The Ambassador tales from the city of Visakhapatnam: In all likelihood, we as a generation, are the last who have seen, experienced and piled into Hindustan Motors’ iconic Ambassador. Be it the grandparents’ Mark I or Mark II series, Fathers’ official Mark III series, taxi drivers’ Mark IV or the latest Nova series at the forever-under-construction Airport. In some iteration, the dear old Amby has been a part of our lives. The first Amby rolled out of the assembly line in the 1950s and since then, the brawny car has seen India, been with families, shared, relayed and been privy to official secrets for a long time. It has actually been a super success, being one of the longest-in-production automobiles in the world, not to mention a prestigious purchase as well. In fact, during the 1960s, owning an Ambassador was akin to possessing an Audi today!
Note : Published on print - Jul'2014. This article is a repost.
Sadly for us and for Ambassador, the vehicle could not cope with the times. Its engine, systems and creature comforts could not be upgraded in line with the growing market requirements. As they say, all good things have to come to an end, as so did our dear old Ambassador.
The death knell of the Ambassador was confirmed when Hindustan Motors suspended work at its plant at Uttarpara, West Bengal. After being in production at the facility since 1957, it will most likely roll out no more. The suspension of operations at the plant will affect the lives of 2,500 workers who will be rendered jobless. The move comes after the company cited worsening conditions at the plant including very low productivity, growing indiscipline, a critical shortage of funds, lack of demand and large accumulation of liabilities. The company’s net worth had been completely wiped out and it had declared itself a sick unit to the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR). Imagine how tides change, once buying this car meant more than a year’s wait, as the unit could not cater to the demand.
Based on the British Morris Oxford, the Ambassador had its work cut out keeping up with more modern products in the Indian auto market. As a result, the sales of the car kept dropping year after year. In the recent past, the biggest (or perhaps only) buyers of the car were the Government and taxi operators. The babus’ car also often sported curtains and a little fan, which were symbols of power and luxury. But with Government officials opting for more modern machinery, and taxi operators in most cities also moving away, the Ambassador’s days were numbered. Hindustan Motors managed to sell just over 2,200 units of the car in 2013-14, far cry from the 24,000 units it sold annually in the 1980s.
Yet, the car has more than served its purpose. It has been a reliable traveller’s companion for generations in India.
Sri Digvijay Deo Bhanj
From the hustling locality of Jagadamba, as one enters into the royal portals of the Surya Bagh palace, the contrast of the blaring and congested outside to the pristine inside, is remarkable. A silver-gray Ambassador Grand makes its presence felt, as it stands regally, right outside the main door, as if ready to take you for a ride, at a moment’s notice.
While this 2005 model of the Ambassador has been an integral part of the family for the past ten years, car owner Digvijay Deo Bhanj shares that his father Late Sri Raja PC Deo Bhanj used to be extremely fond of cars. ‘My mother tells me that he would always be tinkering with cars. In the late 1950s he bought an M.G. (Morris Garage) sports car from the Maharaja of Jeypore and my older sister used to go to St. Joseph’s Convent in it!’
That was followed by an American classic Chevy 2 and a shiny black Mercedes-190 in the early seventies. The Mercedes was with the family for quite some time till they had to dispose it off as it was difficult to get spare parts.
‘This will soon become a classic!’
After owning these, it was time to buy an Indian car and the right choice to match the comfort and space of the previous cars was undoubtedly the Ambassador. Digvijay fondly remembers that their first Ambassador, ATV 2121, was well known in Visakhapatnam, and was with them for a couple of decades.
‘We used to travel in it a lot. In fact, my children used to go to school in that car’ he shares. But time had come to change the car, and despite the thriving automobile business and many Japanese cars, they opted for another Ambassador car in 2005. ‘My father’s logic for choosing this was that he wouldn’t be driving, and the seating was more comfortable than others. My father used it for one year, after which he expired. We retain the car for sentimental reasons today.’
His earliest memories regarding it revolve around the place of purchase. ‘At that time the dealership was in Vizianagaram and the test drive would take us around one of the palaces of the Vizianagaram Maharaja called “Phool Bagh”. Back then the Ambassador had a petrol engine and people used to buy these cars and drive down to Vijayawada and put in a new Isuzu engine and sell the old engine for peanuts. Diesel engine refitting was a thriving business until Hindustan Motors decided to come out with their own diesel engine Ambassadors. I think the Jagga Row family bought the first diesel engine Ambassador from the dealers in a shiny black colour.’
Today, despite having an Audi, EcoSport and a Honda City, the Ambassador continues to be the vehicle of choice when any member of the family wants to be chauffeured around Visakhapatnam. ‘It definitely is a head-turner. People notice our car and some have even approached the driver to ask whether it is for sale. There have been various occasions when the car was out, and we weren’t. People would call to say that they saw us.’
The car has been used for long distance travel as well, having gone up to Daspalla, their native place in Odisha. But with Hindustan Motors shutting shop, would it be difficult to service the car? ‘The layout is quite basic and any decent mechanic can service it easily.’
