Disappointment at the Ambassador’s Reception

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.

(c) leylandprincess

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.

BL Princess range. (c) classicsworld

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**.

Image: forum-retrorides

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.

(c) automotiveblog

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.

‘With this Rocher…’ (c) thepetrolstop

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.

Image: Forum-retrorides

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

46 thoughts on “Disappointment at the Ambassador’s Reception”

  1. I can’t look at a Princess without thinking of Terry Scott, whose character from the British sitcom “Terry and June” drove one. For those unfamiliar, he played a sort of cosy, hapless middle-manager in suburbia.

    As for the Ambassador, looking at the first photo, could they not even run to the two little cords that attach the parcel shelf to the tailgate so it lifts out the way when the boot is opened?

  2. Good morning Daniel. In 1978 my then boss had a ‘Wedge’ (Princess – in his case the Austin version) in which he used to terrify me by driving with the bonnet seemingly tucked under the tailboards of 8-wheelers. Fortunately he was always ready to accept the offer of being driven and so I discovered what a non-event the car was. It did nothing badly but was completely without character and deeply boring; one of those machines in which one is pleased when the journey is over without really knowing why.

    A friend later had an Ambassador as a company car; from a distance it actually looked rather good and appeared to be quite a crisp freshen-up of the distinctive shape of the original. But closer inspection revealed exactly what you have described, confirmed by a ride in it and the colour (it was beige). Such a pity and symptomatic of all BL actions; far too little and much too late.

  3. Good morning John, JTC and Richard. Writing this piece gave me an opportunity to reappraise both the Princess and Ambassador. The comparison is not at all favourable to the latter.

    I really like the way the Princess’s lower DLO line sweeps up and flows into the trailing edge of the bonnet, concealing the blacked out base of the windscreen and (partly) the wipers. The Ambassador looks very clumsy and poorly resolved in this area. The broken brightwork trim along the lower edge of the DLO really irks me. Couldn’t they have it overlap the window frames so that it looks like a continuous run? The Princess has the same defect, but at least there’s only one break in its case, at the B-pillar. The Ambassador’s plastic bumpers look cheap and nasty and the side rubbing strip looks really awkward against the strong rising feature line.

    Whether you love or hate it, the Princess (how I loathe that name!) was a coherent and interesting design, whereas the Ambassador was just, well nothing, really.

    1. Daniel, one of these machines can be yours. There’s a chap in Sleaford, Lincs, who buys every one he comes across and lovingly restores them to customer order. He apparently has a metallic green 1.7 HL next in line, just awaiting a commission. It could be the ultimate ironic statement piece for a man of your obvious taste….?

      Then again – perhaps not. And you’ll be pleased to know that not one Ambassador seems to be for sale anywhere.

    2. If only they had made the black panel under the wipers flow over the front wings to the door mirrors. So they left this ground breaking innovation to Bertone some seven years later…

    3. Thanks JTC, I’d buy a Princess 2 in a heartbeat, except that I couldn’t live with the awkward placement of the indicator repeater directly over the wheel arch. What were they thinking?

    4. Just a heads up on your image there… A362DRR is still about, it’s awaiting diagnostics at the moment to cure an INCREDIBLY irritating and money consuming misfire, and so is SORN to an address in Hertfordshire. that said, it’s still cared for and in pretty good condition after extensive cylinder hear repair work last year, new SU carburetor parts from Burlen (not cheap either), a bespoke built/rebuilt Lucas starter motor (long story) and a host of other new parts. It still has that rust just ahead of the front wheel and along the bonnet edge… All these things I hope, will be sorted out with the passage of time.

      Oh and as is obvious I think… It’s mine.

    5. Hello James and welcome to DTW. What a coincidence! I hope you haven’t taken offence at my less than complimentary appraisal of the Ambassador. They must be as rare as hens’ teeth now, so it’s good to hear that one is being cared for. Good luck with your restoration and stay in touch. It would be fascinating to see images of it restored to full health.

  4. Thank you Daniel – truth be told, I hadn’t even been aware of the Ambassador’s existence until this morning. What a puzzling, pointless product that was.

    Going off on a bit of a tangent, I find it noteworthy to point out how the historical view of BL design has become dominated by the Cowley studio’s perspective – the main storylines being all about how Harris Mann’s excellent designs were watered down beyond recognition by management, how Roy Axe eventually arrived to revegetate the wasteland left behind by David Bache and so on.

