi 1750 HLS evolved out of the earlier twin-carb 1750HL, which had a sports steering wheel and was considered too ‘sporting’ to even have a walnut dashboard (fitted as standard on the single-carb basic 1500 and 1750 models).
British Leyland has been rather strange to its cars over the years – they fit a quartic steering wheel to one car range (or was it two?), toddle around with what to call another car range (including what marque or marques they should be under), and yet generally equip five-speed gearboxes to models that would have been better off with four and four-speed gearboxes to models that would have been better off with five! And that’s not to mention the unreliability of the cars when compared to other popular makes.