Of all the enduring icons that Kolkata so doggedly nurtures, the yellow Ambassador taxi is the most recognisable. With it come stories and associations that every Kolkatan can share. Stories involving genial Sikh taxi drivers, who ruled the roads till about a decade ago. Stories about stealing kisses in the back seat, while being driven around Victoria Memorial, perhaps like the lead characters in Aparna Sen’s 1981 film, 36 Chowringhee Lane. Like in any other city, there are many markers of growing up in Kolkata, like walking into the celebrated Oly Pub and ordering a beer for yourself or visiting the cavernous Kolkata MCD office. But none compare to the feeling of hailing a yellow cab, sprawling in the back seat and then surveying the city like you own it.
When it was launched in 1958, modelled on the British Morris Oxford III, Hindustan Motor Ltd’s Ambassador was the undisputed king of the road. Kolkata took to it like hilsa to Ganga. “It was as if the car was meant for the city. Its classic design went well with the city’s colonial architecture. Moreover, it fitted well with the image of the genteel Bengali bhadralok,” says Anirban Ghosh, archivist, Eka cultural resources and research, New Delhi. Though taxi services started in Kolkata as early as 1907, the iconic Ambassador became a standard taxi model only in 1962. “The Kolkata Taxi Association was very happy with the model. Not only did it have enough space and looked regal, it was also very sturdy,” says Tarak Nath Barik, who has been with the Kolkata Taxi Association for over five decades.
Understandably, the rest of India moved on. They didn’t share Kolkata’s visceral love for the car. The 1980s saw the launch of the people’s car, Maruti 800. It was boxy and compact and was perfect for the needs of new India. But Kolkata, like a faithful lover, remained enthralled by the curvaceous charms of the Ambassador. It zealously comes to its defence even now. “None of the Maruti products can match the Ambassador in terms of durability,” says Barik. In the late 1990s and the 2000s, a spate of foreign carmakers hit the India market. Ford and Volkswagon became household names. Eventually, Ambassador, which was the sarkari car for decades, lost even its last bastion. Slowly, but steadily, most politicians chose luxurious SUVs and sedans from the likes of Mercedes Benz, Audi and BMW over the Ambassador.
When Hindustan Motors announced that the production of Ambassador cars had been stopped in its Uttarpara continued…