    Having talked to members of the Longbridge (Rover) design team, a rather more nuanced picture formed, in which David Bache isn’t quite the stubborn ignorant and Mann not precisely the kind of underdog hero as which he’s known today (mind you, as is well-known, there’s nothing the British like quite as much as an underdog story…). As always with BL, politics were the main issue behind certain compromised creative decisions, but in the Cowley studio’s case, an overreliance on American methods was also a noteworthy factor – by which I mean a strong focus on impressive illustrations et al, but a rather lax attitude when it came to implementing design details for production. The Longbridge studio employed more traditional methods (which didn’t necessarily result in brilliance – see Rover P8), resulting in fewer outstanding sketches that could retrospectively be used on behalf of some naive ‘but they should’ve just put it into production the way it was originally drawn!’ narrative. Moreover, a proper underdog story inevitably needs a suppressor – a role assigned to David Bache to some extent, in order to depict the Cowley studio as that band of plucky outsiders.

    1. Good afternoon, Christopher, and thanks for your insights into the conflicts within and between the design departments. It must have been a miserable working environment and it’s little wonder that the output was so compromised.

    2. Christopher – how shocking you have had so many years on earth blissfully unaware of the Ambassador. Well, now the light has burst into your crypt of ignorance and you may sing the lord´s praises.
      I think it´s to do with the Ambassador being a UK/ROI only car. I remember a neighbour had one and it was very exciting for us kids on the lane to have such a glamorous car in the ´hood.
      It´s a car I have grouped under the tag “memorably forgettable” in that it´s a car that one tends to dwell on, despite its astounding mediocirty. The British have been very good at this genre, followed up by a few Italians and French. The Germans (generalising madly) don´t serve up this kind of fine fare: the car are either pretty good or good and forgettable (honourable commodities). And the Japanese? Well, you have to know the market deeply to able to see what they did and also know how it could have been.

  5. As a long-time 1800 driver, I always loathed the Princess for its’ big “C” pillar and high bonnet line. I always thought the Ambassador was infinitely more desirable. I’m still not a fan of hidden wipers….

    1. Hi Mervyn. Regarding the high bonnet line, would a higher seating position have helped? There appears to be no shortage of headroom.

  6. The Princess at least had a cohesive look and as Daniel says, the DLO blends with the base of the windscreen. The Ambassador is like the Soviet rip-off of the original with its mock-Granada front end (that´s not to knock the Granada which was like all Fords, a cohesive bit of work)

    1. A word or two in defence of the Ambassador. I travelled as a passenger in one during the ’90s and I was astounded by the ride quality and body control. It was leagues ahead of anything remotely comparable, and was known to put the more expensive Rover SD-1 to shame. I believe that BL engineers made further improvements to the Hydragas system for the Ambassador, so that it was even more accomplished in this area than the Princess. (I have never even sat in the latter, so cannot draw comparison). The car in question was being used as a minicab, and I recall asking the owner/ operator how he was getting on with it. He professed himself well pleased.

      As to the styling, I always had a bit of a soft spot for the Princess – well up to a point. That particular point I could never quite define, but it existed somewhere in the region of the closing panel to the rear door. From that point aft, the whole thing fell apart. The c-pillar was far too large (like the contemporary Jaguar XJ-S) and Harris Mann’s stylists used a similar ploy to mask this by applying an unconvincing vinyl covering. (There was clearly something in the air at BLMC at the time – possibly solvents?) The tail looked unresolved and gawky, not aided by the placement and design of the tail-lamps, which had the appearance of being the sort of things they stick on proving prototypes to fool the paparazzi.

      The Ambassador I felt was a good update – well up to a point. The point of divergence in this case however was easier to read – it resided from the base of the A-pillar, forward. While the rear end now looked coherent and the additional three-quarter light did wonders for the side profile, the revised nose was banality, on toast. Just awful. I would also agree with Daniel that the side rub strip was in visual conflict with the rising swage line along the flanks.

      That the Princess/ Ambassador were not the cars they ought to have been was the result of a by then typical BLMC/ BL policy of making cars that didn’t appeal to drivers. Plodding, rev-averse engines, sluggish acceleration, unpleasant, sticky gearchanges and dull steering, mated to a chassis which carried so much promise. Is it any wonder that buyers shied away?

      But I choose not to fling dirt at them. Any car that rode as gracefully as that Ambassador over pockmarked East London streets deserves some appreciation. It’s telling that I still remember it so vividly, so many years on.

