Black future for India's Model T

It was once said that you could have any car in India as long as it was a Hindustan Ambassador. But then came competition from overseas, and its sales went into reverse
Click to follow

It has been thirsty for fuel, required new parts barely a week after she collected it from the showroom and even forced her to get out and push when it broke down in busy traffic, but Hélène has no regrets about buying her Hindustan Ambassador.

"I fell in love with it when I first came to India. It was the aesthetic of it," said Hélène, a diplomat at the Belgian Embassy in Delhi, who owns a sleek, silver-coloured model. "I thought: I will never, ever, have the opportunity to buy a car like this again. It's a piece of history."

In India it's not hard to find plenty of Ambassador owners equally passionate about their vehicles. Indeed, "Amby" fans will often talk fondly of the heavy steering, the unreliable battery and the various other defects as the price they gladly endure for membership of a special club.

But not everyone agrees.

The vehicle was once practically the only car available in India and which is still the vehicle of choice for government ministers and senior bureaucrats. With the car-buying public, though, it has increasingly fallen out of favour, losing its shine to other Indian brands and glamorous foreign models.

Underscoring the car's long-term decline, the makers, Hindustan Motors, has announced that losses over the last financial year widened to $9.5m (£6.3m). The company revealed its total net worth had fallen by more than 50 per cent over that time, and said it was now required to report to the state-run body which oversees "sick companies" facing bankruptcy or other serious financial woes.

Officials at Hindustan Motors, which started producing the Ambassador – inspired by the 1950s British Morris Oxford – back in 1957, are nonetheless bullish and claim they have a plan to revitalise the marque and inject new life into the company. "Our operations are looking up," Ravi Kathuria, the company's senior vice-president, told reporters. "We're not in a bankruptcy situation."

Setting aside these claims, and the fact that the Ambassador may well struggle on fulfilling the needs of a tiny niche market, there is no disguising the slow and steady decline of a vehicle that, in the 1970s, held a reported 70 per cent of the car market.

Perhaps borrowing from Henry Ford and his famous quotation about any colour version of the Model T being available to customers as long as they wanted black, Indians would darkly joke that any car could be bought as long as it was an Ambassador.

"At that time there was no other choice, apart from one Fiat model. The market was very restricted," said Sugato Sen, senior director of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. "Once the market opened, other models came. Since then Maruti has dominated. Meanwhile, Hindustan Motors has failed to keep up with the challenges. It has never renewed its product."

Another blow to the Ambassador's fortunes has been the increased need for vehicles that can be made secure, especially for VIP occupants. In 2002, it was revealed the then-prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had switched his Ambassador for a bullet-proof BMW SUV. That trend has been continued by the country's current premier, Manmohan Singh.

And last year, the home ministry announced that as part of a move towards increased security, it was to start buying armoured SUVs, rather than Ambassadors. Officials said at the time that equipping a vehicle with bullet-proof armour added an additional 2,000lbs in weight, which made the Ambassador even trickier to handle on the road.

The declining fortunes of the Ambassador – whose luxury model comes complete with curtains, interior fans and poles on either wing for flying official flags – are in stark contrast to the Indian car market as a whole, which is booming.

Around 895 Ambassadors were sold in April, accounting for barely half a per cent of the total number of passenger vehicles, which topped 182,000. The figure for the total of both passenger and commercial vehicles was 231,267 that month, up almost 40 per cent from the same month last year.

Only China is seeing a faster growth in car sales, and the sharp increase is causing massive problems for India, which has long suffered from under-investment, not just in roads but also in public transport.

India enjoys the unenviable statistic of being the most dangerous country in the world in terms of fatal road traffic accidents, proportional to the size of its population. Much of this is to do with the increased number of cars on roads which are also used by cyclists, rickshaws and carts pulled by camels and buffaloes. At the same time, few drivers ever pass proper tests before they clamber behind the wheel. Even now, most drivers prefer to use the horn, rather than the indicator, to give warning of their intentions. Police fail to regularly enforce road rules.

Rubbing salt into the Hindustan Motors wound, the joint Indian-Japanese company that usurped the Ambassador, Maruti Suzuki, now accounts for more than 40 per cent of all vehicle sales in India and has doubled its profits. Maruti's expansion plans are on full throttle. It intends to increase double its production capacity in India to 2 million vehicles per annum within six years.

Such news will do nothing to boost the spirits of the makers of the Ambassador. And yet the classic vehicle, favoured for its strong suspension in a country where the roads are often full of potholes, is not quite dead yet.

Officials, politicians, military chiefs and police bosses still often prefer the Ambassador as their mode of transport. A white Ambassador with a flashing red "cherry" light on its roof – led and followed by a convoy of security vehicles – is still an everyday sight in parts of south Delhi. Sonia Gandhi, head of the ruling Congress Party, is said to be one of those politicians who still opts for the snub-nosed classic as opposed to a sleeker, more modern car.

And the Amby received another vote of confidence earlier this year when it was chosen as the official vehicle for the Commonwealth Games, which take place in Delhi in October. "It could hang on tenaciously to some small corner of the market, but it's no longer the purchase of choice," car analyst Murad Ali Baig told Agence France-Presse.

As for Hélène, she fears she will have to say goodbye to the beloved Ambassador she bought in Delhi three years ago. The diplomat is to be shortly transferred to London and doubts she will be able to take her shiny silver car with her. "But if I could take it with me, I would."