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Ambassador Development Story

 

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THE DEVELOPMENT STORY

 

The ADO17 or ‘Land Crab’ did not have a particularly distinguished career as BMC’s flagship front-wheel-drive model. Sales were disappointing because the car – which possessed a great deal of potential – simply did not appeal to the target buyers. Even though the car was an unreserved sale flop, BMC undertook no work into replacing the car, which meant that it would be down to Leyland to formulate plans – and because it was younger than the ADO16, it would have to take second place to it. Once Donald Stokes (BLMC’s Chairman) had finalised the company’s plans in the lower mid range, attention was finally turned towards ADO17 and how best to replace it. Initial thoughts on the matter were put down by Filmer Paradise (BLMC’s marketing director) on the 27th February 1970 (some six years after the launch of the ADO17), which was contained in a confidential memorandum, submitted to members of the Product Policy Committee.

 

Echoing the thoughts of John Barber (one of two deputy managing directors; the other was George Turnbull) Paradise made it clear the main growth in the car market would be the upper-medium sector, referred to as the ‘’D Class’’ (which back in 1970 referred to anything over 1500cc) and that as the ADO17 badly needed replacing, it would make sense to pitch it’s replacement further upmarket. This plan was, in the opinion of Paradise, one that Austin Morris most urgently needed to instigate and that the resultant car should be European influenced in order to effectively meet the challenges of the late seventies.

 

The initial thoughts were that the car should be rear wheel drive and have  “European” styling, but the decision to continue with front wheel drive was swiftly (and correctly) made by Product Planning, who felt that the ADO17 engine/transmission pack would make an ideal base for the new car. Besides, changing over to rear wheel drive would send out confused signals to the car buying public and the company that did so much in pioneering front wheel drive for the masses should stick to this format. At this time, the car was given project name “Diablo”, which encompassed another car already in development.

 

Once the mechanical packaging of the car was settled, the finer details were looked at – and the ADO71 became a more serious study. Initial thoughts were that the E-Series engine would be the entry-level power pack, which had the advantage over the B-Series as having a 5-speed gearbox and the higher models would use the E6 engine, already employed in the older car, but with the added update of a 5-speed gearbox. The body of the car could be allowed to grow in order to match the Opel Rekord, Peugeot 504 or Ford Cortina III, but more importantly, to facilitate a less upright driving position, allow a larger boot than the ADO17 and improve the cars crash worthiness. Importantly, because the ADO17 was a tremendously commodious car and the ADO71 was based upon it, it would have class-leading passenger space.

 

BMC board approval was given to the ADO71 at this point and development of the car now continued apace. The man chosen to create the look of the ADO71 was Harris Mann, who had previously worked on the Morris Marina and created the Austin Allegro – and since the BLMC design studio had been moved from Cowley to Longbridge in 1970, had replaced Roy Haynes in overall charge of car design. Back in 1969, after Mann had been asked to create a sports car design of the future (which ended up as the Zanda, a good looking design exercise for a sports coupe that had been presented to the press at the Earls Court Motor Show), he was asked to produce a saloon in the same vein. Unlike the Zanda, which made it to a full size prototype, the saloon car was no more than a paper study, but the drawings were issued as part of a press release.

 

The saloon concept caught the attention of upper management and so, Mann was asked to develop the concept further. The idea was that the completely captured the upmarket aspirations that the company had for the ADO71 and so the styling work that Harris Mann had been working on was now transferred to this project.

                   

Harris Mann worked on “production-ising” his concept and within weeks, the design studio had produced a full-sized version of the car, which unlike the Allegro, even at this early stage its design process was translating into a good looking and interesting design. Notable Harris Mann trademarks were the pronounced “wedge” shape (something that became increasingly popular throughout the seventies) incorporating a long and low front end, high rear end and fastback rear. Some notable design points were the concealed windscreen wipers and towards the rear of the roofline, there was a raised section that added usefully to the amount of down-force generated aerodynamically by the car. The initial study for the ADO71, which was still named Diablo, actually incorporated a hatchback rear end and this feature would have enabled the ADO71 to fit in nicely with upcoming rivals such as the Audi 100 Avant and Renault 20.                

