Modern is pricey, but vintage is priceless. In this competitive age, only the best will do to be the best, no matter what the cost. Brands, possessions, and prices determine a person’s relevance in society. In the Plaster of Paris of history, only a few inventions and innovations leave their mark behind. They have survived fashion and fancies and become icons that define the age. The Ambassador car, which recently ceased production after registering over half a century on its odometer, is one such classic. It represents a lost India, and a generation that belonged to the Midnight of 1947, which is slowly counting its sunsets.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It reminds us of what we were, even as we remain what we are. Along with the Ambassador, which first burned rubber on India’s narrow roads in 1958, an epoch passes, fading away in memory’s rearview mirror. A time of Vividh Bharati and black and white television, of Shammi Kapoor wooing a lissome Sharmila Tagore along the Dal Lake singing Tareef Karun Kya Uski Jisne Tumhe Banaya in Kashmir Ki Kali or MGR giving M N Nambiar the thrashing of his life in Kavalkaran. Good and evil, love and hate, meanness and generosity are eternal emotions, but looking back, an aura of ephemeral innocence seems to burnish the past. Perhaps it is a wishful phantom, but India was much simpler before the Internet, Audis and Dior came to stake their claim here. Yet, it was difficult as well. The past seems laughably charming now, but in the old days it took months, if not years, to get a telephone or gas connection, or buy a new car.
Until the Maruti 800, the little hornet that started India’s romance with the automobile hit the road in the early Eighties and turned us into a driving nation; three cars ruled Indian roads—the Ambassador, the Premier Padmini aka Fiat, and the elegant Standard Herald, with its low slung chassis and shark fins at the rear. There were only single-lane highways, and if the speedometer crossed 80, you were the Schumacher of the Seventies. Those days held sweet magic; Nehruvian pride said that it was all right to be poor and, in any case, old money was always discreet. Flashing money around meant nouveau riche. Middle class values were about decency, caution, small town pride and conservative affection. Privileges did not come easy. That idyll of India is now a mislaid postcard; the peasant toiling in the fields, the smoke lazily rising from India’s few factories, and the Ambassador humming along the black asphalt of solitary roads, antenna waving in the wind as Elvis played on a clumsily fitted tape recorder stuck into the dashboard by some enterprising mechanic. The automobiles of pre-Maruti India created a specific symbology—a sun-browned right forearm meant one drove with the window down, the unforgiving Indian sun beating down as the wind combed one’s hair and ruffled clothes. The Ambassador’s engine couldn’t handle air-conditioning, but then, in the 60s and 70s, air-conditioning was a luxury. The world had yet to discover political correctness and all cars had ashtrays.
In the 70s, the Ambassador became a power symbol. Indira Gandhi travelled in a white one, as did ministers, bureaucrats and government officials. The car seats were gussied up with white towels and doilies with curtains on the windows, as if it was a prized palanquin. So many staples of life have swiftly disappeared—the typewriter, the telex, the printing press, the gramophone, vinyl records, rotary dial telephone, phone books, fax machines, tape recorders and VCRs. Once, the Ambassador was a symbol of trust, today it is a bemusing curiosity. The king of Indian roads—with its bulky shape, growling engine, heavy clutch, tight gearstick, and the gleaming steel horn ring upon the steering wheel that took a sailor’s forearms to turn—inspired faith that all was well with India. For one last time, romance the lost road by taking a last drive down memory lane before you park that Amby in the dusty garage of nostalgia. Horn please.