Ambassador. Photo: Maximus Audacious / Flickr
Ambassador. Photo: Maximus Audacious / Flickr

The dowager’s last days

Economic liberalisation and smart new entrants have finally caught up with the manufactures of the Ambassador who had for decades successfully resisted advances in technology and management.

A mention of 'the Ambassador' immediately conjures up images of a corpulent car with more than ample leg space and the capacity to carry, at a crush, the largest of Indian families. For the BM (Before Maruti) generation and before the advent of more ritzy cars in the Indian market, the good old 'Amby' was the country's workhorse. People either learnt to drive it or were driven in it. They had no choice.

It was (and still is) the car of the President of India, the vehicle for the highest and the powerful in the country even though the foreign dignitaries and the new economic elites may prefer the Mercedes or Citroen. In all their official functions, the motorcade following the president or the prime minister is made up of the national pride, the Ambassador. The preference of fastidious bureaucrats and police officers in the capital Delhi, Calcutta or Chennai are white Ambys, while army officers zoom around in Ambys that are black and green in colour.

Over four decades, the sturdy Ambassador's portly outline has become an integral part of the Indian road-scape. While there are cities which prefer some other makes —for example Mumbai seems to prefer Fiats (Padminis) just as Calcutta loves the Amby —the Ambassador is still the country's automobile king. While the Morris Oxford, after which the Ambassador was fashioned, has long been of interest only to automobile collectors, the Ambassador has refused to have its epitaph written. While other Third World countries caught in the economic time warp —such as Cuba, Cambodia or Vietnam — continue to tinker with 1950s sedans and keep them on the roads, only in India is a relic of the first half of the 20th century still produced.

BM and AM

It was the entrepreneurial spirit of GD Birla that saw his flagship company Hindustan Motors (HM) registered in Calcutta after Independence, in 1950. Amby started its pedigreed life as the "Landmaster" and it was only after 12 years that it got its legendary name. Its reputation grew and so did its price. Over the years, the body underwent cosmetic changes but gasoline continued to provide the juice till the 1980s, when the diesel engine arrived.

In the car's heyday, which was in the early 1980s, the Uttarpara factory near Calcutta was manufacturing 30,000 of it a year. Dealers in Calcutta recall that the waiting period to buy an Amby was anything between five to seven years. There would be under-the-table deals to expedite delivery of an Amby for the daughter's dowry. It usually arrived after the baby was born, though. Others say that way back in the 1970s, they were willing to pay the princely sum of INR 5000 over the original price even for a secondhand Amby. An uncle recalled how his life's ambition was to have his engineer son hired as a mechanic in Birla Babu's factory. The patriarch seemed never to disappoint a jobseeker, and his benevolence, call it feudal, caused the workforce to swell to 14,000.

The virtues of the old lady are indisputable. It is spacious, to begin with. There are no head-bending or hip-twisting gymnastics involved to get in or out of the car; it's a walk through. You do not have to place yourself on the across-the-chassis seats in front or back, you simply slide into them. The boot is large enough to carry three jumbo suitcases, with space to spare on the sides, and the large wheels are ideal for potholed and rugged terrain. Says car consultant Rahul Sarkar, "It is the most comfortable car when one is being chauffeured around. You can sit back and enjoy the view."

The Ambassador also enjoys a reputation for being easy to repair. Spare parts are cheap and can be obtained practically at every street corner. There is seldom a lane in Calcutta, for example, where a car mechanic or a garage does not possess the expertise to repair an Ambassador inside-out. "That is why Ambassadors are popular as taxis. The wear and tear is high on our roads, but repair is readily available," says Kalyan Bhadra, president of Automobile Association of Eastern India. There are 28,000 taxis plying on Calcutta roads, every one of them an Ambassador.

But as the times they changed, the HM management seemed not to care, or was too righteous in its belief in the Ambassador. Or perhaps too secure in the (correct) belief that government would continue to provide custom beyond the turn of the century. And so the Ambassador production continued unruffled even as the smaller, sleeker and fuel-efficient Maruti ran off with the customer over the 1980s. Then came liberalisation, giving even Maruti a run for its money, but the Ambassador steered along with equanimity.

