The Hindustan Motors Ambassador has for decades lived up to its name and been a true ambassador for the Indian motoring industry to the rest of the world. Now that it has finally stopped rolling off the assembly line, the legendary motorcar is now a machine that invokes nostalgia, adding a whole new dimension to its character.
Once ubiquitous, it is now a scarce sight for locals and tourists alike, with taxi stands serving as museums to this hefty chapter of Indian motoring. But there are always those who would drive themselves to their next destination, and for these brave travellers, the bulbous old vehicle is ever ready to fire up and return to the chaos of Indian roads. And this is exactly what 15 tourists are up to on this unusually hot January, driving Ambassadors across the length of South India, as part of India’s Cup rally, an event organised by Travel Scientists, a Chennai-based adventure tourism group.
“The Ambassador rally, which we call ‘India’s Cup’, has been conducted five times a year since 2008 along predetermined routes. Since the Ambassador is a vintage car of sorts now, we have refurbished a few and hand them over to participants to drive,” says Princely J., lead organiser. The participants are divided into four teams, and started out from Chennai on January 18, passing through Vijayawada, Goa and Ooty before arriving in Kochi. They will continue on to Thiruvananthapuram, before circling back to Chennai.
Princely explains that the participants are only given the route and destinations, and are free to travel in groups or on their own, and explore each destination as they choose. “We provide recommendations, but the idea is for them to have the freedom to explore.” Some of the proceeds from the event are also donated to charity.
Coming back to the car, the Ambassador, which like many other things that eventually became Indian, started out as a British Morris Oxford. While it is considered one of the sturdiest cars ever built, reliability has never been its strong suit, as the participants soon found out. “These are refurbished and fitted with petrol engines, but they do tend to break down,” says Maldwyn Gudgeon, a British tourist who is taking part in the rally with his son-in-law, Christopher Thomas. “We’ve been to India many times before but only to Goa and Kerala, so this has been a good way to see more of the country, it’s been great fun. Ooty and the tea plantations there were lovely.”
Maldwyn and Christopher, who are in the business of converting attic spaces into rooms back in England, recount instances of breakdowns in Vijayawada and Kochi and the trials of driving on Indian roads in general. “We have driven mopeds on these roads before so it was not a big transition for us, but for some of the first time drivers here, there was the occasional close shave. Driving at night and dealing with bus drivers has been a real eye-opener,” says Christopher light heartedly, with Maldwyn adding that driving in Hyderabad was his most testing experience yet.
The two also agree that it has been good to meet fellow tourists, even if they do not always travel in a group. “It has been different, travelling by road and seeing all these new cities, though personally I’d have loved to see more of the coastline,” says Christopher. Did any of those cities intrigue him? “They’re nice, but it’s still Goa for me.”
With many miles to go before their journey reaches its end, the adventurous travellers are off again, the Ambassadors hauling them along in their own unhurried way to destinations anew.
The Ambassador as we know it is based on the Morris Oxford III.
It remained in production from 1958 to 2014, when production was suspended.
One of the early engines used by the Ambassador was a 1.5 litre 55bhp, BMC B-series petrol engine, though it was later replaced by Isuzu engines and would go on to become predominantly a diesel car.
The car saw a few revisions, with the Mark I,II,III and IV being the classic versions, followed by the Nova, Classic, Grand, and the radically designed Avigo, launched in 2003 to restore the car’s flagging image.