Raise a glass to : 40 years of the Austin Ambassador

Well, the passage of time has played its cruel hand once more, and serves to remind us that we’re all getting older. And this time it’s the Austin Ambassador to remind us…

It’s 40 years since the five-door facelifted replacement for the Princess staggered on to the scene and proved to be rather better than we were expecting.


Austin Ambassador: quietly does it

Austin Ambassador managed to look different to the Princess, but like just about all end-of-term facelifts of aging 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?

Ladies and gentlemen, charge your glasses. Can you believe it’s 40 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 1980s.

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 an interim model designed for a shortish production run. It was one which that would be curtailed by the arrival of the Austin 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.

More successful than you think

It’s a popular view to take that the Austin Ambassador was a commercial failure, but the sales and production numbers paint a slightly different story. Yes, it cost the company a not insignificant amount of money to develop (£29m) – but it was a drop in the ocean compared with the money ploughed into the Austin Metro programme (£275m).  

What about the sales? Well, we know that 43,427 examples were built, with the only full year of Ambassador production – 1982 – seeing 28,266 rolling off the line.

That doesn’t sound many, but it does compare well with Princess sales, which dropped off a cliff in 1979. In 1980, for example, just 14,732 Princesses were made. Consider, too, that the Ambassador was never built in left-hand drive form and only exported to Ireland, and you’re looking at a car that at least washed its own face commercially. 

More changed than you think

Interestingly, while Ambassador retained the Princess’s 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.

The shortest-lived facelift ever?

AROnline Contributor Kev Barnhill recalled that Ambassador was subjected to a slight facelift in August 1983, as part of the ‘Autumn 83’ model lineup. No changes were made to the styling but 2.0-litre models all received twin carburettors and new trim materials already available on the Metro and Maestro were introduced.

The 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 18 November 1983.

Despite that, 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 sitting in a field for at least five 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.

Conclusions

So, the Ambassador overcame the Princess’s most major shortcoming – its small boot opening in a world turning on to the undoubted advantages of the hatchback. Considering the Austin Maxi below and Rover SD1 above the Princess both had a tailgate, it’s still one of the most baffling Princess omissions that gets people talking decades later. 

It also competed more effectively with its rivals, because the opposition was moving towards British Leyland with a diverse range of competing family hatchbacks. Whereas the Princess was a bit of an oddity that didn’t know whether it was a Cortina or Granada rival, the Ambassador was clearly aimed at a specific set of rivals, and well-judged with it. The interior lacked the Princess’s plushness and luxury, and although it looked more modern inside, it certainly felt less inviting. But did 1980s buyers really want swathes of stick-on wood? Of course not…  

No, the Princess was appealing, but in rational terms the Ambassador improved on it in many ways making it a better car – subjectively. However, that was then, and this is now – and, as we know, classic cars play to different rules where better rarely equates to more desirable. 

Happy birthday, Ambassador!

Keith Adams
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37 Comments

  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!

  8. Two colleagues of mine ran an Ambassador in Spain, where it was a curious foreign oddity. Near the end of their time living in a small village apparently inhabited by suspicious and fearful locals, an anonymous tip-off was made to the Guardia Civil after a nearby car bomb attack. They were duly frogmarched to their garage in the dead of night at gunpoint in their pyjamas, together with visiting family, to satisfy the cops that they weren’t part of an ETA cell. A search revealed that their Amby hadn’t seen service as a bizarre right hand drive terrorist getaway car with a hatchback full of Semtex!

  9. I remember reading launch test drive reports saying that it was the best riding car at any price. Side crease lines spoil it for me: IMO Maestro/SD1 scallops would look better, alternatively no crease.

  10. I remember my copy of Car magazine back then praising the ride, hatchback and revised looks but criticising the engines and interiors. What I never understood was why the interior was changed as this was the good point of the Princess! The engine should have been twin carb from day one, which would have least got performance closer to the competition.

  11. Like the Allegro Series 3 it was a decent car, but also like the Allegro Series 3 there was virtually nothing (in the case of the Allegro it was electronic ignition) on the Ambassador could not have been done or used on the Princess when it was launched, and so highlights the lack of development that British Leyland products suffered from and “it will do” culture of British industry of the 70s.

  12. The Ambassador was very much a run out model for the Princess range. Typical of BL to modify an existing car but give it a new name to imply it was a totally new product… which it was not. The Hatchback was its best feature that should have been on the Princess since day one, but in the mid 70s even Hatchbacks were just catching on with the Chevette & Capri II. Saloons and Estates dominated production up till then.

    Undoubtedly loadspace and interior comfort were its best features. Having said that, looking at it 40 years on it reminds me of happier motoring times.

  13. I remember having a brand new 1.7L for a few weeks when they were first launched. I cursed as I was forced out of a ratty but fast-ish 2.2 Prinny and given the keys but on acquaintance I really enjoyed it apart from the spartan interior and the rice pudding engine. At the time I was commuting the A5 between Daventry and MIRA and found it most entertaining when wound up – it took a long time – the secret being to have faith in the very tidy handling and tough body. The relative lack of traffic meant roundabouts were no problem and high speed cruising could often be maintained to zip past trucks. I’d have one now in 2L TC VDP trim, for the novelty value, quiet cruise and all that space. I took it to Berlin in one day, no problem and overland to Spain with young family and all their paraphernalia. Then my contract finished.

