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The Ambassador drives away into the sunset

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-05-2014 Sundeep Khanna

Going, going, gone! Fifty six years after it was first assembled, the ubiquitous Ambassador car, so coveted in India’s socialist years, is all set to be buried. With Hindustan Motors Ltd, the company that has been making the original 1954 Morris Oxford series II in India since 1957, announcing that it was suspending production at the Uttarpara plant, the last of these beauties on wheels, could have rolled out.

It is a fate that seems to be coinciding with an almost similar decline for the political entity—the Congress party—which in many ways has been seen as its principal driver through the decades. Indeed sales to the government kept the car, which has been in rigor mortis for the last 10 years, alive for much of its long journey.

The Ambassador was the Indian avatar of that peculiar British beast, the Morris Oxford series of cars produced in Oxford by Morris Motors Ltd from 1913 onwards and characterised by their unmistakable bullnose. Through these years, that’s really how it has stayed with the car built over 50 years ago retaining its original look, with just some minor styling modifications as well modern powertrains.

Little wonder that the Amby, as it was popularly called, never really set the market on fire with sales peaking at around 25,000 units a year in the mid-1980s. For long it was the vehicle of choice for major and minor government functionaries as well as a political class that drove an Indian vehicle for effect, while of course denying the citizenry the access to a better class of cars.

In a poignant bit of trivia, Hindustan Motors shifted the assembly plant for its first cars in 1948 from Port Okha in Gujarat to Uttarpara in West Bengal, which in those days was quite the dasher in terms of manufacturing and trade. The company’s owners could have hardly guessed that the destination of their choice would move rapidly through strikes and lockouts and an asphyxiating business climate to becoming a graveyard for companies.

Ironically, the decline of the Ambassador started in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it failed to evolve technologically thanks largely to the protectionist policies followed by the Congress government. By killing the incentive to innovate for Indian companies, the Congress hastened the decline of those like Hindustan Motors, and by failing to appreciate the need for change, the grand old party has effectively brought itself to its knees.

Much like one Ambassador model succeeded the other, one Nehru-Gandhi scion followed the other as if by divine right, with few qualifications barring those conferred by birth. So while the world around them changed imperceptibly but surely, the car and the party refused to change, yielding ground to nimble competitors who read the mood of their customers better. The Maruti took over the mantle of the people’s car long before the Amby finally put in its papers. And Narendra Modi had supplanted a Gandhi as the leader of choice, long before the final votes were counted on 16 May.

Indeed, the similarities don’t end there. Bad luck has surrounded those who tried to associate with the Ambassador, including the poor, enterprising importer who in 1993 tried to tap into the British nostalgia for the embers of the Raj by selling the car in the UK. He met with a fate similar to what befell some of the Congress allies like the Nationalist Congress Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the National Conference in the recent national elections.

The sepia-tinted pictures of the Ambassador ferrying independent India’s first leaders will now share wall space with those other curios of transportation in India—the palanquin and the horse-drawn carriage.

An old Chinese proverb goes, “When the waters drop, the rocks appear.” For the Ambassador as much as for the Congress, the rocks are now on full display.

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