The 1982 Austin Ambassador was a poorly executed attempt to update the BL Princess and was met largely with indifference in the market. DTW examines why the Ambassador was such a flop.
The old axiom that “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” may be literally correct, but that does not stop people trying. The British Leyland 18-22 Series is a case in point. It was launched in February 1975 under three different BL marque names, Austin, Morris and Wolseley, each distinguished with its own bonnet and front grille treatment, but nothing else in the case of the Austin and Morris versions. The Wolseley had a light dusting of the more upmarket fixtures traditionally associated with the marque, including its rather twee illuminated grille badge.
The 18-22 Series was a quite stylish wedge-shaped four-door D-segment saloon, replacing the spacious but frumpy 1800/2200 LandCrab. It was designed under Harris Mann, Head of BL’s Longbridge design studio. Despite its profile, it did not have a hatchback, but a conventional boot. At the time it was launched, BL insisted that its research showed this was what the market wanted, but a more likely explanation is that BL didn’t want to steal sales from either the Maxi or Rover SD1, both of which were hatchbacks.
Barely eight months after launch, the 18-22 Series was rechristened the BL Princess and the old marque names were dropped*. All Princess models adopted the flatter bonnet and simple horizontal grille from the former Austin model, using dual round headlamps on the 1.8 litre versions and trapezoidal headlamps on the 2.2 litre versions. The Wolseley model was replaced with a high-line HLS trim package. Discarding the badge-engineered versions was a sensible move but trying to establish BL as a marque name never really succeeded.
Moreover, the choice of Princess as the new model name was truly perverse. This name, from the company’s back-catalogue, was associated in potential customers’ minds either with rather austere looking limousines and hearses, or the sedate Vanden Plas wood and leather trimmed version of the 1100/1300. Given that the vast majority of buyers were likely to be male, this also seemed a rather effete name for a large and quite aggressively styled saloon.
In any event, and despite the usual BL quality control, teething and reliability problems, the Princess went on to be a modestly good seller for the company and a total of 224,942 were produced over six years.
By the late 1970’s however, BL was in a fight for survival, with all its hopes pinned on three new mainstream models, the Metro supermini, the Maestro C-segment hatchback and the Montego C/D-segment saloon and estate. In order to stimulate sales until these new models could come on stream, BL decided to undertake two major facelifts, one for the Marina and the other for the Princess**.
Given the internal code of LM19, the Princess would receive the hatchback Harris Mann always intended the car to have, but would also be subject to a major restyling. The wedge shape with its shark nose, which was briefly considered fashionable in the mid-1970’s, had dated badly in six years and a new corporate look was required.
The Princess 2, launched in July 1978, featured BL’s new O-Series engine in 1695cc and 1993cc capacities. The new engine replaced the venerable 1798cc B-Series unit and would be carried over to the facelifted car. It was also decided to drop the tall six-cylinder 2227cc E-Series engine. The O-Series engine’s more compact dimensions would allow for a lower bonnet line, something the designers were keen to exploit.
The car was launched in March 1982 as the Austin Ambassador, a product of the newly formed Austin Rover subsidiary of BL. The project had been headed by Roger Tucker at the Longbridge Design Studio, under Mann’s supervision. The redesign was extensive, with structural changes to the rear of the bodyshell, and every external panel apart from the front doors altered. The hatchback was executed competently and a new quarter-pane inserted in the previously very wide C-pillar.
Unfortunately, in almost every other respect, the new car was a disappointment. While the overall appearance was certainly different and more modern, some of the details appeared either very amateurish or, more charitably, a consequence of tight budget constraints.
The lower bonnet line meant that the windscreen wipers were no longer neatly semi-concealed as on the Princess, but sprouted from an ugly black plastic filler panel between the trailing edge of the bonnet and the windscreen. The junction of the front wing and the base of the A-pillar was very poorly resolved, with the wing partly overlapping the bright trim around the windscreen. The rectangular headlamps, sourced from the Ital, looked too narrow for such a wide car. The bright trim along the base of the DLO was not continuous but broken awkwardly at the B and C-pillars. The slim grey plastic bumpers looked cheap and flimsy, especially on low-line versions where they had no bright metal fillets.
Inside, the Princess’s dated but still substantial looking dashboard gave way to a swathe of moulded plastic. The instrument binnacle contained only a speedometer, fuel and water temperature gauges, and the usual raft of warning lights. A tachometer was not provided, even on the top-line HLS version, although you did get an ‘Econometer’ with this version.
The secondary controls had obviously been sourced from the company’s smaller and cheaper models. The dashboard moulding contained a utilitarian open shelf in front of the passenger, just like a Metro. The front seats were thinner and less comfortable than the excellent former items. Overall, the interior was roomy and workmanlike, but lacking the luxury touches buyers expected in a large car.
Performance was also pedestrian. The 1.7 litre version took almost 15 seconds to reach 60mph and could not exceed three figures. The 2.0 litre version was better, but still no powerhouse. It was a comfortable and practical car but lacked any real desirability, so it was largely ignored by user-chooser company car drivers.
The Ambassador was only sold in the British Isles and never produced in LHD form. A total of 43,427 were sold in the two years it was on sale, before being discontinued in March 1984 in preparation for the launch of the Montego. One cannot help but think that the Princess 2, had it remained in production, would have largely achieved those modest sales figures, suggesting that the reported £29m cost of the Ambassador project was totally wasted.
The money might have been better spent on (amongst other things), a more comprehensive technical and styling update to the Marina, along the lines of the abandoned ADO77 project recently covered by DTW.
* It is still, however, often mistakenly referred to as the ‘Austin Princess’.
** The 1973 Allegro was already regarded as a lost cause by this time.
This website contains a wealth of brochure images of Princess 2 and Ambassador.