The Ambassador car has rolled into history. The commanding heights of its back seat had offered the most dramatic views of the socialist era, on scenic drives past the temples of modern India. Now, they look like sepia prints from a family album. And the car that once symbolised the state, and was ridden by prime ministers and presidents, collectors and police chiefs, now finds use chiefly as a rattletrap taxicab. One which can take more passengers to the rail station than any other, and whose boot can hold more fish or cauliflowers bound for market than we dare to imagine.
The Hindustan Motors plant which produced Ambassadors is located in Uttarpara, West Bengal. Just down the line is a rail station named Hindmotor, an indicator of the centrality of the car to the Indian economy, and to the idea of India. But Hindustan Motors had been turning out only five cars a day before its plant ceased production. Timidity in the face of competition and a reluctance to innovate had led to falling demand and mounting losses, which crossed Rs 90 crore despite help from the West Bengal government. The Ambassador is derived from a once-fashionable foreign brand, the Morris Oxford III, but it just grew old while younger brands like Toyota and Hyundai surged ahead.
Once upon a time, if you didn’t want an Ambassador, you could have a Fiat instead. Socialist, self-reliant India spoiled the prospective car owner for choice, with two foreign designs from the UK and Italy. If you planned to haul leading thinkers and society ladies, you chose Fiat. If you hauled chief secretaries or onions, the Amby was your ride. Looking back from an India looking forward to infinite choice, it feels absurd, but nostalgically graceful too.