Could this be the best example of Britain's worst car?
By Mike Duff / Saturday, 2 July 2022 / Loading comments
We are living in strange times. It’s not long since a car like this week’s Brave Pill could have easily been purchased for a tenth of its £5,995 asking price. Sometimes just a hundredth. I saw it happen. As a poor student in the nineties I used to regularly attend a car auction in north Manchester where local traders used to offload no-hopers. It was an inexpensive evening out, as long as you kept your hands in your pockets, although I did once break that rule and end up owning a Ford Capri. But the cheapest car I ever saw limp through the ring was a similar vintage Austin Ambassador to our Pill, albeit in base 1.7L spec, knackered condition and finished in a deeply unattractive shade of what seemed to be British Rail Blue.
This was the time before scrap values turned negative, so even the nastiest banger would still fetch a couple of hundred quid if it had more than a month of MOT left. But not this Ambassador, which despite still having a ticket (that was one of the auction’s few rules) attracted zero interest as it sat there in a cloud of exhaust smoke. The auctioneer was a loud character who would often harangue the audience when they didn’t show sufficient enthusiasm for his faded wares, but with the Austin he was soon reduced to pleading – it was clear it had to be sold. When there was no interest at £100, then £50 he turned the tables: “okay, what will you give me for it?” “A fiver!” somebody shouted and the hammer came down. Even if its new owner had driven it straight to a scrapyard and weighed it in he’d have made a profit.
Nearly three decades later and things have changed, most obviously because the grim reaper has been busy with his car-cubing machine. How Many Left reckons there are only 16 Ambassadors are still on the road, with 68 on SORN. Set against a total production of 43,427 that represents a survival rate of just 0.2 percent. Which goes some way towards explaining the price being asked for this one – the sort of nu-classic you could rock up to the Festival of the Unexceptional in with a fair chance of bagging a rosette.
Of course, it’s a terrible car. Normally I try not to be too rude about any of our Pills, on the basis most get savaged in the comments. But I can’t keep on the fence on this one, having experienced various examples and their quease-making suspension as a child. Yet the very survival of this one, which genuinely seems to be as good as they ever got, has given it the appeal of something vanishingly rare. And also turned it into a valuable historical document to prove just how desperate things had got for British Leyland in the early eighties.
It’s impossible to tell the Ambassador’s story without considering that of the car it was closely related to, the ‘ADO71’ that was sold variously in Austin, Morris and Wolseley versions, but which is best known as the Austin Princess. This had been launched in 1975 to considerable fanfare and predictions it would soon be competing with the Ford Cortina for sales volumes. It featured Hydragas suspension, front-wheel drive – still a segment novelty – and a wedgy shape that suited the era pretty well. (Coincidentally it had originally been developed under the model name ‘Diablo’.)
On the flip side the Princess was slow, even the range-topping six-cylinder 2.2-litre version took a leisurely 13.5 second to crack 60mph. It also suffered from the quality issues common to BL’s strike-hit plants. Sales soon slumped to well under predictions. The Princesses’ other issue was that, although it looked like a hatchback, it was actually a saloon with fixed rear glass. As hatches were getting increasingly popular this lack of practicality was blamed for some of the failure, so the decision was taken to make a hatchback version alongside a heavy facelift.
The problem was that the company was close to broke, so the whole thing was done on a £29m budget that was tight even by early eighties standards. In addition to its full-height tailgate the new car got a redesigned body with extra side windows at the back, meaning that only the front door skins were actually carried over from the Princess. Many of the other revisions actually made it less good than the car it replaced, with cracker-grade interior trim, cheaper and less supportive seats and lights shared with the Morris Ital. The Ambassador’s new name was the classiest thing about it.
Critical reaction was barely tepid, and sales volumes were well below even BL’s gloomy predictions. The Ambassador was launched into a world in which buyers could choose between a growing number of smart new hatchbacks, and few could be enticed by something so obviously cheap and nasty: it didn’t even get a five-speed gearbox, despite Austin having previously offered this with the Maxi and even the cheaper Allegro. This was one Ambassador that definitely wasn’t spoiling anyone, and BL never even bothered with a left-hand drive version for export. The successor Montego that followed it looked like a space-aged rocketship by comparison.
But if you do have to have an Ambassador, through masochism, madness or an addiction to unlikely automotive kitsch, then our Pill makes an excellent case for itself. It’s not quite the range topper – there was a Vanden Plas version above it – but as a 2.0 HLS it sits close to the top of the tree. That meant it got – drumroll please – electric front windows. While posher BL brands like Jaguar and Rover had offered powered glazing for years, the Ambassador was the first Austin to feature them. It also got power steering, velour trim and a digital clock that looks to have been fitted to the dashboard with a hammer. (Which, as it was built in Cowley, is possible.) Strangely it doesn’t have a rev counter, as no Ambassador did. Which isn’t really an issue given any O-Series’s preference for grumbling rather than singing; from memory of later versions it was genuinely hard to persuade them to go past 5,000rpm.
The dealer selling our Pill claims it has the 100hp engine, which would make it a twin-carb model. The under bonnet pictures show it is only sporting a single SU though, suggesting it is actually the slightly less mighty 90hp version; it’s unlikely this will make much of a difference to overall performance. The car has either been kept in timewarp condition through its 48,000 miles, or lovingly restored to it, boasting what look like original Austin Rover stickers and an original Unipart battery under the bonnet.
Given it has already proved to be unkillable over nearly 40 years the bravest part of living with any Ambassador will be a willingness to be seen in it. The biggest risk for any BL product of this era is likely to be corrosion and the difficulty in replacing rarer parts, but our Pill’s MOT history reveals a clean pass in March and nothing of major concern in earlier advisories – these reporting on occasional non-functioning lights, excessive exhaust carbon monoxide and various other niggles. It wouldn’t be hard to keep it on the road, although the bigger question is whether anybody is prepared to pay nearly five grand for the privilege of doing so.
Still, the British enthusiasm for an underdog means there does seem to be an impressively active social scene out there, with a video on the Enthusiasts’ Club website showing that no fewer than five surviving cars turned up to the Ambassador’s 40th birthday bash at Gaydon in April, that’s over a third of the road legal survivors, a level of dedication it’s hard to imagine any supercar club achieving. Maybe John Shuttleworth will turn up next time, Graham Fellows’ comedy creation having composed a catchy love song for his Y-reg example. Don’t click on that link or you’ll be humming it all day.
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