The Austin Ambassador was a family-sized hatchback manufactured by British Leyland
from 1982 until 1984, and sold only in the UK. Whilst it made very little impact on the car-buying public during the short time it was on this Earth, it has attained a certain level of fame as the favoured transport of versatile singer/songwriter John Shuttleworth
, who owns a Y-reg (1982-1983) version.
The Ambassador was actually a reworked version of the Austin Princess, which had been launched in 1975 after five years on the drawing board. The Princess was wedge-shaped in the 70s style and comfortable due to its Citroën-esque hydragas suspension, but was slow and lacked a hatchback. Worse, it was bedevilled by poor build quality due to apathy, poverty, and the near-constant industrial action that engulfed BL, its parts suppliers, and the UK in general. Given a choice between a Princess and a Ford Cortina or Vauxhall's new Cavalier people were increasingly choosing the latter, as they were cheaper, faster and more reliable. Something had to be done.
Developed from 1980 to 1982, the Ambassador was an extensive revision of the Princess; most of the body panels were changed, the interior was harmonised with that of the Austin Allegro, extra windows were added in the c-pillar, and a hatchback was added. The end result was a car which looked substantially new, which was both good and bad - by 1980, the Princess' odd tail-high stance and angular styling were dating badly, but the Ambassador was entirely anonymous, at a time when its image needed all the help it could get. The name did not help - the British Empire no longer commanded awe in the age of Cannon and Ball and Eric Bristow - and seemed to be aimed at Margo from 'The Good Life'. Whilst the Princess had been standard issue for junior ministers (and, curiously, one of the gangsters in The Long Good Friday), real-life mabassadors would not be seen dead in an Ambassador.
In other respects the Ambassador was much as before, but with less luxury; the suspension was tweaked, whilst the engine - the o-series - was a modified version of the previous car's e-series lump. The two options were a 1.7-litre or a 2.0-litre block producing 77bhp and 104bhp respectively, for top speeds of 90mph and 110mph and roughly 25-30 mpg, none of which were impressive figures in 1982 (by which time the buying public was increasingly likely to plump for a Volkswagen Passat, a Ford Granada, or offerings from BMW). On its side the Ambassador was much more reliable than the Princess, and the ride was extremely comfortable. It appealed to older buyers because of this, a market demographic which BL (later Rover) wanted to avoid, on account of the perception that old people replace their cars infrequently or not at all. It is for this reason that Graham Fellows chose the Ambassador as John Shuttleworth's car; it is the kind of thing a sensible, semi-retired suburban homeowner might have bought and kept, an unpretentious car for people who no longer need to show off.
Unloved and essentially a stopgap whilst its replacement was being worked on, the Ambassador left this planet in 1984, to be superseded by the Austin/Rover Montego, an altogether more successful car. Ambassadors are now very uncommon on the streets of the UK, and it is unlikely that they will be considered 'classic' - and thus preserved by enthusiasts - until long after the last example has rusted away.