BANGALORE: Shortly after the news about Hindustan Motors suspending work at its Uttarpara plant hit the country, the heartbroken ex-clientele of India's oldest car Ambassador expressed their sentiments across all media. For many, it was hard to believe that the sturdy automobile that they always counted on had finally reached the end of the road.
The car lovers of today might think of Ambassadors as bulky and old-fashioned, but the older generation seems to have a dicky-load of memories attached to them.
Fifty-year-old Nita (name changed) learnt driving on an Ambassador and feels she can now drive any vehicle on the planet. "I remember driving it once and knocking off my in-laws' parapet wall," she laughs.
"It was the perfect car for Indian roads. Unlike the hyper-sensitive cars of today that cost an arm and a leg if they have to be repaired, getting the Ambassador fixed was a breeze. You could modify the engine to suit your needs and the best thing about Amby was that there was always space for one more person," she says and goes on to reminisce, "We would often stock up on dosas and Thums Up from Airlines Hotel and zoom to the drive-in theatre on Bannerghatta Road for a movie. That was our idea of a high life."
Nandini Mehta, a Kathak dancer, too echoes the sentiment. "We had one for over 30 years. After learning to drive on it, Maruti 800, my next car, seemed like a toy."
To her, the Ambassador was where the family got together to go to movies and travel across India. "Bangalore-Mysore trips would have 13 to 14 people — one person sitting on the seat with a light weight adolescent or adult on top, who in turn would have a child on his/her lap," she recalls with a laugh. She even remembers escaping an accident in the car near Mysore, which only strengthened her belief in the safety that the vehicle provided.
74-year-old E G Chandan, also the eldest brother in the EGK Technologies family, says that his loyalty to the vehicle took years to shift. "Since the new cars that came in the 70s or after were fibre-bodied, people weren't sure of them. Even today, I'd feel safer in an Ambassador," he adds.
He tells us that their curvaceous car, a 1963-model, was well known across the city because of its registration number — MYB 1212. "Once, I lent it to a relative of mine, and the workers at India Garage, who were used to seeing one of us in the car (Chandan or his family members) called us frantically, thinking that our car had been stolen," he chuckles. Years later, when it was handed down to his youngest brother Jaideep, a hotel owner recognised him as part of the EGK family.
"Ambassador was like a car for a lifetime, what would change would be the colour as we got it repainted every three or four years," he says. He never imagined that the car would have to be sold off in the mid-nineties. And Chandan adds that he would still opt for a slightly modernised version of the car — a more advanced gear system with better suspension — given a choice. "It was like it was specially designed for Indian roads — whether it was deliberate or by accident, is hard to tell. None of today's cars can ever match its shapely elegance or the convenience of a single front seat that would accommodate three people," he says, suggesting that such a car would be a hit in the Indian market.
Rachna Tiwari, a blogger recalls, "My family’s association with the Ambassador began in 1973. My mother travelled to her wedding in her uncle’s Amby. Our first car, a grey Ambassador functioned as it should, but the front right passenger door would never remain shut. At one stage, my mother even suggested we just put a door latch there to keep it in place but it never came to that. A childhood picture taken at the Indian Air Force campus shows just a strip of the car, while a friend and I present flowers to Mrs Katre-the Chief of Air Staff’s wife. Down the years, it was the designated ‘Staff Car’ and always polished to a gloss and looked after with a military precision."
She remembers a long journey to Badrinath and Kedarnath. The vehicle? A leaf green Amby which took them comfortably up to the shrines. “Only once did we face a problem, when the axel broke on a particularly rocky stretch,” she says.
“The Ambassador was the best place to hide in and sleep in during long journeys, because you could stretch out any which way,” says Aditi Devi, a 20-something from the city.
“The best memory I have is that of learning how to drive and changing gears sitting on dad’s lap. Since it was really low slung, when it would trundle down slushy roads, the dicky would fill up with water. And one always prayed when the Amby would negotiate hair-pin bends in Ooty,” she adds.
M C Cherian, a young Bangalorean, says, “Amby reminds me of my childhood family picnics, when eight of us including the driver could squeeze in without any trouble and drive off. As a child, when I sat in the front seat, the dashboard would be higher than my head. And there were these fans on the sides that we thought were the coolest things in the world. And they were!”
Shiny white Ambassadors are synonymous with government vehicles or sarkari gaadis.
The Bangalore Bruhuat Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) currently owns around 45 Ambassadors. The last time the civic body purchased the cars for official purpose was four years ago, said an executive engineer on condition of anonymity. “We had purchased 12 Ambassadors back in 2010. The problem with these cars is that they are high on maintenance. Since there are not many garages that service them, it becomes costly and time consuming,” the official says.
He further adds, “We have had an open auction of old Ambassadors belonging to the BBMP. But there were no takers.”
Former minister and longest serving MLC in Karnataka, Basavaraj Horatti has managed to keep his Ambassador 5757 till today. He calls the vehicle his first love. “I bought my Ambassador 5757 in 1983. I have gotten it repaired so many times, but I have never wanted to let it go,” he says, fondly.
“People who spot the 5757 vehicle know that it is my Ambassador. I will use it for as long as it allows me, after which I will park it at my plantation,” he adds.
In period films like Special 26 that were set in the 80s, the Ambassador had as much character as the protagonists and in Ghajini, for the heroine Kalpana (Asin), buying three Ambassadors was a cherished dream.
However, the Kannada cinema industry has almost stopped using Ambassadors, says Ravindranath, secretary, Karnataka Film Workers Artists Technicians Federation.
“Ambassadors are not used for commercial purposes. In case producers require them for shooting, we mostly hire them from outside,” he adds.
Shankar Aithal, former head of Vahana Chalakara Sangha, says there are only two to three Ambassadors that are presently available for hire.
“Ambassadors have become a symbol of nostalgia and people talk about them lovingly. But nobody uses them much anymore. With newer cars getting all the attention, Ambassadors have become obsolete,” he says. “A lot of stars, technicians, producers and directors in the industry have used Ambassadors for more than 50 years. Even I had one that I used till 2008,” he adds.
(With inputs from A Sharadhaa)