By : ANINDA SARDAR
I don’t know of a single person who grew up as a member of the Indian middle class through the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, who doesn’t have an Ambassador memory. Speak to them and what you’ll get is a plethora of anecdotes from an India that is unrecognizable today. An India that was far away from the customer’s market it is today. Choices were limited, waits were long and there was genuine joy when your new set of wheels came home. No joy however was as momentous as an Ambassador coming home, for this was the car that signaled to the world that you (or the family you came from) had indeed arrived.
That sense of achievement aside, you’ll find wild variations in the anecdotes you will be told and retold. Some, fondly, others not so much. Take our own family Ambassador for example. I remember the day dad got it home. It was a decently maintained example, bought from the Indian Railways in Kolkata sometime in the early ‘90s. The cream coloured car itself was obviously much older going by the registration number it bore – WBJ 5091. I remember his slightly puffed up stance and the beaming faces of the rest of the family when the thing was parked inside our home. My own feelings were somewhat mixed. I liked the idea that there was a new car in the house but my sense of childish loyalty towards our other car – a 1951 Hillman Minx – made me dislike the Amby. I also recall a couple of road trips, including one to Bishnupur in Bankura district, where the car was packed with six people and luggage! Our Amby, like so many of its kind has a peculiar problem. Occasionally, which is to say with an alarming regularity, the starter motor used to get stuck. Turn the ignition key, there’d be a ‘click’ sound and that’d be that. You’d have to use the crank handle that came with the car either to start the engine or to knock the starter about till it got ‘unstuck’.
My friend Chandan Basu Mallik, an enthusiast, a restorer, tinkerer and a journalist, on the other hand remembers his family Amby more fondly. Theirs was a 1964 model, a Mark II (the Ambassadors didn’t get variants and trim levels like you do today. Instead, depending on year of manufacture you got a Mark). Over the years he has made several modifications in a bid to make it better, including managing the impossible job of reducing in-cabin noise. Past or present Amby owners will appreciate what a difficult job this is because this car, dubbed, the ‘King of Indian Roads’ at one point, was a bl**dy noisy monarch.
When the car was bought, the Basu Mallik family was stationed in Allahabad, but the car had to be bought in Kanpur and driven to their home. Unlike our car, which was very much a secondhand car, the one in my friend’s family was a near first owner car. Confused? Let me explain.
Back in the day when you could buy either an Ambassador or the Padmini that was produced by Premier Automobiles Limited or PAL, you would have had to shell out the entire price of the car to book one and then wait. In the case of the coveted Amby that couldn’t be produced in large enough numbers in spite of being produced from two factories – one in Uttarpara outside Kolkata and another in Sri Perumbudur outside Chennai, this wait could (and often did) stretch to years! So a lot of people ended up buying off a brand new vehicle that had just been delivered to another customer. At a premium, of course. On the flip side, given that there was money to be made in this fashion, very many people didn’t mind selling off their cars no sooner than they had bought it, making these cars nearly first owner cars, yet not quite. Of all Chandan’s anecdotes, the one that makes the biggest mark is of his road trip from Allahabad, where they lived at the time, to Benares. It may not sound like a lot today but back in the day, a 121km road trip was a veritable feat since the roads were nothing like what they are today. Nor were the cars nearly as reliable as they are today. It’s a testimony to the charm of the Ambassador that Chandan continues to own the car.
Harit Trivedi, another automotive enthusiast among other things, who has retained his family Ambassador has another interesting story to tell. The secondhand Ambassador that found its way into the Trivedi family was a 1975 example, a Mark III. It had been bought as an alternative to the family’s 1964 Opel Record to do the 250km round trip to the site of the factory the family was putting up. Eventually the car keys found its way to Harit in 1977, who used it to drive to college for the next three years. Highly unusual at the time. He admits that the car was crude and changed its character after each visit to the mechanic, offered lethargic acceleration and a top speed of a howling 80 km/h. That said, it was roomy, and he did use it till as late as 2011. Naturally, Harit is sentimentally attached to his Amby and continues to value it even though he no longer uses it.
Then there are the more unusual tales. The one that I was told by veteran motorsport enthusiast Ravindra Kumar Singhania for instance. Back in 1970, he was piloting his Fiat and headed to Delhi. Along with him was his friend and fellow automotive enthusiast Abhijit Dasgupta in his Amby. They were both on their way to distant Tehran for the 2nd Asian Highway Rally. En route, the driving pinion shaft on the left side of the differential broke. Aware of this problem, Singhania had already replaced the ones in his dad’s Amby with specially fabricated steel pinions. A spare was taken out (no one travelled in those days without spares) but even that broke. The place was Mughal Sarai, known for robbery in those days, and it appeared that they had no option but to wait for first light to get anything done. Believing they had a long wait ahead, Singhania went up to a local paan shop to buy some stuff when the guy asked him what the problem was. On being told what was needed, the unlikely character got off the plank that was his shop, opened a storeroom right below where he was sitting and revealed it to be full of original spares! With luck shining bright Singhania and Dasgupta picked up four sets for a fraction of what they would have cost back in Kolkata. Apparently, the paan seller and his friends used to go to the railway station and rob goods trains passing through Mughal Sarai. It just so happened that the goods train they had robbed two days earlier had been packed with Amby driving pinion shafts.
The ones I have narrated thus far, form not even the tip of the iceberg that would be the Great Ambassador story. There would be millions more because the HM Ambassador wasn’t just a car. This copy of the Morris Oxford Series III, produced from 1958 through to 2014, was a lot more than that to the people who owned them and drove them. Indeed, a few continue to do so. The Ambassador, over the course of its long life, played several roles. It was the family car, the statement to make in society, the bureaucrat’s car, the politician’s car, the stunt car for Bollywood and even, incredibly enough, a car for racers and rally drivers. Ambassadors took part in the famed Himalayan Rally and were raced in several events around the country, including at the old racetrack at Sholavaram, I’m told.
The grand old former ‘King of Indian Roads’ was laid to rest in 2014, a victim of the company’s staunch refusal to drive in tandem with time. In the beginning there was just the one upstart that was Maruti Suzuki, hardly a threat back in the early 1980s. Over the next couple of decades, with choices expanding and customers getting used to this new phenomenon, the Amby was left breathing in the dust. Things only got dustier with the Indian automotive market opening up to even more competition. By 2010, there was little more than pride to ensure that the once venerable HM brand remained.
There is however one role in which the Ambassador continues to perform dutifully. My city, Kolkata, where we are somewhat slow to catch up with the rest of the world, continues to use the old Amby as taxis. It’s easy to see why. They are spacious and can carry a ton of luggage. The rear bench seat feels like a sofa that’s been brought out of a plush home and on Kolkata’s horrendous roads, the softly sprung set up in combination with those fairly large wheels work beautifully. Even if that fails to charm you, a ride along the Ganga in one of these old tubs with the window wound down on a crisp winter morning ought to have you sold on the idea that the Amby isn’t actually half bad. If nothing else convinces you, none other than Jeremy Clarkson had convincingly proved that the Ambassador was the best taxi in the world. As for what really makes it special, well, I can’t think of a single other brand of vehicle that has meant so much to so many for so long.