 

Some fairly wide-ranging decisions needed to be made with regards to the production of the car: the first of which was the dropping of the plan to use the 1750 E-Series engine in single carburettor form. This decision was easily made because going on sales projections forwarded by management, the Allegro and Maxi would all-but use-up the entire capacity of Cofton Hackett and so, the B-Series would continue to be used in this application. The single carburettor version of the E-Series engine was also considerably less powerful than the B and because the ADO71 would emerge only slightly less weighty than the ADO17, it was felt that the newer engine would be less than ideal anyway. Long term planning also meant that this decision needed to be made because the upcoming O-Series engine was in the pipeline and back in 1971, this was still seen as a straightforward OHC conversion of the B-Series and using the older engine in the AD071 meant that the conversion to the O-Series (assuming the engine was not available launch) would be a relatively straightforward affair.

 

It was at this early stage in the proceedings that the questionable decision to offer the ADO71 as a saloon and not a hatchback was made. Why this was so, comes down to the fact that product planners felt that in the class that the car was aimed at, a hatch back was seen being somewhat out of place (despite what Rover were doing at Solihull with the SD1 at the same time)  - the hatchback concept being seen as an exclusively the province of the small car. Also, because the ADO71 was conceived to replace the Austin 3-Litre as well as the ADO17 and BLMC were already well served in the middle market with their hatchback Maxi; they did not want the new car to take sales away from it. The Engineering department were also encouraged to shy away from creating the car as five-door model because it would have added extra weight and complexity, with only marginal improvements in accommodation. Market research for BLMC also indicated that a saloon was what customers wanted. Of course, the reality showed that by not producing a hatchback, the company may have done themselves out of sales, especially in Europe – the subsequent popularity of the format showed how wrong Austin-Morris were (certainly the sales success of the SD1 was not impaired because it was a hatchback).

 

Charles Griffin was placed in charge of developing the chassis of the ADO71 and the question of what system was to be used was an easy one to answer. Hydragas, as first seen in the Allegro was the obvious choice, differing only in detail from it in the set-up of its front suspension, which actually mirrored the Maxi. To ensure pliant ride, the spring rates in this application were exceptionally soft, but to back this up, the unusual step was taken to design the ADO71 to use wide, low profile tyres on narrow wheel rims; relying on lower than usual tyre pressures and the resulting flexing of the tyres’ sidewalls to add further ride softness. It has said to be that, if the intention was to achieve Citroen-like ride, the chassis engineers reached their aims very easily; the finished car had a ride quality that was almost in the same league as the Citroen CX – certainly, it had none of the bounciness that afflicted the Allegro.

 

 

Development work continued and some wind tunnel of the shape was all that it was felt to be needed, which must have been a relief to Harris Mann, who had seen his previous design, the Allegro corrupted on its way to production. The final shape that emerged was only slightly different from the original clay model of November 1971 and its comparatively clean aerodynamic shape (co-efficient of drag was cd0.404 – not in the same league as the Citroen CX, but certainly better than the “domestic” opposition) was testament the initial “rightness” of Harris Mann’s design. Accommodation was also marked out as a strong point; seat room was as good as the ADO17 up front, only slightly worse at the rear and most importantly, the driving position was far more reclined than the sit-up-and-beg ADO17.

 

In development, it is fair to say that all the aims set out for the car in 1970 were met – and a great deal of credit for this should be laid at the feet of Charles Griffin, who ensured that the AD071 project did not lose sight of its objectives.

