White Hindustan ambassador classic (Source: ShutterStock)
In its long and checkered history in India, the Ambassador has gone through several different avatars. Launched as the Morris Minor III in 1957, it morphed into the Landmaster followed by the Mark II, III and IV, and then stayed there for years till the heat of competition, primarily from Maruti, forced some changes.
In 1990, came the Ambassador Nova with a newly-designed steering wheel and column besides better brakes and electricals. The Ambassador of the late 1990s, now riding on a 1,800 CC Isuzu engine, failed to get much traction but its reluctant metamorphosis continued through the first decade of the new century with versions dubbed Grand, Encore and then Avigo.
Eventually in 2014, after 56 years of gracing India’s potholed roads, the last Ambassador rolled off the Uttarpara production facility as customers gave up on it and CK Birla too lost patience with carrying what was clearly a dead horse.
Four years ago, Birla sold the Ambassador brand to French automobile maker, PSA Group, which owns cars like Peugeot and Citroen, as part of a joint venture agreement. Thus far, the French company, in the middle of a remarkable turnaround at home, has done little with it and for all practical purposes the Ambassador is dead and ready to be buried in the graveyard of cars where lie the remains of other, more famous, beauties like the Ford Thunderbird or the Lotus Esprit.
Yet, the name has stayed on, the brand like a childhood incident shorn of all that was unpleasant, is merely an amusing memory. Not just auto aficionados but lay car enthusiasts too look upon the last few Ambassadors as they amble through the streets, with an indulgent air usually reserved for a dear old aunt. The odd honest bureaucrat and the rare self-effacing politician still use these jalopies, last bought by the government seven years ago. But they are a fast disappearing tribe with only a few thousand still trundling along in cities like Kolkata, mostly as taxis.
At its best the Ambassador was the family transport vehicle of choice. It faithfully carried entire cricket teams to the grounds as well as families comprising grandparents, parents and children to their holidays in the hills. At its worst, it was an exasperating piece of junk that would suddenly stall in the middle of the street.
But surely we can’t let a national treasure like the Amby (as it was popularly called in its heyday) sink without a trace. Time then for one of our many tycoons with cash to spare and mindful of preserving India’s heritage, to step in with a revival plan for a piece of India’s post-Independence heritage. Maybe one of our newly minted tech-services billionaires could sponsor the comeback of India’s oldest car. Or perhaps, the Ambassador is more in tune with the senior generation of Indian business tycoons. Anand Mahindra, for instance, who has in the past been associated with efforts to resurrect such iconic landmarks as Rhythm House in Mumbai. His company M&M has also given the Thar, that workhorse of the Indian Army, a fresh lease of life.
Since speed was never a virtue of the Ambassador, maybe an electric version of it could be considered. That would be quite appropriate actually, allowing the erstwhile King of Indian roads to wash away its many sins of the past when it merrily polluted the skies with its exhaust. Earlier last year, it did get an electric makeover when Dilip Chhabria’s DC2 Design shared some pictures of a planned version with rather arresting looks. But not much has been heard of the product since. In any case, its current owner, the PSA Group will have to take a call on that.
Similar pop-culture icons across the world have been preserved, if only for nostalgia buffs. The Lada, that symbol of Socialist-era car-making in Russia, still retains some of its charm for its fans in the country even though it is now owned by Groupe Renault. According to a recent press release by the company, 160,123 Lada vehicles were sold between January and May 2021, up 53 percent over sales of the same period in 2020. The Volkswagen Beetle too survived for over 80 years till its production ended in 2019. Lately, the company has offered to convert existing Beetle cars into EVs.
Can the Amby be given a new life?