    2. Agreed about those rear lights, Eóin. They were a weird trapezoidal shape and their only merit was that their bright metal frames (but not the lenses) were interchangeable left to right:

      The Ambassador’s tail lights flanking the relocated number plate was a much more rational arrangement, although it made for a higher loading lip than the Princess’s boot:

      Here’s a bit of 18/22 Series and Princess trivia: the trim strip across the boot lid that contained the badging on the original models actually projected slightly further rearward than the rear bumper, so was the first thing to make contact if the driver reversed into a wall or vertical post. That’s why it was deleted on the Princess 2 in favour of lower placed separate badges!

  7. Lest we forget, here’s the marque-specific front end treatments on the original 18/22 Series. The Moris and Wolseley shared the same raised bonnet. Only the Austin got the nice quadrilateral headlamps:

    1. I like the trapezoidal tail lights. They’re very 70s and sort of match the Austin’s headlights.

  8. I remember buying an issue of ‘Motor Cycle’ or ‘Bike’ on a trip to the IoM TT in the early Eighties. The ran a competition for the most out of date joke and the winner was ‘Roddy Llewellyn got a new job at British Leyland. He’s putting big ends into Princesses.’

  9. I think the Ambassador was purely a strategy to have something to offer in the fleet sector before they could offer something better – something vaguely competitive, with a hatchback, at a competitive price. The circa £20m development budget would have generated around £250m revenue, so probably worth having.

    Here’s a bit more on the Ambassador’s development from the very comprehensive Leyland Princess Owners’ Club site:

    http://www.leylandprincess.co.uk/Ambassadordevelopment.htm

    1. Given the manner in which the Ambassador was de-contented, in relation to its predecessor at least, I can’t help wonder if maybe the rationale might also have been to mop up disaffected Maxi owners, following that car’s demise the previous year?

    2. Hello Eóin – yes, I think that’s right.

      One more thing re the Ambassador’s competitiveness – it was launched at an odd time, when you could, just, still buy things like Ford Cortinas and Talbot Solaras, so in that context, it was okay. At least it was fresh (sort of).

      Also, I recall that BL had quite a lot of goodwill at the time – many people wanted them to succeed – the Metro had been launched pretty successfully, and of course we had the LC10 to look forward to. What could possibly…

  10. The higher loading lip on the Ambassador would have been to add back some of the chassis stiffness lost by the move to a hatchback. Most 80s hatcbacks, particularly larger cars like the Mk2 Cavalier, had really high loading lips for the same reason.

    I think the Princess is a great looking car but the Ambassador was an absolutely tragic facelift.

    1. Hi Bob. Yes, there was, but I believe it got no further than this rather crude scale model:

    2. Know the idea was later revisited with the Austin AR16 hatchback and that the BL looked at a larger Ambassador/SD1-sized version of the Maestro/Montego platform prior to the Honda-based Rover 800.

    3. I’ve seen this scale model on display at the National Motor museum in Gaydon. It rather closely (and unfortunately) resembles a Chrysler/ Simca/ Talbot Alpine, but one imagines something decent could have been cobbled together had it been proceeded with. Can’t have been much worse than the styling of the Montego, which was very undistinguished.

    4. Agree it has potential. Thinking about it further since the Maestro and Montego were essentially products of the mid-1970s via ADO99 that were unfortunately launched in the early/mid-1980s and had the following been possible, would BL have been better off pushing the Maestro / Montego into production much earlier in the late-1970s with the money that was instead spent on the Ital and Ambassador?

  11. I can’t recall anyone saying so before, but ‘Princess’ was indeed an odd choice of name.

    It worked better in the late forties and early fifties when it conveyed a notion of grandeur and sophistication, as used on various large ships, and the Saunders-Roe Princess flying boat, as well as the Großer Austin, but that was a time of lèse majesté in Britain. By the prurient and scandal-addicted mid ‘70s, a Royal association carried less weight.

    I don’t think the ‘Diablo’ codename was ever considered – it worked ok for Lamborghini. Choosing between that and the Princess, I’d rather be the Devil.

    1. Hello Robertas, even BL made a joke of the name in their (rather good) advertising.

  12. The biggest problem with ADO71, which carried through to LM19, was that it was designed and tooled cheaply and denied adequate development time and engineering resources. The figures I recall are: Marina £45 million, Allegro £21 million (you get what you pay for…) and ADO71 £22 million. These are not ‘clean’ numbers and the ‘70s were a time of rampant inflation.