 

When the ADO71 was launched on March 26th 1975, just weeks before the publication of the Ryder Report, it did so to an enthusiastic press and public alike. Were there was a real sense of disappointment at the ugliness of the Allegro, the 18-22 Series as it was named, emerged a good looking and interesting car. The dealers must have shared the same sense of relief, because whereas the Allegro sales never got close to matching the sales ADO16, there was a real feeling that the new car would comfortably outsell the ADO17. Certainly British Leyland’s own forecasts reflected this view and the production facility at Cowley North works was greatly modernised with an increased production volume in mind.

 

Mechanically, the ADO17 offered no great surprises, with its choice of B and E6-Series engines, four speed gearboxes and Hydragas suspension – the O-Series would have to wait for the first facelift. The press lauded the car for its impressive stability and speed, superior ride quality and well-sorted front wheel drive handling. Importantly, BL learned lessons from the AD017 and fitted power assisted steering to the car, offering it as standard on the 2200 and an optional extra on the 1800 – the fact that the system made a huge difference to the driving experience and the heavy low-geared manual set-up had dominated all driving impressions of the ADO17. Another area that the old ADO17 was criticised for was it spartan, workman like interior with acres of blank dashboard. For the ADO71 stylists were given free reign to design a stylish dashboard utilising the latest developments in plastic moulding techniques. Interior accommodation was predictably praised and dashboard ergonomics – never a strong point of the ADO17 – were described as, “futuristic”. The question of the styling was unanswered, but few disagreed with the sentiment at the time, that it was considerably more appealing than the Allegro, Maxi and the AD017. When the morale at British Leyland, be it in the factories or the dealers, was at its lowest ebb, it was seen as genuinely good news that the company had something appealing to sell.

 

Indeed, after their test of the 2200HL of the 29th March 1975, Autocar summed up the car favourably, “All in all, this is a most satisfactory car, which should do much for Austin-Morris. We wish it well, and are confident that it will find wide favour with the both business man seeking a refined, comfortable mile eater and the family man who needs proper space for growing a brood.”

 

What was left unsaid in the test was that the 110BHP 2200HL version with rather less than sparkling performance; much was made of the excellent stability, superb ride and strong breaks, but the straight line speed – or rather lack of it – was carefully glossed over. The figures told a rather stark story though: 0-60 in13.5 seconds, maximum speed of 104 mph, 50-70 in fourth gear took a yawning 13.2 seconds with an overall fuel consumption figure of 20.7mpg. Most price rivals were significantly quicker and to the customers this car was aimed at, this was important.

 

The car also boasted some built in safety features, which included front impact crumple zones and the availability of the new Dunlop Denovo runflat tyre system. But, the most obvious safety feature was the large red seat belt warning light on the dashboard, which winked and clicked ferociously if either front seat passenger wasn’t wearing their seat belt. This was operated by a pressure sensitive switch beneath each front seat - very hi-tech for 1975. But for many this was an irritation, and most users wrapped the seat belts around the back of the seat and connected them to the buckles, which was a rather crude way of overriding the system when all they had to do was to remove the flasher unit under the dashboard.

 

Marketing the car did also raise some issues for the company’s management, but the only problem was one of potential confusion in the minds of the cars customers. It would seem odd that after the proclamation given by Donald Stokes that the company would no longer enter the practice of badge engineering, that the car would be offered in Austin, Morris and Wolseley guises. The marketing plan, however, dictated that that it was necessary to launch the 18-22 Series in three different ways because of the fact that after seven years in existence, British Leyland still operated independent Austin and Morris franchises. At the time of the launch of the 18-22 Series, the ADO77 Marina replacement was still only in the early stages of development, but back in 1971 when the decision was made to offer the ADO71 in three varieties, the Marina had just been launched and product planners knew there would be no new Morris cars for a very long time.