  14. And there was I immediately thinking of the Hindustan Motors version of the Oxford Morris called the Ambassador – as uniquitous as a taxi in India until very recently, as the Peuguots 403s and 404s were in east Africa in the 1960s. And I have had the pleasure of travelling in an Indian Ambassador taxi.

  15. Stick on wood finish lived on until at least 1987 on the dashboard of the Saab 90, another facelift special (based on the wonderful 99) but only 28000 or so were made over 3 years. Available for only one model year in the UK, but an additional 2 in Benelux and Scandinavia.

  16. £668 spent on development for each car sold? better off going to Halfords for some go faster stripes and a nice set of alloys…. I always liked the Ambassador though and regret not buying the black VdP from behind the funeral directors

  17. During the early 1980s, my local A/R dealer , their used car forecourt was awash with cut-price high-depreciation Ambassadors, those cars were quite bluntly orphans, they did not find buyers, duly noted by my neighbour, who purchased a new MG Metro even though he was worried for the risks of a demise of AR

  18. It was well received by the press I seem to remember, but probably arrived too late. It should have been the Princess 2 in 1978 and combined the hatchback with the arrival of the O series Engine. First time I saw one was in the hand built by Roberts sketch on Not the 9 O’Clock News in early 1982 – You got my torque wrench Bob…

    • @ Paul, too true, but what little money British Leyland had left was being invested in the Metro, which was a do or die model for the corporation, and the Princess was considered a recent model in 1978. Also might the success of the Metro allowed some funds to be devoted to other models, such as the Ambassador and the updates to the SD1, which in particular kept the SD1 alive for another 4 years and broadened the range.

      • Doing a hatchback variant of the Princess would have been desirable because it meant they could have discontinued the Maxi and so boosted Princess volumes to more viable numbers.

        But, I suspect they did not want to invest the political capital in the industrial dispute the closure and resulting redundancies at Cowley that would have been generated.

  19. Unfortunately the wonderful Ambassador was offered solely in right-hand drive guise, yes – but was it actually the only model from BL which ever did? I seem to remember the Ital was as well. Or is it just that the Ital never was exported to Norway and other Scandinavian countries .. ?

    • I hired an ambassador for a few days years ago. Absolutely beautiful comfortable driving car. I found gears selecting not bit vague but loved all else about the car

      • Given decent sales of the locally assembled 1800s, Maxi and Princess (the latter not so much), and two iterations of SD1, I always wondered if the NZ distributor ever considered the Princess replacement. By then they were about to introduce the second generation 1982 Honda Accord with a three door hatchback option; the Ambassador might have provided a ‘wagon’ body style to supplement the Hondas. In the event the two litre Montego estate was launched in 1985. Despite knowing the key players, I never did establish if the Ambassador was evaluated for local assembly and sale, or if it could have been made available in CKD kit form. The locally built Chrysler Alpine had been launched in 1977/8, and would have been the most direct Ambassador rival and the two litre engine would have been a selling point. Kiwis still were willing to buy English cars and Ford did ok with the Sierra estate to replace Cortina in 1984; there was no wagon in the Mazda sourced Telstar sedan and hatchback range which replaced Cortina saloon. Toyota had introduced a rear drive five door Corona Liftback in 1979 and a front driver from 1984 so there just might have been a place for a properly specified ‘British Ambassador’.

  20. I heard the Princess didn’t sell that well in New Zealand so maybe the importers didn’t want to risk bringing the Ambassador over. Supposedly some Princesses made in 1980 took 2 years to sell there.

  21. Sales of the Princess were tanking in the UK by 1980 and exports had been very low, so maybe British Leyland thought that confining the Ambassador to the British and Irish market was better than spending millions trying to export a stop gap model. The Ambassador did OK in its two markets, as it had a huge boot and interior space, and running costs and reliability were reasonable and the car had no horror stories with its quality. I do remember one being used as the mayor’s car for three years.

    • As well as minicabs, there were were one or two Princess police cars back in the day, always a litmus test for a rugged workhorse. A few of the early Wolseleys with consecutive number plates ended up on the ministerial fleet, just the right level of posh back when Jim Callaghan was soldiering on with a P5. The PM apparently sent back an SD1 in disgust when the electric rear window fell out into his lap!

      • I’ve seen a few pictures of Princess police cars, usually with no vinyl on the rear pillars.

        Jim Hacker had a Princess as his official car in the early series of Yes, Minister.

        Even Margaret Thatcher used a P5 in her early days as PM before switching to Jaguars. Michael Foot used an SD1 which struggled to start during the 1983 General Election coverage.

        • Not even Supercover (*remember that? Breakdown cover was an essential selling point of BL cars in those days!) could have got Labour’s 1983 election campaign into gear!

          • Ho, ho, Andrew, I do remember Foot getting into his shabby seven year old Rover 3500 outside Labour headquarters, which looked quite run down as well, and it took several attempts to start. More proof that Labour were in the doldrums in 1983 and just as unelectable then as in 2019.

        • I also recall seeing Police spec Princess’s without the vinyl pillars. Recently I watched the Crown 4th series where the Rover P5 features in the Thatcher sequences… still looks imposing. Always wished I had bought a 1970 used one I saw in a showroom in 1976 for £795!

          Having said that, I still think that photo of yellow Princess YBJ243X looks a beaut

  22. There is a key question that urgently needs to be asked of the Ambassador: where does his excellency keep the stash of Ferrero Rocher between receptions? I suspect a secret compartment in that cavernous boot!

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