Amby owners have mixed feelings about the sturdy, dependable automobile that was so much a part of their family

KOZHIKODE: The road ahead just got bumpier for the Ambassador. With the suspension of work at the Uttarpara plant in West Bengal, the future of this stodgy car appears bleak. At its peak, the Amby meant power, physical and hypothetical. The cavalcade of white cars with red beacons was every politician’s statement and dream. It was a symbol of prestige for the ordinary too till the 1990s. In our minds and Malayalam movies of the 1980s and 90s, the return from the “Gulf” was never quite ‘it’ if the journey from the airport to home was not in a black Amby taxi, with its roof-top carrier stacked sky-high with boxes.  The Amby sits gently amidst the clichés the Malayali loves to evoke — grandmother’s house, kappa-meen, monsoon rain. 

Nostalgia is easy for Amby owners. To 28-year-old Harikrishnan T, a bank employee, who owns two Ambassadors — a 1962 model OHV and 1987 Mark IV petrol version — the car brings back memories of grandmother’s garage. “Eight or nine of us would easily squeeze into an Amby and head to Guruvayur temple. In the boot would be large plantain bunches. We could stuff anything inside,” he recalls. It was indeed easy to lose count of the number of children in an ambassador. The history of the Amby including the evolution of the car from the Morris Oxford model, is not lost on Harikrishnan. His OHV is getting a new coat of paint, but maintenance, he says, is minimal “Both are petrol versions and I just have to take them for a short drive once in a while and they are fine.”

Harikrishnan’s 24-year-old cousin Gopikrishnan R, ventures out in his OHV 1961 Ambassador every other week. Gopikrishnan, who takes CA classes, says his students are particularly indulgent when his Amby decides to act up making him late. “Pushing an Ambassador to the road side is not easy,” he quips. “But in the end, there are no good or bad memories, just memories.” At Gopikrishnan’s home, the Ambassador was almost always a quiet presence. “When my father came to know an Ambassador he had sold was being pulled apart at a workshop, he decided it was time to get one back. We sourced this vehicle from Kottayam four years ago. The exterior is intact. We changed the engine and gear-box, introduced power brake and steering and changed to diesel,” says Gopikrishnan.

For Gopikrishnan’s father, the Amby still means prestige. And the son admits he enjoys the curiosity his grey machine generates. “People ask if this is for sale and it is very satisfying to say ‘no’. If you have time on your hands, the Amby is still the best car to ride. I still get a mileage of 15 km/hour,” he says.

For 61-year-old K. Viswanathan, retired divisional forest officer, and his wife Sreeja, their search for a sturdy, reliable machine ended with the Ambassador. They have a smaller, new-age car in their yard, but get into the Amby for every journey near and far. The 2004 model Ambassador Grand 2000cc is their third Amby and the loyalty is intact. “I started out in a Mark II in 1978. In 1982, I bought a second-hand Fiat, but it was not up to the long journeys we undertook. I needed a car with enough luggage space, is reliable on night drives and sturdy. I bought a Mark II, second hand in 1979, sold it and got another Mark II at a government auction in 1989 and when that car grew old, traded it for this brand new Grand,” says Viswanathan. He proudly recounts how his relative drove his Amby Grand from Kozhikode to the Rohtang Pass without a hitch.

Besides the Amby’s sturdiness Harikrishnan says there are other pluses. It’s backseat comfort is almost unmatched. “No car in the below 20 lakh category offers this kind of back-seat comfort,” he says. “The mud-guard and the fin tail mean a clear view of the car’s ends. For the technology we had then, Amby was good engineering,” he says.

Amby taxis

For the proud owners, Amby is still affordable prestige. For those like 65-year-old Amby taxi driver C.P. Krishnan, it means livelihood. He has been ferrying customers in Ambassadors these past 48 years. He changed his car many times, but always for a newer version of Amby. The slide in the car’s fortune is clear to Krishnan. “Lot of people, especially children, don’t want to get into an Ambassador. But there are also those who seek me out.” Amby, says Krishnan, has no equivalent when it comes to power. “In one Sabarimala season, I have gone up the hill 12-13 times.” With production halting, Krishnan says he might as well stop rather than take a new taxi.

At workshops though there isn’t much nostalgia around the Ambassador. The car has long ceased to be the major source of revenue. Owners realise they have to be seen moving with the times for the sake of business. T. Prakashan of Lakshmi Auto Centre at Tali says 33 years ago, Ambassador was what he began with, but there are hardly any in his yard now. “Every house in Chalapuram then had an Ambassador. But now if there is an Ambassador in the workshop people think the shop is for old cars,” he says. Amby taxis too are on the wane, he says. P.M. Parthan of Victory Automobiles, once an Ambassador hub, says we still have a long way to go when it comes to Ambassador as vintage machine. “People keen on restoring it are still few,” he says. Prakashan says finding good Amby mechanics is getting tough. Spares may not be difficult yet, believe owners, considering the number of Ambys still plying. “Getting genuine ornamental parts like the moustache grill for each model may be difficult. But the engine and body parts have largely remained the same,” says Harikrishnan.

As Amby production is suspended, sentiments are varied. ‘Sad’ says Viswanathan though he thinks the brand could have survived with better customer service. Harikrishnan believes greater excise duty on longer cars may also be a reason. “The Amby cannot be chopped,” he says. Nevertheless, he is pragmatic. “There is a limit to which a 60-year-old car can adopt change. The marriage of older design and newer technology will end somewhere.” Gopikrishnan equates the Amby to the grandmother’s house; there may be no luxury like an air-conditioner, but it is still comforting. Meanwhile, adieu for now, Amby.

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