hen British Leyland launched the 1975 range of Austin, Morris and Wolseley models that would eventually become the Princess, one of the criticisms aimed at its radical design was that it wasn’t a hatchback. Despite the wedge shape naturally lending itself to such a format and designer Harris Mann fully intending it to have a fifth door, it wasn’t until Austin’s Ambassador revamp came along in 1982 that this practical feature made a belated appearance at last.
Sharing only its doorskins with the Princess, the Ambassador looked very similar to its predecessor but the panelwork was almost all new. With a fresh set of headlights ( borrowed from the Ital), new bumpers, and an overhauled, moreup-to-date interior, the changes were more far-reaching than might have been initially apparent.
At launch in March 1982 there was a 1.7-litre L or HL alongside a 2.0 HL and a twin-carb HLS. Poshest model of the lot was the Vanden Plas (although it didn’t have leather and initially there was no wood either). All editions could be specified with a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. Power steering was optional but from July 1983 this became standard. At the same time the exterior was adorned with plastic protective mouldings and the interior was spruced up with fillets of wood on the doors and dashboard. But by November 1983 it was all over, with the Maestro and Montego picking up the baton.
The key problem you’re going to have is finding one; just 43,427 were built and the survival rate is abysmal. But there are some really good examples around, and despite its reputation, you do want an Ambassador. Yes, really!
The Ambassador’s all-steel monocoque doesn’t rust as badly as some of its contemporaries but corrosion can still be pretty bad. As a result you need to check everywhere, especially the sills, wheelarches, valances and the bottom of each front wing. Less predictably the roof corrodes badly towards the rear of the car, above the C-pillar, and repairs are complex. Rotten A-pillars are common too, along with corrosion in the seams. As you’d expect, finding replacement panels isn’t easy although front wings are available. Windscreen rubbers harden and perish then let water in, rotting the carpets and floorpans. Rubbers are currently unobtainable although the Leyland Princess club is looking into getting them remanufactured.
The fuel pump is positioned inside the petrol tank, which creates access problems. In theory you can get to the pump by removing a panel that’s held in place by a locking ring but in reality this ring rusts along with the tank and the panel. As a result, removing the ring can damage it and it never seals properly when it’s put back. So if there are fuel pump issues your best bet is to bypass the original unit and fit a secondary pump outside of the tank, to feed the engine.
SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF
Any car with its original suspension bushes will have very vague handling; it was never pin-sharp anyway. Replacements are available through the club; focus on the front bushes as they’re the ones that have the hardest time and failed items will put the Hydragas displacers under even greater pressure. You also need to ensure the rubber rebound straps for the rear suspension are still intact, because if these have failed the car will dive under braking. Any failed straps will mean an MoT failure but it’s always worth keeping an eye on things between tests. Finally, the Ambassador’s tyres were designed to be part of the suspension, so they need to be kept at the correct pressures: 27psi at the front and 24psi at the rear.
None of the interior trim is especially durable, especially if left in the sun. The seat backs will turn to dust if they’re not covered up and the carpets get holed all too easily. That’s why any caring owner will have kept everything covered up. Predictably, finding any original replacement trim is unlikely, especially if you want it to match what you already have.
The Ambassador wallows in bends but the trade-off is fabulous comfort on the straights. It’s all down to the Hydragas suspension which works brilliantly and isn’t inherently unreliable or complicated. But the displacers are scarce. If everything is working properly you should be able to get four fingers between the front tyre and wheelarch
and four or five fingers between the rear tyre and wheelarch. If the car is lopsided or sitting low generally, the system is down on pressure. A DIY fix is possible with the right tools, which you can buy for £100. Fluid should be changed every five years; after this, the corrosion inhibitor loses its effectiveness. Displacers can be overhauled by The Regassing Service for about £100 apiece.
Top-spec cars came with twin SU carburettors with an automatic choke system. As is common with most of these set-ups, the bi-metallic strip that controls everything has a habit of failing, which is why many of these twin-carb systems have been replaced by a single carb operated via a manual choke.
All Ambassadors came with an overhead
cam O-Series engine in either 1698cc or 1994cc forms; there was no six-cylinder option as with the Princess. An oil and filter change every year or 6000 miles is key to keeping the engine in rude health; a diet of 10W/40 oil is preferable. The O-Series engine needs a replacement cambelt every five years and it’s an easy DIY job. All engines can run on unleaded with no problems; valve seat recession doesn’t seem to be an issue. There’s a steel pipe which goes from the bottom of the radiator to the water pump. It rusts through and replacements are no longer available, so new ones have to be fabricated, although it’s not a complicated part.