It was a machine that came closest to being treated as a family pet.
In these days of start-ups and innovation chains, few people have time for nostalgia. One is not referring to vintage cars as conspicuous consumption, like owing a Rolls Royce or a Bentley, but the joy in ordinariness. I was mourning the slow demise of the Ambassador car. Uttarapara, the little suburb in Kolkata where the Ambassador was made, sits dormant. The lastcar was manufactured in 2014. A few years later, the Ambassador car even became an exhibit at the Smithsonian institute in the US.
The Ambassador was a fascinating phenomenon. Built in the age of socialism, it as accommodating and hospitable. I remember in my school days, Ambassador taxis carried 10-15 children stacked amiably in a car. It was a car with a heart — built like a bountiful, domestic housewife, generous enough to seat a joint family of generous proportions. The Ambassador became part of folklore long before it passed away. The Ambassador inspired fondness. Unlike other cars, it was not known for elegance, it possessed no sleek lines, it evoked no sense of the erotic. Yet it symbolised the India of the time, where sharing was every day. As a friend put it, with the joint family, the public sector, the old Congress party, the Ambassador represented the collective imagination. It was a car that was inspiring in its ordinariness. It represented what I call joint family socialism, accommodating the neighbourhood and the locality.
Mechanically, the car was a survivor. It was at home anywhere in India. Any mechanic at a nukkad or a village corner could repair it. It had the durability, the stamina and the humour to survive bad roads. It, not the Nano, was the genuine middle class car, humble in its service, dogged in its survival. It still survives, quietly matching the Maruti and other new cars.
I admit, today, the Ambassador is almost part of nostalgia, running like a commemorative stamp on a few Indian roads. The site where it was once built is lifeless, though a few hundred residents still live in the colonies that surround it. The car eventually gave way to technological advances and yet no new car provides the sense of the Ambassador. The news that Peugot has bought the Ambassador brand and is planning production triggers nostalgia rather than anticipation. The car, when it is reintroduced, may not have that vintage character.
It is now a period piece belonging to the age of Nehruvian innocence. Only in a dowdy socialist era, where aesthetics was populist and design, a dimly heard word, would anyone have courage to realise something like the Ambassador. As a car, as folklore goes, it was perpetually pregnant. It did not evoke a culture of design and steel.
My father, a metallurgist, would say that the Ambassador was a lesson in technological pedagogy. It worked in all the conditions that it was subject to, happy to carry vegetables, packages, or children. He claimed it should have been the model for IIT, providing a sense of service, open to jugaad, affordable, repairable, modifiable, at home to politicians, bureaucrats, VIPs, middle class. It had that wonderful adaptability that a machine needed to survive and be respected in India.
As a child I used to think it had human qualities. I felt it was a bit like Charlie Brown — naive, simplistic, built like my favourite aunts and yet game enough to go anywhere, tolerate anyone. It was not a product, a commodity but a way of life, which provided livelihood to the many. It represented the ideal form of a mixed economy, a privately produced car that served the public good.
As I think fondly of it, almost patting it in nostalgia, I realise it was a machine that came closest to being treated as a family pet. For me, it represented an Indian idea of modernity, subject to infinite variations, treated with contempt and yet loved by all. It was a survivor and yet it lacked ambition. Its improvements were all random, arbitrary, inspired more by a sense of jugaad not by any sense of aesthetics or design. It had a Hindu tolerance to traffic and an amiable old world sense of innovation. It reminded one of a metallic buffalo at rest. I cannot see the new generation value it. It is not an aspirational car; it is too lethargic to seek mobility. It was too accommodative to be competitive. It had no airs as it was content within itself. It was a car with no ifs and buts to it, content with whatever avatar God and the Birlas gave it.
In fact, the problem of a new car is not its identity. The Ambassador has to be a new incarnation, which means it needs a new folklore, a new sociology, a new way to incorporate it into the storytelling of today. The label Peugot already sounds alien. It needs to be mispronounced, indigenised, cursed before it can be accepted again.
The Ambassador, as long as it survived, was an Ambassador of hope. In an age where cars were discarded without a thought, it suggested durability, friendship, a new relationship with technology which did not emphasise built in obsolescence or a need to evoke the erotic or even desire in a technology. I wonder if it will ever learn to speak the new language of design, or evoke the ethos of desire. It feels almost unfair to launch a car which, even if more advanced, is a pale ghost of a legendary ancestor. The tragedy begins when it becomes farcical, lacking the sheer humour, the ease, which no other piece of technology had. It is time to let sleeping Ambassadors lie.