Fondly described as 'the king of the roads' in the subcontinent, the Hindustan Ambassador is on its way to extinction, writes Peter Calder.
As deaths go, it was slow and undignified. For the traditionalist, it must have been painful, too. But the Hindustan Ambassador, a symbol of India as iconic as the Taj Mahal and the riverside laundryman called a dobhi wallah, has ended a production run that began 70 years ago.
In May last year, the last of the stately and ponderous motor cars rolled off the production line at the Hindustan Motors plant in Uttarpara, near Kolkata (Calcutta).
It was the inevitable result of a beleaguered couple of decades: despite retooling in 2011 to meet tough new emission standards, and a redesign and rebranding (to Avigo) in 2003, the Ambassador finally wilted in the face of competition, principally from the Suzuki subsidiary Maruti and from the automotive arm of Tata, India's largest company, which now owns the Jaguar and Land Rover brands worldwide. The demand of the Indian middle class for prestige marques such as Audi and BMW hastened the process.
It had been, by any measure, a precipitous fall from grace. In the year before they pulled the plug, HM sold 2200 Ambassadors, down more than 90 per cent on the mid-80s figure. Even in 2010, the Ambassador was attracting fewer than one in 200 new-car buyers.
Yet when I first visited India in the mid-90s, I couldn't move for the things. Virtually every taxi was an Ambassador; likewise every Government car (the top-of-the-line VIP model featured curtains, fans and tiny flagpoles on each wing). Bureaucrats and dignitaries had them on standby and anything that wasn't an Ambassador was conspicuous.
These days, they're hard to find. In October in the south of the country, I asked my autorickshaw driver to pull over so I could get a picture of one outside a driving school, though why anyone would need to learn how to drive one now is a mystery.
The Ambassador was a source of amusement to baby-boomer Kiwi travellers on their OE, since it reminded them so much of the ageing English fleets from which they had chosen their first cars in the 1970s.
Little wonder: it was a Morris Oxford by another name, and it was one of myriad culture shocks the visitor to India encounters to see one with 1200km on the clock.
Hindustan Motors began manufacturing the Landmaster 10, as it was called, under licence to Morris in 1942. It was a clone of the Morris 10, with its old side-valve motor, but by 1957, all the tooling of the series III Oxford was moved to India, and production, under the Ambassador name, began.
It continued uninterrupted until last year, with only minor cosmetic changes, which was no small part of the problem: with a few exceptions (the Volkswagen Beetle and the Vespa scooter spring to mind), modern motor vehicles are unrecognisable as descendants of their Mark I version. But the Ambassador has always looked like an Ambassador. Immune, as they thought, to challenge, Hindustan Motors remained regally aloof from the idea of innovation. The result was as inevitable as the death of the dinosaurs.
As late as 2010, the UK Independent's Delhi-based Asia correspondent Andrew Buncombe quoted the company's senior vice-president, Ravi Kathuria, as saying things were "looking up", but Sugato Sen, senior director of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, was less sanguine.
"Once the [formerly restricted, newly globalised] market opened, other models came," he said. "Hindustan Motors failed to keep up with the challenges. It has never renewed its product."
Yet it would take a hard heart not to mourn the passing of this grande dame of the Indian road. Sure it was as heavy as a decent small truck, by all accounts it handled poorly, even after power steering was added to the higher-end models 10 years ago, and it had a suspension most charitably described as robust.
But it has a special place in history, as one owner told me when I stopped to admire his specimen, with its brocaded interior decoration, Hindu deities and leather steering-wheel cover.
"I have sentiment," said the Ambassador, his command of English not quite equal to the depth of his passion. He fired up the motor, which burst into instant life.
"I will always drive Ambassador."
Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies daily from Auckland to many points in India, via their hub in Hong Kong.
The writer travelled to India with assistance from Cathay Pacific.