The Austin Ambassador was a late-life facelift of the Princess, which added the versatility of a hatchback. In addition to this, it gained new styling and a fresh, 1980s-style interior.
Keith Adams tells the story of the car which was Cowley’s lifeline between 1982 and 1984…
Austin Ambassador: the last throw of the dice
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 – codename LM19 – 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 to LM19, it moved from being a Princess to an 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 (BL said the programme cost £29m at the car’s launch) 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 Morris Ital in 1980.
However, 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.
A tidy restyle, but sales disappointment
One of the significant contributors to the new look was the bonnet line, which had been lowered. Harris Mann’s Design 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 six-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 2.2-litre E-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 additional windows in the C-pillars eliminated a huge blind spot and contributed to a new and airier interior ambience.
However, the interior makeover was disappointing. Whereas the 1975 Wolseley Six had superb, multi-adjustable front seats which could be adjusted through 240 positions, the Ambassador made do with far more ordinary cut-price 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.
Why did the Ambassador miss its sales targets?
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 2-0-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. 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. 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.