We are now in the AM (After Maruti) period, when high-on-technology cars like the toad-like Santro, the snub-nosed Indica, the spacious Hyundai and the serious Zen have taken to the Indian roads and highway. And finally, auto enthusiasts have begun to sing a different tune — the dirge of the Ambassador. The final nails began to be hammered in on the coffin after the lending institutions jumped into the bandwagon, offering easy car loans. As the production managers in the Uttarpara factory looked on askance, the scenario changed overnight. The faithful of decades began to dump the Amby without a second thought even though it was priced at around INR four lakhs, to buy a Cielo or an Astra for a whopping INR six to nine lakhs.

Meanwhile, together with Manmohan Singh's liberalisation of the economy, a demographic shift to smaller families was playing havoc with the Ambassador's market. The government's family planning drive over the 1970s and 1980s, extolling the virtues of hum do, hamare do ("we two, ours two"), delivered small-sized middle class families in the 1990s. For these new families, there was no need to hanker after an unfashionable clunker. And so, despite the INR 75 crore that HM has spent over the last three years to modernise the Uttarpara factory, sales have refused to pick up. The competition compared favourably in front of the Ambassador's easily-clogged filters, weak braking action, and the loud humming sound from the differential, which has been the passenger's constant companion.

For the all-too-visible bratpack class, full of purchasing power, the portly shape of the Ambassador was an embarrassment rather than a welcome holdover from the past. The kids refuse to be caught anywhere near the old mare, leave alone ride it — or be driven in it. Senior tea executive Sunil Munshi's sons reject the idea of going to school in their Ambassador though their mother loves the car because she can lie down on the backseat. "It's an embarrassment. What will our friends think?" the teenagers exclaim in unison. Given the choice, Munshi preferred to keep his sons happy rather than humour his wife. He scrapped his Amby of years and brought in a Zen. "It's a dinosaur," snorts well-known stock broker Subrato Roy. "It needs to be rubbished." Students of automobile engineering see no future for themselves if they join HM. "We will never join HM for a job," says Buku Bannerjee, a II Year student at Jadavpur University in Calcutta. And then rubs it in, "Except to study the Ambassador as a vintage car."

Uttarpara blues
Even the advertisements created by the Mudra ad agency for the Ambassador, now appearing sparsely, were pitched to make a legacy out of the car. The copy dwells on nostalgia, and does not take on the new entrants in the market on their merits. One ad shows a crowded Dusherra scene, with two children standing on the roof of an Amby to watch Ravana's effigy torched. Another shows the car being driven in a desert with three children running behind it. Says Shibnath Sen, senior creative director of Hindustan Thompson, "The Amby ads tickle the heart. It is positioned as the car that understands India, the Indian family —a car that is always there." The Ambassador advertisements do not highlight its curves and styling like the Accent does; they do not emphasise the spirit or silence like the Maruti's; or trumpet ambition as in the Corsa ads, which claim sale of a million cars in 1999 alone.

That the Ambassador has a place in most hearts has never been in doubt, and how could it be otherwise given that it is part of the childhood memories of practically every middleaged professional of India. However, the number of jokes about the Amby more than match its years. The latest doing the rounds in Calcutta is that while doing the rounds in Heaven in his automobile, God the Maker chanced upon CK Birla, the Maker of the Ambassador. But the Creator was none too impressed and said to him, " You have set up factories, and companies and all manner of enterprises. But what have you done for me in your life?" Birla fell on his knees, "Why, Lord, I have ensured that those who ride the Ambassador always remember you. When they start the journey, the first thing they do is to pray to you for their safety and when they reach their destination they remember you again and thank you for bringing them alive."

Jokes apart, as Rahul Sarkar says, "The Amby's brakes are just not adequate though the company is trying to improve and develop disc brakes." The steering needs power, he adds: "It requires quite an effort to drive the car." The upholstery could do with a facelift, and the fit and finish needs a major overhaul. The door panels have gaps that are two fingers wide, which will hardly do when sleek models now abound in the market. One major problem faced by Amby owners has been the breakdown of the drive shaft. "It requires frequent repairs, its fatigue and breakage is phenomenal. After buying a new Amby, the taxi owner has to initially spend 8-10,000 rupees to make it street worthy," complains Kalyan Bhadra. And it guzzles fuel, one litre giving only 6km as against the Santro's 10km.

