Nepali Times Asian Paints
Her Excellency, the Ambassador


i care about the Ambassador because I do not like losing old friends, especially ones which bring back memories of better times. With her friendly pug-nosed face, headlights resembling the eyes of Thomas The Tank Engine, aero-dynamically-unfriendly rounded roof and unfashionable high gait, she recalls the gallant days of motoring when drivers never knew whether they would reach their destination without a breakdown.

The Ambassador is the steam engine of the Indian road, a challenge to drive and requiring much maintenance. Like a steam engine, she too has a long working life- you do not trade in an Ambassador. Until the courts stepped in with emission standards, the average age of the Ambassador taxis on the rank outside my house in Delhi must have been at least 20. But longevity isn't her only selling point. The Ambassador is rugged. A recent advertisement admitted that modern cars scored on miles to the gallon, miles per hour but the Ambassador won hands down on potholes to the mile.

She has advantages for the taxi driver who charges on a per capita basis and of course for the joint family. No one knows what the exact record for an Ambassador's load is: the claims go as high as 30 passengers. I have counted 20 in the remoter parts of India, east of Varanasi.

Potholes, unmarked speed-breakers, bullock cart drivers for whom left and right have no meaning, lorry drivers who claim the freedom of the middle of the road no matter how narrow and many other hazards, mean that breakdowns and accidents are both bound to be frequent on the Indian roads. Here again, the Ambassador scores. Over the many years that she has dominated the Indian roads, there has grown up an efficient and cheap vehicle recovery system. Almost every village on a main road has its mistri or mechanic, who knows the Ambassador like the back of his greased hand.

The Ambassador is the beneficiary of those years of economic planning when industrialists had to get a license from the government to make any investment, the notorious 'license permit raj'. Licensing enabled some 20 families to retain a stranglehold over the industrial economy by using their influence with politicians and bureaucrats to ensure that their products were not threatened by competition.

It wasn't until the early 1980s that the Ambassador faced any competition which might have threatened it. Despite the arrival of the Maruti, the ancient Ambassador still retains a sizeable share of the market.

But India is a land which values tradition, and so even after other competition has arrived in the market, Hindustan Motors say they have no intention of phasing out the Ambassador. So the lady lives on.

Mark Tully is the author of No full Stops in India (Penguin, 1991) and worked for the BBC out of New Delhi for 25 years.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)