The Ambassador is set to return in a new avatar. It seems to be seen if nostalgia can actually translate to real demand.
By: Avik Chattopadhyay, Auto industry consultant and co-founder of Expereal
The news that the HM Ambassador may be revived has caught the fancy of many around me. The media has been writing about it. There are posts on social media platforms about the same. Scions of the Birla family are sharing posts. Automotive circles are discussing the pros and cons of the rebirth of one of India’s most ‘loved’ cars!
I for one am not moved at all. Just like the Amby used to hardly move. Words like love, favourite, legacy, heritage et al are hollow and totally misplaced. The Ambassador was one of the only three cars an average Indian could buy for a good four decades since we sent the British packing. There was no option but to ‘love’ it. It was India’s favourite car as the other two car makers did not have enough production capacity. We bought it out of compulsion, not out of choice. We grew up seeing the Amby on the roads as there were hardly any other options. Growing up with a brand does not necessarily mean that the experiences were positively memorable.
About words like legacy and heritage assigned to it, the less said the better. The Ambassador was a 1950s technology being dished out to helpless customers till the 2010s. Whoever has visited the Uttarpara would recount stories of applying cottage industry skills to car making. The Birlas had decided early on that was a cow that had to be milked forever. There were hardly any serious investments made in modern engineering and manufacturing.
As a young management executive in 1992 I remember how HM almost stalled the introduction of the front seat belt as the Amby’s B-pillars were not strong enough to take the structural pressure. As there was nothing contemporary in the vehicle, the company and some pliant media started spinning stories of the Ambassador’s legacy in India.
The Ambassador is symbolic of all that was wrong with India in the 1960s and 70s. It was a manifestation of the “licence raj” with a few business houses making the most of government policies and loopholes in dishing out sub-standard products to a newly emerging middle-class. Protectionism was used not to promote domestic innovation and industriousness but to shield deliberate inefficiency and cartelisation. Under the garb of socialism some of the most blatant ills of capitalist greed were encouraged.
There were public enterprises like HMT which produced qualitatively far superior products and could have easily been used to manufacture automobiles. Till 2014, when the Amby was finally buried, it was a shameful symbol of the emerging economic might that was India. Thankfully with the coming of Maruti, Tata, Mahindra, Daewoo, Hyundai and Honda, the vehicle had lost complete relevance and even the bureaucrats refused to travel in it anymore. The Ambassador belongs to a museum and brings back memories to Indians just like a Trabant does to Germans. It deserves a place and mention in the annals of history just like the English East India Company does. It does not have any place in the future of the Indian automobile industry.