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Gone but not forgotten: Hindustan Ambassador
Gone but not forgotten

Gone but not forgotten: Hindustan Ambassador

Did you know the ultimate symbol of babudom almost did not die?

By Sirish Chandran

Published on :
Gone but not forgotten: Hindustan Ambassador

There I was, at the launch of the Citroen brand in India, with the boss lady waxing eloquent about “The spirit of Ambassador” being their guiding light and that got me thinking… why stump up good money for a badge that stood for desperately unreliable, dog-slow cars that you waited five, ten, even fifteen years to take delivery of because license-raj gave us no options? Have our collective memories become so foggy that we’d buy a (modern) Ambassador, or have I turned into a cynical old fart?

Only one way to find out! Welcome to evo India’s new back page where we will drive cars that we grew up driving or reading about in magazines* to answer the question — are they ripe for a Jawa-like reincarnation? And we start with my first car, the Ambassador.

I’d already smashed mum’s Kinetic (and myself, both quite comprehensively), yet at 18 she handed me the keys to her car, the Diesel DX, a car that taught me more about how things work than four years in engineering college. I wish I could say that growing up with rear-wheel drive cars gave me an early introduction to the art of going sideways but the Ambassadors’ 0-100kmph time was listed in days, and that too if fortified by a tail wind and a steep descent. My Amby broke down so often I knew how to change cables, belts, bulbs and even pull out the engine to work on the gearbox that had lunched its internals. I learnt to dent and paint after it rolled backwards into a gate while I was pushing it to the side of the road when the accelerator cable snapped. And the Ambassador’s bench seat and column shifter were fantastic when out on a date.

I loved the old lady. And three years later when mum gave me her Zen, oh man, that was the happiest day of my life.

So what’s an Amby like today? Incredibly comfortable! No air springs, no Magic Carpet Ride, can hold a candle to cushiness of the front suspension, though the rear leafs do hop around in the absence of the 15 teenagers that were invariably piled into the back of my car every Saturday night. This is the last of the line, a 2012 Grand, and the age-old 1.5-litre BMC diesel got a turbo to meet BS III emission norms. The turbo does nothing for power while adding a delicious layer of turbo lag that murders bottom-end grunt. It is still so noisy you cannot have a conversation at anything over 60kmph. But at least it has disc brakes so it stops the same day and the steering is power-assisted, so I cannot blame armpump for turning in my stories late. Oh the steering! So much play I wonder how we kept it pointing straight.

This car takes you back twenty years, except this car isn’t 20 years old. Production only stopped five years ago and even then, it almost did not go out of production. The pickup I’m monkeying around in, the 0.8 tonne Veer, actually went on sale. And in the same fashion as the iconic Peugeot 205 – Ambassador ad (YouTube it now!) it was to be followed by a sub-four metre Ambassador, an Ambassador hatchback and an Amby people carrier. And only then did the lights go out at Hindustan Motors.

Good riddance, no question. Those cars would be just as horrible as this Grand to drive; after 15 minutes I shouted at the photographer to get a sharp picture and pack up. But it also turns you into a sentimental old fool and I fear a new Ambassador might tug sufficiently hard at the heartstrings. After all, my Amby spent so much time in the workshop and I got so friendly with the guys that I ended up marrying the owner’s daughter.

*This is not a page for vintage cars. We will drive modern classics, made in India, and we are going to apply the only sensible filter we can think of – to drive cars that came with seatbealts.