Industry watchers are convinced that HM is on its last legs as a car-manufacturing enterprise here in Calcutta, unless it can bring itself to invest up to INR 500 crores to revamp its production. Detractors who have become increasingly malicious over the years, maintain that the Uttarpara unit, sprawled over 700 hectares of prime industrial land, would do better if it were to cultivate paddy instead. Any re-orientation in the auto industry requires deep pockets, and HM was willing to invest no more than INR 75 crores to put in new dies for the panels and to upgrade the engine to satisfy new Euro II norms. In a recent interview, HM's Executive Director A Sankara Narayanan ruled out a joint venture, "You become part of the multinational and the second promoter becomes the investor. But you have no control over the company."

It is not that the derivative of the Morris Oxford has not morphed stage by stage since 1948. It now boasts the Japanese Isuzu engine, which is powerful yet easy on the ears. The gear box has been tinkered with, and the Amby now sports Mercedes-like door handles and a recessed boot floor for greater luggage space. The new latches are said to be bust proof, and the paint shop is now state-of-the-art. However, these changes are a case of too little, too late. Neither is the Ambassador competitive on the road, nor is its spaciousness any longer its strength. The smaller Indian families now regard the Ambassador's size and driveability as "cumbersome". With its dowdy appearance and reputation as a fuel-guzzler, the Amby has dropped out from middle class aspirations. "The Ambassador has not kept pace with the car industry. Its technology is defunct," says Ratanlal Passari, the oldest and one of the well-known car dealers in Calcutta, who witnessed the heyday of the Amby. "Now I barely sell 250-300 Ambassadors a month," says Passari.

Games managements play
When the Maruti stormed the streets in the mid-1980s, challenging the Ambassador's market leadership, all that the HM management did was to wait and watch. Sales plummeted from 3500 a month a decade ago to barely 1100 per month in October 1999, while Maruti's sales are reported to have topped four lakh a year. The Uttarpara workforce of 9000, down from 14,000 people in the good old days, is today threatened with layoff and a three-day-week. Workers gather around the factory gate to protest the deferment of salary. In June, they had not been paid as late as on the 13th of the month. The faces of workers who emerge during the afternoon change of shift look sullen they tarry for a while to listen to what the union leaders have to say but their eyes do not betray emotion.

The inertia that gripped the HM management over the years is difficult to shrug off. The factory's earlier strengths are today its greatest weaknesses. Uttarpara is a 'vertically-integrated' plant that manufactures most of its components internally at high cost, whereas the competing manufacturers' plants are mostly assembly units which outsource components; HM produces more than 18,000 car parts by itself, most of these for the Ambassador. This raises wage bills to 22 percent of the car cost as against 6 percent in HM's own Mitsubishi plant in Madras. Only recently has the management tried to farm out some parts of the Amby. To manufacture the Ambassadors it still manages to sell, only 3500 of the present workforce of 9000 are required, says a senior manager. He points out that the Madras factory which manufactures the Lancer employs only 750 workers to produce 34,000 cars per annum. "It's a ridiculous comparison," remonstrates Deepak Bakshi, secretary of Shramik Karmachari Union. "Why do you forget that in Uttarpara, workers not only manufacture Ambassadors but also the Trekker, trucks and the Contessa. Moreover, the spare parts manufactured are to the tune of INR 75 crores. How can you compare the productivity of the workers of the Chennai factory to those of Uttarpara?"

The trade unions refuse to believe that the HM plant is running at a loss as shown by the Birla management. They point out that in 1996-97, HM showed a profit high of INR 30 crores; since 1985 the company has raised bonuses to' 20 percent of the salary and absorbed 850 casual workers. "Are these signs of sickness?" demands Poltu Sen of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions. "The management is playing games."

For example, workers point out, a notice is put out in the morning shift stating that salaries cannot be paid because there is no demand for the Ambassador and sales have dropped; by the afternoon shift, a new notice is circulated that 50 cars have to be produced immediately. "What it does," says Sen, "is create a fear psychosis among the workers. This way, older workers will be forced to accept the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) without a squeak. Moreover, it will legitimise layoffs, which we have been fighting. If the management can win here, they can replicate the strategy in other plants."

