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Let the Ambassador RIP. India has got new ‘power cars’ and just as well

Despite its build, the Ambassador was no place to be in if there was an accident. It was a vintage vehicle that was way past its sell-by date even in 1991.

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On the way back from my ancestral town of Hooghly, Bengal, the Eastern Railway Electric Multiple Unit crossed the massive factory in Uttarpara town where the Ambassador was built. Uttarpara was the home of Hindustan Motors where, until a decade ago, every single Hindustan Ambassador rolled off the line for almost five decades. Of course, the white Ambassador was, for years, India’s ‘power car’. From prime ministers to district magistrates, everyone had a white Ambassador, better still, a white Ambassador with a ‘lal batti’ on top.

But the Ambassador was the symbol of another, ‘older India’. It was a vintage vehicle that could barely keep up with the times and was way past its sell-by date even in 1991 when a cash-strapped India had to open up its economy. It took a while for the official ride of the prime minister to change, but Narendra Modi, today, has a mixed fleet of cars that includes a Range Rover, a Toyota Land Cruiser, and a newly added Mercedes-Benz S Guard, the armoured variant of the S-Class.

Most senior bureaucrats and ministers move around in the Maruti-Suzuki Ciaz, and experienced parliamentary reporters will tell you that the parking lot during sessions is filled with all sorts of luxury vehicles from Maseratis to Porsches. So, when Groupe PSA, the French carmaker that owns Citroen and is now part of the global Stellantis group, floated the idea that they would bring back the ‘Ambassador brand’ after having bought it from Hindustan Motors, it was a bit surprising. Because, in addition to being a symbol of an older India, the Ambassador wasn’t exactly a great car to drive. It might have been a good car to drive in the 1960s and the 1970s when things were what they were, but for someone like me, who learnt to drive on Maruti Suzuki 800s, the Ambassador — and even the Premier Padmini — were anachronisms.

Not trading safety for sheen

You might read me as complaining about the fact that the Mercedes-Benz puts its gear lever on a stalk on the steering wheel, but at least it is an automatic. On old Ambassadors and Padminis, the gears were on the steering stalk, and unless you have strange romantic notions that the old days were very ‘good’ — they weren’t — it was a disaster. Even the later iterations of the Ambassador, the one with the 1500cc Isuzu engine and floor-mounted gear, weren’t a pleasure to drive.

A friend whose parents were senior government officials once sneaked off with his mother’s official car and landed up at my place when we were teenagers. And well, we discovered just how terrible the brakes were, even on an official car with a ‘Power Break’ sticker on the rear.

But at least that car stopped before it hit something, because, despite its build and the thick-gauge steel frame, the Ambassador was no place to be in if there was an accident. The A Pillar of the car, which is the first upright on a vehicle that goes from the engine bay to the roof and holds the windscreen, was as thin as a finger. In modern cars, the A Pillar is as thick as an elephant’s leg at times, though that does have the unfortunate situation of creating a massive blind spot. But that is another story.

Crumpled Ambassadors were a distressingly common sight on highways back in the day, and most accidents were fatal.

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How much does heritage matter?

But nostalgia is a funny thing. Cyrus Behram Dhabhar, an automotive journalist and founder of the Fiat Classic Car Club of India, says that he won’t be surprised if the Ambassador name is brought back. “The name conveyed so much to Indians of a particular generation, and I think whatever Citroen paid for the brand, it might have been too little. Many brand names of cars that have been out of commission for a while might come back. Mahindra is talking about naming the upcoming five-door Thar the Armada; Maruti is almost certain to bring back the Gypsy and not call the car the Jimny. These are iconic brands that are ingrained in our country’s motoring heritage, for better or for worse. However, I don’t believe all names will make a return, I don’t think the Padmini will come back,” Dhabhar said.

But motoring heritage and history seem to matter little in a country where cars need to be scrapped after 15 years of usage. And while Maruti Suzuki has recently added the ‘DIA 6479’ — the first Maruti 800 sold — as a centrepiece at its New Delhi headquarters, most automotive centres and factories in India usually have the latest and greatest products on display. The Ambassador has today become a cool marketing tool; former German Ambassador Walter Lindner had a red one as did several other diplomats in Delhi, and some still do. You can see them being used as marketing props from the Andaz Hotel at Delhi’s Aerocity to Kala Ghoda in Mumbai.

Make no mistake, while I believe that it is important to preserve motoring heritage, modern cars are far safer and far easier to drive. This is even more important while promising fuel efficiency numbers that are off the charts. The new Alto K10 and Celerio from Maruti-Suzuki claim to run 100 kilometres in only four litres of fuel. And there is no guarantee that bringing back a classic name will bring success — the Maruti Estilo is a case in point. It was initially launched as the ‘Zen Estilo’ to capture some of the sheen of the Zen brand, but when sales faltered, Maruti quickly dropped the ‘Zen’ brand lest it gets tarnished.

So, back to the question at hand. Will the Ambassador come back? Every year for the past few years, the story has been floated in both the automotive and mainstream media with few takers. As for me, no. The Ambassador was a product of its time that has gone. That India has gone. I must admit, though, in a sea of weird car brand names, it is a good one.

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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