Princess & Ambassador buyers guide
Buying any used car is a daunting task, but buying a classic that may be well over thirty years old doesn’t necessarily have to be any more complicated. If you are about to view a Princess it may be wise to take a few things with you such as something to lay on for getting underneath, a pair of ramps or a jack, a torch, and a small hammer for tapping the underside of the car. Remember to ask the vendor if he doesn’t mind you being so thorough.
Starting at the front check for rusting at the air intake behind the front number plate on Princesses; put your hand in there and press gently. If there’s any flexing or crunching then it has rotted. Especially check the areas where the number plate bracket bolts to the valance which can be awkward to repair. Also check the bottom of the front wings ahead of the front wheels as these rot easily, repairs can be made here if the rest of the wing is good but if the car’s got rusty wheel arches then it may be better to replace the whole wing. All front body panels are very hard to source now and they can be expensive when available. The Ambassador frontal styling has fewer rust traps and most damage is caused by stone chips, so check the front valance for corrosion. Ambassador front wings are very easy to source.
On Ambassadors look at the roof above the rear quarter glass as this area can rust severely and is difficult to repair. Usually cars this bad are ready for scrap. Look also for signs of repair to the A pillar which can also corrode severely if not attended to. As a rule cars this bad are best avoided as they will require skilled repair work.
Look along the bottom seams and on the corners of all of the doors which rust from the inside out - some cars may well have had repairs in these areas at some point. Whilst checking the doors check the door hinge pins by grabbing the back edge of the door and lifting, any movement means the door hinge pins are loose but they can be tapped back into place. Also look along the bottom of the boot lid as this also rusts from the inside out, and check for dings in the boot lid as this often gets parking damage. Ambassadors have a large and heavy rear tailgate which is supported by two gas struts that support it when open – check that they still work before you get under it.
Look along the full length of the sills, mainly at the bottom of the front wing and at the back where the sill meets the inside of the rear wheel arch, prod it and any maladies here will be easy to find. Expect to find evidence of welding here but make sure it hasn’t been bodged with newspaper and filler. Note that there should be a gap between the bottom of the sill and the pivot arm bush mounting point (see picture – you can see the grass through the gap.) Check also all four corners of the floor as they can rot there, too.
Princess bumpers get tatty with age and were prone to rust even when new but they are not difficult to obtain. Ambassador bumpers are made of plastic and usually show signs of age and have scrapes on them so check carefully as these are not so easy to obtain. The stainless steel wheel arch trims are becoming very difficult to source so look at all four carefully for dings or scrapes. Later Princess and Ambassador’s didn’t have these fitted. Also check the condition of the drip rail trim which is made of plastic, this is also difficult to replace as its profile is unique to the Princess.
Check the condition of the vinyl quarter panels and vinyl roof on Princess HLS models. They are usually either brown or black; the black roof coverings are much more hardwearing than the brown. The brown vinyl (the vinyl pattern is called Leyland grain) is particularly vulnerable and splits with age.
DIY replacement of the roof vinyl is possible (I’ve done it myself) but a professional replacement will cost around £200 and for best results the windscreen will have to come out. And if that cracks you may have difficulty finding a replacement; add to that removing the plastic trim around the screen on HLS models - which usually breaks upon removal - and the whole process can be a daunting task. Earlier pre-1978 Princess HLS models used stainless steel screen trim and can be reused if removed carefully. The rear screen needn’t be disturbed.
Whilst on the outside have a look at the wheels, if alloy wheels are fitted check for corrosion and flaking paint and make sure all four black plastic wheel centres are present as these are almost impossible to get hold of now. Tyres should be 185/70/14 on all models, even alloy wheeled cars.
Princess interiors are hard wearing especially in HLS trim, but look for a sagging driver’s seat and check that the seat adjustment mechanism operates properly. On HL models the top of the rear seat backrest can fade and disintegrate; especially vulnerable are lighter colours and later facelifted Princess cars and Ambassadors seem to suffer particularly.
From the driver’s seat check the condition of the leather steering wheel on the Princess and look for cracks on the plastic moulded dashboard on all models, also look at the Princess wooden dash insert for chipped varnish (especially around the radio aperture) and fading. Replacement door panels and seats are scarce now so tatty ones are best avoided. Check the roof lining for signs of damage and sagging which is more prominent in cold weather as again it’s a skilled job to replace it. The Ambassador Vanden Plas has a moulded roof lining panel which can be removed and recovered quite cheaply.
Check the carpets in the front foot well and pull them back on both sides and feel for any wet or dampness here; there’s a large sponge-like sound deadening pad below the carpet which absorbs water very well, press on it and see if it squelches. If it is wet then it is highly likely that the windscreen rubber has perished and water is finding its way in. New windscreen rubbers are available via the Club.
Under The Bonnet.
The bonnet is supported by two gas struts so make sure they are still capable of holding the bonnet up before getting under it. New gas struts are readily available. On all engines check for a smoky exhaust - a puff on start up is fine but not under acceleration or when idling, and listen out for rumbling bearings and rattly tappets; the latter are only adjustable on 1800 engines. Of all the engines the 2200 six-cylinder are the most fragile so check for regular servicing.
O-Series 1700 and 2000cc engines are very sturdy and will go on for over 100,000 miles if well maintained, though these engines have a timing belt so make sure it’s been replaced every 48,000 miles - if in doubt renew it – it’s very easy to replace on these and can be done in 30 minutes. Also, undo the cap on the thermostat housing and attempt to lift out the thermostat. It may need a bit of persuasion but if it is jammed then the housing can be damaged trying to remove it. Ideally it should be lifted out and rotated at least once a month.
