Sturdy sedan remains king of the road in India despite its 40-year-old design

August 18, 1991|By Cox News Service

CALCUTTA, India -- Every morning across India, a half-million small miracles of Churchill-era engineering sally forth, when owners of India's unofficial national car crank up their engines and rumble off to greet the day.

The marvel isn't that the cars continue to run, but rather that they're still being made. For the king of the road in India remains the cuddly yet noble Ambassador, a jelly bean-shaped sedan still built here according to blueprints sketched out in Britain four decades ago.

"We didn't want to tamper with it," said S. L. Bhatter, president of Hindustan Motors Ltd., the company that has been making the Ambassador near here since the mid-1950s. "It's an excellent piece of engineering for Indian road conditions."

Put another way, the car's low-tech innards and heavy-gauge steel skin can take the abuse hammered out by the pockmarked dirt roads crisscrossing India. Of the 600,000 Ambassadors built here to date, all but 50,000 or so remain in use, a sterling tribute to a car with an average road life topping 25 years.

With its hawk's-bill hood and gumdrop roof line, the chummy little Ambassador is a living museum, a soulful throwback to an age when cars were designed mainly to carry people, not as turbo-charged objects of a chic generation's aerodynamic fantasies.

In the day of complex, microprocessor-driven, digitally controlled supercars, the Ambassador is the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich of automobiles -- four cylinders, spark plugs and manual steering.

Anyone old enough to recall riding in the back seat of the family Chrysler with Dad behind the wheel in the Eisenhower days will find a distantly familiar innocence inside the four-door Ambassador.

With its couch-like seats and spacious interior, the Ambassador can coddle five tall adults. Ambitious taxi drivers in the hinterlands commonly cram 15 or more into the humble carriage, partly by removing the trunk lid and stuffing passengers in the rear compartment along with the spare tire.

Like much else in India, the key to getting along with an Ambassador is to love it for what it is, not belittle it for what it isn't.

Its 48-horsepower engine, for instance, gives the Ambassador about half the power of most Japanese compacts. This isn't much of a shortcoming, however, in a country particularly well suited to life at 40 mph, a healthy Ambassador cruising speed.

One doesn't exactly drive an Ambassador; that would imply a measure of control still largely unfamiliar here. Rather, the car is sort of pointed in a general direction, power is applied, and the vehicle lumbers off down the road more or less on course, with something like the feel of a flat-bottomed boat on a breeze-stirred pond.

Stopping is a bit of a nuisance, since it squanders hard-won momentum, so stop signs rarely elicit much more than a pause, making a near-miss the likely consequence of every approach to an intersection.

Similarly, horn-blowing supersedes braking as a collision-avoidance tactic, and traffic tiptoes along in compensatory caution, ebbing and flowing in a rhythmic tide as drivers glide tentatively through perilous turns like novice ice skaters braced for a fall.

The Ambassador was designed in the late 1940s by Morris Motors Ltd. of Oxford, England. Even the company's founder, William R. Morris, initially derided the car's shape, grumbling that it reminded him of "a poached egg."

But when India decided to build a domestic auto industry, shortly after winning independence from London in 1947, the little Morris was tapped as the seed. Hindustan Motors imported from Oxford the machinery needed to manufacture the car, and India's automobile industry was born.

Sales haven't been helped by the car's $8,500 price tag (taxes make up nearly half), a genuine fortune in a country where per capita income has yet to hit $400 a year. Indeed, the car has survived largely because of a government prohibition on auto imports, shielding the Ambassador and its domestic stablemate, the 1970s-vintage Contessa, from foreign competition.

Opponents of New Delhi's "let's make it ourselves" policy unkindly point to the Ambassador as an example of how protectionism inhibits innovation.

Though it may not be an industry pacesetter, the Ambassador has proved a reliable and much adored workhorse for four decades here. Some can hardly imagine the Indian landscape without them.

"If the Ambassador had not been around, I think our transportation industry would have faltered," said Sujoy Gupta, Calcutta correspondent for the national fortnightly BusinessWorld.

The same might be said for Mr. Gupta's family life. He wooed his bride two decades ago while sporting around Calcutta in his uncle's navy blue Ambassador.

Eventually Mr. Gupta bought that car, and he keeps finding new reasons to praise it.

"I can take children along without much discomfort, and it can ride roughshod over any kind of road," Mr. Gupta said. "It's very tough."

Even in India, though, nothing lasts forever. The venerable Ambassador is getting a slight face lift next year, and engineers are working the kinks out of a plan for a more powerful engine.

Before long, one company visionary predicts, the car might even be offered with air conditioning.

After all, conceded its president, "people do need change."

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