Ambassador drives itself into oblivion, but India can never forget its favourite car

The trademark Ambassador, sometimes known as the 'national car of India', is etched in the hearts and memories of those who grew up in pre-liberalization India.

Written by Nandini Rathi | New Delhi | Updated: February 11, 2017 11:51:53 pm
ambassador car india, Ambassador car, Hindustan motors, Peugeot, business news, hindustan motors peugeot ambassador acquisition, ambassador car 80 crore deal peugeot, ambassador car nostalgia, ambassador brand india car, iconic ambassador car An Ambassador car with Red Beacon. Express Photo.

One of India’s biggest icons, the Ambassador car from Hindustan Motors, has been sold to the Peugeot for Rs 80 crore. Launched by Hindustan Motors in 1957, the Ambassador, or Amby as some called it lovingly, remained in production in the company’s Uttarpara plant in West Bengal till 2014 when it was suspended due to a lack of demand and the company’s long-ailing financial health. As a result, most Indians who have been around for more than a couple of decades will have fond memories of this automobile.

In 1954, Hindustan motors had gained the license to produce the Ambassador – modeled off the UK manufactured Morris Oxford series III. The first Indian production units of the car had been rolled out almost 60 years ago, in 1957, after the Morris Oxford production was discontinued in the UK. A truly made-in-India car, the iconic Ambassador – that until recently carried everyone from the Prime Minister to the commoners – had been a workhorse of Indian roads for decades.

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Indeed, it was the only car used to transport civil servants and government officials at one point – which made it a status symbol, a byword for the high and mighty, a Raja gaadi pride to its owners. The high-roofed, roomy interiors of the car, in which getting in requires minimal bending, made it popular among the elite, the cab-drivers and large families alike. That aspect remains a hard find in newer cars now. Its beefy, thick steel body kept it hardy and the large 15-inch wheels made it capable of navigating the terrible road conditions in most parts of the country with ease.

This certainly did not take away from its famed unreliability that frequently called for a dhakka to start and water to cool the engine down to restart. It was taken for granted that these vehicles, whilst brand new, needed certain reinforcements to prepare for their lives ahead. There used to be professional workshops to make a new Ambassador, road ready, where the mechanics would check the brand new car thoroughly – take it apart, weld and tighten loose bolts and customise the car as per the owner’s requirements. The Indian car called upon Indian jugaad from the get go.

The Ambassador had been on a slow and steady decline ever since the first major competition in the form of Maruti Suzuki 800 made inroads back in 1983. Post-liberalisation, the sales numbers plummeted faster than ever with a new generation of vehicles making their way into the Indian market. Still the central and the state governments, as well as the cab drivers, remained loyal to it for a long time, although not anymore. According to one source, up to a whopping 16 per cent of all Ambassador cars ever sold had been bought by the Indian government — a truly huge number.

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The loss of something so quintessentially Indian to a French company is a hard swallow for many people. Many have expressed sadness and indignation over social media about why the iconic brand could not have been retained and saved by an Indian company, especially when it went for a laughable price of Rs 80 crore. The die-hard Amby aficionados are wondering if this acquisition spells the final nail in the coffin for the brand or if it could be a phoenix moment of its resurrection? Mixed emotions, all in all.

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The trademark Ambassador, sometimes known as the ‘national car of India’, is etched in the hearts and memories of those who grew up in pre-liberalization India. For them it is closely associated with the memory of urban spaces and roads in the earlier years. In the minds of a generation of foreign travelers too, the Ambassador became synonymous with India — perhaps understandably a symbol of the mad tenacity and unpredictability of India.

Bonjour Nostalgia! Millennials will never know the joys of packing three generations into a family car and drive out! I remember once 13 of us (including seven adults) were packed into the family Amby for a trip to the amusement park. The 3-km drive back home was the trip of a lifetime,” a Facebook user wrote today.

With that goes a part of everyone who has born in the last century,” wrote another while reacting to the news of Peugeot acquisition of the Ambassador.

It sure marks the end of an era, with all the associated flaws, nostalgia and bitter sweetness.

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What does brand Ambassador represent today? Some see it as a relic of India’s controlled economy with its stifling, innovation-killing regulations that prevented car-makers from increasing prices or producing higher numbers without the approval of the government.

But certainly not everything is negative and most people would see a qualified worth even in those old days. Senior journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, a self-confessed Ambassador romantic who owns and maintains three models of these cars, shared his thoughts in Hindustan Times two years ago: “They represent the values and hopes of Nehruvian India — with all its flaws. But those were gentler, less aggressive and less violent times. And the Ambassador reflects that, in its shape and comfort, its lumbering grace … It says something about the country we were once upon a time”. 

The hope is that this changed ownership will contemporise rather than prove to be the end of the road for the home brand that served the country for decades.

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