Why should I care so much about the Ambassador, which I do? Because I do not want to lose an old friend, especially one which brings back memories of better times. With her friendly pug-nosed face, headlights resembling the eyes of Thomas The Tank Engine, aero-dynamically-unfriendly rounded roof, and unfashionable high gait, she recalls the gallant days of motoring when drivers never knew whether they would reach their destination without a breakdown.
The Ambassador is the steam engine of the Indian road, a challenge to drive and requiring much maintenance. Like a steam engine, she too has a long working life — you do not trade in an Ambassador. Until the courts stepped in with emission standards this year, the average age of the Ambassador taxis on the rank outside my house in Delhi must have at least been 20. But longevity isn’t her only selling point. The Ambassador is rugged. A recent advertisement admitted that modern cars scored on miles to the gallon, miles per hour, but the Ambassador won hands down on potholes to the mile. She has advantages for the taxi driver who charges on a per capita basis and ofcourse for the joint family. No one knows what the exact record for an Ambassador’s load is: the claims go as high as 30 passengers. I have counted 20 in the remoter parts of India east of Varanasi.
Potholes, unmarked speed-breakers, bullock cart drivers for whom left and right have no meaning, lorry drivers who claim the freedom of the middle of the road no matter how narrow, and many other hazards, mean that breakdowns and accidents are both bound to be frequent on the Indian roads. Here again, the Ambassador scores. Over the many years that she has dominated the Indian roads, there has grown up an efficient and cheap vehicle recovery system. Almost every village on a main road has its mistri or mechanic, who knows the Ambassador like the back of his greased hand. He is a master of improvisation, never stumped by lack of spare parts. Additionally, you could get the car to a mistri, or he will come to you and repair her on the spot.
I once had the misfortune to collide with a tractor. My Ambassador limped to the nearest mistri who extricated the fan from the radiator with a yank on a crowbar, filled the radiator up with a mixture of water and turmeric, and told me to get it welded in the next place with electricity. The turmeric sealed the worst of the leaks, and I reached a welder with one or two stops to take water. Ambassador mistris have a language of their own, collapsed shock absorbers or shockers “sit down”, brooshes or brushe? need replacing, a “denter” removes dents others have caused. Mistris are also inclined to be cavalier in their attitude to minor problems. A driver complained that a mistri hadn’t repaired his brakes and was told, “The car is going now and that’s what matters”.
But it’s not just the Ambassador’s suitability to India’s own very special road conditions, which have kept it going for so long. It was the beneficiary of those years of economic planning when industrialists had to get a license from the government to make any investment, the notorious “license permit raj”. Licensing enabled some 20 families to retain a stranglehold over the industrial economy by using their influence with politicians and bureaucrats to ensure that their products were not threatened by competition.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the Ambassador faced any competition which might have threatened it. Indira Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay, a former apprentice with Rolls Royce at Crewe, had plans to manufacture a people’s car, the Maruti. The plan hadn’t even got off the drawing board when Sanjay was killed while doing aerobatics over Delhi. Fearing that the record of Maruti might be a stain on Sanjay’s memory, his mother called in the Suzukis to rescue the company. Suzuki did a good job, and small modern cars soon started pouring off the production line but the ancient Ambassador still retained a sizeable share of the market.
But India is a land which values tradition, and so even after other competition has arrived in the market, Hindustan Motors say they have no intention of phasing out the Ambassador. So the lady lives on, a symbol of the license-permit raj, which too is taking its own time in fading away.