From the moment the Princess was launched in 1975 there was a persistent demand for a hatchback as the design of the car lent itself so well to such a configuration, but BL didn’t want the Princess stealing sales from the struggling Austin Maxi and up-market Rover SD1. But by 1980 the marketplace was changing and Vauxhall’s next Cavalier would be a hatchback and Ford’s Cortina replacement, the Sierra, would also be a 5-door. BL realised that the lack of a fifth door in the Princess was costing them sales and with the 12 year old Austin Maxi sales dwindling to almost nothing and the LC10 (Maestro/Montego) launch almost 4 years away, a stopgap product was urgently needed.
By early 1980 some £19million was released and an engineering programme - codename LM19 - was underway to develop the 4-door saloon Princess body into a 5-door hatchback and along the way develop improvements to other areas such as the suspension, power train and overall refinement.
Making use of the latest CAD (Computer Aided Design) technology at Cowley engineers quickly realised that major structural changes were required to give the necessary rigidity that a 5-door design required. These changes would encompass the whole design of the Princess and the result was a total restyle of the body shell; the only common panels between the Princess and Ambassador was, apparently, the front outer door skins, though this was probably marketing bumf from Austin-Morris - keen to disassociate the new car from the Princess as most of the structure was carried over from the Princess.
As the changes to the body shell were so far reaching the opportunity was taken to improve the fit and finish of the body-in-white by retooling and re-jigging the production line at Cowley, with special attention being paid to door sealing. After the interestingly styled trapezoidal headlamps of the Princess it seemed like a step backwards to use the rather plain, square headlamps from the Ital but budget constraints dictated the use of off-the-shelf parts and, inevitably, the front of the Ambassador ended up looking like its Morris stable mate. An air dam was incorporated below the front bumper which reduced the drag co-efficient to 0.408, an improvement over the Princesses 0.426. The bonnet line was 2 inches lower, achievable by the decision not to fit the rather tall 2.2 straight-six engine from the Princess as it was no longer cost effective to keep the E6 engine in production.
Changes had been made under the skin too, some of which had already been introduced in the November 1980 facelift of the Princess 2. These included modified Hydragas suspension units - a new valve design allowed more precise control of the fluid between the chambers thus reducing the pitch and bounce and improving damping and ride compliance.
The Ambassador would also benefit from improvements to the gearbox; mainly new gear teeth profiles and revised ratios - though still no fifth gear - and a new drive shaft design improved free movement between the final drive and wheel reducing vibration and noise. Wider wheel rims, up from 4.5 to 5.5 inches, but using the same 185/70/14 tyres meant the steering and handling were more responsive and low speed ride was improved.
With the deletion of the E6 engine a new twin carburettor version of the 2-litre O-series engine powered the top-of-the-range model producing 100bhp, 8bhp more than the single carburettor engine. Torque output was similar to the E6 engine with 120lb/ft @3250rpm (the 2.2 figures were 125lb/ft @3500rpm), though the smoothness of the six-cylinder was lost.
The interior received a total redesign; a new dash moulding was introduced with new dials and more oddment space as well as a new centre console with revised ventilation and heater controls. The specification was also improved over the Princess with electric windows, central locking and a sunroof being added to help the new car compete on more even terms with its rivals. However, a leather bound steering wheel was noticeable by its absence, even in the top-spec Vanden Plas.
Austin-Morris had high hopes for the Ambassador and were looking for a 2.5% market share as Princess sales had halved between 1979 and 1981 to just 1% of the market where the ageing Ford Cortina continued to dominate the sales charts. With Ford’s Sierra over a year away Austin-Morris believed that competitive pricing would give them a foothold in the segment. With this in mind Austin-Morris were keen to promote the car as a completely new design and sever any links with the Princess - despite its apparent lineage – and give the Ambassador a new image.
The car buying public were not fooled; they saw it for what it was – a Princess with a hatchback. In later road rests of the Ambassador testers criticised its mediocre build quality and poor panel fit – something that engineers had apparently been working hard at during development.
Austin-Morris felt they pulled off a miracle with the Ambassador considering the relatively low budget makeover and the motoring press generally welcomed the car with enthusiasm though with a few reservations. But the car buying public greeted it with overwhelming indifference and although it was a reasonably worthy facelift of the Princess it was up against some very stiff opposition in the market place. The Ambassador may have been blessed with the versatility the Princess was always lacking but the cars performance was a long way off of the pace set by the opposition. The Ambassador was unbeatable in some areas and wanting in others. Luckily, Austin-Morris had only planned for the Ambassador to have a two-year production run as, like the Morris Ital, it was never really more than a stopgap product. The Princess was made available across 42 countries whereas the Ambassador was only available in right hand drive and remained indigenous to the UK.
Of course, the Ambassador raises more questions than it answers – the most poignant being why didn’t Leyland build a hatchback version years before? The answer can be found in the Princess development story In conclusion, the Austin Ambassador can best be described as too little, too late. Which is a shame because this car demonstrated quite clearly that Harris Mann’s original hatchback design all those years ago was inherently the right one.
This cutaway shows the main body changes required at the rear of the Princess bodyshell in order to be a hatchback.
Ambassador mock up undergoing wind tunnel testing. Note the side repeaters behind the front wheel arch, which never made it into production, and the Ital headlight/repeater assembly.
Ambassador undergoing testing at BL’s Gaydon proving facility. Note at this stage that the side repeaters were still in place.
Early Ambassador styling sketch
O series 2.0 twin carburretor engine replaced the E series six cylinder
New dash and interior trim.
Controversial econometer instead of a rev counter