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
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.
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!