 

Rightly, no thought was given to producing a rear wheel drive version of the car to fit in with Donald Stokes’ policy that there should be a range of rear wheel drive Morris cars to complement the front wheel drive Austin’s – even if it had, there were not enough resources in the company to pursue such a plan. Clearly the 18-22 with its advanced specification was an Austin in execution, but because producing it so would have left Morris dealers at a real disadvantage, only having the Mini and Marina to sell, it was decided to launch the car through both dealer networks – also ensuring that all sales possibilities were maximised.

 

Of course, the obvious answer was to unify Austin-Morris dealerships - a process that was gradually taking place anyway, but the matter was finally brought to a close in September 1975, when the 18-22 Series was renamed Princess; an event which sadly closed the book on Wolseley. In response to recommendations of the Ryder Report and its wish that there should be a ‘’single unified’’ car company, the Princess name, a marque in its own right, apparently – was applied to the ADO71 range and used in much the same way as the Mini had been since 1969. Now that the Austin-Morris Princess (or Leyland Princess, as it was known as by just about everyone) was firmly established on the market, it did not take long for the cracks to show.

 

Unreliability was a problem that had seemingly befell all British Leyland products since the Mini, but by 1975 the problem was so bad and so public, that when the Princess started to develop faults, they were national news. Nightmare stories of collapsing suspension and driveshaft failures did not help BL at all and the fact that engineers took such a long time eventually cure the problems only exacerbated the company’s woes. Because the majority of British Leyland was now owned by the Government and funded by taxpayers, special attention was paid to all aspects of the company and as the Princess was its newest product, it was attracting the most attention.

 

The company did all they could do, hamstrung by bloody minded assembly-line workers and now limited financial resources, so one of the immediate actions taken by them was to hire a new man, Brigadier Charles Maple, who’s job it was to ensure that all quality was as tight as it could possibly be within Austin Morris. The fact that the Princess had failed so spectacularly and so publicly made it all the easier for Maple to get down to work and make his presence felt; to act as an effective quality overlord. Again, like the ADO17 before it – and the Austin Montego after it – this initial reliability had predictable effects on consumer confidence in the Princess. People did not buy the Princess in large numbers; the Princess never lived up to the expectations that BL management had for it, but unlike ADO17, which BMC left pretty much untouched for the duration of the production run, the Princess was the subject of continuous development.

 

In July 1978, the Princess 2 finally appeared, sporting the new O-Series engine, which was available in 1.7 and 2.0 litre forms to run alongside the existing 2227cc E6 power unit. Various running changes were also made to the Princess and even though the customers still found the cars lack of pace a turn off and its styling challenging, sales continued running at a reasonable, if unspectacular level. Due to this continuing tinkering by the backroom boys, the Princess did eventually come good even if sales in the UK took a dive in 1979 due to the Iranian crisis.

 

What Car magazine tested the 2000HLS in 1980 and were quick to point out that the Princess had undergone a process of subtle improvements and did not hesitate in recommending it (with reservations) against a couple of obscure rivals. “…To concentrate on the BL cars faults – and it has all too many, still – would be to ignore its one overwhelming advantage, that of excellent passenger space and ride comfort, unrivalled at the price. It may not be the most prestigious, attractive or advanced alternative available, but for the motorist who places practicality above speed and excitement it must still be the best bet.”

 

In the post-Austin Metro shake up of the range the Princess 2 received a mild makeover to freshen it up for 1981, but marketing support for the Wedge was dropped and the car was left to sell itself in the corner of the showrooms as the Metro took the limelight. The company knew that in order boost sales nothing less than a major facelift would be the order of the day. Work began on the project in 1980 and the main intention of the rework was to give the Princess a hatchback, because BL managers were now openly admitting that the lack of a fifth door was costing the company sales. Because the reputation of the Princess was just about on the floor by 1980, it was decided that the facelift would be far reaching enough to warrant a change of identity – from Princess to Ambassador in one fell swoop.

