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All of the local cars built by the Hindustan Motor Company are known by the general name “Ambassador.” There are several models, but to the untrained eye these models are either a Large or a Medium or a Small. From the outside they all look pretty much the same. They only appear in two colors: a kind of cream-ish white, or black, and the paint is always a uniform color from top to bottom. The only way you can tell apart different family members of the Ambassador clan, or try to discern the various years of production, is by looking at the given name of the car. This given name is found underneath the Ambassador family surname, written in chrome and affixed to the trunk.
If a sub-name is not visible then one just makes a guess. In fact, it doesn’t matter too much whether your guess is right or not because from one year to the next they sometimes manufacture the exact same vehicle and stamp a new name to the trunk, if they put one at all.
Nobody refers to their car by a model name. They just say “I have a Large Ambassador,” or “Our family has a Regular Ambassador.” I haven’t figured out what a “Regular Ambassador” is, and nobody bothers to explain it to me when I ask. The year of manufacture doesn’t matter too much to the owner either because in essence all mechanical parts are also the same.
In the mid-20th Century the Indians came up with a design that worked, and kept with it forever, just making the vehicle a little longer or higher as needed for selling it to a particular income sector.
The government officials always get a Large Ambassador, for example. Managers, from places like banks or other companies of importance, generally get a Medium. Nobody seems to actually set out to buy a Small, because that says you are just a nondescript middle-class person, but there are a lot of Smalls out there on the roads. This phenomenon of nobody ever buying a Small Ambassador is probably something like selling a shoe that is secretly size 10 to a person who insists her tiny feet always and forever have worn a size 6. Indian salesmen are the epitome of politeness and diplomacy, no matter what they are selling.
Although in India you now see imported cars from Japan, Korea, and Europe, and now that legislation has been passed to allow other automobile manufacturing to operate within India, you see a goodly number of non-Ambassadors on the road. In fact, even the Hindustan Motor Company itself today makes a few different-looking vehicles under different names picked to sound strong or sexy or Western-like.
But in the final analysis, the Ambassador is king of the road and represents the spirit of India, and still is seen everywhere.
If you happen to watch Hindi movies, everybody except the hero drives around in Ambassadors, so they are easy to glimpse from abroad. They look like plain, unadorned small sedans from some very conservative designer in the early 1950s in the United States. There are no fancy lights on the front or the back, never any racing stripes or spoilers, and the door handles are always precisely the same.
The controls inside are always the same too, so if you learn how to drive one Ambassador you can drive them all, no matter if it was manufactured last year for a member of parliament or was built 30 years ago for some wealthy family. The seat material feels the same to your hand in every model, and the springs in the seats, particularly the rear ones, all feel the same to your rear.
If you are as tall as I am—which is taller than much of the Indian population—your head also feels the same in every model of Ambassador when you sit in the back seat and keep getting bounced upward and your skull hits the roof. In fact, that is how I found out the structural beams in the top of the Ambassador were always in the same place for all models. While studying Ambassador cars, I learned quickly how to politely maneuver the seating arrangements so I could sit in a spot that lets my head hit a smooth area of cloth-covered steel instead of a support rib that really hurts.
Most car trips I’ve taken in India have been in Ambassadors. I’ve literally spent weeks inside of them over the years. I cannot speak high enough praise to do justice to the Ambassador. Once you look at what it can do, you wish you could own one in America.
The body of an Ambassador car is made of pig iron, I’m sure of it. It really is that tough. An Ambassador can bang into other cars, into camels, into trucks—anything at all—and never show a dent.
However, once in a while you will see a dent on the front left fender of an Ambassador. This is caused by only one thing: the car was making a right turn into a narrow alleyway. Normally, since that car probably was driving out of a narrow alleyway, making the right turn often requires the possibility of backing up and re-orienting the car in a couple of separate movements. This is unacceptable, and impractical. So, the driver of the car just allows the front left fender of the car, above the headlight, to be crunched by the sharp corner of the building wall as he forces his Ambassador around the narrow corner. This is done on purpose, to cleverly alter the physical configuration of the car. From then on, that car forever can go through that right turn.
You can’t back up in any of these kinds of streets without problems. First of all, they use tall, old buildings as guardrails, thicker and stronger than a bank vault. Second, if you tried to back up, the empty alley spaces around you would fill with scooters, pedestrians, other cars, bicycles, large animals, and the ever-present Indian style of human-pulled rickshaws. Nature really abhors a vacuum in Indian streets.
So, the driver, who sits on the right side of the car—after all, it was a British controlled land for a long time—always causes the left front fender to be crunched to size. In this way, the driver never has to look at an unsightly dent on his side of the car. Everyone expects a crumpled fender on the left side of the car, but if it is on the right side, where the driver sits and can see best, it becomes a statement of the driver’s incompetence. Great efforts are made by drivers to ensure that not even a scratch shows on the right side of their car.
For all other cases, only a bus, also constructed of incredibly strong and heavy pig iron, can alter the body of an Ambassador, and that is by crashing into it at full speed. Still, when that happens, most of the time the body of the car is still so tough that the occupants are only shaken up a little. Sometimes when that happens, nobody even comes to a full stop. Both bus and car continue to drive on their way after the drivers shout a few phrases of very fast Hindi at each other, usually things that to them are very rude but to Americans are amazingly mild; an example: you are a bullock cow.
The tires are also miracles. We need tires like this in the United States for they can travel anywhere. We are not talking about big heavy-treaded wheels like you’d find on a truck. Ambassador tires look like thin, ordinary tires. But there is some secret in the way they are made. When they are mounted on an Ambassador, there seems to be no dirt or rock road, no 50-degree slope, no scattered bricks or potholes or sharp things that can make a tire go flat or deter the direction in which the car is going. The car, in fact, acts with the same personality of the confident Indian who walks to his destination. Ego is floating high above all that may deter him, and thus things on the road and other vehicles are ignored except for subconscious just-barely-enough changes made to his pace and direction to avoid things … but only simple things, such as running over a person. In the case of major things, the driver would stop, get out, and start shouting about the train or bullock carts blocking his way.
One must admit that on very rare occasions even Ambassador tires get a puncture. The first time I saw a flat tire was when a particularly rough road challenged a very old tire. To be fair to the tire, it wasn’t a road, really, but a questionable pathway some optimistic village person told us was a road. The tire only went flat because it was already way beyond its end-of-life point: no tread left; air refills at every stop; in other words, running merely on the same tough sinews that are found inside every Indian.
Many times these rare flat tires can be repaired by shops in villages, and then it is good for another million kilometers or so. In fact, it is this durability, this toughness, that keeps everything in the country going, no matter what.
India has been swept by the harsh brooms of Alexander the Great, the Hindu power wielders, the Mughal Empire, the Muslim kings, the British Empire, soap operas from America, music videos, and fast-food chains. The nation has endured the discord between separate states within, when each state was run by local very rich and quite powerful rajas. The country has lasted through the fires of the unification era of Gandhi and Nehru, the good and bad parliaments, and the biggest challenge of all: the requirement for India to offer something special to the rest of the world neighborhood.
Through all of this, there still is a basic India that remains, tough and unbreakable like an Ambassador car.
Alex Maarten is a 20-year veteran of the high-tech industry. He now writes full time while trying to figure out his adopted Indian family.