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.