The Ambassador was a car, which was as Indian as the saree. Evolved since the 1950s, this car came to epitomize the political hegemony of India and was more often than not the choice of both aristrocrats and plutocrats of India. Actually, you did not have a choice – in the 1950s to the 1980s, you could either buy the Ambassador or the Premier series of cars, if you did not have the cash to go in for expensive imports.
The story started as far back as 1957, when the Birlas were starting to tire of the Morris Oxford Series II (then assembled as the Hindustan Landmaster) and were looking around for the Series III. The first car christened as the Ambassador came with an unreliable side-valve engine but this was later changed to an overhead valve for reliability. It was a unique vehicle in the sense that the body was a fully enclosed monocoque chassis – quite an innovation of the time.
The Ambassador did not have many styling changes throughout its career. Styling changes from the Morris Oxford series II (Landmaster) to Morris Oxford series III (Ambassador) included deep headlamp cowls and small rear wing "tail fins"—all the rage in 1956. The dashboard and steering wheel were completely redesigned. The Landmaster's flat-plane two-spoke steering wheel gave way to a stylish dished steering wheel with three spokes made-up of four wires per spoke, for the Ambassador. Also a new, dimpled hood made its debut. These models had a 1,476 cc side-valve petrol engine. In 1959 the side-valve engine was replaced by a 1,489 cc, 55 bhp overhead-valve BMC B-series petrol engine.
The Mark-II arrived in 1963 with a closely chequered grill. Apparently, the first car was presented to Jawaharlal Nehru, painted in black, though the Birlas themselves never used the car! The lovely Smiths instruments in the earlier car was replaced by desi Yenkay. The Mark III followed in 1975 with a smart look and two versions – standard or deluxe; the latter had four instruments – Speedometer, Battery Charging, Oil Pressure and Fuel level. This car also had the wiper configuration changed – from opposing sides to a common sweep.
The Mark IV came in 1979, and besides the old workhorse petrol engine, a diesel variant was launched which was powered by a 1,489 cc, 37 bhp BMC B-series diesel engine. It was the first diesel car in India and was well received by a lot of people, including fleet operators and taxi owners. Later, the ‘Mark’ versions were dropped and the car was rechristened as first the “deluxe” and later the “Nova.” In 1992, an Isuzu 1800cc engine was added to the line-up, followed by a 2000cc diesel. At last the Ambassador had some power, much like most of its occupants!
After a number of changes and many avatars like “Classic”, “Avigo” (designed by H.E. Manvendra Singh of Barwani and lately the “Encore.” Famed Indian designer Dilip Chhabria (DC) also did his take on the Ambassador, called the “Amberoid” which was displayed at the 2008 Auto Expo.
The sale of Ambassador Taxis, declared the “Best Taxi in the world” by Top gear in episode 2 of their 20th series, was banned from 1st April 2011, a year after BS IV emission standards were rolled out in 11 Indian cities, including Kolkata.
However, Hindustan Motors as early as the beginning of this year started fitting the Encore with a BSIV compliant version of its old 1.5-litre diesel engine, which is OBD II compliant. The company however refused to divulge power and torque features.
Hindustan Motors celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Ambassador’s production in 2008 (1958- 2008), and the Ambassador was also exported to the United Kingdom as the Fullbore Mark 10, before the importer went into liquidation. Car sales were falling rapidly, as the company had stopped paying wages to workers a few months back and production was finally stopped on May 25th, 2014. It is truly the end of a glorious era – and for me, this car hold special memories as I came home from the hospital as a newborn in an Ambassador Mark II and learnt to drive in an Ambassador Nova. R.I.P Amby, you will be missed.