By: Badhari Raj
Ask any random Indian senior citizen what their favourite car is, and with the widest smile, they’d answer ‘The Ambassador’. For any Indian who grew up in 20th-century India, the Ambassador represented what the Indian dream was.
Right after Indian Independence, the Indian automotive market was highly government-regulated. Tariffs introduced in the 1950s ensured that the automotive industry aligned with the Indian government’s socialist motives. The tariffs restricted Indian manufacturers to only importing parts that could not be sourced from India and also required them to have an Indian partner company. This decision pushed a lot of foreign automakers out of India and thus led to the advent of India’s first indigenously manufactured car; one by India and for India: the Hindustan Motors’ ‘Ambassador’ series in 1957.
It is surprising that the design of the Ambassadors was based on the design of Morris Motors’ 1994 Oxford series, which was a purely British company. The rights to the Oxford’s design were sold to Hindustan Motors in 1956, and only then did it become ‘purely Indian’.
A series of fortunate events and the political influence of the Birla family ensured that the Ambassadors remained one of the few cars that were in production after the 1954 tariffs. So it was no surprise that the Ambassadors dominated the Indian automotive market until the late 1980s.
But what made the Indian masses love and cherish this car, which was far below the technological advancements of its competition around the world? Was it because Indians did not have a choice, or was it because the Ambassadors fit right into the Indian way of life more than the others?
Of course, you’ve heard plenty of jokes about the Ambassador. Among other faulty components were its rarely working handbrake, tough steering wheel, and spiny gearbox and god forbid, the jokes never stopped. “You almost had to stand on the brakes to make the car stop” and “The only thing that doesn’t make a sound in an Ambassador is the horn” were only some of them.
Many of the cars delivered were of poor quality, and a lot would constantly break down. However, spare parts were available up and down the country, making the issue of breaking down an easily fixable one. Stifling regulations meant the carmaker could only make a fixed number of cars as per the government’s approval. This drove the waiting list for the car, at one point, to as long as 8 years! Many mechanical components also had to be locally sourced, and that meant lower-quality parts for the car.
Yet Indians always found better ways to adapt to it. Indians perfected the ‘art form’ of shifting from second gear to third gear. A faulty handbrake meant spawning a generation of Indians who could easily drive up a hill by easily balancing the accelerator and the clutch.
So, getting back to the point, why was it still a very popular car among Indians? It surely wasn’t the only car out there, although only a few models existed back then.
Even though the Ambassadors had a far higher seating position and headroom, getting in and out of the car was a relatively easy thing to do. They also came with a low-lying front bench, giving passengers a full view of the road ahead. even thought the car was meant for a nuclear family, no car could offer more airiness than the Ambassadors. Also, a six-seater car at such a reasonable price was an irresistible deal, especially for small, urban families. Its spacious design catered perfectly to the needs of such households, making it an ideal choice for anyone looking for a comfortable and practical vehicle.
Another huge factor would probably be its sturdiness. During the 1960s and 1970s, India had a limited number of National and State Highways, with the majority consisting of rough, rocky roads. The Ambassadors, however, with their tough and durable build, could withstand any Indian road. For the 30 years that it held hegemony in the market, the Ambassador had very few upgrades, yet the people waiting for one never seemed to end.
Despite its other limitations, the car was highly affordable for the middle class, making it an attractive option for anyone seeking a budget-friendly vehicle. It was also a car that ministers, army officials, and bureaucrats would use, making it a status symbol for Indians. To own an Ambassador back then meant being from a considerably wealthy class; the irony being its relatively low price point. It also helped make the government seem like it was abiding by its egalitarian principles, as the Ambassadors were used as taxis by civilians and ministers alike.
But the sun had to set for the Ambassadors at one point. Although the Ambassador enjoyed a 30-year reign in the Indian automobile market, its numerous upgrades and changes were primarily limited to mechanical enhancements. The basic design and its engineering mostly remained the same. With the introduction of the Maruti-Suzuki in the 80s, the Ambassadors now had competition. The 90s saw economic reforms aimed at liberalising the Indian economy. With this came more flashy, efficient, and compact cars. The once dominant Hindustan Motors, now, saw a market decline of 70 percent as Maruti slowly emerged as the top-selling car in India. The final nail in the coffin came in the form of stricter BS-IV emission laws passed in Indian cities, effectively restricting Indians from buying anymore of the Ambassadors as they failed to comply with the legislation in the west.
So the Ambassador shifted focus.
Ambassadors, from the beginning of the 2000s, while still in production and dwindling, now markets itself as a nostalgic classic. The Indian government’s decision to replace the Ambassadors with sleeker Mercedes cars for dignitaries and ministers further contributed to the decline in demand for the once-iconic vehicle.
Following the decision to cease production of the Ambassador series, many Indians commemorated the iconic car, with some purchasing the remaining models to preserve them as cherished relics of the past.
Now, with shiny new motorways and flashier cars in the market that offer both comfort and sturdiness, the Ambassadors can only be considered a memory, a nostalgic symbol to treasure from the past, something to represent India’s journey from the British era to self-rule. Having a long legacy,it is the symbol of pre-liberalised modern India, representing the ever-changing dynamics of India and how preferences changed over time.
For some, the Ambassadors represent the Indian automotive era of the past, which is best forgotten. But for many, it defined the era of a purely ‘Indian’ India, a past which the current nation can never go back to, for the good or for the bad.