YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


India's ugly icon of the road

The boxy, pug-nosed Ambassador is a fixture on the streets and in the nation's history. But with more choices today, few want to drive it.

July 02, 2007|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

New Delhi — TO describe the most famous car strutting along India's roads today, think of some of the qualities associated with hot automotive design.

Sleek. Sporty. Sexy. Fast.

Now throw them out.

None of those words applies to the Ambassador -- in fact, quite the opposite, many say. Its boxy shape, like a derby hat on wheels, is an aerodynamic nightmare. It can have trouble overtaking wandering cows, let alone more powerful rivals. It's not the car you'd pick to impress someone on a first date, or a fifth.

Yet everything the Ambassador is not doesn't change what it is: an icon of modern India, a national treasure that epitomizes the country's last 50 years, which is how long the car has been rolling off the same assembly line in eastern India, day in and day out.

Love it or hate it, this pug-nosed, bug-eyed, stodgy classic is a fixture on India's potholed streets, a dinosaur that so far has managed to defy both evolution and extinction.

A bone-white "Amby" with tantalizingly tinted windows and a flashing red light on the roof is still the preferred car of many top officials and get-out-of-my-way VIPs. In fact, so many ministers have been chauffeured around in the car's roomy interior that some say India has been governed, at times, from the back of an Ambassador.

"A white, darkened Ambassador immediately spells authority and is sure to get more gates open than even a Mercedes," said Hormazd Sorabjee, editor of Autocar India.

TRACE the car's journey through the last half-century and you can chart the rise of India's post-colonial ruling class, its flirtation with socialism and its recent economic boom that has the world abuzz.

That boom, however, now poses the biggest threat to the Ambassador's survival.

Economic reforms of the 1990s flung open the doors to greater competition, and India's growing middle class enjoys more choice today than ever. The likes of Ford and Honda have muscled in on turf that once belonged indisputably to the squat and sturdy Amby, whose market share is now a ghost of what it once was.

"Cars always [meant] Ambassadors for whole generations in India. But there are many choices now that make it look obsolete," said Murad Ali Baig, an automotive columnist. "Frankly, I think it has a finite lease on life."

Others aren't so sure, beginning, naturally, with the company that manufactures it, Hindustan Motors, which is planning celebrations this year to mark the golden jubilee of its signature car.

"In spite of all the global brands being available in India today, there's still a market for this car," said Soni Shrivastav, spokeswoman for the C.K. Birla Group, which owns Hindustan Motors. "People with attitude and people with taste and people who respect their own Indian product are still swearing by it."

But not in the droves that did before.

In the car's glory days, the government's protectionist quotas and tariffs meant there was almost no competition. The joke was that you could buy any car you wanted in India -- as long as it was an Ambassador.

During the '70s, the Ambassador was more than its name implies; it was the undisputed king, owning 70% of the car market. (The other 30% belonged to the locally produced Premier Padmini, based on a Fiat model from Italy.)

The Ambassador plant in Uttarpara, near Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, produced 30,000 units a year. Demand so outstripped supply that buyers languished on waiting lists for months, even years. Those with connections, or a little extra cash for purposes of encouragement, got theirs first.

Now, output is half that number, and the Ambassador's market share has plummeted to single digits. Its main buyers are the government and cab companies, which together account for 85% of sales.

What fuels many new purchases is a sense of tradition and nostalgia for a car that has witnessed more Indian history than most living Indians have.

To ride in an Ambassador is to take a trip in a time capsule. The back seat is more like a sofa, in the style of vintage cars, and the air smells of leather. It's a high-riding car, so passengers feel elevated, but going around curves can knock you around.

The first Ambassador came off the assembly line just 10 years after India broke free from the clutches of the British Raj in 1947. Based on the design of the old British Morris Oxford, the car was hailed as proof that Indian industry could perform on its own, without help or interference from colonial overlords.

It quickly became the car of choice of politicians, captains of industry and assorted bigwigs. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rode around in one. But as time wore on, the Ambassador morphed from the jewel in India's industrial crown into the poster child for everything that was wrong with the overregulated economy.

In the '90s, as economic reforms began taking root, renowned photographer Raghubir Singh beetled around the country in an Ambassador and compiled a book of images using the car as the common thread.

Los Angeles Times Articles