Remembering the Hindustan Ambassador

A tribute to the grand old lady of Indian motoring, which continues to rule the roads after being discontinued last year.

The Hindustan Ambassador was discontinued last year. Photo by Olaf Kruger / imageBROKER / REX Shutterstock
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India is the epitome of diversity – how else could you describe a 1.2-billion-strong country with more than 20 official languages, hundreds of dialects and representation from every major religion? But if there's a single entity that's symbolic of the country and that can be found in each of its heavily contrasting regions, it's the Hindustan Ambassador.

The curtain came down last year on the grand old lady of Indian motoring, but such was the foothold that the Ambassador (or “Amby” as it’s affectionately known) had in the domestic market that it endured for 57 years, with about half a million examples built during this period.

It hardly seems feasible that a car with bullock-cart-like leaf-spring rear suspension, drum brakes and virtually Second World War-era styling could be sold as a “new” vehicle until as recently as 2014, but the ruggedness and simplicity of its components was partly what made the Ambassador such a ubiquitous sight on Indian roads.

Its half-century-plus run was finally brought to a halt by dramatically dwindling sales in its latter years, largely due to the fact that the Indian market was being inundated by an increasing number of offerings from international manufacturers ranging from Hyundai to Rolls-Royce. There was no longer a place for an ­archaic vehicle – iconic or not.

There are other contemporary nameplates that have survived for 50 years or more (such as the Porsche 911, Chevrolet Corvette, Volkswagen Beetle and Mini), but the modern versions of these vehicles have virtually nothing in common with their yesteryear counterparts.

In contrast, the 2014 Ambassador was largely the same vehicle that was sold in 1957. Yes, there were a few styling tweaks along the way and the engine/transmission/brakes/interiors were upgraded, but it was essentially a case of “as you were” for the core architecture of the car. The Amby was a true anachronism, yet it somehow didn’t seem out of place on Indian roads.

One of the attributes that helped the Ambassador’s cause was that it was tough enough to absorb the bumps, thumps and knocks that are an inevitable part of driving on Indian roads. Not only does the surface of said roads range from passable to diabolical, the cut-throat traffic means a bit of biff and barge are common – seemingly, the only traffic rule is that there are no rules.

The Amby was also so simple that it lent itself well to DIY repairs by anyone with even an ounce of mechanical aptitude. There were no complicated electronics or anything remotely complex about the car. The only tools you really needed were a spanner, screwdriver and maybe a hammer on occasion.

Another factor that helped prolong the Ambassador’s lifespan was that it was a protected species for many years. Until the early 1980s, the only real opposition it faced was from locally manufactured versions of the Fiat 1100 (known as the Premier Padmini) and Fiat 124 (Premier 118NE).

However, the motoring landscape began to change markedly with the 1983 launch of the modern and fuel-efficient Maruti 800 (derived from the Suzuki Alto), and from the 1990s the Indian economy began to open up dramatically, paving the way for the likes of Toyota, Mitsubishi, Hyundai and Daewoo to enter the burgeoning market.

This was the beginning of the end for the Amby, but it managed to soldier on for several more years, ­albeit ­driven mainly by demand from taxi fleets and government ­departments.

I’d be the first to admit that the Ambassador had little to ­recommend it as a dynamic ­driver’s car, but I still have a soft spot for the bulbous contraption. You see, I learnt how to drive in one of these things. Learning to drive is a tough enough ordeal for any gawky teenager, but throw an Ambassador and Indian ­traffic conditions into the mix and it becomes a challenge of epic ­proportions.

In its latter iterations, the ­Ambassador gained bucket seats in the front, but the 1979 example in which I made my driving debut had a shiny vinyl bench seat. Getting a suitably ergonomic position behind the wheel was the first challenge as neither the bench nor the large, hard-rimmed steering wheel offered any sort of adjustability. This meant shorter drivers had no ­option other than to prop a cushion or pillow on the seat in order to reach the wheel and pedals.

Adding to the degree of difficulty was ultra-vague, non-power-­assisted steering and a recalcitrant four-speed column-shift manual transmission. Slotting it into any gear – was akin to poking a stick into a bucket of paint and trying to find a hole in the bottom. A few grinding attempts usually yielded the desired results.

First gear ran out at about 15 or 20 kilometres per hour in the 1.5-litre Ambassador, which meant another wrestle with the gear lever was required moments after taking off. If you really built up a good head of steam in fourth gear it was possible to see 100kph on the dial on a decent-length straight. But this wasn’t recommended because by this stage the whole car would be vibrating.

Build quality was also abysmal, with panel gaps large enough in some areas for a kitten to sneak in. However, this was more to the detriment of aesthetics than anything else, as the Amby had a reputation for being virtually ­indestructible, even after a ­couple of decades of abuse in harsh conditions.

Some of the upgrades Hindustan Motors made to “modernise” the Ambassador over the years was ditching the primitive 1.5-litre Austin-designed engine, which cranked out (hold on to your hats) a massive 51bhp, in favour of a less primitive 1.8-­litre Isuzu motor. Ditto the four-speed column-shift manual, which was eventually replaced by a five-speed transmission (with the lever now sprouting from the floor).

Anyone who has spent time in India would doubtless have been ferried around in an Ambassador taxi – they’re black with a yellow roof in Delhi and Mumbai, and all yellow in Kolkata – and if you’ve done so, you’d know they’re ­extremely comfortable to ride in in the back seat. This is perhaps partly why they’re still used to transport senior Indian civil servants and politicians.

The demise of the Ambassador is in many ways symbolic of the changes that have been ­sweeping through India over the past ­decade or two, whereby old-world traditions are being usurped by a western-style consumerist­ ­mentality.

Drive through even the remotest villages in the country, and you’ll find dish antennas affixed to mud huts. Internet usage is also widespread, even among those with no formal education whatsoever, and a recent report suggests India will surpass the US to become the world’s ­second-largest smartphone market (China is No 1) by 2017.

With the Chinese economy now slowing, India is set to ­embark on its next growth wave, and the Ambassador has been one of the casualties along the way. ­Although the curvaceous car will still be a regular sight on Indian roads for the next decade or two, a time will come when the last one in existence makes its way to the scrapheap. When that happens, a significant part of India will die with it, but the Amby’s legacy, as the country’s first people’s car, will live on.