The cars : Hindustan Ambassador development story

The Ambassador is a much-loved part of daily life in India to this day – back in 1957, who would have thought that the Morris Oxford Series III would become an immortal cult car?

Words: Asopèe Simeli

The everlasting Amby…

The Hindustan Ambassador, or “Amby” as it is affectionately known in India, has carved an enviable niche for itself with the country’s car buyers. In fact, it transcended the whole “motoring icon” thing, and appealed to the hearts of the entire nation. Its sheer ubiquity in India’s cities and towns, and its widespread use as an all-purpose vehicle (ranging from taxi to family car) meant it was prevalent across the entire subcontinent. Limited competition from rival manufacturers meant that the Ambassador’s success was unchallenged.

The Premier Padmini (nee Fiat 1100) and various other licence-built cars from Europe never made as great an impact on the market. Hindustan was certainly eminently comfortable with this situation, and consequently the “Amby” was never replaced, or even significantly updated: there was simply no need because the car sold in such enormous numbers.

In the early 1980s this situation changed, when the government launched an initiative to solve personal transport problems in the big cities of Mumbai, Calcutta, Delhi and Madras. This involved a loosening of their grip on the car market, and a gradual move to a more open and competitive market. This was relative, of course, as there were still tight controls over what companies produced what sized cars, for what region. In response to the problem of mobilizing a nation, the Indian government in partnership with Suzuki founded a new car manufacturer: Maruti.

Although the Suzuki Alto-based Maruti 800 was not spectacular – it was just a small, Japanese hatchback – the Indian people took to it and it remains a best seller to this day, despite having been on sale for twenty years. Maruti expanded over the years and wrested an increased market share – directly from Hindustan. This small car revolutionised the Indian market and paved the way for car companies such as Hyundai, Honda, Ford and Fiat to enter the Indian market.

By the late 1980s, Hindustan became increasingly worried with this situation. Sales of its two long-established models – the Ambassador and the Vauxhall Victor FE-based Contessa Classic – were decreasing as consumers turned to the Maruti as well as Fiat’s more recently-introduced model, the Uno. The only way forward for Hindustan was to start exporting its cars – and initially these went to far-flung enclaves such as The Seychelles, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Japan and Sri Lanka. It was also exported to Dubai to be used as a delivery vehicle, as they were the cheapest car available; in fact, the only cheaper transport available was a moped, which naturally could not carry as many things and was, in any case, less desirable…

The afterlife, back home

This energetic export drive improved Hindustan’s financial situation, but Hindustan wanted more. In 1991, the first Hindustans returned to their roots when exports back to the UK began. The Ambassador was supposed to appeal to nostalgic people and expatriate Indians who longed to drive their own piece of India. Despite optimistic sales forcasts, the reality was somewhat different. An average of just 6 Hindustan Ambassador GLXs per year were sold throughout the early-to-mid 1990s. The cars had a basic specification and the list price was low at £7,150, but its market was simply too tiny for exports to the UK to make any kind of financial sense.

The 1.8-litre, 74bhp Isuzu engine was reasonably spritely and could propel the old car to a 90mph top speed. In terms of dimensions, it was an identical length to the 5-door Honda Civic – more compact than first appearance would have you believe.

The Hindustan importers in the UK changed their name to Fullbore Motors, and the Ambassador was renamed the “Mark 10”. The basic price shot up to £11,425, reflecting the fact that the Ambassador was almost rebuilt on arrival in the UK. These changes included a respray with higher quality English weather resistant paint, a catalytic converter to comply with the European emmissions laws and the installation of a heater. New seals, tyres and a front anti-roll bar were also fitted. Following this refurbishing work, the unusual step of draining all the water from the radiator and washer bottles was taken, as a precaution against contraction of any water-borne diseases, which were commonplace in India.

As before, the Fullbore’s specification remained low-tech, with basic all-round drum brakes, rear leaf spring suspension, no power assistance for the brakes or steering and a caburettor-fed engine. The floor-mounted, foot-operated ‘foot-o-matic’ windscreen wiper served as a reminder that this was a car of the 1950s. A wood-rimmed Nardi steering wheel was fitted and a long list of accessories and options enabled the purchaser to go for that period look. These included the centrally-mounted fascia at £545, which covered up the rather cheap-and-nasty Indian plastic. An authentic-looking leather interior was available to replace the Indian seats, which incidentally are said to be very comfortable.

