Hindustan Ambassador – What the World Thinks of India’s Automotive Legend

Snapshot – The Hindustan Ambassador has now been consigned to the history books. Production of this iconic automobile, which was India’s longest serially produced car, has ground to a halt at the Uttarpara factory, off Kolkata. In its over five decade production run at Uttarpara, the Ambassador has played many roles. From being a car that ferried the Indian political class to a car that the commoners commuted in, the Hindustan Ambassador in India, stood for many things for many people.

Hindustan Ambassador 4

 

[Image courtesy Team-BHP]

So, when the last Ambassador rolled out from Uttarpara sometime early last year, the tributes to this legendary car came in an effusive torrent. Not so long ago, India was known as the land of the mystics, of elephants and snakes. The Hindustan Ambassador was the enduring motif of India’s roadscape, an instantly recognizable automobile that in a sense stood for everything India, notwithstanding its distinctly British Morris Oxford origins. Here’s what the foreigners think about the Hindustan Ambassador.

Hindustan Ambassador Taxi

BBC Top Gear’s Richard Hammond has rated the Hindustan Ambassador the best taxi in the world. In a rather convoluted or should we call it the Top Gear way of judging the Ambassador’s cab worthiness, the car was pitted against 10 other cabs from around the world in a track race. Yes, you heard it right. You’ve got to watch the video lined up below to understand why Top Gear thinks that the Amby is the world’s best taxi.

The Ambassador’s shape has remained relatively unchanged for nearly 5 decades, a reason why it has been such a recognizable automotive symbol in India. This also means that the changes and refinements have largely been on the inside of the car, and even those changes haven’t been significant enough to make the car a serious competitor to newer offerings. So, it comes as no surprise when the Independent’s Jonathan Glancy questions what the R&D department at Hindustan Motors was up to for the better part of five decades.

Hindustan Ambassador ct

He starts off uncharitably with,

The Churchill-era Oxford was never the raciest of cars: as stodgy as porridge made with powdered milk.

Fresh from the factory, the Ambassador comes with a set of decidedly low-caste plastic switches and dials. 

And then starts talking about the better bits,

The only Indian-made car that refuses to fall to bits on the hot and dusty roads of the sub-continent. 

A roly-poly old Morris made on the banks of the Ganges, the Ambassador is great fun, extremely good value and makes friends like few other cars this side of a Mk2 Jaguar.

The Ambassador is the automotive equivalent of a High Church, C of E vicar: dignified, upright, staunchly conservative. 

And ends up predicting the future of the Amby with this line,

They (Hindustan Motors) are unlikely to be busy with radical new plans for the Ambassador as this Hindu Morris chugs into the next millennium. 

Hindustan Ambassador

Sean O’Grady, talking to the Independent, takes a more pragmatic view of the Ambassador’s passing with these lines,

Every nation has its automotive symbol. For the Germany it’s the VW Beetle; ultra-reliable. For the French, the Citroen 2CV; eccentric. For the Americans, the Cadillac; loud. For the Indians..? Well, unfortunately for them it was for many decades the Hindustan Ambassador… and you can think of the adjective yourself. Basically a 1954 Morris Oxford Series IV, its bulbous lines, vaguely reminiscent of a bowler hat, were very British and elegant then, and remain so, though nowadays more in an antique sense.

[Image courtesy TheHindustanTimes]

BBC's Mark Tully atop a Hindustan Ambassador

Sir Mark Tully, the former Bureau Chief of the BBC in India, and a man who’s grown up with Hindustan Ambassadors, reminisces memorably about the ‘Relic of the Raj’ with these lines,

I love the Ambassador. I am sentimental and a traditionalist. I like old things such as steam engines. I don’t like change. More than anything else, the Ambassador also reminds me of a time when there was not much traffic in the city. We were very privileged to drive the Ambassador in those times. We would never have trusted a Fiat or a Triumph for a long drive, the way we could trust the Amby. It was sturdy, reliable and comfortable. No wonder top bureaucrats and politicians preferred to be driven in an Ambassador.

Hindustan Ambassador On The Move

[Image courtesy AutoGyaan]

Jason Torchinsky of the Jalopnik delivers some outstanding lines about the Grand Old Lady of India’s Car Scene,

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The Amby started life way back in 1957 as a Morris Oxford Series III. Even back in the late ’50s nobody was looking at the Oxford and thinking “this design is so radical and ahead of its time it could last into a future age where pornography can be instantly beamed to a tiny screen in your pocket.” 

What baffles me about the car is how jaded Indians are to it. I would have thought this retro-looking rear-wheel drive fossil would be perfect for Indian hoons and hot-rodders to cram in more potent engines and uprated suspension and other bits and make them into terrific street rods. Currently, that’s not really on Indian drivers’ minds, and that’s a shame. Because this car would make an incredible drift car or something similarly absurd.

The interior is truly baffling on the Ambassador. On the brand-new one I saw at the dealership, the interior was done up in a pleasing fawn/beige color. So far so good. But, if you possess eyes and hands, things rapidly decline. I’ve never encountered such shitty plastics and fit/finish and build quality on almost any consumer product before.

On the plus side, the seats, especially the rear bench, are incredibly comfortable. It’s like a big sofa. And that makes sense — the VIPs who have these cars are often driven, not driving. So the effort and quality is put into the parts where the Important People will be. The dashboard and controls may never even be touched by the big shot sleeping on the back seat. 

So there you have it. The world loves the Ambassador, though the reasons are a bit different for everyone. Come to think of it, the only ones who do not seem to have affection for the Ambassador seem to be the folks who run Hindustan Motors.