Centrally planned sedan

Enid blyton's Noddy drove one, so did Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Jyoti Basu of West Bengal still has one. The Ambassador was the undisputed king of the Indian roads, inextricably linked to many an influential person's childhood memories of pleasurable events and grand excursions to hill stations…

When the car first hit Indian roads it was not far behind its time in terms of automobile design. The cost was high, about 20 times the annual average wage, so it remained the preserve of bureaucrats and government servants. The inefficiencies in manufacture were not considered to be a problem because the commoner was never intended to own an Ambassador. Short production runs and over-staffing legislated by government fiat, ensured that the manufacturers were beholden to the bureaucrats who were the biggest customers.

Of course, the Ambassador could be fixed almost anywhere in India. The fact that it required repair almost anywhere in India seemed to be overlooked. The mechanic was not concerned with the cost of the large inventories of parts sitting on the shelf, so long as the machines continued to break down and he was able to realise a good margin on his stock. The spares makers were happy with faulty design and the manufacturers did not care about after-sales service. Only the private owners felt the pinch of continuous trips to the mechanic, but then private owners of luxury goods were considered to have stolen their money from the poor, so their interests in value for money were not an issue.

Most people who owned an Ambassador never drove it. The chauffeur did. Therefore driver-comfort was not considered an issue to the purchaser. This meant that the off-centre pedals and oblique steering wheel angle continued to be a feature, to the present day even. From experience one can say that this leads to driver fatigue as well as back pain. Thus, the need for hourly tea stops, much to the benefit of the roadside dhaba.

The heat from the engine and transmission are radiated nicely onto the driver's seat, to ensure a wellwarmed driver, which is no doubt a delight in the summer. The sturdy construction ensured low fuel efficiency  as well as  excessive wear  on  the suspension, and high turnover for shock absorbers  boon to the steel manufacturers, although a drain on net resources in terms of returns.

The low acceleration rate ensured poor traffic flow in the cities but obviated the need for good brakes. The lights were presumably kept weak to ensure that no one dazzled oncoming traffic by failing to dip at night. However, it is hard to understand why the indicator switches were placed on the dashboard, where it is impractical for a driver to reach, particularly in the dark. No doubt all this contributes to India's world record road fatalities-to-vehicle ratio.

The tinny Marutis were derided initially as too delicate to handle the rough Indian roads. This overlooked the benefits of overall lightness and the reduction in impact forces from the bumps. Lighter vehicles and faster stopping times mean that pedestrian populations are at less risk from the new vehicles. Emissions from the Ambassador are necessarily greater per kilometre of travel. Lower fuel efficiencies and a high rate of dropping out of tune ensure that the exhaust from the rusty beasts is nicely filled with nitrate compounds to the detriment of all and everyone.

It appears that not a single paisa was spent on research and development for the Ambassador. According to an ex-managing director of Maruti Udyog, there was a generally-held belief that the engineering skills required to modify the car were not available in India. This seems to be patently absurd. At the same time that Hindustan Motors was stolidly churning out obsolete designs, the military establishment was indigenously designing and innovating in the name of import substitution. The most convincing argument is of how the company was protected from competition by a cozy relationship with the government and the party in power. Premier Automobiles, the only other competitor, was not allowed to increase production and so there was no need to innovate.

Even as bureaucratic controls decrease, the Ambassador serves as a reminder of the risks of central planning, and its contempt for the consumer and enterprise. Expensive, inefficient, heavy, slow, dangerous and blessed with a set of stately curves that appeal to the idealist alone.

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Himal Southasian