Cars: Ambassador gets a 30-year service

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Americans describe it as "a Beetle on steroids", but to any British person of a certain age it looks like what it is: a Fifties Morris Oxford (or Austin Cambridge) with a different grille and two odd-looking scoops taken out of the bonnet.

It is the Hindustan Ambassador, and for 30 years it reigned supreme over an automobile market in which very little else was available.

Today, India's roads are choked with locally produced Daewoos and Suzukis, but the Ambassador still holds its own as the car of government and the armed forces, and the universal taxi. And it is not yielding its place without a fight. Last week Hindustan Motors, manufacturer of the Ambassador, announced that it was investing 750m rupees (pounds 11.5m) in revamping the car, improving its quality and finish and producing new niche models: a 2-litre diesel for hilly terrain, a liquid gas-powered model for environmentally conscious city-dwellers and a bullet-proof version for the nervous. For the time being, its unmistakable look will stay the same.

Ambassadors have for years been notorious in India for their poor finish, heavy handling and proneness to alarming accidents. One local driver recalls waiting years to take delivery of his "Amby", only to find the new car had six major defects right there in the showroom. But the staid, suburban English saloon was tough and it went native, bouncing across ploughed fields packed to the gunwales with passengers, coping well with pot holes, violent treatment, amazing distances and colossal loads. Changing gear could dislocate your shoulder, but the car was practically indestructible - when it did fall apart, the local blacksmith knew how to fix it, and even today a new axle cost only 500 rupees (under pounds 8).

Hindustan Motors still produces 2,000 Ambys a month, 150 per month down on 1996 but still a respectable number.

It was never the only car available in India, but the introduction of India's first real subcompact, the Maruti (in collaboration with Suzuki) in 1985 gave the Ambassador a jolt from which it never recovered. With the liberalisation of imports over the past six years the Indian traffic jam is gradually losing its distinctive character. But new Ambassadors, fitted with 74bhp Isuzu engines, are much more reliable than their predecessors and, as a subcontinental answer, half a century on, to the Model "T" Ford - tough, cheap (under pounds 4,000 new) and easy to repair - it has probably got a good few years left in it.