Feature : Ambassador 25th birthday

Would you believe that it’s a quarter century since the launch of the ill-fated Austin Ambassador. PAUL GUINNESS couldn’t either, and simply had to celebrate the fact…

From an article that appeared in the April 2007 issue of Classic Car Mart.

Silver jubilee special

Can you believe it’s 25 years this month since the Austin Ambassador – successor to the controversial Princess – first hit the streets? Yes, it was back in March 1982 that Austin Rover Group unveiled its new Ambassador, a heavily revamped and restyled derivative of the Princess that brought extra value and a very distinctive look to the family car market of the early Eighties.

Sadly, though, you won’t have seen any major celebrations for the Ambassador’s all-important anniversary. In fact, as far as most classic car enthusiasts in the UK are concerned, the Ambassador is long forgotten; and for enthusiasts in mainland Europe and beyond, it was a model that wasn’t even offered to them.

Yes, the Ambassador was the first – and only – car from its parent company to be built solely in right-hand drive guise. This was very much a stopgap model until the arrival of the crucial new Montego range in 1984, which meant it simply wasn’t worthwhile for Austin Rover to tool up for left-hand drive production. Even so, despite such a major handicap, the Ambassador went on to achieve a reasonably healthy 43,427 domestic sales in just under two years.

Although the Ambassador retained the Princess wedge-shaped profile, the only body panels to be carried over unchanged from its predecessor were – according to Austin Rover – the front door skins. Everything else was either new or substantially altered, which meant it was a far more thorough redesign than the Marina’s earlier makeover to create the Ital. Even so, many buyers saw the age of the Ambassador’s basic design and chose to shop elsewhere instead.

It was a shame, because the Ambassador had a great deal to offer, not least an incredibly commodious interior – aided (at last) by a huge tailgate for true five-door versatility. Engines were the same 1.7- and 2.0-litre O-series four-cylinder units used in the Princess 2, although the slow-selling 2.2-litre E-series was finally dropped.

The Ambassador may not have been the most handsome car in its class, but it was one of the most distinctive. And as a short-term model to keep things ticking over within Austin Rover’s rapidly ageing line-up, it did a perfectly respectable job.

How sad then, that not only is it a rare sight on Britain’s roads, but the Ambassador is also a real scarcity at our classic car shows each summer. So may we be probably the only classic car magazine in the UK to wish the Austin Ambassador a very Happy 25th Birthday. Long may the few remaining survivors stay around!

Keith Adams
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  1. Nice touches with the Montego 1.6L wheels trims and 3 spoke Metro / Maestro / Montego steering wheel.

    I never tire of that song “A Skoda? GIVE OVER!”

  2. Are they genuine Montego wheel trims?

    I remember putting a similar set from Halfords on a Citroen ZX once.

  3. The Ambassador wasn’t actually intended to be a stop gap model and was supposed to last a lot longer than 2 years, which is why Austin Morris invested heavily in its development.

    • I did wonder if it should have come out earlier, certainly in 1980 or 1978, if not 1975.

      • It wasn’t that we didn’t want to move forward with Ambassador. But after the SD1 disaster, we simply didn’t have the money for production tooling and launch. When people (rightly or wrongly) criticise the Ital (AD)73 1980 F/L), it really was the best we could do at the time.

  4. Not quite as distinctive as the Princess, I found the front end treatment a bit cheap looking, but the Ambassador carried on all the good things from the Princess, the fantastic ride, massive interior and the relaxing drive, and added a hatchback into the mix, which now gave the car a huge boot. However, I think in some ways the Ambassador was a step backwards, the six cylinder model was dropped, the dashboard looked cheap and didn’t feature a rev counter and performance was no better, all of which counted against an otherwise good car. That said, compared with the reliability disaster that was the early Montego, the Ambassador was a safe buy if you wanted to buy a reasonably reliable big hatchback.

  5. After just 18 months in production Austin Rover felt a slight facelift was needed to bring Ambassador specifications into line with similarly trimmed models in the showrooms and in August 1983 the ‘Autumn 83’ models were launched. No changes were made to the styling but 2.0 litre models all got twin carbs (previously exclusive to the Vanden Plas) and trim levels were improved with new trim materials already available on the Metro and Maestro.

    Biggest change was the addition of walnut veneer to the dash and doors of the VP which included a new dash moulding to incorporate a wood insert above the glovebox and removal of the ‘spare’ electric window switch blanks.

    However, within weeks of the 83 models launch production ceased and the last car rolled off the line on November 18th 1983, yet the Ambassador remained in the brochures until April 1984, meaning that if you ordered a new Ambassador at that time it would almost certainly have been sat in a field for at least 5 months!

    It is odd that Austin Rover spent quite a bit of money facelifting the Ambassador probably knowing that its days were very much numbered.

  6. My mother had one from 1982 to 1990 which proved very reliable and ideal for her as she liked larger cars but by then as a pensioner widow was on a limited budget. It was quiet, refined and as already noted had a wonderful ride and was streets ahead of the Montego . Such a shame that BL gave up cars like this

  7. “Even so, many buyers saw the age of the Ambassador’s basic design and chose to shop elsewhere instead.”

    The original Princess was only 7 years old at this point, so by comparison with other models in the BL range not that old. The SD1 was only 1 year younger.

    The 60s cars (e.g. Mini, 1100, 1800, Maxi) all lasted for much longer than 7 years without major reworking, the Triumph 2000 got its Innsbrook facelift after 6 years)

    And of course the Rover Metro revisions were done after nearly 10 years!

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