The cars : Austin Ambassador (LM19) development story

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 was Cowley’s lifeline between 1982 and 1984…


Austin Ambassador: the last throw of the dice

Austin 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 – 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, 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 (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-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.

Austin 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?

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.

In conclusion…

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.

Austin Ambassador hatchback

Keith Adams

30 Comments

  1. Shame this could not have been launched in 1978 instead of the Princess 2, it would have really made an impact, beaten the Cavalier Mk2 and the Sierra to the market by several years and allowed the by then 9 year old Maxi to be pensioned off to achieve much some needed rationalisation.

    • I thought the same, although keeping the Princess name and the E6. Also by axing the aged Maxi and calling the Princess an Austin, which nearly everyone did anyway, this could have raised the Princess’s profile. Basically the Princess was a good car let down by its saloon design and quality issues on early cars.

    • My feelings as well, BL always seemed to be behind the curve with the Princess, launching it with the B series engine rather than the E series units, though the 1485cc E might have been a bit small for it.

      • Totally agree – considering the small budget they achieved the facelift with. I know we will get the arguments of no money but how did they fund this facelift? This should have happened earlier, and with the improved quality that happened later in its life would have give then company a boost when it most needed it.

        • The Princess had a lot to recommend it, a massive interior, a very comfortable ride, fwd, distinctive styling and a near silent six cylinder option, add in a hatchback with the 1978 improvements and the car would have been seriously good. The Ambassador answered this, but by 1982 was becoming old hat and was cheapened in many ways.

          • Yes but if they had launched a hatchback with the exterior looks of the Ambassador in 78/79, keeping the better bits like the interiors, and the improvement on quality which happened on the Princess2, the Metro affect could have given the car and the company a shot in the arm.

  2. Never rode in an Ambassador but did in a clients Princess company car. That seemed to have huge space inside. I still think the Princess was a better looking car but the improvement of the Amby having a hatchback was notable. They should have done this sooner and called it the Princess Hatchback,

    As Keith says by 1982 did anyone care? There were more competent cars around by then

  3. One of the lesser known changes between Princess and Ambassador was the wheel rim width. Both used 185/70×14 tyres, but the Princess stretched them out over skinny little 4.5J rims. Apparently this was so that the rather laid back sidewalls would contribute to a soft and pliant ride.
    The Ambassador had 5.5J rims, so it should have been a bit more wieldy.
    I seem to remember Ambassadors being a minor hit with taxi drivers, being very roomy and somewhat cheap to run.

    New topic: I knew a family of lofty chaps in Aberdeen who owned a Princess-based Wolseley 6, as it was one of the few cars which gave them adequate headroom. Unfortunately it was rather troublesome.
    Ten years later, the Chief Engineer at Lucas Girling’s Pontypool factory drove a metallic light green Ambassador, again for headroom; when the Amby went out of production, he got a Granada hatchback.

    New topic, again: what the Ambassador desperately needed was a 5 speed gearbox.

    • @ Ken, the Ambassador’s other failing was the 1.7 was rather leisurely, struggling to reach 100 mph, when the 1.6 Cavalier that appeared a few months earlier was capable of 106 mph and had the option of a five speed transmission. Dropping the 2.2 was another own goal, as the engine would have been suited to the Ambassador as much as the Princess.
      Yet the car was rightly praised for its huge boot and passenger space and smooth ride, and it seemed to suffer from few of the quality issues that plagued the original Princess. As was mentioned above, it did have a following among taxi drivers, a market that had mostly been lost to Ford, and a few were used locally as company cars.

    • It all stems back to the gearbox layout and the tall block of the E-Series 4/6-cylinder being the limiting factors in spite of the latter being otherwise viewed as compact, the later related 1.6 S-Series 4-cylinder in the Montego with VW Golf-sourced gearbox demonstrates what BMC/BL should have embraced prior to BL. Otherwise it would have been impossible to lower the bonnet line had the Ambassador carried over the E6 engine even with a 5-speed gearbox.

      Despite its appeal and potential application across the range from the Mini to the Princess, cannot see it being worthwhile investing in an in-sump 5-speed gearbox as it would be an interim solution at best the company could not afford. Kind of like Renault and Peugeot deciding to persist with the unusual FWD gearbox layouts of the original R5 as well as the 104 and 14 respectively for their replacements, going against the trend of their FWD rivals.

      It was within BMC later BL’s capacity to adopt the layout of the Autobianchi Primula for the larger FWD cars and also within their ability to significantly improve the development trajectory for the E-Series from the beginning, without having to turn a sow’s ear of an engine which powered the early Austin Maxi into a useful suede purse many years later in the Montego/Maestro/216 (if not a silk one capable of replacing both the B-Series and C-Series with a more EA827 like 1500-3000cc direction).

      Unfortunately they made bad choices and it limited their options.

  4. This story just emphasises the already clear facts of the matter. BL just served up dud after dud but seemingly expected the outcome to be different somehow. Cars need buyer appeal if they’re going to sell. Seems simple enough! Landcrab,18/22,Maxi,and Ambassador. A rogues gallery of desperately unappealing cars.And then the Montego. You’d think somebody,somewhere would have realised just by looking at the thing that the same path beckoned.And if I read one more time about how a commodious interior meant that a car “had lots to offer”!

