Other than the ongoing coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic and the U.S. unrest following the death of George P. Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin, two serious issues made it to print and online media on 3rd June 2020: Cyclone Nisarga approaching Mumbai, and the death of a pregnant elephant in Kerala’s Silent Valley Forest.
Yet another news item made it to a popular Bengali daily: Gautam Das from Chhoto Nauapara (Fulbari – 2, District: Jalpaiguri, West Bengal) had ‘archived’ a disused model of the Hindustan Ambassador car on his roof-top for the ‘future generations to see’. It did not cover any fatality, but it was grave and sorrowful because it heralded the end of a generation which was used to seeing, gaping at, and using the ‘unputdownable’ vehicle used by our ministers, government officials, and the rushing aam aadmi alike.
Kolkata-based Hindustan Motors officially stopped producing the Ambassador car at the end of May 2014. Six years later, Gautam Das’s ‘lifting’ the car on his rooftop with a crane is a symbolic ‘downing’ of the vehicle into its ‘grave’ – almost with an air of finality. I use the word ‘almost’ because the French giant P.S.A. Peugeot Citroen owns the brand presently, and the Ambassador might once again hit the Indian roads in near future.
Once upon a time, Mumbai was famous for its four-seat-saloon Padmini Premier. The inexplicable love that the general Mumbaikars had for this 1089cc vehicle (which went out of production in 2000) ensured that the common Maharashtrian would usually hail one, whenever fast transport out of railway stations or bus terminuses was necessary. Meanwhile, the entire West Bengal and Kolkata in particular would generally swear by the Ambassador!
Even now, thousands of yellow-black Ambassadors ply – as taxicabs – through the serpentine alleys and the broad main streets of Kolkata. If, perchance, you are struck down by a non-complying ‘Uber’ or ‘Ola’, the Ambassador-driver, in his smiling, betel-chewing avatar, is always there for you.
One needs to understand: the Ambassador is not a simple car in eastern India – especially Bengal; it is an emotion! During the 34-year-old Leftist rule in Bengal, it was the chosen vehicle for ministers and all high-ranking government officials. Since 2011, the days have changed, but the legacy has not.
One might wonder what made the Ambassador and its various models – Mark I, 1957-62; Mark II, 1962-75; Mark III, 1975-79; and, the beloved Mark IV, 1979-2014 – so ubiquitous and preferable. It was probably its imperial legacy (until 1911, Kolkata was the capital city of British India), its sturdiness, its compactness, and its 1817/1995cc, diesel/petrol/CNG engine. Besides, it had 4Jx15 wheels, a 42-litre fuel tank, 5.4 metre turning radius, and a 30-second acceleration from 0 to 100 kilometres per hour. People would joke that the Ambassador would run on mere water if need be.
In fact, in its prime, the Ambassador was suited to tackle any difficult and potholed Indian street, except the steep, mountainous regions, head-on. Although Hindustan Motors was the sole manufacturer of the car, the Ambassador had a British origin, as HM, co-owned by Ghanshyam Das Birla (1894-1983) of Kolkata and William Richard Morris (1877-1963) of Worcester, was partially British. Its product, the Ambassador, was the Indianized version of the British Morris Oxford Series III model produced by Morris Motors Limited, Cowley (Oxford, UK) from 1956 to 1959.
Much like Germany’s Volkswagen Beetle, in England, the Morris Oxford Series III was a car preferred by people from the middle-income group, especially those belonging to the British armed forces. When the famous detective-fiction writer Agatha Christie (1890-1976), then married to RAF officer Archibald Christie (1889-1962), chose to purchase her own car in the early 1920s, her uncontested choice was a Morris Oxford II. Most of the Morris Oxford-cars were designed by the Anglo-Greek automobile engineer and architect Alexander A.C. Issigonis (1906-88) from 1936 onwards.
Paradoxically, this very Western connection coupled with the general belief in ‘British sturdiness’ endeared the vehicle to common Indians, and Indians soon fell head over heels in love with the Ambassador. Prior to 2014, even though I owned a Mahindra Bolero, I was an ardent fan too! I always fancied an Ambassador, and while in Kolkata, would unfailingly hire one. The unscrupulous, business-minded cab drivers would shove in seven to nine people in a car which was to seat a maximum of five people. Yet, the Ambassador was a smart sedan which could be counted upon. It was a car in which long distances could be covered almost effortlessly. And it required very little maintenance.
However, in the changing socio-economic and political scenario of the 2010s, the commoners’ ardour for the car had begun to dampen. The Ambassador was considered quite large and hard to manoeuvre through confining streets. As fuel prices began to escalate, the car’s mileage of approximately 12.5 kilometres per litre on a highway began to get both embarrassing and uneconomical. Moreover, as it seated between four and five people, its price of approximately Rs. 5 lakhs in 2013-14 was also becoming uncompetitive compared to other ordinary vehicles with similar seating capacities.
As a result, the number of people purchasing the Ambassador began to plummet from 2010 onwards. Only ministers and government officers – other than taxicabs businessmen – would purchase them.
In 1992, the car was re-imported to the British Isles as the Fullbore Mark 10, but the general public rejected it, putting its importing company in peril. 22 years later, the Ambassador died a quiet death in a part of India where it had once ruled for more than half a century, unchallenged, and as everyone’s favourite.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.