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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Clsssics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasable adventures all across Europe.