Six decades, many avatars later, a workhorse is put out to pasture

Dilip Bobb Posted online: Sunday, Jun 01, 2014 at 0000 hrs
New Delhi : When it made its debut on India’s roads, Russia had just launched the Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth, Toyota exported its first vehicle, the Toyota Crown, to America, Elvis Presley’s film Jailhouse Rock was released and a Russian dog called Laika became the only living thing to enter space. It was 1957, and for the next three and a half decades, the dumpy-looking but omnipresent Hindustan Ambassador would rule Indian roads and highways, as much a defining image of the country as half-naked fakirs, diamond-encrusted maharajas and the Taj Mahal. No car in the world has survived as a road vehicle for 57 years, ferrying millions of Indians, passengers in taxis and proud owners, across the country, its outdated engineering no deterrence to the challenge of potholed roads, and even no roads. Only the Russian Lada compared to it for dowdiness and durability, ensured by a benign government. The Birla-owned Hindustan Motors may have manufactured it, but it was the Congress that kept it alive and made it such an iconic object. Not of desire, but necessity.

For decades, there were only three cars Indians could buy locally: The Ambassador, the Fiat or more accurately Premier Padmini and the Standard Herald, the last based on the British Triumph. The comfort and space of its rear seats and the Birla connection got the Ambassador the official nod, and launched its prolonged India reign. In that sense, the Hindustan Ambassador, as it was badged or the ‘Amby’ as it was affectionately known, is like a time capsule of the last 57 years, its sofa-style seats a repository of the memories of millions. Entire generations have come and gone, their dreams and ambitions transported by this one ugly-looking car. Long before the Maruti 800 arrived, this was the People’s Car. The late photographer Raghubir Singh did an entire picture book on the Amby and its many avatars. In the foreword, he wrote, “As I journeyed all over India, I came to understand that if one thing can be singled out to stand for the past 50 years of India...it has to be the Ambassador.” It was a car one could take liberties with. One of Singh’s brilliant photos featured a red Amby with red hubcaps, a red steering wheel and red upholstery. Behind the car, the red infects the very landscape. Did the Amby make the Indian landscape what it is or was it the other way around? So rugged and indestructible was the car that it’s difficult to tell.

It was, ultimately, the sarkari car. Government ministers and bureaucrats were its biggest customers, often fitting out their cars with interior fans, curtains and a flashing blue or red light on top, as the ultimate status symbol. Till recently, it shuttled around thousands of chauffeured government bureaucrats and military brass nationwide. Blue vehicles for the air force, black for the army, white for the navy and for politicians. The ultimate tribute is that the Ambassador has been mass-produced for the longest number of years, with minimal design changes, on the same assembly line (at Uttarpara in West Bengal). No other car anywhere in the world can match that record. Today, in most metros like Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai, the Ambassador is still very visible, the ultimate workhorse taxi.

Despite its British origins — the car is based on the Morris Oxford made in the UK from 1956 to 1959 — the Ambassador is considered the definitive Indian car. When the Birlas started operations as carmakers, they renamed the then Morris 10 as the Hindustan 10. Production continued till 1954, after which the Landmaster based on the Morris Oxford Series II was introduced. In 1963 it underwent a minor frontal facelift and was named as the Ambassador Mark II. The first ever produced Mark II in black was gifted to the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1975 another minor facelift with a new all black dashboard and rounded parking light was turned out as the Mark 3, the most popular face of the Ambassador. A year later, the Ambassador Mark 4 made its appearance. It was the first diesel car in India and was well received. Thanks to the patronage of successive Congress governments, technological stagnation was the hallmark, with little willingness or need to innovate.. For decades, the Ambassador had no power steering, no side mirrors, no power brakes, no stick shift gears, no seat belts. The seating resembled two sofas placed one in front of the other, except that these sofas smelled of low-quality rexine.

The first major upgrade came with the Ambassador Nova launched in 1999. It had a newly designed steering wheel, new steering column, better brakes and electricals. It also included a new radiator grille. The badly needed engine upgrade was delayed till 1992, when another version was released — the Ambassador 1800 ISZ, featuring a 75 bhp 1,800 cc Isuzu engine and a five-speed manual gearbox. It also had the option of bucket seats, as opposed to the earlier bench seats. The instrumentation panels were shifted from the centre of the dashboard to behind the steering wheel and seat belts became mandatory. However, the Amby’s ancient technology and basic design proved a huge advantage; it was the only car that could break down in the middle of nowhere and there would be a local mechanic who could fix everything, from a leaking radiator to an overheated engine and modified parts. Not that it needed too much care. It was rugged, sturdy and could go anywhere without too much trouble or maintenance. Before the Maruti 800 came along in 1983, it was everyone's first car. Says RC Bhargava, Maruti Suzuki chairman: “My first car was a lime-green Amby bought in 1960 in Lucknow. I still remember the price, it was for R12,600. When I got married in 1961, we used the car for our honeymoon when just the two of us drove down to Gopalpur beach in Odisha... The car was absolutely first class, there were no break downs. I sold it to another colleague who kept it for many years more after that. It survived only because it was the only car with a diesel engine at the time and it received patronage from the government and taxi operators. There was no way to modernise the Amby for HM, which neither had the money or the technical know-how.”

Things radically changed with political developments, namely the threat from terrorists to the PM and other VIPs. This compelled the carmaker to shop for a more powerful engine that could effectively propel the car with the added weight of armour plating, with bullet-proof glass and air-conditioning as essential add-ons. The Isuzu 1,817 cc engine made the cut, and was also introduced in civilian models. The Ambassador was re-engineered and renamed the Ambassador Classic. The new model featured a redesigned dashboard, polyurethane seats, pull type door handles and the steering column gear lever was replaced by floor-shift gears and had a tweaked suspension. The higher-end models featured servo-assisted disc brakes and power-assisted steering. The Ambassador Grand was launched in 2003, with 137 changes compared to its predecessor, including central door locking, factory-fitted music system and an optional sun roof.

The Avigo was the most radical revision of the venerated Ambassador, a part of a brand revitalisation kicked off in the middle of 2003. The change of name, a break from the Ambassador marquee, indicated a different marketing strategy. The Avigo was launched in 2004. This, however, was seen as a desperate attempt to claw back its ever-dwindling market share. By 2002, the writing was clearly on the wall. The then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee had switched, on the advice of the SPG, to armoured SUVs, and the political class followed, upgrading to more modern-looking automobiles that had more social status. The Amby was selling for between R5 lakh and R6 lakh depending on the model, and a number of more technologically-advanced cars were available in that range. A bigger blow came in 2011, when the sale of Ambassador taxis was banned because of stricter emission standards rolled out in 11 Indian cities. Though a new, cleaner diesel engine was introduced in 2013, branded, cleverly, the Encore, and India's favourite taxi returned to the streets, the metre was running. Private taxi companies had eaten into the Amby market and the loss of official support was a killer blow. In 2011-12, Hindustan Motors sold around 2,500 cars and registered a loss of R29.96 crore.

Despite that, the Amby had become so iconic and basic a vehicle that it lent itself to experimentation. Legendary car designer Dilip Chhabria produced a customised version called the Amberoid, while fashion designer Manish Malhotra jazzed up his own version in bold colours and interior fabrics. Even today, the Amby continues to rub bumpers with its more illustrious rivals across the country. After ruling the Indian roads for more than 50 years, it's time to bid farewell to one of India's enduring icons. The Amby was, and will always be, much more than the sum of its parts, even if those parts did belong in a museum.