Even so, few Mark 10s were sold from Fullbore Motors’ base in Kensington, West London, and as a consequence, they are likely to be an expensive rarity in the future. This is despite the fact that the MINI and re-born Volkswagen Beetle have become so popular in recent years. The Fullbore provided relatively modern running gear wrapped up in a genuine – not retro – bodyshell. However, one local Fullbore customer is ensuring that the car remains visible on West London’s streets: no other car fits the bill for Tobias Moss’s Notting Hill-based minicab company Karma Kabs. As if the Ambassador’s shape wasn’t distinctive enough in itself, Moss has treated each of his cars’ interiors to an individually-themed makeover in silk and flowers, and the cars’ bumpers can also often be seen liberally garlanded with flowers. In order to gain a ride (accompanied by the smell of incense and the sounds of Hindi music) prospective customers are required to pass a “karma test” to ensure that they won’t upset the carefully created ambience; obviously not a problem for the several celebrities which Moss can count amongst his regular customers, including model (but no relation) Kate Moss and actor Ralph Feinnes.

…and on and on and on

Fullbore motors faded into history in early 1998, and took with it the Ambassador and Mark 10 from the UK. Back in India however the “Amby” remains a much-loved part of the urban landscape across the country. The Ambassador’s popularity as a taxi and with government departments remains testament to the design’s innate robustness, its low purchase and overall reliability. The basic design has remained substantially unaltered, although a facelift in 1999 freshened the design and introduced modern touches such as 1.5 and 2-litre diesel engines and the option of LPG (CNG) engines.

The Ambassador’s declining share of its own market and negligible exports were not nearly enough to save Hindustan, so the company expanded with the release of the Pushpak, Porter and Trekker off-road vehicles. A new partnership with Mitsubishi Motors enabled ushered in Hindustan-produced Lancers for the Indian market. This venture later blossomed and Hindustan now builds Lancers, Galants and Pajeros (Shoguns) for Mitsubishi. It looks as if the cute Indian relic manufacturer’s fortunes are on the up!

Stretching a point…

When they’re not building armour-plated versions of the standard Ambassador, the Mumbai-based company Parikh Coachbuilders (PCB) turns out streched versions, known appropriately enough as the Ambylimo. Customers can choose between an Economy model, which retains the Ambassador’s front and rear styling, or the Deluxe model, as pictured above, which draws its inspirsation from the ubiquitous Stateside stretch limo of the moment, the Lincoln Town Car. Either way, the car is stretched by 48″ between the wheels, a glass division (electrically operated in the Deluxe model) is installed behind the front seats, and extra seats are installed in the rear to allow up to five passengers to sit facing each other (plus another up-front alongside the driver, if need be). For those seeking a higher spec, a Luxurious model adds further equipment, including leather upholstery, and rear seats which can be electrically converted to form a bed.

Although the stretched car has uprated suspension to help cope with a gross vehicle weight just short of 2 tonnes, it retains the Ambassador’s standard 1817cc, 90bhp Isuzu-sourced engine, which is presumably up to the job. Indeed, PCB claim this as something of a selling point, due to the unit’s proven track record on India’s roads; the ready availability of parts and the service support network are other points in favour of what must otherwise be regarded as a rather odd choice of executive transport. The car is marketed through selected Hindustan Motors dealerships, and is aimed at anyone from large families to heads of state.

Keith Adams


  1. I’ve driven a 1996 Ambassador and it wasn’t producing anything like 90hp (40 seems about right). I didn’t notice a foot-o-matic wiper, but it definitely had no brake servo. The owner said the brakes were mechanical not hydraulic, and they really didn’t stop it. He also said that 65kph was her maximum cruising speed (but that might reflect poor roads and shoddy maintenance).
    Still great fun if your in India although totally illegal (I couldn’t drive through police check points). I paid my driver RS2000 for a RS1200 journey on the condition that I drove, still well worth the extra 9 quid for the experience.

  2. Even today Amby can retain its position ‘ Darling of Indians ‘…as I am Mechanical Engineer suggesting following alterations…just imagine our Amby with
    1. Twin head lamps( both round) ,
    similar minor cosmetics in bonet and rear.
    2. Wider tyres
    3. Diesel Engine with mileage 17 to 20 kmpl , 60 to 70 hp( from Fiat , Nissan , Holden…like Mahindra , Maruti cars )
    4. Power steering , power windows , good AC with heater, modern indicators
    5. Good anti corrosive treatment to body and fine paint work
    6. Some modifications in cabin like modern seats , storage spaces , AC vents etc.
    7. Diff. Models-Sedan, Estate ,small hatchback etc

    Friends such Amby will be plesent surprise for Indians. If I given opportunity to execute above idea I will do it with proud and passion. I am big fan of Amby , but very disappointed by its todays condition. A grate car is disappearing due to not changing with time.

