India at 75: On the Amby trail

by Sumana Sarkar 14 Aug 2022


Any account of the evolution of India’s automotive market is incomplete without a mention of the Ambassador and its journey. In many ways, the Ambassador story also unfolds the story of India’s economic growth.

In the world of cars, it’s been a great leveller – From the corridors of power to the common man’s porch, the snub-nosed Ambassador has been a symbol of authority and aspiration at the same time. Undeniably one of modern independent India’s first mascots, the sturdy Amby was a lot more than just a durable family car. Once, the “King of Indian Roads”, it ruled the streets of India in an array of colours. The white ones with the red beacon ferrying ministers and the yellow-black taxis on Kolkata’s streets is what stands out in most of our memories. In fact, in many ways the yellow-black Ambassador taxis became an inseparable part of the identity of the City of Joy, be it in Lapierre’s famous novel or an average middle-class Indian’s aspirations for a comfortable ride. However, with the passage of time and implementation of latest emission norms, the Ambys are a rarity even in Kolkata traffic.

As a once proud owner of an Amby said, “It allowed those who could afford a car to have joy in ordinariness. Sturdy with immense space for allowing for the seating of family (and even the neighbours), it was a true car for the joint family.” Manufactured by Hindustan Motors at its Uttarpara plant near Kolkata, the first of the Ambassadors rolled out in 1958-1959.

Owned by the Birlas, this iconic roadster was based on the design of the Morris Oxford series III model by Morris Motors that were produced in the Hind Motor plant during the World War. Priced at a princely sum of Rs 14,000 in the late 1950s, this was the first made-in-India car that exuded that inimitable spirit of a nation keen to claw back its place in the sun after 200 hundred years of slavery and resource drain. But in many ways, it is also reminiscent of the hard times, the challenges and a tale of India’s evolution as a modern nation.

In fact, the Ambassador is perhaps one of the few cars in India that had a continuous run for more than half a century. Partly due to the business acumen and political clout of the Birlas and partly on account of the lack of affordable options, the Amby has seven model generations. However, for a car that was in production for this long a period, innovations and technological changes were rather scarce.

Probably that’s one of the reasons that 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 4 model. In addition, to the petrol version, a diesel variant too made way for those looking at an economical version. However, the mid-eighties were also the period when Maruti introduced the Maruti 800…. and as they say, ‘the old order changeth yielding place to new. However, this “ultimate family car” still had a decade or so of run. The Mark 4 got a further makeover in the 1990s and was christened as the Ambassador Nova. It was also the time when the Hindustan Contessa started getting produced. With the onset of the new millennium, came the Ambassador Classic featuring a 75 bhp 1817 cc Isuzu inline-four engine and a five-speed manual gearbox with a floor shift. But time was running out and the curtain call came in 2014 when Hind Motors finally stopped production, losing out to the line-up of spanking new feature-rich cars making a beeline for the now liberalised Indian economy brimming full of aspiring young buyers.

Very recently there were talks of a potential electric version of the ‘Grand Dame of Indian Roads’ after Citroen acquired the Ambassador brand, for the rather astounding sum of Rs 80 crore. However, that’s a story that awaits to unfold… For now, as Autocar India Editor, Hormazd Sorabjee said in July 2014, “Modern cars have usurped every last reason left to buy an Ambassador except one: to have a slice of automotive history sitting in your garage.”

 


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