By Penny Macrae/ AFP
New Delhi: India’s iconic Ambassador car--easily the most recognisable vehicle on the country’s potholed roads --was supposed to have been celebrating its 50th birthday this year.
But now the party has been spoiled by an industrial row that has shut the lone factory making the pug-nosed car and raised fears that the Ambassador could be coming to the end of the road.
“We don’t know when things will return to normal. Of course, we hope it’ll be soon,” said Soni Shrivastav, spokeswoman for India’s oldest car maker Hindustan Motors, which produces the Ambassador.
Hindustan Motors, flagship company of Indian industrial house C.K. Birla Group, suspended work at the plant in the eastern state of West Bengal on 11 April following a month of union unrest over pay and other issues.
The dispute has forced festivities to mark the half-centenary of the Ambassador -- known in India as the automobile equivalent of a workhorse for its ability to survive the worst road conditions--to be delayed indefinitely.
The Ambassador’s bulky design, based on the 1950s British-built Morris Oxford, is little changed from when it first rolled off the assembly line in 1957, although the engine is now more powerful.
“It’s an Indian icon,” said Hormuz Sorabjee, editor of India’s leading automobile magazine, Autocar.
For much of the history of independent India when the economy was closed to imports “the joke was that you could buy any car in India -- so long as it is an Ambassador,” Sorabjee said.
But the car, which held a stranglehold on the sector, now has just 3% of the domestic car-buying market. Sales tumbled after economic liberalisation in the 1990s brought in sleek new models that made the plump contours of the Ambassador look dowdy. Now Hindustan Motors makes just 13,000 to 15,000 of the cars a year.
But the Ambassador is still the first vehicle visitors see when they arrive at airport taxi stands -- taxi drivers being its most loyal fans, buying 65% of the cars. It is also used by many top government officials and politicians, although they are also now seen in Mercedes and other luxury cars.
People always know when a “power do” is on in New Delhi because of the fleet of white Ambassadors outside the building, some topped with red beacons to allow VIPs to cut quickly through the Indian capital’s choking traffic.
“The prime minister still uses Ambassador cars and so do his ministers and senior officials,” Shrivastav said in New Delhi, where the C.K. Birla group is based.
In fact, the car’s “power status” allowed Islamic terrorists to drive in a white Ambassador past security at parliament six years ago and stage a suicide attack that left 14 dead and brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. “It’s the car used by the government elite,” Shrivastav said.
The government buys 20% of the Ambassador output while the public buy the rest, according to the latest annual figures, some of them hard-core aficionados who prize its retro looks. “The Ambassador has its own USP and its own loyalists,” said Shrivastav.
The vehicle is also purchased by many people in rural India who know it as a car that lasts, even though it is famously prone to mechanical hiccups. “There’s always some little thing that goes on it. People joke everything in it makes a sound except the horn,” said Sorabjee. “But it can be fixed by any village mechanic anywhere and it’s extremely durable.”
The company estimates there are still some 600,000 Ambassadors on the road. While union leaders at the Uttarpara plant say they are digging in for a protracted fight, Hindustan Motors says it is waiting for “good sense to prevail” among the around 4,500-strong workforce.
Some Ambassador lovers fear the dispute could spell the shutdown for good of the car plant that media reports said is losing around Rs200 million ($4.9 million) annually.
Autocar’s Sorabjee dismisses such fears. “They have had industrial disputes throughout their history,” he said. “I don’t think this one will kill it (the Ambassador),” he said.