The odometer shows 64,715 kilometres and the engine is ticking away smoothly. And do they plan to sell it anytime? ‘No, of course not. This will soon become a classic!’
The silver car is an integral part of the Deo Bhanj family and will stay that way forever. For that is the identity of the owner and his car: A figure of authority, of royalty, of class.
Many people change their vehicles for more modern swanky looking cars, and yet Mr. Avadhani, Principal, Andhra University College of Engineering, decided to stick to the Ambassador as his official vehicle. ‘It has an aura and road presence that most modern cars lack’ he says, adding that his family friends and colleagues are all praise for the car. ‘I have personally enjoyed riding it. The car is sturdy and has been a great companion, and I doubt that I will ever trade it for anything else.’ Walking down memory lane, he still fondly remembers being fascinated by the Mark I, Mark II series of this iconic car as a student. ‘It’s my pleasure to be driven in one now, as a Principal at Andhra University. The car has been a solid workhorse and has never troubled me in the past.’
“A solid workhorse!”
Servicing the car is easy as well and the costs to do so are minimal. However, fuel efficiency is less than that of modern sedans. ‘My parents have travelled in this car, I have been on long journeys and my kids too have experienced its acres of space and enjoyed the rides in it.’ He adds that he has been a big fan of the Ambassador and it is sad that its production has come to an end.
And will he trade the car for a more modern one? He nods his head in the negative, saying, ‘I will not trade my Ambassador for anything else, as this has value, image, authority, road presence and back seat comfort that is unparalleled. It is a true icon of India. I feel lucky to be one of the few last officials who have been allocated an Ambassador as an official vehicle. I am sure, some of my colleagues would envy this ride, though they may have far more expensive and modern rides.’
For Mr. Avadhani, it is indeed a matter of prestige to travel in the car and thanks to people like him the last few Ambassadors of the era remain. Truly, getting out and arriving in an Ambassador is an experience in itself.
The driver of Mr. Avadhani’s Ambassador has his own story to share. ‘This car has been a gem. It feels authoritative and people, police and even students at the campus respect and give way as I drive this beast. I have been driving since many years and have driven many vehicles. This car has a feel and robustness like no other. Yes, it gulps a little more fuel than the rest but it is almost maintenance free. The spares are cheap and the mechanicals are so basic and simple that unless there is a major breakdown, you do not need to run to the service station like you need to for most modern cars.
‘It has a feel and robustness like none other.’
My boss’s car, that of the Postmaster General’s and the few Navy cars are the last of the officially used Ambassadors in Visakhapatnam. There was a time when I joined service, almost all the cars used by officials were Ambassadors and some private owners used Fiats. This car has been my friend and companion. It is shameful that Indians are not buying an Indian-made car anymore. The latest Ambassador had power steering and power windows along with A/c, so why not buy it. I will always drive an Ambassador if given a choice, after all, me and my car are exclusive in Visakhapatnam now.’
Appalaraju, Car Mechanic
Mechanic Appala Raju who runs a garage near Gurudwara, on the National Highway, has been an old hand at servicing these cars. He says it was in his teens when he first came to Visakhapatnam and that he learnt the trade under an old Ambassador mechanic. He was from a poor family, so he started out as a mechanic and with hard work has now become an owner of a garage, earning enough to build a house and send his son to college. All thanks to the Ambassador and its owners who were regulars at his garage. Till about 10 years ago, he says ‘the Ambassadors ruled the roost. Even with a steady inflow of Maruti, Hoondayi( Hyundai), Piat (Fiat) and Vonda (Honda); many old timers, taxi operators and officials stuck with the Ambassador.’
‘It’s like meeting an old friend’
There have been upgrades, like the ISUZU engine in the Nova series of the car, which made it powerful and efficient than before. Hindustan Motors threw in power steering and in-built A/c too, to create buyer interest. He says that by then, people had changed, having shifted to more comfortable cars.
Yet, Appala Raju is very clear that there is no car on Indian roads that is a real successor to the Ambassador. It is a solid car, never lets you down and has a full metal body from bumper to bumper: something none of the modern cars can even dream of having. He says that it has been an emotional attachment with the car he has seen, learnt and repaired for so long. ‘It has fed my family, been the foundation of my growth.’ Due to the simple mechanicals, the car could be repaired by any mechanic. It was the reason why people never went to the company service centres. There are still a few cars that prominent officials use, like the Post Master General’s car in Visakhapatnam which Appala Raju services. Many airport and railway station taxis are still Ambassadors. He says, ‘I hope they maintain the last surviving lot of these cars well, as they don’t know how valuable and sturdy they are.’ Appala Raju and others like him are slowly shifting to other jobs, like denting, repainting and washing of other cars, as the number of Ambassadors has definitely decreased. ‘But however busy I am with work, an Amby rolling into my garage always brings a smile to my face, it’s something I cannot explain. It’s like meeting an old friend.’