30 April 2015

Indian Icon: The Hindustan Ambassador

What car do you think of when you imagine the roads of 1960s London, 1970s New York or 1980s Berlin?  Probably the same as most other people: the E-type, the Yellow Cab and the Trabant. But what about the streets of Calcutta in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s… in fact any decade since? Chances are, you’ll be picturing the Hindustan Ambassador.

Known affectionately as the ‘Amby’, the Ambassador was produced between 1957 and 2014, and was based on the 1956 Morris Oxford series III. Although engines, drive-train, brakes and interior were all improved over the years, the body retained pretty much the same classic style as the original. This had its advantages: an early monocoque design, the interior was roomy and the high roof allowed good access and lots of passenger space. The rear seat was also fixed higher than the front, giving those in the rear seat a great view of the road.

Hindustan Motors Limited began life in 1942 in Gujarat province, founded by industrialist Mr. B. M. Birla. The Ambassador was not their first car- that was the Hindustan 10, a re-assembled Morris 10. The 14 followed, and then the first Morris Oxford-based car, known as the Hindustan Landmark. Fitted with a 1,478 cc side-valve engine, this car quickly found favour with the Indian public.

But Hindustan, with Indian Government support, wanted to build their own car rather than just re-assembling Morris vehicles, thus building an Indian automotive industry in the newly- independent country. So the Ambassador was born, and became the ubiquitous Indian car for the next half- century.

Government support meant that for many years the Amby had an unassailable position as the best- selling Indian car. Many were bought by the huge Indian Civil Service, and identified by their white paint and flags or red lights adorning the roof. Hundreds of thousands of others became taxis, the big boot and comfortable ride making them perfect in this role. If they weren’t exactly reliable, there was a huge supply of second-hand parts and skilled mechanics on every street corner to get them back on the road.

In the 1980s, Indian allowed outside car-makers to enter the market, and Hindustan’s dominance began to waver. The first threat was the Maruti-Suzuki 800 hatchback, a much more modern car that appealed to younger Indians. Then in more recent years other mainstream manufactures, spotting the potential of the huge Indian market, started to target the sub-continent. Hindustan reacted by updating the Ambassador, fitting a 1.8 litre Isuzu Engine and updating the interior, but the writing was on the wall. In 2011, new emissions regulations prevented the sale of new Ambassador taxis, and despite a retro-look Ambassador Encore being launched in 2013, it was too little too late and the car ceased production in May 2014.

But if you still hanker after this slice of Indian history all is not lost, and you don’t have to travel to Calcutta to find it. Kushi Cars, based in Cheltenham has a superb white Ambassador with a fantastically decorated interior that they hire out for weddings. All you need then is a hot day and a bumpy road, and you’ll be transported back to India in a flash.

With thanks to Kushi Cars for the great photographs: www.kushicars.co.uk

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