All engines are fairly coarse in operation except the 2200 six-cylinder which should be super smooth and quiet; the four-cylinder car’s tend to transmit vibration into the passenger compartment, especially at idle, but make sure the idle is smooth and even without any ‘hunting’ up and down. All Wedges will run perfectly well on unleaded fuel with a slight adjustment to the timing with 97 octane being the preferred tipple.
Some 2-litre Ambassadors have twin carburettors and the fuel/air mixture is regulated by an automatic starting unit (ASU). This unit can cause major running problems such as poor starting, poor running, lack of power and high fuel consumption.
The ASU sits between the carburettors.
Although parts can be obtained for the ASU trying to get it to work properly can be extremely time consuming and frustrating. Some owners have taken to removing the carb’s completely and fitting a single carb and manifold arrangement instead (this does affect performance) or fitting twin SU’s from a 2200 six-cylinder car with the manual choke arrangement, which will bolt straight on to the manifold. This is a very easy job with no loss of performance and improved reliability, though it will require slight modifying of the air filter housing for the cables.
Check the radiator for leaks and make sure it has anti-freeze mixed coolant and not rust coloured water, which is a sign of a neglected car. Each engine size has a different radiator, though the O-Series 1700 and 2000 share the same one.
All Wedges use the same Borg-Warner 35 three-speed automatic gearbox which is a sturdy and reliable unit if properly maintained. Regular fluid changes are essential – the fluid should be a light pink colour. Upon engaging gear at standstill there should be a slight jolt. Gear changes should be smooth and jerk free. Drive the car at a moderate pace and it should change up through all 3 gears before you reach 30mph. Press hard on the accelerator at around 30mph and it should kick down into second immediately. Odd gear change patterns can sometimes be traced to an incorrectly adjusted kick-down cable; adjustment can be accessed just below the carburettor(s).
The four-speed manual gearbox is also a strong unit but first gear can be particularly awkward to engage – this is normal, though this can sometimes be caused by a worn clutch or slave cylinder. All gears have a notchy action and can be frustrating in use and there is a slight whine present in all gears.
Chunky four-pot callipers at the front and big drums at the rear easily haul the Wedge to a stop. The brake pedal should be firm with no sponginess. Check for seized pistons on the callipers and also check the flexible brake pipes to the callipers (2 per side) as these perish with age and can be quite expensive to replace. Look also for leaking or seized wheel cylinders on the rear drums. Repair kits for both front and rear brakes are easily obtainable.
As with all front wheel drive cars check the CV boots for splits then drive the car on full lock left and right listening for ‘clicking’ which means the outer CV joints are worn.
Steering & Suspension.
All Wedges are fitted with the Hydragas suspension system. A Princess or Ambassador sagging on one side may just mean that the suspension needs pumping up. The ride height should be 14.5” from the wheel centre up to the bottom centre of the wheel arch. Most garages have a Hydragas suspension pump; ask around your local garages to check availability and expect to be charged for 30 minutes labour, but it may be worth investing in your own pump which regularly crop up on ebay. Budget around £100 for a used one.
If it won’t respond to pumping, or drops again after a few days, then a displacer will need replacing. Displacers are increasingly hard to come by and when they do crop up they’re not cheap - £100 is the going rate at the time of writing. A front displacer can be swapped in around 45 minutes. Rear displacers are slightly more complex to replace but seem to last better, but corrosion on the pivot arm can make removal of the old unit very difficult.
The ride should be smooth and comfortable, particularly so on later models. A hard or jiggly ride usually means the nitrogen in the displacer unit has escaped with age. There are individuals who offer a nitrogen regassing service to displacers (the displacer will have to be removed) and although this may rejuvenate the ride quality it is no guarantee of longevity of the unit as none of the displacer’s inner components are or can be replaced. Displacer failures after regassing have been reported.
Check the Hydragas interconnecting hoses for signs of perishing as these can cause fluid to leak, though there may not be any sign of leaking as the Hydragas fluid evaporates.
Only 2200 Princess and HLS/VP Ambassador models were fitted with power steering as standard and it was an option on all other models. The non-assisted steering is very heavy, especially when parking, but once on the move it’s not so bad but by modern standards, it’s bloody hard work! Choosing different tyre types can help with the ride and steering, as well as adjusting the tyre pressures. 185/70/14 size tyres are fitted to all models. Power steering can be retro fitted quite easily and new old stock racks are very cheap to buy, but it’s worth hunting down a car with PAS.
Very basic 12-volt negative earth system with only 8 main fuses which are located in the engine compartment on the driver’s side bulkhead on Princesses. Ambassadors have a more complex wiring system and its fuse box is located behind a removable panel on the driver’s side of the dashboard. Some Ambassador’s have central locking and electric windows so check these all work. Most faults are due to corroded fuses or connections.
It’s fair to say that a late seventies Princess 2200HLS is probably the best model to go for. It has the silky smooth six cylinder engine and is really nice to drive. The interior trim is extremely hard wearing and can look like new even after 40 years. It is obvious today that the quality of the trim and fittings is superior to that of lesser and later models.
The Princess and Ambassador are straightforward designs and should pose no real problems for the owner who has a selection of good tools and a trusty Haynes manual, which are easily available and cover all models. Just buy the best you can afford and keep it properly maintained and remember that the overall condition of a car is more important than the mileage.
Updated December 2018.