End of the road for the amby?

Zafri Mudasser Nofil
Its time-tested, tough, accommodating and practical characteristics made the Ambassador a truly Indianised car. Its dependability, spaciousness and comfort factor made it the most preferred car for generations of Indians. The first car to be manufactured in India, Ambassador ruled the Indian roads ever since its inception in 1948. Originally based on Morris Oxford (United Kingdom, 1948), the car underwent a series of changes, adapting to customer expectations.
And now with Hindustan Motors Limited deciding to shut down its factory at Uttarpara in West Bengal, where it has been making the Ambassador, it is feared that it will be the end of the road for the only automobile to ply on Indian roads for more than five decades now, carving a special niche for itself in the passenger car segment in the process. In 1948, CK Birla Group firm Hindustan Motors Ltd began the production of the Ambassador at Uttarpara in Hooghly district.
The company, however, is scouting for new investors to revive the loss-making Uttarpara plant.
With the resignation of Uttam Bose as managing director and chief executive officer of HM in May, Moloy Chowdhury has been appointed as acting MD and CEO of the company, which owns assets at Uttarpara and Indore.
The company was producing 700 to 800 Ambassador cars per month a few years ago. But at present, production has fallen to low levels owing to lack of funds. In April, the plant manufactured 100 cars. The plant has been facing losses to extent of Rs 7 to 8 crore per month.
The brand considerably lost its edge on roads in 90s and the company has been trying hard in the past few years to re-launch it to reclaim its lost glory though without much success.
Last year, the Ambassador was voted as the world’s best taxi by global automotive programme Top Gear. In a show, aired on the BBC, Top Gear’s executive director Richard Hammond organised a world taxi shootout in which Ambassador emerged a winner, beating competitors from all over the globe.
“The winner was India’s virtually indestructible Hindustan Ambassador,” UK-based motor museum Beaulieu, where the ‘World of Top Gear’ featuring vehicles from some of the most ambitious challenges are also showcased, said in a statement.
This particular example proved just how enduring the Ambassador really is when it saw off rivals from Britain, America, Germany, South Africa, Mexico and Russia to be named the world’s best taxi, it added.
“It’s (Ambassador) so tough that, although it now lives in World of Top Gear, with a quick wash and brush up, it could be back in service tomorrow probably,” the statement said.
Till the arrival of the Maruti in the early 80s, the Ambassador was the status symbol in India. Gradually it lost out to various global competitors when it came to personal usage but continued to be the favourite vehicle for government officials and also in the taxi segment.
The Amby found a place among the prized possessions of a few leaders who contested the recent Lok Sabha elections. Interestingly, Ambassador’s journey almost equals that of the Indian democracy and the brand almost became synonymous with the power-class in the country.
Hindustan Motors itself was set up as the country’s first car market in 1942, just a few years before Independence. Ambassador remained the preferred vehicle for politicians, bureaucrats and other ruling-class members for years and it enjoyed an almost-monopoly till 80s, when other brands began coming in.
Those who declared Ambassador in their assetsheet, included former BJP President Nitin Gadkari, former Union minister Shahnawaz Hussain, film star-turned politician Shatrughan Sinha and party’s Darjeeling MP S S Ahluwalia. Among Congress leaders, former Union minister Kamal Nath, as also at least two party candidates from Delhi — J P Agarwal and Ramesh Kumar, had Ambassador cars in their lists.
Others with Ambassadors included J&K National Panthers Party candidate from Udhampur Prof Bhim Singh, JD-U candidate from Jhanjharpur (Bihar) Davendra Prasad Yadav and RJD’s Karakat candidate Kanti Singh.
Ambassador models produced all these years included Mark 1 to IV series, Nova, 1800 1SZ, Avigo, Classic, Grand and Encore. In the early 1990s, the old Austin-designed BSeries OHV straight-4 BMC 1.5L petrol engine was replaced in favour of an Isuzu 1.8 litre engine and became the fastest production car in India, beating Fiats, and the Maruti Suzuki cars at that time. The engines currently available are the 1500 DSL (1.5L 37 bhp diesel engine), 1800 ISZ (1.8 L 75 bhp MPFI petrol engine), 2000 DSZ (2.0 L 50 bhp Isuzu diesel engine) and 2000 DSZ Turbo (2.0 L 75 bhp turbocharged intercooled Isuzu diesel engine.
In the late 1970s, a limited batch of Mark III Ambassador cars were produced with 1,700 cc engines. They were fitted with Constant Velocity SU side-draft carburetors of an earlier era instead of the more common indigenous variable velocity Solex down-draft units. The engine blocks of these cars had “1700” etched on them instead of the usual “1500”.
These were probably produced to handle the extra load of the piston-driven air conditioner compressors available in those days. The trim (metal beading) of these cars was a throwback to the sixties because they were chrome plated instead of aluminum.
The car was briefly imported to the UK in 1993 (as the Fullbore Mark 10).The cars were retrofitted with a heater and seat belts in order to comply with European safety legislation, but only a tiny number were ever sold, and the importer went into liquidation.
According to the Independent newspaper, finished in gloriously 50s-style red, blue, green, ivory or black (two-tone paintwork is available on request), the Ambassador is the automotive equivalent of a High Church, C of E vicar: dignified, upright, staunchly conservative. It goes well because the chaps at Fullbore have replaced the Ambassador’s original engine (the venerable BMC B-series 1.5-litre jobbie) with an 86bhp, 1.8-litre engine designed by Isuzu for oriental delivery vans.
The advantage of Japanese automotive power is that the car starts at the touch a of Bakelite button, refuses to overheat or breakdown and runs for 12,000 miles (or 12 months) between services, which cost around pounds 100 a shot.