 

When the Austin Ambassador appeared in March 1982, the extent of the changes took most BL watchers by surprise; most people expected that such a low-budget make over would result in only cursory changes to the car – something similar to the transformation that had taken place on the Morris Marina to become the Morris Ital, in 1980. But what they actually got was a car that had every body panel changed (barring the front outer door skins), monocoque changes to the rear to accommodate the addition of a tailgate and a vastly different front-end appearance. One of the significant contributors to the new look was the lower bonnet line, which had been lowered. Now there was no need to accommodate the tall E6 engine this change could be made along with an improvement in aerodynamic penetration, but it did mean that the cleverly concealed wipers of the Princess were now lost. Some of the undoubted character of the Princess styling was absent, but it was undoubtedly an effective facelift – and the extra ‘’sixth light’’ in the C-post eliminated a huge blind spot of the Princess and contributed to a new and airier interior ambience.

 

The interior makeover was, however, disappointing. Whereas the 1975 Wolseley had superb multi adjustable front seats that could be adjusted through 240 positions and sported the extravagance of central armrests, the Ambassador made do with far more ordinary cut-price chairs. The Princess also had a traditional looking, but well planned dashboard, which was discarded in favour of a low cost Allegro-esque item in the Ambassador, which not only managed to look and feel cheaper, but also conveyed less information to the driver – even the top-of-the-range Vanden Plas lacked a rev-counter.

 

The lack of such a basic item as a tachometer reflected the fact that the people behind the cars facelift seemingly did not understand the needs of their clientele. Most professional drivers wanted a car that felt quick and was firm to drive – the Ambassador was neither. One of the biggest criticisms of the Ambassador (and the Princess before it) was its lack of go, even the most powerful version with the twin carburettor 2-litre O-Series engine could only muster 104bhp and the intended main seller, the 1.7 could not crack 100mph. Add to that a 0-60 time of a yawning 14.8 seconds, compared to the all conquering Vauxhall Cavalier 1600’s time of 10.8 seconds and 107mph, and one can see why people were ignoring the Ambassador in such large numbers.

 

That was the fundamental problem with the Austin Ambassador, though; it just wasn’t what people wanted. Luckily, small improvements were made to the suspension system – and if nothing else, the sheer comfort and ride-absorption qualities of the Ambassador demonstrated that Dr Alex Moulton’s Hydragas system could be made to work most effectively and the car would stand as a monument to the effectiveness of Moulton’s system.

 

When the Ambassador was discontinued in 1984, to make way for the Montego, it had been in production for barely two years and such was its lack of popularity it was not even produced in left-hand-drive form.

 

Quite possibly, the Princess was the best car Austin Morris had ever made up to that time. It was modern, it was stylish, it was spacious, it offered adequate performance and was attractively priced. In fact, it was leaps and bounds ahead of every other car made by Austin Morris. Unfortunately, poor build quality allied to niggling engineering faults led to the Princess being saddled with a dire reputation, and once it took hold no amount of positive publicity could shake that reputation. When the Montego first rolled out of Cowley, the company assumed that conservationism for the sake of it would be a winning sales formula; they would be proved wrong. Why the Princess failed was not because of its adventurous styling, its lack of a hatchback or even because it was not fast enough; simply put, it failed because it had a lamentable record for unreliability, which once gained, could not be lost – no matter how hard they tried. If Austin-Morris had built it well from the outset, the story may have been entirely different – but the same could equally be said for so many other cars produced by the company before and since.

 

 

Copyright 2001. Keith Adams.

Reproduced by kind permission of the author.

Certain paragraphs added by Kevin Davis.

Updated March 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1800_01

The ADO17 ‘Land Crab’ was well packaged for its class,

but it didn’t sell very well.

 

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Harris Manns  ‘Zanda’ design exercise of 1969. Note the rectangular exhaust exits at the rear  and low front end. Had it made it into production, a mid mounted 1750 Maxi engine could have powered it.

(With thanks to the Heritage Motor Centre, Gaydon)

 

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ADO71Clay1

Manns original sketch (top) and the first clay buck (bottom).