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End of the Line for India’s Ambassdor

Impervious to history or nostalgia, waits for no one and marches relentlessly on.

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First the telegram. Now the Ambassador car. Impervious to history or nostalgia, time waits for no one and marches relentlessly on. Change indeed is the only constant and in today’s nano-second, consumerist and globalised world that celebrates the price of everything and value of nothing, this edging out of the once-great was inevitable.

Nonetheless, when Hindustan Motors actually announced at the end May 2014 that the production of its iconic Ambassador car was being stopped in their Uttarpara plant, approximately 50 kms from Kolkata, it came as a cruel shock to their 2500 workers.

The writing indeed may long have been on the wall, but reality is a different feeling. Demand for the once-upon-a time India’s favorite car had dwindled alarmingly during the last decade. In year 2009, just 8,500 cars were sold. In 2013-14, a paltry 2,500 were purchased. The car had lost touch with the times and the advent of sharp, smart and new-age cars, zooming into the country had captured consumer hearts by offering glitz, glam and techno-cool that the Amby could never hope to match.

When the news broke, old timers across the country, especially in Kolkata, couldn’t but help get misty-eyed and take a quiet drive down memory lane, recalling memories of another day, decade, era.

Hindustan Motors’ superstar origin can be traced to the British Morns Oxford Series III: Prior to independence, Hindustan Motors began assembling the car as Hindustan 10 at a plant near Gujarat, called Okhra. This continued until 1954 and it was only in 1957 that the Ambassador took on the Indian roads with its 1478cc side valve engine. Within a remarkably short time, the Ambassador offered resounding returns to Hindustan Motors. Thereafter for almost four decades, both the company and its flagship product were market leaders, proudly ruling the roads and racing into the hearts of all car lovers, the undisputed leader of Indian auto

The first rumble and sign that this honeymoon could soon run into troubled waters arrived when the Indian government announced a joint venture with Japan’s Suzuki in the 1980s. The new public enterprise known as Maruti Suzuki offered the Indian Public a modern and economical hatchback, called the Maruti 800. Priced much cheaper than the Amby, it quickly devoured its market share with such savage speed that between 1984-1991 the once-great and indestructible Ambassador’s market share dropped from 75 percent to 20 percent.

Then came the 1991 fast-track economic liberalization programme and the Amby’s death knell gonged louder and clearer. It signaled the entry of foreign players to a young, starved, changing population who leapt into this space offering spectacular, sleek, better made cars that were way better looking and techno-cool to boot. The Hindustan Motors’ head honchos, should have paid heed and responded with new-age technology to counter the competition, but they chose to be reactive, conservative and dependent on the romanticised “Indianness” of their cars, nostalgia and banked on the company’s massive network and contacts to sell the product. Inevitably, the once great Ambassador hit a dead end. The countdown had begun. It was just a question of time.

An interesting and revealing project report, Retreat & Retrench: The Ambassador Changing Gears in Changing Times by executive business education students at Insead showcases the marked contrast between Japan’s Toyota and Hindustan Motors’ Ambassador, which both hit production at around the same time. Toyota’s year of inception was 1937; Hindustan Motors’ 1942. The number of passenger car base models with Toyota was 10. Hindustan Motors 2. Regarding Design changes since inception, Toyota’s annual report listed “too many to list.” On the other hand Hindustan Motors recorded “none worth mentioning.” In year 2004, total vehicle production of Toyota was around 6.7 million, whiloe Hindustan Motors was down to an embarrassing 20,000. Net Toyta’s revenue in 2004 were $150 billion, while Hindustan Motors was down to $39 million. Ambassador’s market share has shrunk to under 2 percent in India, while Toyota is reigning as a world leader.

As a last hurrah, the Ambassador did attempt some desperate rear guard action by unleashing three variants, Classic, Grand and Avigo. The first, an upgraded version of the traditional model for better performance. The second, an upgrade of the Classic with the same body shape. The third, slightly restyled body to appear more retro with more upgrades. It also responded to “special Government orders” for fortified armoured versions of the Ambassador — the Armour-plated, Bullet-Proof version. Also, the Amby Limo, a stretched version of the car, with a glass division, extra seats and rear seat that converted to a bed.

It was too little, too late with sedans, hatchbacks and SUVs providing the kind of high end looks, glamor, comfort and advanced techno-cool impossible for the Ambasasdor to match.

RIP Amby. May you cruise along the bigger highways above, with those great, proud owners of the fab fifties, sixties and seventies and luxuriate in your proud achievement as the No. 1 Taxi Car in the world zooming ahead of all international rivals in a recent World Taxi Shootout organized by Top Gears’ Executive Director, Richard Hammond.

Well, in life, everything has an expiry date, so, goodnight, farewell, to you and you and you and you!

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Tagged as:

Business | Travel | Life | July 2014

Image gallery

Ambassador is the status symbok of the babus in India: Secretariat Building in New Delhi. The world’s taxi car in the Taxi Car Shootout. The British Morris Oxford Series, the precursor of the Ambassador.

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