If there were a car that stood for memory, it would be the Hindustan Ambassador. Rolled out in 1957, barely 10 years after Independence, based on the British Morris Oxford, the doughty Ambassador has carted generations of Indians through history. But now it is the end of the road for the Ambassador, as the Uttarpara plant of Hindustan Motors shuts down production.
The Ambassador stands for two kinds of memory. One is bureaucratic, official, political, part of the iconography of the state. Till 2003, it was the car driven by the prime minister. Treaties have been signed, laws have been passed by politicians who rolled up in Amby. Bureaucrats surveyed the countryside in the car with darkened windows and lace curtains. All the stodginess and opacity of the state seemed to be concentrated in this car. But there is another kind of memory, made up of private lives and popular culture, that is represented by the Ambassador. In this memory, large Indian families pile into the car to go on picnics, lovers in black-and-white movies sing lustily as they drive through idyllic landscapes, angry heroes leap into the nearest Ambassador to chase the bad guy, a fictional detective solves crimes from a trademark green Amby. In this memory, the vehicle of state power turns into a beloved feature of everyday life, a capacious, comfortable car that fits the contours of Indian reality.
Once a symbol of status and aspiration, the Ambassador started losing ground in the 1980s, with the arrival of the nippy Maruti 800s. When the political class broke faith with it, the Ambassador’s fate was sealed. As the Ambassador drives off the Indian road for the last time, a chapter in the country’s history comes to a close.