The iconic Ambassador, the ruler of India’s roads for close to six decades, has fi nally called it a day ( By Sanjay Singh Gurjar )
“The king of Indian roads” ambassador car, though not really making news, never needed an introduction to anyone in India. But the suspension of work at its Uttarpara plant on May 24 made it to the headlines of newspapers and news channels all across the country. The journey of the car, which saw production begin in 1958, lasted for nearly six decades, the longest period of production for any car model in the world. Manufactured by Hindustan Motors Limited, India’s pioneering automobile manufacturing company and the flagship company of C.K. Birla Group, and modeled on the British Morris Oxford III, millions of Indians owned and rode the Ambassador with pride. With the entry of Maruti Suzuki and other global automobile biggies, nobody thought that the Ambassador was going to have a smooth ride. But no one may have been prepared for the announcement that the King was finally calling it a day. It is possibly ironic that the announcement came two days before Narendra Modi was sworn in as the Prime Minister of India. The Ambassador, a personal favourite of Nehru, decided to possibly mark its departure at a time when the current government is planning to relegate Nehruvian economic planning to the dustbins of history. But still, the news of the closure of the production line came as a sad news nonetheless to its owners who include India’s bureaucrats, politicians, middle class professionals and taxi drivers.
DOWN THE MEMORY LANE
The Ambassador was the first car manufactured in India. At a time when concepts such as family cars and Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) were unheard of, all the country had was the Ambassador. Whenever a kid was asked to draw a car, it would invariably be the ambassador. May be its simple design (equal front and rear length) made it easier to draw. From ferrying school children in truckloads to carrying shiploads of vegetables from the local wholesale bazaar, it was a neversay- die automobile. Also, it became a part of the Indian urban and semi-urban life. “The Ambassador is one car that has been in production for 56 years and I am proud to say that I am (my grandfather, then my father, now me) an owner of a 1961-model Amby. We have tons of memories with this car and it became a member of my family long before I was born,” reminisces Arshad Ahamed, an owner. Arshad is obviously not the only one nostalgic about the Ambassador’s departure.
CHARIOT OF INDIA’S POWERFUL
It is said that the Ambassador (and Landmaster, the Amby’s predecessor, before 1958) was the only car in which the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, would travel, prompting his colleagues to follow suit. Thus, the Ambassador emerged as a natural symbol of officialdom. The image of the quintessential Indian politician or bureaucrat was not complete without a white Amby with the red beacon on top. However, most politicians and bureaucrats have now moved on to more luxurious cars and SUVs but a few heavy-weights like the Service Chiefs and Congress president Sonia Gandhi still prefer the old trusted warhorse. The power status of the car can be gauged from the fact that it was used by terrorists to get past the security barricade of the Indian Parliament, who then carried out the high-profile attack on the seat of Indian democracy in December, 2001.
For a long time and possibly even now, a white colour Ambassador with a red beacon on top, curtains drawn across its windows and a chauffeur at the wheel completes one’s imagination of a VIP car in India.
THE AMBY TRAVELLER
For many, the Ambassador was the first car their family ever bought. In those days, customers had to wait for two to three months for delivery of the vehicle after paying in full. It has been a long time favourite among taxi drivers due to its low cost of ownership, dependability, spaciousness and comfort factor. On narrow, bumpy and unpredictable Indian roads, it remained the right choice for hire. Dharam Singh, who has been driving the Ambassador on the roads of Delhi, could not believe that the production of car was suspended. “I am driving an Ambassador since 1972. It’s been such a long time but customers have never complained about it. Even now customers like ambassador for its retro looks. Its maintenance is very low and the mechanics are available everywhere,” he says as he fixes the car. He calls it a “safe” and “good” car while trying to find the right bolt to plug a hole. Alas, no such quick fix is in the sight to restart the Ambassador’s production line.
The list of its celebrity owners includes lyricist Javed Akhtar to singer Talat Aziz, from “Dream girl” Hema Malini to actor Jeetendra. Remembering the days of early 70’s, Akhtar recalls, “Salim Khan’s wife paid for the petrol as I was left with absolutely no money after buying the car and then Salim drove me home since I didn’t know how to drive”. Actress Hema Malini, who developed an emotional bond with her Ambassador, says, “ I felt very sad when my father decided to sell it and I was so much in love with my ambassador that I kept looking at it without batting an eyelid as it was being taken away”. Such bond and association is possibly unprecedented between a car model and its owners.
It is ironic that only a year back, it was crowned as world’s best taxi by BBC’s Top Gear show; the host called it “virtually indestructible”. The scene on the roads of Kolkata and Delhi is incomplete without the sight of the Ambassador taxi. In Kolkata, there were some 33,000 Ambassador taxis at the end of 2013. However, of late, the winds of change have brought other slimmer models out to the cab bays.
NOT A SMOOTH RIDE
The Ambassador used to clock sales of around 24,000 cars per year in the 1970s and the 80s. That figure dropped to just 6,000 in the first decade of the 21st century. The emergence of Maruti 800 in the mid 80s and the entry of global auto giants post 1991 drove the Amby off the road. The expanding middle class, which had never owned a car before, shunned its tank-like looks. In April 2011, a year after BS IV standards came into effect in 11 Indian cities including Kolkata, the sale of ambassador was stopped. However, with a cleaner diesel engine that complies with the new emission standards, it was able to resume production. With sales of just 2,200 cars in 2013-14 out of a total of 1.8 million passenger cars that were sold that year, the doomsday has finally arrived for the grand old papa of Indian automobile industry.
CHANGE IS THE ONLY CONSTANT
Change was the only thing that could have made survival of the Ambassador possible in the rapidly changing automobile market in India. However, that much-awaited change never arrived at its Uttarpara plant. The Hindustan Motors management, used to reaping profits in the Licence Raj days, did not invest much in research and development. A burning example of another old, iconic brand in the shape of Enfield Bullet should have inspired the HM leadership. Once Enfield India was sold to the Eicher Group, its products became more contemporary and sought after. However, in the absence of such vision, the Ambassador now rides into sunset.
TIME’S UP FOR THE TIMELESS
Like all good things, the saga of the Ambassador also comes to an end. But unlike most others, its swan song would be marked by a history: registering a world record for the car with the longest period in production, manufactured from the same assembly line, using the same basic design. The statement of the Hindustan Motors, makers of this iconic car, with Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) stated the reason of closure as the worsening conditions at its Uttarpara plant which included very low productivity, growing indiscipline, critical shortage of funds, lack of demand and large accumulation of liabilities. They have declared suspension of work at the plant till further notice. However, observers of the Indian automobile market know that a comeback is least likely.