End of the Road
India bids farewell to the car it grew up with.
India suffered a great loss in the first half of 2014: the demise of the Ambassador, the Grand Old Lady of Indian roads.
The white curvy car that became a hallmark of India is regarded as the oldest vehicle to be made in the country. Manufactured by Hindustan Motors – India's pioneering carmaker owned by the C.K. Birla Group – the car’s production started in 1958. Its design was inspired by the English Morris Oxford III that was made by the Morris Motors Limited from 1956 to 1959. Since its production, there was little modification in the Ambassador’s design.
It remained India’s favorite car for decades and held its own in the face of stiff competition from its newer and sleeker rivals. However, in the last few years, there was a steep decline in its sales. The situation became so dire that the manufacturer had to announce that it would suspend its production from April 2014. The company reported sale of only 2,200 cars in the financial year that ended in March 2014.
This is sad because for a very long time, the Ambassador was the only car available in India. Its demand was such that people had to wait for months to get their cars. In fact, at one point, buyers had to wait for up to a year after placing the order.
But that was the time when governments in India functioned under the influence of socialism. As the country relaxed its policies and moved towards economic liberalization, new automobile players entered the market. With their swanky cars, they gave tough competition to the plain-looking Ambassador and definitely made a dent in its sales. The Ambassador’s first rival was the 800cc Suzuki Maruti, which was economical, fuel efficient and more comfortable, not to mention more good looking as compared to the Ambassador.
However, even after the arrival of Maruti and other luxury cars, the Amby, as it was lovingly called, continued to reign the automobile industry. A reason for the Ambassador’s popularity was its use by Indian officialdom, including presidents, prime ministers and topranking army officers. It may now seem unbelievable, but the Ambassador was considered a status symbol for a long time.
Politicians, premiers and even diplomats took pride in using the car. Outside India, however, especially
in Pakistan, the car was considered a symbol of simplicity. Preaching the rulers the importance of leading a simple life and saving the national exchequer, journalists and columnists in Pakistan frequently gave references to the use of the Ambassador by Indian politicians. They instructed Pakistani politicians to emulate the example of their Indian counterparts.
The Indian film industry also played an important role in promoting the boxy car. From politicians to wealthy businessmen to industrialists to police chiefs to mafia lords, everyone in the movies used the white car. In politicians’ case, there would be a convoy of 15 or so Ambassadors with the main character sitting in one of them. To further establish its grandeur’, there would invariably be a long shot of the convoy speeding on a narrow dirt road, leaving behind clouds of dust as people on both sides of the road watched the passing entourage in awe. This, as the movies made their audience believe, was the height of authority.
Similarly, industrialists and business tycoons in the movies would be shown disembarking from their Ambassadors outside their palatial houses, wearing crisp white latha clothes. Also, the wedding scene of the son of a politician/businessman/mafia boss was not considered complete if it didn’t include a long line of chauffeurdriven Ambassadors delivering the
happy, chirpy guests outside the wedding hall.
The police chase at the end of every second movie was always done in Ambassadors. The policemen would go after the bad guys in their Ambassadors with the customary blue police sirens fixed on the top. Incidentally, the villain would be driving an Ambassador as well. More often than not, such movies ended with the victorious hero driving off into the sunset with the heroine – in the Ambassador, of course.
However, as time passed and new cars made their entry into Indian society, the Ambassador was replaced by swanky BMWs and SUVs. Only the honest, and therefore poor, people were shown driving an Ambassador. The transformation was not limited to movies only. The change was witnessed in society in general. As the general masses switched to the more affordable Maruti, the wealthy opted for imported luxury cars. The politicians also followed suit.
The first Indian premier who stopped using the Ambassador was Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He changed his car when his security staff complained about the unpredictable nature of the car that would develop sudden problems and stop working. This, according to security experts, made the car vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Therefore, in 2002, Vajpayee switched his Ambassador for a bullet-proof BMW SUV. His successor Manmohan Singh and the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi followed the trend.
It is said that all good things must come to an end and the statement issued by the Hindustan Motors about the Ambassador’s suspension marks the formal end of the snub-nosed car. However, the car does not seem to be disappearing from Indian roads any time soon. It is omnipresent in all metros and cities of India in the form of black-and-yellow taxis. In Kolkata alone, there are approximately 33,000 Ambassador taxis. In fact, it is the most favorite car of taxi drivers who find it easy to maintain as its simple design can be fixed without much hassle. Also, since it single-handedly ruled the automobile sector of India for decades, its parts are easily available in the markets.
With its use as taxis, the Ambassador, which enjoyed the status of being the choice car of the who’s who of India, has completed a full life circle. It is now a purely common man’s car and is often called the Sick Lady of the roads.
Although the car has largely been abandoned by the people who matter, there was a strong reaction to the announcement of Hindustan Motors. People from all walks of life reminisced about their experiences with the Ambassador. Some remembered it fondly, describing its sturdy nature and narrating how they travelled in the car in difficult terrains. Others complained about its fuel-guzzling design while some expressed relief on the decision, calling the car a relic of the past.
There were also calls for its revival and although the company has stated in its official statement that it is suspending the car’s production for the time being, a revival is highly unlikely considering the situation on the ground. There is a lack of demand for the Ambassador. According to Reuters, the 2,200 Ambassadors sold in fiscal year ended March 2014 “made up only a sliver of the 1.8 million passenger cars sold that year in India.”
While people may often go all nostalgic about the Ambassador, it has practically become a thing of the past as nobody would like to buy the Old Lady anymore.