In 2002, French automaker Peugeot crushed the iconic Ambassador sedan with an elephant, in an award-winning ad. The Ambassador, a bulky, metallic concoction of a socialist era, simply did not fit into the emerging world of petite, efficient and high-tech hatchbacks. Peugeot’s ad beat the Ambassador into shape, bit by bit, until it resembled a 206 hatchback – allowing the film’s protagonist a fancier vehicle to flirt with.
The Ambassador was easy to mock in the 21st century. In 2013, Hindustan Motors sold only 2200 of them. A year later, they stopped making the iconic sedan – which had enjoyed one of the longest production runs of any car in history. Note that longest production means a car that has largely gone unchanged since 1948. The sedan was tough, and simply your only option if you could afford a car and the six-month wait that came with it.
But the Ambassador’s run was in a time where cars sold in thousands every year. Today, nearly three million cars a year are sold in India. Almost none of them will occupy a spot in the Indian imagination as iconic as that of the big, white Ambassador.
The Ambassador was born as a Morris Minor, in a factory in Oxford’s Cowley district. A tie-up with the Birla Group saw the technology imported to India – which soon became the car’s final home. In India, the Ambassador escaped the fate that awaited automakers in Britain – stagnation followed by the shutting down of factories. Manufactured in Hindustan Motor’s Uttarpura plant in West Bengal, it was a proper “Made in India” machine.
The Ambassador is a veritable wall of metal. When it launched in India, it was deemed to be a perfect car for those in the Government. Soon, it was adorned with a red beacon on top and became the ubiquitous Government vehicle. You’d move aside if you saw one – and not just because the brakes were weak.
But it wasn’t just for the elite. Those in the middle classes who could afford one, and had the right contacts, soon made it their own. Advertised as the “ideal car for the chauffeur driven”, and as the “big size family car”, it was an equaliser, a respite for the owner who knew that the Prime Minister drove in the same car as he did (facing the same breakdowns too). From Jawaharlal Nehru to Vajpayee, India’s leaders have placed their bottoms in the wide rear seats of an Ambassador. It’s said that Prime Minister Vajpayee once jammed its rear doors, forcing him to climb over the gearbox and exit via the front.
Until 1984, most Indians had little else to do but smile at the Ambassador’s many quirks. It did the job – albeit noisily – and could be repaired by virtually anybody. You could easily fit your entire family in one – as many did. Its utility made it premier choice of taxi drivers across the country. Even Top Gear ranked it as the world’s greatest taxi.
The advent of Maruti Suzuki in the 1980’s revealed how deeply the consumer yearned for a choice. Unlike the Ambassador, the Maruti 800 managed to tap the mass market, becoming the “Car That Put India on Wheels”. With liberalization in 1991, a flood of Japanese carmakers entered the country – promising safety, style and most importantly, fuel economy. The Ambassador hung on bravely, remaining a common sight in the streets. After all, 16 percent of its total sales went to the government alone, who remained committed buyers. But there’s no room for nostalgia when it comes to the PM’s vehicle – and the Special Protection Group decided in 1998 that the head of state was safer in a BMW 7-series.
Ultimately, terrorism struck the final death knell as fears of attacks on parliamentarians increased after 2002. Since then, the cars outside Parliament have mostly changed to modern sedans and SUVs.
The problem is, Hindustan Motors never bothered to look around them. They kept the Ambassador as is – making no attempt to make it smaller, better, faster, safer or more reliable. Even when their fortunes had faded, their last version of the Ambassador had only gaudy plastic trims to boast of (which most found repelling, preferring the old trim). Tellingly, the 2013 Ambassador was BS-IV compliant – unlike the nearly eight lakh vehicles that were recently declared unsellable in India.
When production seized in 2014, it seemed like the end of the Ambassador – which like so many other public sector enterprises, had rusted into oblivion. But a surprise came in 2017 when none other than Peugeot stepped in to buy the brand. It wasn’t much of a sale – Hindustan Motors hadn’t even bothered to keep their hold on the Ambassador trademark. But the juice lies in a tie-up the French automaker had made with Birla – as they seek to target the ASEAN region. Nobody knows what they will make next, but if the recent retro-wave is anything to go by, there’s hope that a revamped, high-tech Ambassador could be released to tug at the heartstrings for an ample sum of money.
For an enthusiast, the Ambassador can still pack a luxurious punch if you modify it with the right third-party add-ons. Strap on an air-conditioning kit, jury-rigged tablet and entertainment system and perhaps an LPG-kit and you’ll have a car that can mostly handle the 21st-century Indian city. It’s one of the few vehicles you can purchase second hand for under one lakh rupees today (on online marketplaces).
It’s a car that represented a quintessential experience of India. It may go out of production or into foreign hands, but it’s unlikely to ever go out of style. The former Soviet states might have forgotten their Ladas and Trabants, but it will take a few more generations before there are none to remember the Ambassador with a wistful smile.
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