The Ambassador is a Princess you can enter from the rear. Austin’s much-mocked Princess model may have offered a comfortable ride and distinctive styling, but it never took off for one main reason - it was a saloon in a practical hatchback market. The Austin Ambassador addressed the practicality issue, but it was all too late. On the verge of extinction, here’s why you should save one.
Words: Calum Brown
Pictures: James Walshe
Often dubbed ‘the car with no name’, launched as a series of three models by Morris, Wolseley and Austin, the Princess was nothing short of controversial upon launch. It was styled like nothing else and promised things no other manufacturer had assured the public about. Sadly, these promises went unfulfilled and the usual British Leyland political melting-pot image branded the Princess an undesirable failure.
Yet, over a six-year production run almost quarter of a million vehicles found owners. It even developed cult status and is currently enjoyed within classic car circles by those who appreciate the innovation lurking under that arresting figure. However, its replacement - the Austin Ambassador - is yet to find its true place. And there are numerous reasons for that.
To address the European market and demands from target customers, British Leyland budgeted £29 million towards facelifting the Princess, which should have yielded a Renault 20 rival to bring UK motoring back from the brink. Yet, in transforming the charismatic Princess towards the public hatchback hungry vision, all charisma and feel was lost.
Venturing free from the most turbulent striking period in their history, build quality of the Ambassador was no less than shocking, with no left-hand drive conversion for the European market it was aiming for and a ‘range’ of engines that allowed the choice of 1.7-litre lethargic petrol, slightly larger 2.0-litre lethargic petrol or twin-carb 2.0-litre slightly less lethargic petrol.
Nought to 60mph times were woeful unless you went for the top of the range Vanden Plas -and even then cracking 100mph was dangerous. Reaching 60mph took a grand total of 14 seconds. In the era of the Ford Sierra this was so out dated it left Bernard Manning's rantings feeling fresh. Handling wasn’t overly great either, with steering components offering all the feedback of damp cardboard. The new corporate nose didn’t give any aerodynamic benefit over the original face worn by the Princess before it, either - leaving the Ambassador a flaky, badly built, awkwardly styled relic with underpinnings dating back nearly two decades.
However, while viewed as a failure of epic proportions by many, the amount of preparation and thought on cash-strapped BLs behalf was creditable. Over the short-lived two-year production run close to 50,000 were manufactured and sold - which in rather incredible, taking the cars purpose into mind. In relative terms, it actually out-sold the Princess in relation to time on sale.
Launched upon the prospect that continuing with the Austin Maxi as the flag-ship five-door was out-dated and pointless, with the Princess not practical enough to take the premium spot and the Montego still two years off, the tweaked Austin Ambassador was the product concocted to fill the stopgap.
It may have been stripped of the plush aspects gifted to the Princess, such as the leather steering wheel, swanky armrests and silky six-cylinder engine, but contrary to belief it wasn’t just slightly new stuff in a Princess shell. According to Austin-Rover at least, the only body panels carried across were the inner front door skins. Regardless, the aged design appeared to turn potential customers away - especially as the trendy Sierra was so fresh on the market.
This was unfair on the Ambassador, as it actually had various benefits to offer. It provided electric windows and central locking - rather splendid for the time - alongside acres of interior space, a humongous tailgate for carting about large objects and comfort levels to rival those used to business class when in transit. It offered a relaxed stance on the road, too.
While heaped with criticism and a stern source of amusement - Not The 9o’Clock News included a sketch where it was built by people only called Robert (a play on the advertising campaign of 'Handbuilt By Robots', alongside John Shuttleworth’s irritatingly catchy song ‘Austin Ambassador Y-Reg’ - finding an Austin Ambassador for sale used to cost mere pennies, and they made for decent everyday cars. Finding one nowadays is near impossible, but if you should then you should save it.
Just like the Marina, Princess and Allegro before it - the Ambassador is a prime slice of British automotive history. With an estimated 60 examples still left in existence, surely it’s time for the Ambassador to claw back some respect. After all, it did what it was designed for perfectly.