India at 75: On the trail of Amby

Any account of the development of the Indian automotive market is incomplete without a mention of the Ambassador and his background. In many ways, the Ambassador’s story also unravels India’s economic growth story.

In the world of cars, it’s been a great leveler – From the halls of power to the common man’s front porch, the snub-nosed ambassador has been a symbol of authority and aspiration at the same time. Undeniably one of the first mascots of modern independent India, the rugged Amby was much more than just a durable family car. Once the “King of Indian Roads”, he ruled the streets of India in an array of colors. The whites with the red beacon carrying the ministers and the yellow-black taxis on the streets of Kolkata are what stand out in most of our memories. In fact, in many ways, the yellow-black Ambassador taxis have become an inseparable part of the City of Joy’s identity, whether in Lapierre’s famous novel or in the aspirations of an average Indian from the middle class for a comfortable ride. However, with the passage of time and the implementation of latest emission standards, Ambys are a rarity even in Kolkata traffic.

As one proud Amby owner once said, “It allowed those who could afford a car to rejoice in the ordinary. Sturdy with huge space to accommodate family (and even neighbours) seating, it was a real car for the joint family. Manufactured by Hindustan Motors at its factory in Uttarpara near Kolkata, the first of the Ambassadors was launched in 1958-1959.

Owned by the Birlas, this iconic roadster was based on the design of the Morris Motors Series III Morris Oxford model which was produced at the Hind Motor factory during the World War. Priced at a princely sum of Rs 14,000 in the late 1950s, it was the first Indian-made car that exuded that inimitable spirit of a nation eager to reclaim its place in the sun after 200 years of slavery and resource depletion. But in many ways, it is also reminiscent of the difficult times, challenges and history of India’s evolution as a modern nation.

In fact, the Ambassador is perhaps one of the few cars in India that has been running continuously for more than half a century. Partly because of the Birlas’ business acumen and political influence and partly because of the lack of affordable options, the Amby has seven model generations. However, for a car that had been in production for so long, innovations and technological changes were rather rare.

This is probably one of the reasons why this fuel-guzzling, low-mileage car with the dimpled bonnet began to lose its charm in the mid-1980s. In 1979 the car underwent a major facelift with the Mark model 4. In addition to the petrol version, a diesel variant has also made way for those looking for an economical version. However, the mid-80s was also the time when Maruti introduced the Maruti 800…. and as they say, “the old order changes to give way to the new”. However, this “ultimate family car” still had about ten years of operation. The Mark 4 received a facelift in the 1990s and was named Ambassador Nova. This was also the time when the Hindustan Contessa started to be produced. With the start of the new millennium, the Ambassador Classic is equipped with an Isuzu 1817 cc 75 hp inline four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual gearbox with floor-mounted gearshift. But time was running out and the curtain call came in 2014 when Hind Motors finally halted production, losing out to the range of feature-rich spanking new cars heading into India’s now liberalized economy full of young people budding buyers.

Very recently, there has been talk of a potential electric version of the ‘Grande Dame of Indian roads’ after Citroën acquired the Ambassador brand, for the rather astonishing sum of Rs 80 crore. However, this is a story waiting to unfold… For now, as Coach India Editor-in-chief Hormazd Sorabjee said in July 2014: “Modern cars have usurped every remaining reason to buy an Ambassador, except one: to have a slice of automotive history in your garage.