In 2002, the year of the Gujarat riots, I was asked by the BBC to make a radio programme about driving from Kolkata to Delhi in an Ambassador. So I hired an Amby in Kolkata. The driver was a Sikh gentleman.
If you've travelled by the car, you must be familiar with the fact that the Amby can be very noisy at times. Each time we drove over a pothole, I would tell Mr Singh, who was a lovely man, that something was wrong. He would respond by saying, "No problem," every time.
Mark Tully once drove from Kolkata to Delhi in an Amby (Photo: Raj K Raj)
But as we were about to cross a bridge on the river Son in Bihar, there was an enormous clatter. It sounded as if the innards of the Ambassador had dropped out and were being dragged along the road. I told him that this time, there was trouble. Mr Singh said: "No trouble." He got off the car and came back within three minutes and said, "I told you no trouble: only number plate fallen off!" That was the only thing which went wrong with the Ambassador in the 1,500-km-long journey. That speaks volumes for its sturdiness.
In those days, whenever I went out for a story, I found myself ending up in an Ambassador. I have done thousands of such journeys and we would often stop at a roadside mechanic since anybody could fix it in India those days: It was the only car of note!
I love the Ambassador. I am sentimental and a traditionalist. I like old things such as steam engines. I don't like change. More than anything else, the Ambassador also reminds me of a time when there was not much traffic in the city. We were very privileged to drive the Ambassador in those times. We would never have trusted a Fiat or a Triumph for a long drive, the way we could trust the Amby. It was sturdy, reliable and comfortable. No wonder top bureaucrats and politicians preferred to be driven in an Ambassador.
The phasing out of the Ambassador is indeed the end of an era. A lot of my journalistic life was spent in Ambassadors and I still think it is a very good-looking car and is part of India's history. Don't forget a year or two ago Top Gear called it the best taxi in the world.
- Mark Tully is a journalist and writer
A drive down memory lane
It's another day at the office for me. I am on the road with a convoy of beautiful classic and vintage cars, including a Mercedes 190SL and a 1961 Chevrolet Biscayne. But my eye hunts out a car owned and driven by an Italian called Donald Tomassi. No, it isn't some Italian car. It's a 1965 Mark II Hindustan Ambassador. When the cars are parked during a coffee break, I sneak a peek inside. It's exactly the way I remembered it. The Bakelite steering wheel, the indicator switch located at the centre of the steering wheel, the thin gear column attached to the steering shaft, the foot-operated headlight dipper switch; everything was the way it was on my father's Mark II, DHB 7125, the car I learnt to drive on.
If there's one car that's etched into the consciousness of India, it is the Ambassador. Now that Hindustan Motors has pulled the plug on the Ambassador, let's take a drive down memory lane.
P.S. I grew up driving the Ambassador and dreaming of sleek, powerful, modern cars. And now that I drive those sleek, powerful, modern cars, I am seriously contemplating buying an old Mark II. And if anyone has DHB 7125, please contact the Autocar office.
- Joy Choudhuri (creative editor of Autocar India)
The Ambassador, as we know it, was launched in 1957 but the seed was sown in 1942 when BM Birla founded Hindustan Motors (HM) and set up a small factory in Port Okha in Gujarat to assemble passenger cars.
The company started importing the Morris 10 Series M kits for local assembly. In India, it was sold as the Hindustan 10. The 1140cc side-valve engine developed 37bhp at 4600rpm, with a top speed of 100kmph. Next year, HM launched the Hindustan 14, based on the Morris 14. The Morris Minor also joined the line-up, with the name Baby Hindustan.
When the company wanted a new model to replace its Hindustan models, it settled on the Morris Oxford Series III, launched in India as the Hindustan Landmaster. The car initially came with a 1489cc side-valve engine but was later improved to an overhead valve engine. It was quite an innovation with a semi-monocoque chassis, which is why it was very spacious inside. The car cost Rs10,000.
All the tooling of the British Morris Oxford Series III was transferred to India. A small tail fin was added on either side of the rear fenders, along with a new, dimpled hood, and the car was re-christened the Ambassador Mark I. The car cost Rs17,000.
It underwent a frontal facelift with a closely-checkered grille and was named the Ambassador Mark II. It would be 12 years before another redesign.
Another minor facelift to the same grille and a much bigger frontal facelift turned out as the Mark III.
The Mark IV was the last of the Mark cars. In addition to the existing petrol version, a diesel variant was launched which was powered by a 1,489 cc, 37 bhp BMC B-series diesel engine. It was the first diesel car in India and was well received.
Economic liberalisation swept the industry. Numerous foreign vehicle manufacturers came to India, bringing increased competition for local manufacturers. The Ambassador found its sales slipping and HM soon began looking for a new model.
HM simply introduced new Ambassador variants. It dieselised the old 1489cc engine, which went into the Ambassador. The Ambassador Nova was launched in 1999, followed by the Ambassador 1800 ISZ three years later. The Nova was the last Ambassador powered by the 1489cc petrol engine
The Ambassador 1800 ISZ had under its hood the 75bhp 1800cc Isuzu engine and the option of bucket seats. The dashboard was redesigned. Seatbelts became mandatory.
The year the Ambassador Grand was launched. As per the manufacturer, the new version had 137 differences from its predecessor. There was even an optional sunroof.
HM launched the cosmetically revised Ambassador under the Avigo name. Designed by Manvendra Singh, the retro-look Avigo had classic-touch internals like a centrally-mounted console, beige-coloured seats and wood-finish interiors.
It was only last year that HM launched its latest version of the Ambassador, with the suffix, Encore. It was the first BSIV-compliant diesel Ambassador and built for the taxi segment.