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There once was a pink Ambassador...

March 03, 2017 11:01 IST

Most Indians have an Ambassador story. Following Peugeot's acquisition of the iconic Indian brand, Avishek Rakshit chronicles what made this car such an indispensable part of India's cultural psyche.

Lead

IMAGE: Even designer Manish Malhotra gave himself a pink Amby, complete with kitschy interiors. Photograph: Courtesy Robert Soar/Flickr.com.

 

In the early 1960s, industrialist S K Birla purchased an early model of the Ambassador, or Amby. It was round and robust, and spacious from inside.

For a family trip to faraway Badrinath from Delhi, Birla requisitioned four Ambys instead of the rough and tough Jeep, the chosen vehicle for hill drives. The Ambys climbed the slopes without an effort and flew over the kuccha roads. 

However, one Amby's steering unit broke down and the car stalled. Even as Birla was wondering what to do, the villagers guided him to a small garage that could fix it. "The Amby was so popular that people could repair and service the car anywhere in India," Birla says.

One of his friends who had taken an American car for the trip suffered a breakdown midway and had to share a ride with Birla in his roomy Amby, the industrialist recollects.

Birla remained an Amby loyalist till recently when he finally decided to buy a Mercedes and then a Jaguar.

While the Amby appealed to Birla for practical reasons, it was a sign of socialist equality for West Bengal's transport secretary, Alapan Bandyopadhyay. He sees the Ambi as a symbol of "austere equality" as it was the vehicle of transport for the prime minister of the country as well as a junior bureaucrat. 

In the '80s, the Amby, after becoming popular with ministers, was slowly making its way to the bureaucracy.

Bandyopadhyay, 28, was made the sub-divisional magistrate of Chandannagore in 1989. SDMs, in those days, were eligible for a Jeep. However, women officers found it difficult to climb in and out of it and were therefore allotted the Amby. Bandyopadhyay's predecessor happened to be a lady and that's how his tryst with the Amby began.

"Over 20 years, which covers my youth, the Amby stayed with me. It was only recently that the government allotted me an SUV," Bandyopadhyay says with visible nostalgia. "The Amby is a bygone era in the age of opulent cars."

Ambassador

IMAGE: The Ambassador was the car of the ministers and the bureaucracy. But it was also the car of the common man. Photograph: Christian Haugen/Flickr.com.

 

It carried the powerful and the commoner alike.

Cabbies from Kolkata, who still drive the yellow Amby, share amazing stories of the car's capabilities.

B Mondal, 63, who has been driving an Amby since 1981 recollects how the car once saved his life. In the late 1980s, Mondal was ferrying a passenger on a foggy winter morning on the highway when he found a bulky lorry just a few metres ahead.

With just seconds to react, Mondal slammed the brakes and yet the car did not turn turtle. Although the bonnet was destroyed in the crash, Mondal suffered a minor chest injury and the passenger went unharmed.

"Had it been any other car, that accident would have been the end of me and the passenger," says he.

One thing that annoyed Mondal was that its gear often broke down and it meant not just a loss of earning but dwindling confidence in the car as well.

In the pre-liberalisation era, when Indians had limited exposure to the world outside, he repeatedly heard stories of muscular American cars and sleek Japanese ones. This made him look at his rotund Amby, not dissimilar to a pregnant buffalo, with much disdain.

In the early 1990s, he was ferrying a European couple from the airport to a hotel when one of the tourists, amazed by the car's spacious interiors and the smooth ride, told him: "Tumhara gaadi accha hai (Your car is good)".

These words drove away all the disdain for his Amby. Though he could have switched to any other car, Mondal has stayed an Amby loyalist.

Designer Manish Malhotra gave himself a pink Amby, complete with kitschy interiors.

In 2013, Top Gear voted the "indestructible" Amby as the best taxi in the world.

The Amby also remained popular with expats, who perhaps saw in it the stately visage of the Raj.

What made India fall in love with the Ambassador? Scroll down to see for yourself...

It was our FIRST "Made in India" car

Ambassador 7

Photograph: Reuters

It screamed class

Ambassador1

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

But it was not just the bullet-proof, laal batti cars of the netas

Ambassador 8

Photograph: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

It was also the car of the common man

Ambassador 3

Photograph: Shankar S/Flickr.com

And sometimes even his bed

Ambassador 4

Photograph: Damien Naidoo/Flickr.com

With the ambassador it was always more the merrier

Ambassador

Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

And in the right hands it had so much swag...

Ambassador5

Photograph: Paul Papadimitriou/Flickr.com

... That even our NRI cousins couldn't get enough of it!

Ambassador2

Photograph: Matt Stephton/Flickr.com


What's your Amby story?

Share your #AmbassadorNostalgia -- pictures and stories -- with us at getahead@rediff.co.in and we will publish it right here on Rediff.com

Avishek Rakshit
Source: