Business, Economics and Jobs

India autos: The death of the Ambassador?


BANGALORE, India — It was once the Grand Old Lady of the Indian roads, the drive of choice for India’s prime ministers, Bollywood stars, top bureaucrats and corporate chieftains. With its trademark balloonish shape and roomy interiors, the brawny Ambassador ruled the roads here for more than a quarter of a century.

But since the start of India’s liberalization two decades ago, snazzier, sleeker and cheaper cars from a variety of global automakers have eroded the popularity of the Ambassador.

Last week, its manufacturer and India’s oldest carmaker, the Kolkota-based Hindustan Motors, said reduced demand and accumulated losses had wiped out over half its net worth.

Some Indians aren't worried.

Manish Chhabra, 34, a mall owner in New Delhi, bought a bottle-green Ambassador a few months ago and loves driving it. For Chhabra, the car is full of memories — he learned to drive in his family’s Amby when he was 15. Since then, he has dreamed of owning his own.

“I’m now living my dream. It’s a robust, totally masculine car,” said Chhabra, who owns a Honda Accord as well as a Toyota Camry. His friends rib him saying that while India is advancing he has regressed 50 years.

“I don’t give a damn,” he said, adding, “Which other car can you confidently take to any remote corner of India and still find a mechanic to fix it if you have car trouble?”

But Chhabra is among a small minority in India who value the retro coolness of the car. The decline of the Ambassador, and the disappearance of other socialist road icons such as the Bajaj scooter and the Enfield Bullet motorcycle, marks the passing of an era.

Upwardly mobile Indians no longer want the big, bulbous Ambassador. The Ambassador’s maker sold only 1,075 cars in March this year. So marked is the contrast that India’s biggest carmaker Maruti Suzuki sells more cars in a month than the entire annual sales of the Ambassador.

In India’s cities, the ubiquitous black-and-yellow Ambassador cabs have been replaced by cheaper, fuel-efficient cars produced by rivals like Tata and Renault. In the past, government orders have kept the production line chugging. The white Ambassador with a red beacon was the ultimate Indian power symbol, favored by its politicians and bureaucrats.

These days, the ruling class no longer wants the "outmoded" car. Politicians and government officials have forsaken the rotund automobile for others made by global carmakers.

In Bangalore, for example, the city’s newly elected mayor and deputy mayor have ordered Honda CRVs and kicked off a controversy.

But as U.S., German, Japanese and even Korean cars have bumped the Ambassador off the roads, its manufacturer is making a last-ditch attempt to revive the fortunes of the “Amby." Hindustan Motors is now selling the car to hotel chains and travel operators as a nostalgia ride.

“We are opening up new market segments,” said Moloy Chowdhury, its Kolkata-based executive vice president.

The Amby’s shape, which is modeled after the Morris Oxford of England, may not hold appeal for younger, hip car buyers. But the comfort it offers is supreme, say long-time Ambassador users.

Its leaf-and-spring rear suspension and shock absorbers provide a jerk-free ride on the crater-ridden roads that often pass as highways in India. Its roomy trunk can hold twice the luggage of its newer rivals, making it popular at airports and train stations. Its large rounded windows are perfect for watching the world go by.

These factors have upped the Amby’s popularity amongst travel operators and cab drivers. In Kolkata, when the city mandated that cabs over 15 years old be phased out, sales of the Ambassador spurted.

Meanwhile orders from the police, armed forces and government institutions continue to keep the car afloat. In the upcoming Commonwealth Games, the ever-reliable Amby cars will form the police escort fleet for athletes all over the world. One thousand cars have been ordered for the Games.

The Amby’s tank-like sturdiness also lends well to bullet-proofing and armor-plating. Over 900 bullet-proof, armor-plated cars were made last year for government use.

In New Delhi, Hindustan Motors’ dealer Ashok Mittal of Ashok Motors is optimistic about the Amby’s reviving fortunes. He says the young, rich Indians are increasingly veering towards the car’s vintage looks recently.

“Some love its retro stylishness. For others owning an Amby is like reaffirming their Indian-ness,” said Mittal, 34, who himself owns a cherry-red Ambassador. Everywhere he drives it, he meets gawking, adoring Indians. “People continue to love this car, the Ambassador will not die,” said Mittal.

This story was changed from its original version to correct a time reference.

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