End of the Road

In­dia bids farewell to the car it grew up with.

Southasia - - CAR CULTURE INDIA - By Jave­ria Shakil The writer is as­sis­tant ed­i­tor at Southasia. She fo­cuses on is­sues of po­lit­i­cal and so­cial in­ter­est.

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

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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.

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