Austin Ambassador Buying Guide

It was the super-practical hatch that the Princess should have been, and now the Austin Ambassador makes a great left-field classic – if you can find one...

How much to pay

• Project £200-450 • Good £600-1500 • Concours £1700-1900 •

Overview

Practicality ★★★★
Running costs ★★★★
Spares★★
DIY friendly ★★★
Investment ★★
Desirability

Few cars polarise opinions like British Leyland’s 1970s models. Whether it’s the TR7, Allegro, Marina or Princess, each one has a reputation that’s, er, less than positive. However, while there’s no denying that each of these cars represented a missed opportunity for various reasons, they also have a certain charm.

As the 1970s became the 1980s things improved only marginally, with the Maestro, Montego and various Rover models struggling to gain acceptance. Stuck somewhere in all of this was the Ambassador, a 1970s model updated for the new decade.

Sharing only its door skins with the Princess, the Ambassador was little more than a hatchback version of its predecessor but the panelwork was almost all new. Throw in fresh headlights (borrowed from the Ital), bumpers and an overhauled interior, and the changes were more far reaching than initially seems apparent.

Whether or not all of this makes the Ambassador desirable is a moot point. However, if you’re looking for a seriously affordable classic that’s guaranteed to be the only example at any show you go to, we’d say the Ambassador is worth a closer look – if you can find one to look at.

Your AutoClassics Austin Ambassador inspection checklist

Engine

All Ambassadors came with an overhead-cam O-series engine in either 1698cc or 1994cc forms; there was no six-cylinder option, unlike with the Princess. An oil and filter change every year or 6000 miles is key to keeping the motor in rude health; a diet of 10W/40 oil is preferable.

The O-series needs a new cambelt every five years, and it’s an easy job to replace on a DIY basis. All Ambassador engines can run on unleaded with no problems; valve-seat recession doesn’t seem to be an issue.

There’s a steel pipe that goes from the bottom of the radiator to the water pump. It rusts through, and as replacements are no longer available, new ones have to be fabricated. It’s not a complicated part, though.

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.

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. Consequently, 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.

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Gearbox

All Ambassadors were fitted with a four-speed manual gearbox as standard; there was no five-ratio option, although a Borg-Warner Type 35 automatic transmission could be specified. The manual ’box is essentially the same transmission that featured in the Landcrab and Princess, although the Ambassador got a higher final drive for more relaxed cruising.

The automatic ’box is very reliable and, once it’s worn out, getting it rebuilt by a specialist is no problem, as all the parts are readily available. The manual will notch up 100,000 miles between strip-downs, but even when in mint condition the gearchange is pretty horrible, with first proving very difficult to select when cold. It’s all part of the charm of Ambassador ownership.

Suspension and brakes

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. However, the displacers at the heart of the system 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 arch. If the car is lop-sided or sitting low generally, the system is down on pressure. It’s possible to sort this on a DIY basis with the right tools, and the fluid should be replaced every five years, because after this point the corrosion inhibitor loses its effectiveness. The displacers can be overhauled relatively cheaply; doing so will transform the ride and handling.

Any car with its original suspension bushes will have very vague handling, although the model’s dynamics were never pin sharp anyway. Replacements are available; 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 that 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.

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.

Bodywork

The Ambassador’s all-steel monocoque doesn’t rust as badly as some of its contemporaries’, but the corrosion can still be pretty bad. As a result, you need to check everywhere, especially the sills, wheelarches, valances and bottom of each front wing. Less predictably the roof corrodes badly towards the rear of the car, above the C-pillar, and repairs are involved. 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 readily available. Also, the windscreen rubbers harden and perish, then let water in, rotting the carpets and floorpans. Rubbers are currently unobtainable, although the Leyland Princess Enthusiasts’ Club is looking into getting them remanufactured.

Interior

None of the cabin 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. Predictably, finding any original replacement trim is unlikely, especially if you want it to match what you already have.

History

  • 1982: The Ambassador takes over from the Princess with a choice of 1.7 L or HL editions alongside a 2.0 HL and a twin-carb HLS. Poshest model of all is the Vanden Plas, which doesn’t have leather even as an option and initially there’s no wood trim, either. All editions can be specified with a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission.
  • 1983: Until now power steering was optional, but from July this becomes standard across the range. At the same time the exterior is adorned with plastic protective mouldings, while the interior is spruced up with some fillets of wood on the doors and dashboard. However, by November it’s all over, with the Maestro and Montego picking up the baton.

AutoClassics says…

The comfortable and refined Ambassador is astonishingly practical, thanks to its roomy cabin and hatchback configuration. Thanks to excellent club support you’ve got plenty of knowledge and enthusiasm at your fingertips, but you might have to bide your time for the right car to come up for sale.

The key problem you’re going to have with purchasing an Ambassador is finding one that’s worth buying; only 43,427 were built, and the survival rate is abysmal. However, there are some really good examples around, and prices remain eminently affordable when they do come up for sale.

Many of the survivors are the posher editions, which is no bad thing. Assuming that any Ambassador you buy will be used only sparingly, it's essential that you snap up the best you can afford rather than setting out to buy a specific variation on the theme.

Specifications

Ambassador 1.7
  Power 83bhp
  Top speed 98mph
  0-60mph 14.2sec
  Economy 32mpg

Ambassador 2.0
  Power 92bhp
  Top speed 101mph
  0-60mph 13.6sec
  Economy 31mpg

Ambassador 2.0 HLS
  Power 100bhp
  Top speed 104mph
  0-60mph 12.8sec
  Economy 30mpg

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