Hindustan Ambassador joins Maruti 800, becomes history

2014 is turning out to be an year of significance in the Indian automotive industry as not one but two of the most iconic automobiles that graced our roads were relegated to history in a span of few weeks from each other. The Hindustan Ambassador and the Maruti-Suzuki 800, two cars that inspired many generations of Indians to take to driving, fulfilled their dreams and aspirations of owning a car and dominated their segments for what seemed like eternity, will no longer roll out of depreciated production lines in Uttarapara and Gurgaon respectively. Will we miss them? Of course, yes. But have they left a void? Quite honestly, apart from few short bursts of emotions running high, we don’t think so.

Both the Amby and the 800 existed too long, oblivious to the advent of newer models from around the globe, with designs that weren’t refreshed for years, mechanicals that weren’t significantly re-engineered for decades and boasting next to nothing in terms of safety features or creature comforts. What they had, and had in spades, were legacies and chequered history. They might have had their origins in Britain and Japan but Indians accepted them as their own, showering the Amby and 800 with loads of love and respect.

Hindustan Motors started manufacturing “The grand old lady of Indian Roads”, as the Ambassador is often fondly referred to, in 1958 and the production continued till May-2014 making it, quite possibly, the longest mass-produced car in the planet. Based on Morris Oxford III of Britain that went out of production in 1959, it is quite startling that HM continued to produce the Ambassador in its original form with no significant styling or mechanical updates this long. To put that in perspective, the Amby has had an incredible run of more than 50 years, a period in which normal cars go under the knife five times at the least. Remember, we are being conservative here. Amby’s tough build that could withstand abuse forever, comfortable ride that could take the non-existent Indian roads in its stride, sofa-like rear seat that enabled sari-clad women in our country to walk in and out in total comfort and incredible ease of repair endeared it to Indians. All that HM had to do was constantly upgrade the car to bring it up to date and they failed spectacularly in it.

With cosmetic changes limited to the grille, parking lamps and taillight lenses, the Amby wasn’t going to go for long. Any last hopes of revival, on the lines of Fiat 500, Volkswagen Beetle or our very own Royal Enfield Bullet, bit the dust when HM announced suspension of production at its factory outside Kolkata a couple of weeks back owing to weakening demand and growing financial problems. Though not officially disclosed, we believe that this is the final nail in the coffin for the much-loved but equally-outdated Ambassador. The grand lady has aged and, for heaven's sake, let's hope that HM lets her rest in peace!

Gleaming in white with contrasting dark tints, armed with crash-guards front and rear, with a swirling flashlight on top, the Ambassador evoked authority and respect like no other. That it was the vehicle of choice for Indian bureaucrats until a few years back isn't surprising.Maruti 800 did all that the Ambassador did and probably more, just that it took a completely different approach to do so. That the 800 accomplished the feat three decades later probably signals the shift in needs and preferences of the Indian market.

Based on the Suzuki Fronte SS80 of Japan, Maruti 800 came in as a whiff of fresh air when it was launched in 1983. Those were the days when all that a prospective buyer had to do was to zero in on either the Premier Padmini or the Hindustan Ambassador that, by then, had become outdated, bulky and slow. Ah, how times change. Modern, light, frugal and more importantly cheaper, Maruti 800 soon became the best-selling car in India. It held onto the top spot until 2004 when its newer sibling Alto leapfrogged it. Though Maruti-Suzuki kept the 800 going with no major upgrades, it continues to rule the Indian market in one form or the other. In fact, multiple generations of the car existed simultaneously in India for some time and, remarkably, each one of them sold well. What should have been successive generations of the 800 became popular in India as Zen, Alto and now Alto 800. With a production run that lasted more than three decades and cumulative sales that exceeded 2.7 million units, the Maruti 800 literally put India on wheels. On 18-January-2014, the last Maruti 800 rolled off the production line, leaving behind a legacy.

Having survived widespread rumors of getting axed in 2012, Maruti 800 finally drove into sunset this time around. We were quite vocal about our feelings for this little car then and even drove a beautifully-maintained 1984 model to mark its end in our own way.

For hundreds of Indian families, the Ambassador or the 800 were the first car they had owned. Thousands of those who hold a driving license today probably learnt driving in one of these two cars. With the curtains down on such iconic, cult models, an era in the Indian automotive industry has definitely come to an end.

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