    • Well it depends on what you call a dud. Owners of Land Crabs and Maxis may have loved them, but there weren’t enough buyers to make these cars profitably and to build further revenue streams in repeat sales, parts, and servicing. Lots of different engines, gearboxes, and bodies made it hard to stock spare parts – not just for dealers, but also for fleet garages.
      You used to see Cortinas everywhere, people would think “they must be good” and buy one themselves. But many BMC/BL models were a rare sight, discouraging people from joining a small “club” of owners.
      BMC/BL tended to design something which they thought was clever and desirable and put it on sale – but they never asked the customer whether they wanted a square steering wheel or an 1854cc engine.
      But Ford knew what the customer wanted before they invested in design and development – so they made a profit, and thy’re still here.

      • You say they are still here… but are they ? Are any Ford vehicles made in the UK now ? They have become a bit part player here and even more so in Europe compared with the 1960s and 1970s

        • If Ford were a European company, they would have collapsed in 1999. Only US bankruptcy laws allowed to company to continue trading.

        • Ford are still quite a big player, but the days when people saw a Ford and thought I’ll buy one as there are so many around and they must be good are over. Also Ford never did well in France and Italy, where their cars were seen as conservative and technologically backward, and even in Germany, where they had two huge factories, Ford were far behind Opel and VW until the Sierra was launched.

          • Ford have lost their way, despite the fact that their cars are actually pretty decent, and much better than in the 70s and 80s when they were at their sales peak in the UK

  5. I really don’t think any of the 4 cars you metion can be called a dud . The original 1800/2200 was a splendid car, spacious, quiet and very comfortable without being overlarge on the outside . The 18/22 built on those strengths, and the Maxi was a car which many people swore by because of its practicality. If there was a problem, it was that looks were against the landcrab and the Maxi, and perhaps more to the point none of them had fleet appeal which at the time was very significant in producing sales . Even the Allegro was in fact quite a competent car, but again its looks were against it. There is a definite tendency to re-write history, and for those of us who were there at the time, our perceptions about these cars may be very different from those which now apply

    • I was there at the time! Too young to be in the market for any of them when new, other than the Montego ,but certainly remember them all well. If a car doesn’t earn money for it’s maker I’d say it’s dud.People didn’t want them and those that did quickly discovered the joys of BL’s idea of quality and reliability. There will have been exceptions but it’s pretty undeniable. I actually liked the look of the Maestro when it was released. I said as much in front of my sister and she left me in no doubt about her feelings on the subject. She worked for Hertz car rental at the time and the Maestro’s lack of build quality and reliability cause her a great deal of grief, having to “handle” dissatisfied customers at Edinburgh airport. I never did take the chance on one.

    • The Wolseley Six was limousine like in its ride quality and interior fittings, and the E6 was a very smooth and powerful engine for the time, so not a dud in those respects, and some buyers were won over from Rover and Triumph.

      • But nowhere near enough buyers were won over

        It might have been a worse car, but the Marina was more successful than the Princess as it sold far more, and that is what ultimately counts

      • The last sentence sums up everything wrong with BL: it won customers away from Rover and Triumph. They won customers away from themselves not Ford or Vauxhall or Chrysler or Toyota or VW or Fiat or Citroen or anyone else that they should’ve been trying to. They had too many marques with too many cars aimed at the same people, then made a mess of making them so those people stopped buying them.

  6. Re Ford, they shifted just under 1m cars in Europe in 2019, but in 1990 the number was nearer 1.6m. A lot has changed in the intervening 30 years but that sort of trend is not good.

    • Yet interestingly, Fords now are vastly better than the awful 1990 Escort, underwhelming Mark 3 Fiesta and ageing Sierra that made up most of their sales in Europe. Perhaps the decline in market share and the company car market in Britain is one explanation.

      • Having had 3 Escort company cars and 4 Focus owned cars, I can honestly say the Focus is much superior in terms of build quality, specification and performance. That should be expected though over a period of nearly 30 years of production.

        I suppose Focus electric & hybrids will be next in technology development? At the moment though I am not in a hurry to buy an all electric car.

  7. Ford in the USA are not really a car maker, they are a Truck maker, in the USA Ford cars do not make money, for money they make and sell high volumes of trucks, a truck is not a lorry, it is a large heavy SUV style vehicle protected by the Chicken Tax of 25% on imported trucks

  8. Marina to Ital £5m to give 175,276 sales. Around £28:50 per car. Princess to Ambassador £29m to give 43,427 sales. Around £668 per car. Whatever its many good points BL would have been better to drop Princess and spend the money on Maestro etc xx

    • Either that or just give the Princess a rear hatch & not change any other sheet metal.

      I was thinking that Austin Rover lost out by not having the Montego in production when Ford introduced the Sierra and lost sales to the Mk2 Vauxhall Cavalier.

    • The Ambassador arrived at the wrong time and was blown away by the Mark 2 Cavalier and then had to compete against the Sierra. Had Leyland launched the Princess 2 as a hatchback in 1978, then this could have been a different story and the car could have also replaced the Maxi, which was becoming old by 1978 and had never lived up to sales expectations.

      • The Princess was a lot bigger than the Maxi though, which was actually the same size as the Maestro.

        While the Princess should have been a hatchback from the start, I’m not sure it would have made a massive difference to sales even if this had been done in 1978

    • Absolutely correct in my opinion. Sadly the maestro and Montego died in gestation and launched 5 years too late, if instead of rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic that the marina and princess were by warming them over again, and they funnelled a bit of that cash into getting the newer cars out sooner they’d probably have been more successful.

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