    The E Series engine and 5 speed gearbox were intended to be used in place of the B series, and the ADO17 transaxle was to be given a fifth ratio. The E series idea was dropped – probably a phenomenal avoidance – as sales projections indicated that the Maxi and Allegro demand would use the entire capacity of the Cofton Hackett line. Which, let us remind ourselves was 8500 engines a week. For the second half of the 1970s that could supply just about every car the Austin-Morris division produced, including the Mini.

    The O series engine introduced with the 1978 Princess 2 was another own-goal, at least in 1.7 litre form. On paper it should have beaten the heavier B series 1.8 on performance, refinement, and efficiency. On the road the only oversquare member of the B/O/M/T series engine was rough and gutless, and surprisingly thirsty – a good Weslake combustion chamber beats Heron any day of the week.

    Blame the new BL doctrine of component rationalisation: the 1.7 and 2.0 O series shared everything but pistons and crankshaft. An Imperially long stroke 3.0625” x 3.5” engine would have given 1.7 litres and done the job much better, particularly in the Princess and Sherpa.

    The sorry Ambassador was yet another ‘nearly’ car. The hatch should have been there from 1975, the instrument panel was an improvement on the original, which was a shoddy hymn to Fablon and “squircles”. The Ambassador even had a Citroën-style steering wheel, in the fashion of the pre-windbag era. I can even forgive the front “facia” (as we must now learn to call it) and its Ital headlights.

    What I can’t excuse are the crappy and pointless sixth lights. These C-pillars were there for a reason.

    Almost a good car, but four years too late. And every day of these four years mattered in the era which brought us the Sierra and J-car Cavalier.

  13. Hi Daniel,

    On the car shown in grey and in profile, it seems that the car had those misaligned door handles that you hated on the Laguna III 😉

    1. Well spotted (and remembered!) NRJ. The placement of the Princess/Ambassador door handles doesn’t offend me because they sit on a strong crease line that is a key feature of the design and they are roughly the same distance below the rising DLO.

      It’s actually the apparent randomness of the Laguna III’s very weak feature line that is, literally, the underlying problem:

      I’m probably being inconsistent, but hey-ho!

    2. No I see what you mean. It looks neater (and less obvious) on the Princess. On the latter they could’ve used a chrome strip that runs the entire length of the DLO’s bottom line. Here, the strip stops just before the B and C pillar making them look like they protubering down from the DLO and it isn’t neat-looking in my opinion.

    3. No worries, NRJ. It’s a good point that bears repeating! Those “black holes” at the base of the B and C-pillars are very evident in the side profile shot and and a totally unnecessary design fail.

    1. Yikes…you can see that bonnet to wing shut-line gap from space!

    2. “Daimler’s 2008 tribute to Harris Mann” – I never noticed that before, but now I just can’t unseen it!

  14. If it weren’t illogical, I would have put money on the Ambassador front lights being taken directly from the Ford Escort mk3 – possibly the resemblance to a smaller, cheaper car might not have helped, if it looked that way to others? Unlike the Escort, the Ambassador was available with a 4-speed gearbox only.

  15. The Ambassador lights are the same parts as the Ital’s. Rationalisation for once, thank goodness!

    The Escort Mk.3 – even in XR3 form – had to wait until mid-1982 for its five speed gearbox. The French and Italians were far quicker off that particular mark than the Germans and British – Maxi excepted.

  16. These were obviously pre historic times in terms of hatch practicality: BL did not think of the 2 strings to pull the rear shelf up when the boot is opened.Or maybe they were too stingy and didn’t think customers would need them. Iam not sure when exactly these strings appeared for the first time but my dad’s R11 had them.

  17. Am loving the current BL-retrospective-fest!

    I quite liked the Ambassador at the time (I was 12 …), but seem now one can tell what a waste of time and effort it was. The Princess was – missing hatch aside – superior in many ways.

    There were, of course, a number of hatch-profiled cars launched with separate boots which received a hatch later in their development cycles in the 70’s and early 80’s – the GS/ GSA, the Alfasud and the Princess/ Ambassador , but the former were left looking much like their predecessors (the odd bit of plastic trim aside), probably because there was so very little wrong with those looks in the first place. The Princess aged quite quickly, and was very much a 70’s design, whereas both the GSA and Alfa would look OK if launched even today (although they’d both play in the supermini sector, given their dimensions).

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