I doubt there was any serious lamentation over a quiet announcement last month by Hindustan Motors that it was ceasing production of its Ambassador car. Sure, the car had its fans — a few thousand Kolkata taxi drivers and a clutch of blighters in a corner of Britain (the car was modelled on the Series III Morris Oxford) — but maybe it was just time to say, “Nice to have known you but we’re moving on.”
Don’t get me wrong, I can be as nostalgic as the next person. I mourned the passing of the typewriter on which I learned the skills of my trade, excruciatingly pounding on unyielding q-w-e-r-t keys. I purchased my first kindle only last week after being warned, “Lose out on tech, and there will be no catching up.” And, yet, the first book I read after it arrived was an old favourite, Love in the Time of Cholera — the paper version.
But muscled out by niftier, more fuel-efficient car models both indigenous and foreign-made, the Ambassador has had its day. In 2004 when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office decided to shift to a custom-fitted, armoured BMW Seven Series and with the President’s office opting for a Mercedes Benz, the Amby was doomed for the garage.
And, yet, there was a time when the car meant something. If you grew up in pre-liberalised India, you would know that back then consumers had a choice of two cars: the Fiat’s Premier Padmini and the Ambassador. Mumbai and Delhi, not yet coloured by the depressing sameness that now washes over our cities, were distinguished by the car you saw on its roads. Business-like Bombay with its straight streets had the Fiat. But circuitous, roundabout Delhi plumped for the Ambassador.
I grew up with both. We greeted my family’s first Fiat with a coconut and a marigold garland. When we moved to Delhi, my father’s public sector undertaking-issue car was a stodgy Ambassador of an indeterminate shade of blue-green. Its sole luxury was a tinny fan perched proudly atop the dashboard.
The Ambassador symbolised a time when austerity was not just a cool statement of minimalism but also a necessity. Children were taught to switch off lights and fans when they left the room. School uniforms were patched and handed down to younger siblings. Starch for crisp cottons came not from a box but left-over rice water. Recycling was not a trendy lifestyle statement but an ingrained habit. And tucked into the roomy trunk of the family’s sole Amby was, inevitably, a handy shopping basket because no one had even thought of disposable plastic bags.
The Ambassador was ugly but it was reliable. Before the Innova became the king of the road-trip and before TV ‘debates’ dominated news space, reporters scoured dusty India digging out its hidden stories in the trusty Ambassador. If the car broke down in some remote mofussil town, there would always be a mechanic with jugaad spare-parts. If a friend’s third cousin wanted to hitch a ride, you knew the car would always have space for one more. Like the shared tiffin of long train journeys, the Amby was accommodating, stretchable and comforting.
So when in 2013 BBC’s Top Gear show asked for a vote on the world’s best taxi, the Ambassador won. Green Car Reports called it the ‘world’s oldest production car’ and noted that in a nod to changing times, the manufacturers had fitted in a cleaner engine that would meet tighter emission rules.
But it was too late. Signs that the Ambassador had reached the end of the road coincided with the swearing-in of the new regime. Narendra Modi’s campaign vehicle of choice was Mahindra & Mahindra’s muscular, reliable, roomy Scorpio. Newspapers reported that the company’s head, Anand Mahindra pitched for the Scorpio to become the new PM’s new car, a proposal reportedly shot down by the Special Protection Group which wants him to stick with the BMW.
It’s safe to assume the Ambassador was not mentioned. That car, and the era it represented, was over.
(Twitter:@namitabhandare - The views expressed by the author are personal)