With the news that the iconic Ambassador will vroom back on Indian roads in a new bold Electric Vehicle (EV) version, nostalgia returns over the country’s first indigenously built car which was once the symbol of pre-liberalised India.Sujoy Dhar goes back in time to trace India’s romance with a car with that bowler hat roof and an artless front grill
Uttam Bose, managing director and chief executive officer of Hindustan Motors, the CK Birla group company that manufactured the iconic Ambassador car for over half a century, officially confirmed recently that the Amby will come back in a new electric model.
An estimated Rs 600 crore is being invested on the design and engine of the EV “Amby” model in a joint venture with French carmaker Peugeot
“We have just started the R&D (research and development) work. This hatchback version of the Ambassador will have all kinds of features and better interior, which a new-age customer looks for,” Bose told a business daily.
The news of Peugeot collaboration was first known in early 2017 itself after the 2014 closure of Hindustan Motors factory near Kolkata.
The Hindustan Ambassador was based on the Morris Oxford series III model, first made by Morris Motors Limited in the United Kingdom. For generations of Indians, it was the car till it ran out of commercial fuel one day in May 2014.
After nearly three years, Amby, as this enduring symbol of post-Independence India is fondly called, found a French partner to refuel its journey, albeit hurting its Made in India pride.
Ambassador, the iconic Indian car which served both the commoners, politicians and top dignitaries alike since 1958 and even inspired celebrated photographers to use it as a muse to tell the story of India, went to the French following a deal by Peugeot. In 2017, the Ambassador brand was sold to Peugeot SA for Rs 80 crore, according to reports.
The deal was finalised nearly five years ago by the CK Birla group which owns Hindustan Motors, the parent company of the grand contraption.
Established in 1942 by C K Birla’s grandfather, B M Birla, Hindustan Motors was the first indigenous carmaker of India. During the 1970s Ambassador enjoyed a 75 per cent market share.
The slide started when Maruti Suzuki launched the Maruti 800 in 1983.
For a city like Kolkata that prides itself for its slow moving tram yet, its old culture and Raj era monuments, the Ambassador, the design of which was inspired by the British Morris Oxford, held its own blending with the city’s image. And still so with the majority of the yellow cabs in the city even now the all-weather-beaten Amby.
The car was viewed as a status symbol once, and then a status uncool for private car owners with the Maruti taking over the segment followed by all the top global brands eventually. But as cabs it remained popular.
Late photographer Raghubir Singh (1942-99)’s last photographic project was A Way Into India and in this testament to his love affair with the sights, sounds and colours of India, the most unexpected icon was the Ambassador car.
The hardcover book of Singh as described by Amazon India says: “Travelling back and forth across the country, Singh reveals India through the windows of the Ambassador. Temples and tourists, monsoon rains, paddy fields, tea plantations and elephants are dramatically framed by the Ambassador’s distinctive curves. The old and the new sit side by side, as Singh and the Ambassador show us a way into India.”
With the news of a French takeover first and the more recent news of an EV makeover, triggered nostalgia and a sense of deja vu. The Ambassador plant at Uttarpara (Hind Motor), near Kolkata was closed in 2014. Hindustan Motors factory at Uttarpara is spread over 420 acres and it was the manufacturing hub located in a place which is less than an hour and half’s drive from Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal.
Even a railway station (Hind Motor) was named after Hindustan Motors after the plant was set up in 1948. Since 2014 the plant area has looked desolate.
For a car as magnificent as the Ambassador, the lack of demand forced it into an early retirement.
“We were shocked to learn that the factory would be closed down like this all of a sudden. We had no inclination,” Kaushik Chakraborty, a worker, had said during the closure when the news that the factory would be shut down came as a rude shock to him. While many are happy that it found a French buyer and would come back in a new EV avatar, many in India had rued that the automobile brand had to be sold for such a low price to a foreign auto major.
While the best advertisement for the good old Amby (often called a diplomatic limousine in old India) was India’s prime minister and all other ministers, it remains to be seen how the EV does once it hits the road. (TWF)
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