While the media have emotionally played up the formal end to the production of Maruti 800s, they have chosen not to focus on what has to be without doubt the bigger news from the automobile industry: The Ambassadors continue to be manufactured.
Why Ambassadors continue to roll out of the assembly line has to be the second biggest conundrum facing mankind. The first, of course, is: What the heck is a conundrum?
But seriously, I cannot imagine anyone with IQ, even if it is only decimally higher than that of a bottle cap, opting to buy Ambassador cars in this day and age. Which naturally means one has to be a Government to buy it.
Government and its chief competitor in fleecing the common man, the cabbies, are the main buyers of Ambassador these days. Ambassadors, rugged and roomy, as taxis are understandable at one level. But why are they popular as official vehicles for Ministers and bureaucrats? Well, it has evolved to be the metaphor for socialism, which is a barely-disguised euphemism for abject poverty. Verily, Ambassadors help to establish that one is not rich.
Prosecution: This man as a Minister has amassed wealth from all the possible scams this country has seen. We have enough documentary proof to establish that. The money trail leads right up to him and his closest family members.
Judge: This seems to be open and shut case.
Accused: But, my Lord, this is untrue. I still travel only in an Ambassador.
Judge: (Shocked) Ambassador? You mean the Ambassador car? You’re that poor? Case dismissed. The court also orders the government to provide monthly subsidy to the accused under NREGA.
Okay, this sounds slightly exaggerated. But such a reasoning alone can possibly explain why there has been no armed revolution in this country despite Sharad Pawar continuing to be a Minister.
Before we get all snarky, let us also state that Ambassador was the largest selling car in the country for nearly over four decades till the 80s, a record that was largely possible due to two important facts 1) The car was reliable and sturdy in Indian conditions 2) There was no other competitor.
Really. Well, Premier Padmini was there. But it was less a car more a wheel-fitted matchbox, something that could be, if you tried enough, parked in your drawing room showcase. It was a car which felt comfortable if the driver made some space, like by operating it from outside.
But Ambassador was commodious. Its boot space alone was good enough to pass off a 2BK apartment in most cities, and as a condominium with a view of the river, when parked in front of the Cooum in Chennai.
The early version of Ambassador, as can be imagined, was pretty basic, with just about four wheels and a steely hood to go with it. It was only in their subsequent variations that they chose to incorporate other features like a working engine. I say this out of the personal experience of having been on a Mark 1 Ambassador in my childhood. It could reach the speed of 15 kms only on days when a strong wind was behind it. Otherwise, it exhibited the agility of an arthritic pensioner on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Another thing about that car was that the steering and the wheels worked in two different time zones: The wheels moved roughly eight seconds after you turned the steering. Which meant if you wanted to take a turn at T Nagar, you began working on the steering at Mambalam. Also, if you allow me to get a bit technical here, the wheel and steering were aligned together on the geometric formula: To move the wheel one degree from its axis, turn the steering two full rounds. So basically what it meant was the driver had to entwine his arms like Ravichandran Ashwin in his delivery stride. But less ungainly.
In the subsequent years, dad’s office offered him a Mark 3, which was a major improvement from its previous versions, in that it had a full-fledged working ashtray. Seriously, those were the kind of improvements that they were coming up with. But by the time they came to Mark 4, they had embraced high-end technology and managed to fit in working indicators at both front and back. And soon, Ambassadors reached the level where ACs could be fitted in it, eventually leading to what is inarguably the greatest line written on the back of any car: ‘AC. No Hand signal’.
By the time the 80s came, Maruti also came. It was an indigenous car that was totally built with local technology basically sourced from Japan. Maruti was the svelte seductress while Ambassador was the dependable but dour wife. No surprises over what guys chose there.
But now, after so many years, Maruti 800 has bowed out. But Ambassador is still around. There is an important moral in this, and that is: Slow and steady wins the race.
And it helps to have an engine that cannot, for the life of it, speed.