ambassador car

An End of an Era: The Iconic Ambassador

ambassador car

Since the 1960s as a young boy I made the annual winter vacation trip from the Himalayan town of Darjeeling, a “British hill station” that provided respite for the colonial officials from the beastly heat of the plains of West Bengal to a small town named Bandel roughly 40 km north of Kolkata (then Calcutta). Darjeeling is known for its teas, while Kolkata, among other things, as the capital of British India until 1911. The small town I visited every winter had been a Portuguese outpost not too far from a French and a Dutch outpost along the river Hooghly, all of them established well before the British arrived. The British drove out the other Europeans, while the Indians drove out the British in 1947, well not completely. Of the many markers the Europeans left behind in the area, one of them was Bandel church, which is now a Basilica of the Holy Rosary, a church built by the Portuguese about a hundred years after Vasco Da Gama landed on the west coast of India in 1498. The British of course left behind far too many things to list. Aside from the English-language using bureaucracy, rules and regulations that still date back to colonial times and continue to drag India with absurd legal interpretations and outcomes, they also left a string of manufacturing factories along the river and around Kolkata. Many of them were bought off by Indian business while others disappeared over time in an era of competition, poor policy environment, and alternative investment locations in India.

There were other ways the British left their mark. Consider India’s iconic car, the Ambassador. Hindustan Motors, launched by the Birla business family was one of three Indian automotive companies established after India’s independence. The factory was located a few km north of Kolkata, on the train line that ended in Bandel. Over several decades I have taken the train that passed by the sprawling factory, literally cranking out India’s national vehicle.

All high-level government officials used Kolkata-made Ambassadors with pride. After all it was a large, roomy vehicle compared to the Mumbai-made Padminis or the Chennai-made Standards. I remember when researching the Indian auto industry more than a decade ago I looked through many of their annual reports. In one such report, Hindustan Motors boasted that the car was fit for an entire family and the “boot” (trunk) could fit an entire “hold-all”, now a quaint baggage but then an absolute essential when travelling in India. The “hold-all” was a bag containing pillows, quilts, blankets, and in case your suitcases were full you also stuffed other items like books, garments and the like and rolled the hold-all into a cylinder, tightened the straps, and placed it in the boot.

In 1948 Hindustan Motors initially assembled the Ambassador based on imported kits of the British Morris Oxford Series II. Later it obtained stamping dies of the already obsolete Morris Oxford and began to manufacture the cars in India. The look of the car hardly changed since its inception, and its innards only did so quite recently. The latter had to since the engine for such a large car was underpowered. In a charming book titled Chasing the Monsoon, by British travel journalist Alexander Frater, a University of Melbourne graduate, Frater literally followed the monsoon from the southwest of Kerala across India to its final deluge in the world’s wettest place in Cheerapunji in India’s northeast. In that book, read by many Indians of my generation, Frater noted that the engine of the Ambassador was the size of a coconut. That said, it was claimed that because of the car’s mechanical simplicity, it could be repaired in any Indian village.

Protectionist policy of the Indian government hell-bent on being self-reliant and pessimistic about export markets contributed to a lethargic industrial sector. Even if well intentioned, tariff protection and outright bans of consumer durables made Indian business grossly uncompetitive. Further to this, the Indian state had neither the administrative capacity nor the political autonomy to push the industrial sector to become dynamic. Barring a few companies in the private and public sector, Indian business produced high cost and shoddy products. So bad that some said every part of the Ambassador made a noise except the horn! Companies could neither freely import technology nor did they really care since they had a captive Indian market that gouged Indian consumers and took them for a ride. Hindustan Motors was no different. Due to licensing of production the company produced few cars and there was literally a wait of several years to get a shiny Ambassador at an outrageous price, due to what the company charged and what the government imposed as a luxury tax.

Shiny or not the Ambassador remained the official car, and many times I have had the pleasure of accompanying high placed friends in the holdall carrying car. The company survived through patronage but change was imminent as Japanese, American, European, and Korean cars entered the fray and the Ambassador seemed destined to be sidelined as a relic. In May 2014, the production of the Ambassador was suspended with little hope of ever returning to the streets of India. But all is not lost, Ambassador taxis still ply the cities, officials use them, and even me when making the trip from the Portuguese outpost to the former British India’s capital city, I continue to ride an Ambassador, which incidentally is comfortably air-conditioned.