Despite repeated requests, the HM management refused to speak to this reporter or allow her a visit to the Uttarpara plant. "The time is not amenable and the business condition does not permit a visit. Lots of changes are taking place," said PK Chatterjee, production manager. An insider, however, thought he knew why Chatterjee was unwilling to allow a visit. He said, "What is there to show? The plant looks like a slightly better version of a garage down the street. Pieces of iron rods, steel and junk are left heaped around. Workers move around in their vests and lungis. Worse, car parts are assembled manually even today; there is no software or computerised system to check the quality or specifications. Credit must be given to the skill of the workers that the parts fit and there are no major disasters."

A former automobile student who had trained for six months at the HM plant narrated how an Ambassador just off the assembly line emitted a terrible rattling sound on the trial run. A team of engineers mulled over the problem and suggested various reasons as the cause of the noise. Yet nothing worked, and the chassis was about to be pried open when suddenly a worker realised a screw was loose. It was duly tightened and the rattle disappeared. "There seemed to be no system in the plant to identify even such a minor problem," laughed the student.

Autumn of the matriarch
The issues at stake are no laughing matter, however. Exports of Ambassadors to neighbouring countries have dried up. Five years ago, a surge |   of sales to the UK had awakened hope of better times, but HM soon realised that the Ambassador was in demand overseas only as a vintage showpiece. It wouldn't last. Meanwhile, the upwardly mobile Indian middle class is seeking its rightful place under the sun and refuses to be seen in the dowager, howsoever impressive its past and pedigree.

"For the big family, the Tata Sumo is now the car of choice," says Ratanlal Passari. The army, more alert after the recent skirmish with Pakistan, is eyeing the Maruti-Gypsy though it has not abandoned the armoured Amby completely. The last straw for HM was the new government notification allowing Indian taxpayer's money now to be spent on Maruti and its many versions. It was also only last month that the Union government finally allowed its ministers to buy Marutis or other vehicles for their use.

But the Ambassador as yet refuses to be left on the wayside like its compatriots the Padmini and the Standard Herald. It may possibly live on among ministers and bureaucrats who like to travel with an entourage and an equal number of lug- Car nap in gage pieces. And in taxis servicing passengers in Calcutta, Delhi and Madras who like the solace of sprawling seats. As long as Indians are willing to blush away the Amby's outdated looks, steering wheel that looks like it would do for an ocean-liner, differential hum, and problematic brakes, perhaps no car in India can match the good ol' Amby's comfort and spaciousness levels. But it will never again be the car of prestige, the symbol of India's selfreliance.

Nepal's own gaadi
Little Nepal, too, has a gaadi of its own. No prizes for guessing its name, "Sherpa", the symbol of mountain sturdiness. And it does live up to it. When Sherpa did its first run, it was carrying a mean load of 1.8 metric tonnes, and it pulled it off, all the way up from Biratnagar across the length of Nepal and up to the hill district of Baitadi.

Those at the assembling firm, Hulas Motors Pvt. Ltd., couldn't have been more thrilled. "We take pride in our Sherpa," says Surendra Golchha,  executive director of the company. He adds for good measure that the Sherpa does all justice to environmental norms. The mileage, too, is good, at 12 km to a litre of diesel.

But it was not an easy ride to assemble a car in Nepal, and it took three failed models before the present Sherpa 46(D) came along, with its 5+1 gear system, claimed top speed of 100 kmph, all for NR 710,000. While the design is Nepali, as are the chassis, the body and the tyre, the engine is Chinese, and the differential Indian.

For the moment, the Hulas company estimates a modest production run of 10 cars a month at its plant in Biratnagar. Service centres have opened up in Kathmandu, Butwal and Biratnagar, while another is coming up in Nepalgunj.

Sherpa owners are all praise for their vehicle, some of it of course tinged with patriotic pride about the Nepali jeep that could. All of which does really seem to indicate that Nepal has arrived quietly on the auto-assembly scene.

-Toya Gautam


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