Peugeot buys Ambassador: How India's iconic car fell from glory
For more than half a century, the Ambassador was the most recognized car of the country becoming the stately carriage of the prime minister and cab-drivers alike.
An early 2002 television commercial aired by French car maker Peugeot showed a visibly distressed man thrashing his Hindustan Motors Ambassador to the extent of making an elephant sit on the car’s bonnet only so that he could resculpt it to the Peugeot 206!
Nearly a decade later the French car maker itself could be ending up resculpting the Amby (as popularly known) after having struck a deal with the C K Birla-controlled Hindustan Motors to buy the rights to the brand.
In a late evening dramatic development, Hindustan Motors said it has ‘executed an agreement with Peugeot S.A for the sale of Ambassador brand and certain related rights for a consideration of Rs 80 crore’.
This means that India’s very own Morris Oxford (the Amby was designed on the UK’s car) -- which dominated India’s urban landscape in the 1960s-70s and became the most preferred machine for the political class for its solid build and tank-like sturdiness -- will fall in the hands of a foreign company.
For more than half a century, the Ambassador was the most recognized car of the country becoming the stately carriage of the prime minister and cab-drivers alike. B M Birla, grandfather of C K Birla made the now-defunct Hindustan Motors the country’s first indigenous automobile company.
The company, which was established in 1942, initially began assembly operations before moving to full-fledged production in the mid-1950s. Having started operations a year after independence, Hindustan Motors began importing tools and machines of the Amby from Great Britain, which was the centre of production for Series III of the Morris Oxford.
Steering mounted gear lever, sun shield over the front windscreen, flat bench-type rear seats, a curvy ‘dicky’ or boot, chrome outlined front round headlamps and an Indian touch of a three-blade mini fan made the Ambassador stand out from the rest.
There was not much a crowd back then either. For the occasional Fiat 'Dukkar', Premier Padmini, Standard Motors Herald and Standard Gazel, the Amby enjoyed an unhindered run. Mahindra & Mahindra was also selling open-top, Jeep-styled utility vehicles, which were not exactly style statements as was the Ambassador.
Its robust masculine body, spacious and comfortable interiors, ease of serviceability and its ability to take on the demanding roads of India’s hinterlands, made the Amby a huge hit with the large Indian families.
The war horse was even ferrying guests right till its twilight years of 2013-2014 which was when India was headed for national elections. Veteran politicians like Nitin Gadkari, Kamal Nath and Shahnawaz Hussain have the Ambassador listed in their asset-declaration sheet.
The single biggest customer base for the Amby, however, has been Kolkata’s taxi operators, from whom the car got an iconic yellow exterior. The West Bengal government, which was the home state of the Amby, too favoured the car having repeatedly pushed forward the Bharat Stage-IV emission deadline to keep it on its roads.
However, for what was the source of pride 40 years ago, the Ambassador became an object of embarrassment and subject of ridicule for some who regard it as a symbol of backwardness, especially for those who were born in late 1980s or early 1990s.
Stricter emission norms kicking in, invasion of modern foreign brands and the general inability of the cash-strapped promoters to pump in investments to update the car and adapt to changing consumer needs led to Amby’s demise.
Modern, frugal and cost-efficient machines from Maruti Suzuki, Hyundai, Honda, Toyota became the reason why the Amby struggled to attract new buyers.
In mid of 2014 the last of the Ambassadors rolled out of the Uttarpara plant in West Bengal marking an end to the 66 year-long production run, the longest in the country for any model.
Hindustan Motors suspended production at the factory subsequently announcing a voluntary retirement scheme for its workers, the following year.
While there are no details shared by Peugeot at this point about its vision ahead for the Ambassador, it is however expected that the French car maker will attempt to revive the legendary brand even as it itself makes yet another attempt to crack the Indian market.
Late last month Peugeot and CK Birla Group unveiled joint plans of building cars and powertrains in India with an initial investment of Euro 100 million (Rs 730 crore). The Indian Group’s Chennai-based plant which makes the Mitsubishi Pajero will be used to make Peugeot’s models.
The attempt to revive a forgotten brand in India has rarely been done before. Several iconic and well-known auto brands such as Premier Padmini, Fiat Uno, Fiat Palio, Opel, Bajaj Chetak and the Kinetic scooters have never been revived despite their popularity.
Designer Dilip Chhabria's recreation of the Ambassador, the Ambierod concept