A hallmark of Indian motoring, the Hindustan Ambassador has dominated India’s roads since it was made available to the public in 1957. Since then, in terms of both design and production, very little has changed, and the current version is markedly similar to the originals that rolled off the production line over half a century ago. However, on the 25th May this year, Hindustan Motors, who make the Ambassador, officially stopped producing it, marking the end of an era for one of India’s most popular vehicles – but why?
Essentially, the production of the Ambassador has ceased due to a sharp decline in sales. Should we be sad to see the landscape of Indian motoring change? Well, arguably not. The Ambassador is essentially a Morris Oxford, and in England we have moved far away from that. It’s probably about time that India did the same. Having said that, although on the face of things you’re simply phasing out a model of car, there’s actually much more to it, as generations of Indians grew up on the back seats of Ambassadors. By taking the Ambassador off the road, you’re removing a large part of India’s motoring history.
Even when the dominance of the Ambassador seemed threatened in the 1990s, when foreign cars were allowed into India for the first time, the motor’s support was relatively unwavering. Now, however, twenty years on, a new generation of Indian car drivers appear to have changed tact, and the car that used to be used as everything from a taxi to a car for the rich and famous is set to be consigned to history.
So why was the Ambassador so popular? Essentially, because it was the car for all possible occasions. Whereas most modern cars have low rooflines to maximise any styling potential, the Ambassador was different, as it was all about space. It boasted room for six passengers and an incredibly large boot.
Its distinct lack of pillars as well as a low front bench meant that, although it was certainly nothing unbelievably fancy, it was a great vehicle to be a passenger in, with the seats providing a great view of the road ahead. For passengers in taxis, this was especially important, particularly somewhere as scenic as India. In fact, it was one of the reasons that Top Gear declared the Ambassador “the best taxi in the world” back in 2002.
However, in spite of this, not all was well with the ‘Amby’, as it was affectionately known, and build quality was famously poor, with the Ambassador becoming the butt of many jokes. One famous joke states that the only thing on the Ambassador that doesn’t make a sound is the horn!
Because India’s controlled economy placed strict restrictions on the car market, the production of the Ambassador suffered. For example, parts could not be imported and, as a result, the Hindustan Motors had to rely on locally sourced and locally built parts which didn’t meet the standard of other vehicles available across the globe. As a result, breakdowns were common, and many cars didn’t even last a year before reaching a point where they could no longer be repaired.
And yet, despite all this, demand for Ambassadors remained incredibly high, with a waiting list of around eight years! Despite the failings of the Ambassador, pride in Indian motoring remained. Even actual ambassadors and leading Indian politicians used them to be chauffeured around in. No matter whether you were a wealthy individual or the average Indian family, it appeared as though everyone wanted a slice of the Ambassador action. In fact, it became so popular that Hindustan Motors even adopted the tagline “It’s always there” for their Ambassador print ads.
Its popularity despite its poor built quality is something that has enchanted Indian motoring journalists for decades. Labelled as “appalling” by Hormazd Sorabjee (editor of Autocar India), the Ambassador had incredibly heavy steering, a spindly column shifter and an often non-functional handbrake. Mechanically, at least, it was a nightmare, although fortunately, because of its popularity, plenty of spare parts were available.
So, should we be sad that the Ambassador has now left the factory for the final time? From a mechanical sense, the answer appears to be no but, for pure nostalgia and automotive history, the answer is a resounding yes. Although far from being perfect, the Ambassador defined a generation of Indian motoring, and for that we should be grateful. So, it’s goodbye to the Ambassador, the mechanical nightmare and “appalling car” that captured the hearts of a nation.