The Sixty-Year-Old Car that’s Still in Production
By Andy Bannister
What’s the average lifespan for one of today’s production cars? Such is the pace of changing technology that five or six years seems to be around the norm – with any product approaching a decade old condemned as positively antiquated.
Most people can name vehicles which have bucked that trend. The original VW Beetle and Citroën 2CV both had remarkably long lives but are now firmly out of production.
India’s motor industry has been in the spotlight recently thanks to the global ambitions of Tata, but less well-known is that the Asian country is also home to a truly venerable beast, the Hindustan Ambassador.
This time-warp product started life way back in 1948 when it was launched as the Morris Oxford, a proud middle-class saloon from one of Britain’s then-top manufacturers. Morris at that time was still independent but in a few short years would join forces with its great rival, Austin, to form the British Motor Corporation (BMC).
With its typically 1950s body and interior the 1500cc Oxford, and its cheaper 1200cc sister, the Cowley, had a relatively short British life before being replaced by the Pininfarina-styled new Oxford of 1955, which had the latest styling innovations including prominent fins, then the height of fashion.
Meanwhile, the slightly frumpy-looking old Oxford was shipped off, lock, stock and barrel to West Bengal in India, then in its first decade of independence from Britain. Car manufacturing locally was hardly known in that era, but it duly went into production in 1957 as the Hindustan Ambassador – affectionately nicknamed the “Amby”.
In those far-off days there were only a few vehicles on the streets of India’s biggest cities, and the upright, comfortable and dignified nature of the Oxford design was ideally suited to the rough road surfaces and slow traffic pace. The Ambassador quickly became the favoured transport of officialdom, from the President downwards – a position it still proudly holds today. Administrative areas of New Delhi, India’s capital city, are full of them.
The tough, roomy body is also ideal as a taxicab for anything up to ten people. Generations of visitors to India have been ferried from the airport through the heat and bustle in relative comfort in the back seat of an Ambassador.
Whilst the Indian market remained effectively closed to imports, creating ideal conditions for the Ambassador to survive in its near-fossilised state, over time domestic rivals began to appear, notably the Premier Padmini – derived from the 1950s Fiat 1100, which was also a car that stayed in production for years beyond its normal shelf-life. The Padmini, however, was too small to command the respect accorded to the Ambassador and fizzled out by the end of the1990s.
For a few years the Ambassador itself played second fiddle in Hindustan’s range to a larger brother, the 1985 Contessa, which looked incredibly modern and streamlined by comparison, and was promoted as the country’s ultimate prestige car and priced accordingly. In reality, however, it was only a local version of the humble 1970s Vauxhall Victor, another now-forgotten British car. The Contessa failed to make anything like the mark of its sibling, though, and is now out of production.
In recent years Indian car production has mushroomed beyond all expectations, with the advent of local car manufacture by Maruti and Tata, and the arrival of multinationals with local factories, including Hyundai, Skoda, Toyota, Ford and GM. Vastly more modern and capable rivals have failed to dim the appeal of the faithful old car in certain quarters, however.
Hindustan over the years has undertaken a slow evolution of the Ambassador, which eventually gained a relatively modern 1800cc Isuzu petrol engine, capable of taking the elderly saloon beyond 90mph. A few Ambassadors have even exported to neighbouring countries and to the UK, where it is occasionally seen and much appreciated as a throwback to the once-great heyday of the British motor industry.
Today Hindustan Motors still seems to be thriving, with a diversified range including odd little utility vehicles known as the Trekker and Pushpak, some commercials and modern Mitsubishi models including the Lancer and Montero.
The Ambassador, however, is still very much on sale, with a reported production of 15,000 units per year. The Classic model features some delightfully old fashioned colour choices with names straight out of a 1950s car brochure. These include sherry red, grotto blue, forest green and my personal favourite, thurston grey.
There is also the (relatively) plush Ambassador Grand, which offers some incongruous styling enhancements including body-coloured bumpers and a modernised frontal treatment.
As well as the 1800cc Isuzu petrol unit, Ambassadors are available with an incredibly slow 1500cc diesel and a rather more powerful 2000cc diesel in two states of tune. An LPG conversion is also available.
Inside the car is a real mixture of ancient and modern, with bench seats and bare metal on show, but up-to-date instrumentation and switchgear.
On one relatively recent UK road test the Ambassador’s ponderous handling was remarked upon and, faced with a British roundabout, the rear doors reportedly flew open during enthusiastic cornering. The brakes are still reputed to be a little slow to stop the car, but at least it has power steering now – before that the turning circle was around 64 feet.
The extraordinary story of the Ambassador and the affection in which it is held across India is perhaps best summed up by quoting from Hindustan’s own website: “Ambassador, the only automobile to ply Indian roads for more than five decades now, has carved a special niche for itself in the passenger car segment. Its dependability, spaciousness and comfort factor (sic) have made it the most preferred car for generations of Indians. The Ambassador’s tough, accommodating and practical characteristics make it a truly Indianised car.”
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