  3. That limo is something else. It looks like they got hold of the Vauxhall spare parts bin circa 1990-1995 and some really good ‘shrooms and that was the result.

    Although, I wonder if anyone has done the kind thing to a Contessa Classic/FE estate and shoved the Lotus Carlton engine into it. That would make for a brilliant Q car, at least up to the first bend.

    If I remember the engine in the A55 (which is basically what this car is) was somewhere about 66hp even in high trim in the later 16/60, so where 90hp comes from I am not sure. I did actually see one of these cars in a carpark in town and it did look quite good, but I have to say, all other things being equal I dont think I would trust drum brakes these days.

    The 16/60 was road tested against the Sceptre at the time, and to get even the 80hp the Rootes 1592 engine had they had to do some major engine work including different springs, valves and head, water jacket inlet manifold – timing change and an RPM increase, not to mention in the early models twin carbs, which tended to stay balanced for about as long as the duration of a politicians promise.

    To be fair to carb cars there is a noticeable difference between even cars of nominally the same power. I had a 2.2i 25 and a 2.3 carb SD1, within 5hp of each other on paper – and to get the same performance out of the SD you’d end up apologizing to it, for some reason it just wasn’t as responsive. The less said about the godawful cold starting on the SD1 the better. Every time I went to work in cold weather I felt guilty – the only way to start up was plant right boot and twist key, not a recipe for good husbandry.

    And yes, I am one of those people who talks to her cars. I did a bit of that today – the poor thing was so frozen solid none of the doors would open, and all the water inside the car had frozen on the *inside* of the back window – like one of those old prewar prefabs with wheels. She was not most keen on starting either.

    • The Oxford / Amby shared nothing but engine and gearbox with the A55. The designs were from before Morris and Austin combined as BMC so the Morris had Morris features like torsion bar front suspension and rack-and -pinion steering. (rather like a giant Minor mechanically)
      For the subsequent ‘Farina’ models after 1959, the Morris underpinnings were abandoned (sent to India) and Morris Oxfords became then badge-engineered Austins, with their less modern but cheaper coil springs and steering box.

  4. @ bangernomic.

    It might not have been the engine at fault there but likely to have been truely dismal petrol. I dont know what octane they use out there but I do know there were different versions of the A/B/C series engines, and all, bar I think the Imp engine, rootes engines for different types of petrol with different compression ratios.

    I do know that the most powerful version of the 1592cc Rootes engine was 80hp (85 gross) but I seem to remember there was a 7:1 undertuned model for fuels that were on the distilled lighter fuel end of the spectrum.

    Theres probably a fair amount of play in linkages and the like as well. My first Sceptre had a wonderful party trick which was downright dangerous. The Carb linkage was a weird toilet pull affair (think school bogs circa 1985) which connected (and I use the term in its loosest possible sense) to a metal dowel which then connected to the throttle butterfly at one end, and was seated in a mount at the other. If you had to brake suddenly the inertia would thrust this dowel against the carb, rotate the linkage to the ‘b17 on two engines about to plow into the White Cliffs of Dover’ position, i.e. somewhere well beyond maximum safe power; at which point it would drop out of the mounting at the other end and jam itself rigid on the edge of the mount.

    Cue screaming engine, a quick shutdown, and 30 seconds rummaging in the engine bay to re-attach everything (usually in the middle of the A12 in rush hour).

    Not exactly the safest thing on four wheels, but the highlight for that car was spitting out a hot sparkplug in the pitch dark which was earnestly eating its way through the plastic fuel line it was resting on before I managed to put it back…

  5. i am getting married in september and would absolutely love to arrive in an ambassador -does anyone live in south east england and would be willing to hire it out to us for the day?
    thank you very much
    if anyone can help my email is

  6. I deal in HM Ambassador original parts.
    I am driving this bird since ages. Although it is not a part of any Auto competition but till date it gives even the new birds a tough look. It is on road since 1950s and still roars the road.I never heard that anybody died in a HM ambassador Car Accident. It has basic safety systems. Seat belts and nothing more. It is the most comfortable Saloon car in India.
    It is a Royal on road,ATV for terrain. Although its average is less but it is for those who does not care about fuel prices.

  7. I did hear about a company who imported Ambassadors a few years ago, they could fit a few things (ie heaters) to make them more suitable for UK roads.

  8. I grew up in an Ambassador myself. Now looking back I feel nostalgic. Sure its no tech marvel but home to me esp the Ambassador MkII and MkIII models. The smell of petrol and leather was something I ll never forget and esp on a rainy day it was so nice.

