When it made its debut on India’s roads, Russia had just launched the Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth, Toyota exported its first vehicle, the Toyota Crown, to America, Elvis Presley’s film Jailhouse Rock was released and a Russian dog called Laika became the only living thing to enter space. It was 1957, and for the next three and a half decades, the dumpy-looking but omnipresent Hindustan Ambassador would rule Indian roads and highways, as much a defining image of the country as half-naked fakirs, diamond-encrusted maharajas and the Taj Mahal. No car in the world has survived as a road vehicle for 57 years, ferrying millions of Indians, passengers in taxis and proud owners, across the country, its outdated engineering no deterrence to the challenge of potholed roads, and even no roads. Only the Russian Lada compared to it for dowdiness and durability, ensured by a benign government. The Birla-owned Hindustan Motors may have manufactured it, but it was the Congress that kept it alive and made it such an iconic object. Not of desire, but necessity.
For decades, there were only three cars Indians could buy locally: The Ambassador, the Fiat or more accurately Premier Padmini and the Standard Herald, the last based on the British Triumph. The comfort and space of its rear seats and the Birla connection got the Ambassador the official nod, and launched its prolonged India reign. In that sense, the Hindustan Ambassador, as it was badged or the ‘Amby’ as it was affectionately known, is like a time capsule of the last 57 years, its sofa-style seats a repository of the memories of millions. Entire generations have come and gone, their dreams and ambitions transported by this one ugly-looking car. Long before the Maruti 800 arrived, this was the People’s Car. The late photographer Raghubir Singh did an entire picture book on the Amby and its many avatars. In the foreword, he wrote, “As I journeyed all over India, I came to understand that if one thing can be singled out to stand for the past 50 years of India...it has to be the Ambassador.” It was a car one could take liberties with. One of Singh’s brilliant photos featured a red Amby with red hubcaps, a red steering wheel and red upholstery. Behind the car, the red infects the very landscape. Did the Amby make the Indian landscape what it is