The feeling when you get out of an airport and call out “taxi!” and an ambassador shows up. Well, that’s the feeling of luxury and comfort. Shiny chrome-plated handles, comfortable seats, all of the features of the car spoke absolute class. Vacation meant an HM Ambassador back in those days.
Just have to hop in and throw in the luggage in its spacious boot and just enjoy the journey. If you could afford this car during India’s era of a socialist economy, it meant you were rich and important, because it was the vehicle of the political class and a symbol of the state. The white Ambassador with a red beacon on top was synonymous with politicians, often referred to as ‘Laal Batti Wali Gaadi’. Once called the “king of roads”, the Hindustan Motors Ambassador was considered as the standard Indian car for over five decades. But now, we remember it as a lost gem, something which lost its value over the years just. It is the bygone symbol of wealth and power in India.
Brief History of HM Ambassador
The Ambassador was based on the Morris Oxford Series III Model, which was first made by Morris Motors Limited at Cowley, Oxford in the UK from 1956-1959. The Hindustan Motors Limited(HM) started to operate in a small assembly plant in Port Okha near Gujarat and later planned to upgrade their existing Hindustan models. It dominated the car industry for several decades mainly due to its strength and spacious size when compared to its competitors like Premier Padmini and Standard 10.
Amby: The Models and Versions
Hindustan Landmaster (1954-1957)
The story of the Ambassador begun from the Landmaster, which was released at the same time as the Fiat 1100 Millecento. It was essentially the Morris Oxford Series II which was late replaced by the Morris Oxford Series III and was equipped with a 1.5 litre 4-cylinder side-valve engine.
Hindustan Ambassador Mark I (1957-1962)
This car came with the same side-valve as in the Landmaster but went through major changes in regard to its new front end, grille, dimpled bonnet and a tail section with tail fins. The tail fin design remained unchanged almost until 2014. The interior was also upgraded with changes in the steering wheel, wooden grain dashboard and dials. This was the last model to feature the semaphore type indicators.
Hindustan Ambassador Mark II (1962-1975)
In 1962, the car underwent a frontal facelift, which had a slight similarity to the Morris Mini, having white oval frontal indicators inset into the grille. It had an updated wooden dashboard with new dials. Its bumpers remained the same with the metal overrides, but when smaller when compared to those available in Mark I.
Hindustan Ambassador Mark III (1975-1979)
The Mark III was launched in 1975 with a much more developed frontal grille design consisting of a horizontal slat design and round indicators that were placed below the headlamps, but it remained unchanged with exterior design just like the Mark II. This was one of its first editions where the front indicator and the grille belonged to different units. The Mark III was made available with a 1760cc version of the Morris 1.5litre inline-four with the main intention of being able to propel a full-air conditioning system.
Hindustan Ambassador Mark IV (1979-1990)
The predecessor, Mark III had a very short lifespan. In the following version, Mark IV adopted a more modern face and a slightly altered front end with a smaller grille. This was the standard design that continued till the end of the Ambassador’s production in 2014. It now had yet another redesigned grille with a chequered flag design and large square parking lamps mounted just below the headlamps with a front lip spoiler below the bumper with amber indicator lamps mounted on them. A diesel variant was also introduced which was powered by a 1489 cc, 37 bhp BMC B-series engine. It was the first diesel car in India.
Hindustan Ambassador Nova (1990-1999)
Launched with two engine options comprising of a 1.5 litre 55 bhp petrol and 2-litre, non-turbo 37 bhp diesel engine, the Nova was a more economical and cheaper version of the Mark IV. Cost-cutting meant that the classy grille was replaced by a more basic version and that the metal over riders on the bumper was replaced by rubberised ones. The front lip below the bumper continued but the amber indicators were removed and an integrated amber parking light and indicator unit was installed instead just under the headlamp. In 1992, to make the Nova a little more appealing, Hindustan Motors offered the 1.8 litre Isuzu petrol engine to the public.
Hindustan Ambassador Classic (1998-2010)
Hindustan Motors launched the Classic as an improvement over the Nova, claiming over a hundred changes including the flush-mounted bumpers, beige interiors, plastic dashboard, etc. it also was provided by a power steering and a 1.8 litre Isuzu Petrol engine. This model gained the ‘Classic’ nametag at the 1998 Delhi Motor show and they have been available, since then with the gamut of 1.5-2 litre petrol, CNG and diesel engines.
Hindustan Ambassador Grand (2003)
The Grand model was launched in 2003 and had nearly 137 changes when compared to its predecessor, including the body-coloured wrap-around bumpers, camel coloured interior, fabric seats, remote shift gear level, moulded roof and door trims, etc. The Grand was available only in 2 litre and 1.8-litre engines at first, but later the 1.5-litre model was also added.
Hindustan Ambassador Avigo (2004-2010)
This version retained the front bonnet design from the very first Landmaster series. The main panel at the rear remained the same but the tail lamp and nameplate bezels were redesigned. The entire dashboard console was redesigned with a classic retro theme matching the Mark IV models. The car was priced more than the already existing models as it was the most radically furnished version of the venerated Ambassador.
Hindustan Ambassador Encore (2013)
The Encore was the final version of the Ambassador launched in 2013, which had a BS4 engine and 5-speed gearbox. This version was developed on the basis of Austria’s Magna Steyr. Even with having passed all the emission tests, the car was still one of the least performers and slowest cars of the era.
Signs of impending downfall
There was a time when people had to wait for over a year to have the car delivered. The Ambassador enjoyed a monopoly from 1958 to the early 1980s when Maruti entered the market with its flagship 800cc models. A sort of liberalisation took place in the country where markets were opened up to new competitors. This declining popularity must have been a clear signal to the manufacturers to bring about certain innovations in the design, but they failed to do so and hence the Ambassadors saw a major decline thereafter.
In the 1990s, the only place where one could spot the car was inside the garage of government officials. The car failed to capitalize on the market and eventually lost out when the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee replaced his Ambassador with a BMW SUV.
The overall journey of the Ambassador can be summed up as “from a classic car to a taxi, and then neither”. In a BBC show, Top Gear, it was pitched against a variety of other vehicles and it came out as a clear winner. But this wasn’t enough to bring its status back into the market.