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India's Automotive Ambassador Refuses to Yield the Road

A 2000cc diesel Ambassador at the Ashok Motors showroom, Wazirabad

A 2000cc diesel Ambassador at the Ashok Motors showroom, Wazirabad

Much of the recent attention paid to India's automotive sector has been on ultra-affordable cars, such as the $2,500 Tata Nano, or the latest expansion of joint ventures with foreign manufacturers. But there is one indigenous car, on India's roads since the late 1950s and still in production, which refuses to completely yield to the sleeker competition. It is the Ambassador, manufactured since 1958 by Hindustan Motors.

The Ambassador once monopolized India's roads and, for decades, was the speediest car in the country. Nowadays, no more than 10,000 are sold annually, nearly all to government agencies and cab companies which, in total, accounts for about 0.5 percent of domestic market share.

That is a huge fall from the early 1990s when the Ambassador held a 70 percent share.

The Ambassador has changed little during its half-century plus production run, still retaining the boxy shape of a 1948 Morris Oxford sedan. There is ample interior space to allow passengers to stretch their legs and enough headroom for tall, turbaned drivers. The Ambassador has a solid pig iron steel body, high ground clearance and big, rounded windows. It is easily bullet-proofed, making it a favorite among security services tasked with protecting VIPs.

The Ambassador's unique leaf-spring rear suspension allows it to bounce gracefully over the inevitable bumps and potholes on Indian roads. It is a package appealing to 15-year veteran taxi driver Baljinder Singh Bagga, who says the maintenance on an Ambassador is also cheaper than other cars.

"It's a very comfortable car. It's very safe," he says while parked at his cab stand adjacent to a hotel in New Delhi.

Beyond comfort and safety, the Ambassador has become a symbol of Indian pride. Hindustan Motors' chief general manager for sales and marketing, Rattan Singh, explains."If someone comes over here in India, he can't go without seeing the Taj Mahal at Agra. When the foreign tourist comes over here he can't go away without sitting in and driving the Ambassador car. That's the pride."

Fashion designer Alecca Carrano, born in Lebanon and raised in Austria, is one of those foreigners who moved to India and fell in love with the local legend. She says most Indians think she's crazy for owning an old Ambassador.

"They really don't understand it because, of course, to them, it's such an old, crap piece. [Indians think] it should be thrown in the dumps and only new cars should be allowed on the road," says Carrano with a laugh as she sits in the driver's seat of her red Ambassador of uncertain age.

Some auto critics share such sentiments, calling the rust-prone Ambassador archaic with vague steering, sluggish transmission and weak brakes, worth little more than scrap metal on the used car market.

Golf writer Meraj Shah, another rare private owner of a late model Ambassador, cautions prospective buyers to look elsewhere if they're seeking the fuel efficiency or reliability of Japanese or Korean engineering.

"I used to work on an Enfield, that's the motorcycle I have, and it's very similar to an Ambassador: a lot of oil leaks, a lot of bad engineering and a loosely constructed engine. So I'm kind of used to getting my hands dirty," says Shah as he brought his silver Ambassador in for a tune-up at the Safdarjang garage in New Delhi.

Under the hood of the newer petrol-powered models is a 1.8-liter engine designed by Japanese carmaker Isuzu. Taxi fleets prefer the more fuel-efficient models powered by a compressed natural gas kit that fits in the trunk.

Sher Singh, a mechanic at the garage, who has been working on Ambassadors for more than a decade, says using just his "hands and feet" he can practically fix anything on the car.

"The older models used to have a lot of problems but the automaker listened to the complaints [from owners and mechanics] and the problems have been rectified. So it's a relatively trouble-free car nowadays," he says.

The mechanic's boss, Sharad Mehra, managing director of Safdarjang Motors (which sells and repairs Ambassadors) chimes in that the car "can be repaired at any place in the country" unlike pricier foreign imports which may not have extensive parts networks throughout India.

Mehra laments that the Ambassador is now seen as a vehicle primarily for government bureaucrats and taxi fleets causing it to lose appeal among private buyers. (In decades past it was also a favored form of transport for villains in Bollywood films, perhaps because the trunk is large enough to hold several corpses).

"It has that feeling of vintage," says Mehra. "It's like an old wine."

Mehra, who has two Ambassadors in his corporate fleet, acknowledges he drives to work in a Hyundai.

Despite occasional reports Hindustan Motors is planning to discontinue the car, affectionately known as the Amby, the automaker insists there are still enough orders from government buyers and taxi fleets to continue making it worthwhile. It says it plans to continue manufacturing Ambassadors for at least another 50 years.