Bespoke Ambassadors & Other Forms Of Masochisms…

Images: Deepanjan Sarkar

They ruled the Indian roads dynastically for decades, and the ‘rulers’ of India used them (in white, with the notorious red light atop) to flaunt their authority. And every single Ambassador that left the Hindustan Motors factory was a bespoke model: bespoke to itself. Yes, there were certain genetic traits common to all the cars: every Ambassador was capable of bucketing over a ploughed field with 10 people on board without batting an eyelid and was equally likely to dump all her oil in the portico of Rashtrapati Bhavan if the mood took her. You could get her moving from a standing start in fourth gear.

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The very first Ambassadors, retrospectively referred to as Mark I, seem to have been the most reliable, according to the author Ranjit Lal

We had about half-a-dozen of them: the first was a dark-blue Mark I, way back in the 1960s, with the original Smiths gauges, which took us flawlessly wherever we wanted to go. This was followed by the exciting Mark II, whose claim to fame was a new electric fuel pump (which kept overheating and wrecked a motoring holiday in South India).

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For many, the Mark I remains the purest of all designs

We grew up in the back seat of these cavernous, lumbering ‘dabbas’ that could be as accommodating as a grandmother’s lap and as finicky as a pouting prima-donna—sometimes both simultaneously. We drove these water-buffalo-like cars and developed strong shoulder, arm and calf muscles, wrestling with the lorry-like steering and gear lever and drop-kicking the clutch and brakes. One thing soon became clear: every car had its own distinctive personality and quirks and demanded that you peek under her bonnet first thing every morning to ask how she was.

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An evocative image of an Ambassador Mark I

A cream Mark II we had in Bombay broke her axle and fan belt with Swiss precision every three months; we could predict when she was about to do so and so avoided planning any long trips at that time.

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The distinguishing features of the Mark II (on the right) were the tidied-up grille, indicator lamps and smaller overriders, as compared to the Mark I (on the left)

The last one we had, a grey Mark III, arrived from the showroom with a distinct starboard list, which the dealer couldn’t see. But her leading claim to fame was her tricky third gear: possibly an anti-theft device. There was a certain delicate technique to change up from second to third. Nine times out of ten you’d bungle it, and the gearbox would shriek and grate horribly and you’d have to grind on in second before summoning up enough courage to try again. No thief could have gone fast and furious with this car; 25km/h was probably top lick in second. You could (in desperation) bypass third and go straight to fourth—but at the risk of tangling with reverse.

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For the Mark III, the rounded parking lamps were separated from the grille

This car gave me one of the most hair-raising drives ever. On a blazing Delhi May afternoon, returning from the office on the city’s wide Ring Road, I suddenly discovered that pressing the brake pedal was more akin to stepping on a cowpat—and it did nothing to slow down the car. Okay, so keep her in second or third I thought and go slow while keeping one hand on the handbrake. Then suddenly, the engine temperature began rocketing: the fan belt had snapped.

Grimly I hugged the verge meaning to steer the car into the hedge if need be. We ground on, for the remaining 8km to the house—next to which was the service station which looked after the car. By the time I reached, the bonnet was enveloped in a cloud of steam…and now I couldn’t even see where I was going. Luckily in those days, traffic was light. When I drew up and informed the mechanic of the issues, he looked at me incredulously and pointed at the front wheels. Black guck was oozing out of the hubcaps. ‘How did you drive it?’ he whispered, scratching his head.

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Another image to compare the Mark I and the Mark II

But she was a sensitive soul. On the way back from a dinner invite, we’d been discussing the possibility of acquiring one of the new Maruti vans that had just come out. Just adjacent to the Supreme Court premises, we suddenly saw smoke emanate from beneath the dashboard. We stopped and looked under the bonnet—and there it was: a malevolent orange glow. She had set herself on fire!

Like any true-blue Bollywood heroine, she was martyring herself right beside the supreme seat of justice!

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Those massively wide seats made the Ambassador a comfortable six-seater; the centre clock though seems to be missing in this one…

Luckily a few autorickshaw drivers stopped and quickly threw some mud into the engine, preventing a blaze. Then one of them intrepidly, hooked his little auto to the rear bumper of the car and pushed us all the way home—a good 10 km away. (His clutch was a goner!)

Ungratefully soon after, we did go ahead and acquire a Maruti (Omni) van…


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