The Ambassador Was More About Litres Per Kilometre Than Kilometres Per Litre 

Defunct Ambassador cars of the state government gather dust at a parking lot in Bengaluru.(MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/GettyImages)
  • Ambassador, a perfect Nehruvian Stalinist vehicle, secretly admired the West, and was content to act as a pale imitation of it.

The recent news that the venerable Ambassador car had come to its end-of-life was not particularly surprising, considering it had been on life-support for some years. What was surprising, though, was the fact that someone – a French car company – was willing to buy the brand, and presumably, other assets, such as they are.

I am dating myself here, but when I was a child, there were only two types of cars available in India: Ambassador and Fiat. My dad wanted to replace our beloved old Morris Minor, which is probably still running half a century later, but that is a story for another time. He said that when he spoke to people, there was just one question they asked: are you going to drive the car yourself? If so, buy a Fiat. If not, buy an Ambassador. Sage advice, and those were indeed simpler times.

So he finally bought a 1970’s Fiat, which he then drove at the slowest possible speed. So much so that his students said that he would give “side” to bullock-carts, that is to say, allow them to overtake him. One fine day, they also wrote on the dust on his car, “Motor Sundaram Pillai”, after a Tamil movie that released in those days. I also became intimately familiar with pushing that car: it’s best to push backwards by digging your feet in the ground and grabbing the bumper behind your back and using the leverage of your thigh muscles. But I digress.

I nevertheless spent quite a lot of time in Ambassador cars, traveling up and down the Kerala countryside, as our extended family including two aunts and lots of kids couldn’t fit into the Fiat. So we’d hire one of the ubiquitous white Ambassador taxis from the nearby taxi-stand: my father had a couple of guys he trusted. Whenever there was a wedding back in the village, or a funeral, we’d all pack ourselves into a taxi and trundle up the highway.

That’s when I realised there’s a peculiar ‘Ambassador driving position’. A driver would execute a crab-wise movement, moving forward while at an angle to the direction of travel. That is, his body would be jammed up against the driver door, and his right arm would go around the steering to grasp it at 10 o’clock, with the left arm at 6 o’clock. And the steering-mounted gear shift was still within reach: fiendishly clever, indeed.

It made remarkable sense, actually. Since there is a big bench seat up front, by doing this the driver was allowing you to squeeze in not three but four passengers there, in addition to the eight or so in the back seat in two rows. Lo and behold, you could travel with an entire extended Indian family in the long-suffering Ambassador.

Fortunately the car was built like a tank, with real metal, in those days. And like a tank, its mileage was fairly low: I used to wonder if it was litres per kilometre rather than kilometres per litre. I have to talk about my beloved first car here: it was a 1960s Pontiac Bonneville, which I bought from an MIT student for $150, and later sold as scrap for $50. Now, that was a real car! It ran, by the way, on Leaded Premium (kind of like aviation fuel), which I could only find in one station near Porter Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But boy, did it have metal! But I digress again.

What was great about the Ambassador was that it was a perfect Nehruvian Stalinist vehicle. That is, it secretly admired the West, and was content to act as a pale imitation of the West. The Ambassador was some 1950s British car, and when its production run ended, the entire second-hand line was bundled up and shipped to India, lock-stock-and-barrel. Naturally, we were content to take the hand-me-down, obsolete dregs from the West.

And it was an embodiment of the Potemkin State, one where progress was not important, only the illusion of progress. By building Ambassadors well into the 1990s, the Nehruvian Stalinists were giving the public the illusion that we too were advancing. Just as with the Potemkin universities that were set up by the same lot, we were in fact regressing rapidly, while the rest of the world was leaving us far behind.

It was also a paradigm of the Socialist shortage economy. The ‘eminent’ wise men of the Planning Commission decided exactly how many cars (and many other things, such as safety pins) would suffice for the country, and then doled out licences to privileged crony capitalists to produce, behind protectionist walls, high-priced, inferior, probably environmentally suicidal products. And then there were long waiting lines for them.

I don’t recall how long my dad waited for his dream Fiat to arrive, but I know exactly how long it took for my scooter. When I joined IIT Madras, my dad booked it, and a year after I graduated – a full six years later – the scooter arrived. A bit of an anticlimax, because I was in the US, and my dad didn’t know how to ride a two-wheeler. He sold it at a small profit, I think.

Meanwhile, I was being astonished by the fact that it took me no more than a day to get a phone line in the US, instead of the – surprise, surprise – six years it had taken my parents to get a phone. They did have an option, though: if they went for an Own Your Telephone scheme, and shelled out large amounts of money, they could have got one in a few months.

Those were the days. A car and a phone were symbols of solid and guilty middle class privilege. We lived in a small colony, and there was one car, and one phone in the entire colony. That poor neighbour with the phone was the telephone operator for the colony, because all of us used to give his number out to all our friends! Now half the houses in the colony have two cars each, every individual has at least one phone, if not two.

Maybe we haven’t become happier with all these phones and cars, and abnegation is the Indian thing to do. But I bet if the bureaucracy hadn’t slipped and made some mistakes here and there, we’d still be standing in line for the latest Ambassador Mark LXXVII, the new and improved version. Somebody made a mistake in allowing Suzuki in: but wait, that was fine because it was a Nehru dynast who did it.

But there are others in babudom who have maintained the high standards of those halcyon days. For instance, the guy who decided the length of the chain on the mug in train toilets. Precisely two inches shorter than it needs to be, so that you, dear traveller, can squat on the floor after the fact realising that you really can’t clean your soiled bum since you aren’t a contortionist. Ah, sheer genius!

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