  9. I am old enough to remember the predecessor of the ‘Amby’ which was the Landmaster.It was a much better car and compared to the present diesel version – in another class.
    Yes,nostalgia remains of the early Ambassadors and proud owners reflect on the engine blocks being imported from Nuffields in England.You had to put your name down and wait almost two years for one in the sixties!I remember my Uncle being proud of the loud horn,traffic indicators that popped out of the side pillars and bright headlights.Car electrics in the fifties and sixties are best left to nostalgia!For the old girl to survive on Indian roads and climatic conditions says something – many others would simply not have stood the test of time.I’m sure if the factory kept things simple,cheap and effective she will slog on into the future.But for God’s sake – get rid of that terrible diesel engine.

  10. In reply to those asking about Ambassadors in the UK –

    No, they are not imported into the UK these days. If you want a new one, you’ll have to buy it from India and bring it in as a personal import. Try getting in touch with Hindustan Motors via their website – here’s the Ambassador section:

    (Personally, I like the pick-up versions!)

    Occasionally, second-hand Amassadors come up for sale in the UK. Keep an eye on websites such as Classic Cars For Sale – a quick search brought up this ad:

    You can hire an Ambassador in London from this company, although as they only have two cars it’s obviously not a big business!

  11. dear all ,i just bought an “amby”.its a dream come treu to own an ambaassador.just begun the journey,and along way to go.

  12. I had one these fitted with ISUZU 4FB1 Diesel engine. It was amazing, as this engine was more powerful for this car. It matched modern cars on the highways. Terrific car, with ample leg space and load carrying capacities.

  13. Hi All, I am looking to locate a steering wheel for my Morris Oxford series IV which I believe is the same or similar to the Ambassador . Would need to see a photo to make sure it is right. Mine is beyond repairing. I live in Australia. Thanks

  14. Though have read Hindustan did build the Morris Minor at one point, given the Minor’s potential as a rival to the Volkswagen Beetle one has to wonder why they never developed the Minor (possibility featuring a 1275cc A-Series) to slot below and complement the Ambassador?

    The same could be said of a simplified ruthlessly costed and locally built Hindustan Mini resembling the minimalist 1958 prototype with (potentially detachable) Minivan front grille featuring coil-sprung suspension, 4/5-door bodystyle and 800-850cc A-Series engines, especially in light of Maruti’s success.

  15. The Hindustan was just right for India, a simple, reliable car that lasted and only needed the minimum of maintenance. However, tastes changed as the country became more affluent and India now produces Suzukis, Hyundais and Nissans, which are exported around the world. My Micra is made in India and has proven to be a very reliable and economical car.

  16. As the Hindustan Ambassador is based on the Morris Oxford / Cowley, does anyone remember the Morris Isis? It used the same bodyshell. I seem to remember them from my junior schooldays

  17. I also remember the Isis. Weren’t they the “sporting” model of the range (by the standards of those days?)

    • I wouldn’t quite describe them as sporting, but with 2.6 litres and 6 cylinders they were much more refined than the Oxford and had much better performance, with something close to 90 mph on tap

  18. I’m off to India in a few days (Kerala), it’ll be interesting to see how many of the cars on the road are Ambassadors. I remember taking one as a taxi back in 2000!

  19. Given the related Morris Oxford Series III also spawned the C-Series powered Morris Isis Series II, it would have been interesting seeing a higher-end Hindustan version of the Morris Isis developed slotting above the Ambassador using a 2.2-litre 6-cylinder version of the 1.5-litre B-Series 4-cylinder (plus dieselized 2.2-litre variant) instead of the heavier C-Series engine.

  20. I was watching Octopussy a few weeks ago and you see a few Hindustan Ambassadors during the scenes in India. I’d imagine back in 1983, this would be almost the only car you’d see, as there was little competition to Hindustan then.

    • It’s similar in Close Encounters Of The 3rd Kind, certainly the American UFO investigators get driven around in a Hindustan Ambassador.

      • Yes, I was watching this recently and thought 1950s,Morris Oxford, until I realised it was a Hindustan Ambassador.

  21. I remember driving a Hindustan Ambassador in India. It was 1981 and the car had just come from the dealership. It was white with a pinkish vinyl interior (just think of the heat and humidity in India). You could turn the steering wheel half a turn in either direction without the car deviating from straight ahead!

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  1. Impractical and practical classics | Sussex Classic Cars
  2. Nostalgia and invincibility will keep India’s beloved, impractical Ambassador car on the roads for years to come – Quartz

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