This post is not about any diplomat but the Hindustan Ambassador car.I heard that the Ambassador may be discontinued in the future as it does not meet the next generation safety norms.I am not a fan of the Ambassador as I have seen her somewhat poor performance in real life crash situations.The structure of the car usually does not get damaged badly but the occupants are at a greater risk than in other cars.However,I do have a few memories of travelling in this car.
You can read more about the car on this link.For several years,only three cars (and their variants) were sold in India.They were the Hindustan Ambassador(derived from the Morris Oxford),the Premier Padmini(derived from the Fiat 1100 D) and the Standard Herald/Gazel(derived from the Triumph Herald).Ofcourse,all that changed in the eighties.The Standard Herald and the Premier Padmini are long gone now,but the Ambassador(Amby) continues to be sold to this day.The car is mainly used as the official car of bureaucrats and politicians apart from being used as cabs and taxis in almost all the cities across the country.I have also seen a few people who love the car so much that they have a carefully maintained example(usually their first car) in their garage,even if they have a different car for everyday use.I do not fall under any of the above categories,so my views about the car are quite neutral.
I will narrate two incidences that I simply cannot forget when I think about this car.Both of them are about Ambys that were used as cabs.The first one is a somewhat scary one that is etched permanently in my mind.Six of us(including the chauffeur-some variants of the car seat six people,others seat five) were travelling in the car along a fairly deserted two-lane highway at night.We were cruising along at about 80 k.m.p.h.,enjoying the cool night air and some film and pop music,when from nowhere,like a bolt out of the blue,two cows ran onto the road a few metres infront of the car.(This is not a rare occurrence at all on Indian roads and one should watch out for these highway cows).I braced myself for a terrible collision of the four-wheeled creature with the four-legged creatures,when the chauffeur performed the perfect ‘elk test’.(Read about the elk test on this link).Maybe I should use the word ‘cow test’ in the Indian context.In a car that steered like a ship and had weak brakes,the guy managed to slam the brakes to slow down the car but not enough to lock the wheels,drifted the car into the wrong lane(momentarily we all thought we were headed for the ditch) but somehow managed to bring her back into the correct lane just in time to avoid a collision with an oncoming truck.(We were lucky that the truck driver too slowed down in time).I am sure that any professional race or test driver would have been proud of that manoeuvre even if it was not performed in an Ambassador.The guy was regarded as the best of the lot in the company and we found out why.
The second one is about the only occasion when I got behind the wheel of an Amby.I had never driven an Amby before and was waiting for one such occasion.Again,it was a cab.I used to travel fairly long distances for two or three days in a week.I became a friend of the cab driver as we used to stop at small roadside cafes for a quick bite and some hot milk tea.
On one such occasion,I asked him,”Why don’t you take a break and let me drive for some time?I have never driven an Amby before and would like to do so”.
The guy said,”Oh!Have you never driven her before?You may try it as you have been missing something”.
I got behind the wheel of the car.It was a well maintained diesel engined Amby.At first,I found it a bit difficult to get comfortable in the driver’s seat as the wheel and the pedals were placed at a small angle from the perpendicular.I had to sit at a corresponding angle to make myself comfortable.The engine roared to life with an unmistakable clatter.I could feel the vibrations through the steering and the gear lever.It took me some time to get used to the gears.The less said about the brakes,the better.The acceleration was not up to the mark and the turning radius was greater than it should have been.But I did enjoy the experience very much !
When we reached home,I thanked him.
“How was it?”,he asked me as I got down.
“It is a unique car”,I told him,”very unique indeed”.
“There is no need to be diplomatic”,he replied with a smile,”I have driven several cars over the years and I know how it feels when compared to the others.But this car has been the only source of livelihood for me and my family over the last few years and we love her”.
“Yes,very true indeed”,I replied truthfully,”Whatever her flaws,the Amby has been a part of life in India for so long but sometimes,we do not give the old lady the respect that she deserves”.
It is because of guys like that hardworking chauffeur that the Amby has managed to live for so long.And it is because of guys like him that we have enjoyed the comfortable back seat of the Amby in our everyday lives.The front seat is not that comfortable.But the back seat is in a class of its own.
By the way,though the example I drove was the one with the old diesel engine,Ambys also come with more modern and more powerful diesel and petrol/CNG engines.Modern Ambys are also equipped with much better brakes,power steering and air-conditioning apart from other additional features and options.
But yes,we must let go of the dear old Amby.Our safety standards must be gradually brought on par with those of the E.U.It is good to see modern cars and multi-utility vehicles replacing Ambys as taxis.A few state governments are helping autorickshaw drivers replace their autorickshaws with taxis by providing them with loans at low interest rates.Rickety old buses are being replaced by much more comfortable ones.Air-conditioned low-floor city buses(with a special device for differentially-abled persons) are a fairly common sight in the metros.
India is becoming a global hub for small car production.Indian companies like Tata Motors are taking the lead in bringing safe,fuel-efficient and environment friendly cars like the Nano into the market at a price that is very affordable for many families.Families that had to use a motorcycle or a scooter till now will be able to travel safely.Pothole strewn highways are giving way to slick four-lane and six-lane expressways.Metro lines and Mass Rapid Transit Systems are being constructed in many cities.India is not a developed country by any stretch of the imagination but we are a country on the move ! We have just shifted into the second gear i.e. “inclusive development”.We need to make sure that everybody is treated equally and that no region gets left out of this development.India must shine for everyone before we can claim our rightful place in the international community.We should not turn a blind eye to our fellow citizens who are less fortunate than us.The day we find no alms-seekers or homeless people on our streets,the day when farmers are given a fair deal,the day when tribals get their fair share of development and modernity on their own terms,we can all say that India is shining !