In May 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a massive stimulus package. He also stressed the importance of becoming atmanirbhar – meaning self-reliant. The masses were swayed by his moving speech and nationalism ran high that yes, it was indeed time to shun foreign manufactured products. The fervour was so high that there was footage shared of intentional breaking of Chinese manufactured television sets, although the little ‘shot on Oppo’ message at the bottom of the screen was a direct giveaway of the recording device’s origins.
In my case, I am an ‘on-the-fence’ nationalist. I do not wear nationalism on my sleeve and for most intents and purposes, I prefer being a fly on the wall. This is because I’d much rather listen in to what everyone else has to say. The spirit of atmanirbharta ran high for a few days but not unsurprisingly, its novelty soon wore off. Perhaps it is my ill fortune but I am yet to come across any trader who switched to selling only Indian made products by choice.
It began life as the Morris Oxford
Amid this nationalistic furore, the one aspect that immediately came to mind was the good old Hindustan Ambassador. Now, every Indian, I am sure, will have at least once in their lifetime, taken a drive in an Ambassador. It is an icon in itself, beginning life as the Morris Oxford in the UK.
The CK Birla Group began manufacturing it in 1942 under licence from Morris Motors and for the better part of its production run that spanned until 2014, it changed little. There were minor cosmetic upgrades over the years but in terms of its mechanical elements, it only received its first major upgrade in the mid-1990s. This momentous occasion came when it was outfitted with a Japanese built Isuzu engine.
Almost overnight, it became India’s fastest accelerating car and it wore this crown even amid competition from nimble Maruti Suzuki vehicles. The Ambassador then received creature comforts like air conditioning, power steering and even power windows somewhere towards the final years of its production lifecycle.
From politician ride to also serving as a garden prop
The ‘first-class,’ as it was commonly referred to in Assam, served multiple roles. It ferried politicians and bureaucrats, fulfilled middle class aspirations, served as a kidnapping vehicle and also enacted its role as a taxi. It even found, albeit for a short while, an importer in the UK by the name of Fullbore Motors. Perhaps Fullbore was attempting to cash in on nostalgia but it was a short-lived venture for not too long after, the company went into liquidation.
Another interesting story I once chanced upon was that of a UK based taxi company that operated a fleet of Ambassadors — complete with incense sticks and deity images on the dashboard. Some cars were also imported for the sheer quirk of it, and a UK based steam engine enthusiast even has one installed as a prop in his garden railway. The highlight in this case is a Darjeeling Himalayan Railway steam engine that initially found its way to the Americas and was then purchased by this UK resident. The Ambassador serves to augment the whole Darjeeling feel.
The Ambassador remained caught in a time warp
I learnt driving in an Ambassador, much like my father and perhaps even my grandfather. The version I learnt in was the Isuzu powered kind. It was a petrol model, with a five-speed gearbox and the feature list stopped there. It made all of 75 horsepower and was considered ‘powerful.’ For the uninitiated, horsepower is basically comparing the engine’s output to the power of one horse. Yes, the four-legged kind.
Therefore, as I understood, our vehicle was the equivalent of a chariot pulled by 75 horses. Here I cannot resist a far-fetched comparison but a Bugatti Veyron, in comparison, makes just over a 1000 horsepower.
This particular Ambassador we owned was the fourth one in the family since I was born. This was perhaps due to the fact that they were tried and tested, or maybe because there was not much else by way of choice for the size and comfort it offered. Its rear seat comfort is still described as ‘legendary’ but of this accolade, I am not too sure.
Self-reliance is not a novel idea
Now I must highlight the motive behind this nostalgic recollection of a humble piece of metal and rubber. The Ambassador remained caught in a time warp because there was little by way of competition for the better part of half a century. At the onset of independence from colonial rule, the overenthusiastic mindset was the same that is now being widely professed – of self-reliance.
What is even more interesting is that the most popular vehicle, for the longest time, was a colonial relic. Basically, the Ambassador was an ‘English’ vehicle peddled in post-independence India under the garb of being an Indian product.
Self-reliance is indeed a wonderful virtue at first glance and there is no doubt of its merits. However, the iconic Ambassador stands testimony to its overbearing ill effects. Complacency was definitely a liability, as was the ban on importing technical knowhow. Besides, with the manufacturer enjoying a closed economy, the product was bound to sell despite its many shortfalls. Why improvise when all that could be manufactured would find buyers regardless?
A future collector’s item?
The one other credible alternative, and also a superior product, was the Padmini or in common speak, the Fiat. But the waiting list for a Fiat sometimes stretched for as long as seven years. If you thought the six-month waiting list for a newly launched Maruti was an eternity, well, take comfort in the fact that an open economy did bode well for the automotive sector. An open economy really means casting aside atmanirbharta and leveraging rather on competitive strengths.
The Ambassador will soon be relegated to classis status as their numbers dwindle considerably each passing year. The last Ambassador rolled off the production line in June 2014 and the Ambassador name has since been purchased by Peugeot for a reported $10 million.
Politicians and bureaucrats gave it the step child treatment right after glitzy European and Japanese vehicles came available. The Prime Minister’s vehicle of choice is a BMW 7-series. His fleet, in recent times, has also seen the addition of a Range Rover and a Toyota Landcruiser. The President, meanwhile, is ferried in a Mercedes Benz S-Class limousine. None of these vehicles are manufactured in India and are all fully built imports. So much for atmanirbharta!
Each one of us will have interesting stories related to a good old Ambassador. I’m sure these would range from ones involving the quirky steering mounted gear shift in the older models to waiting to be rescued following a breakdown. I have listened in intently to old timers recount their stories. The most interesting one I came across was one where an Ambassador was used as a getaway car for an eloping attempt. I am sure you are raring to know but the details beyond this are much too delicate to reveal.
But hey, what’s your Ambassador story?