Calcutta’s Champion – The Hindustan Ambassador

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In a country of 1.2 billion people with some of the harshest roads on the planet, one incredible machine would dominate for half a century; icon maybe an overused word, not in this case. Hindustan Motors had been producing Morris based vehicles for the Indian sub-continent since the 1940’s with versions of the Morris 10 and 14. Their Landmaster followed the early Morris Oxford design and when the Series III tooling was shipped lock, stock and barrel from Cowley to Calcutta in 1957 the Ambassador story began. The relationship between Morris and the Birla family (owners of Hindustan Motors) had been strong from the company’s origins in 1942 but few would have predicted production would run into the millions. The Uttarpara factory at one stage had a waiting list of up to eight years and Calcutta’s taxi ranks alone were crammed with 33,000 Amby’s. The first Ambassador’s to be produced came with a dated 1476cc side valve power plant but this was replaced after a year with the ‘B’ series engine offering 1489cc OHV and 55bhp. Parts in a tin with the planet gear hand painted in varnish for protectionWhilst it became transport for the masses the Amby was also the choice of Prime Ministers, high ranking officials and the wealthy; it didn’t favour class in a country where badge snobbery had yet to arrive. A nation’s car used for every purpose, a red flashing beacon on the roof symbolised Government officials whereas emergency services were required to display a blue version. Updates were infrequent with a face lift in 1962 for the Mark 2 and the third generation didn’t arrive until 1977, this included changes to the grille, up dated interior and instruments. The 1980’s saw Hindustan introduce the Contessa which was built at the same factory as the Amby. GM sold the tooling for the Vauxhall Victor and the factory installed the Amby’s ‘B’ series engine and although the new model enjoyed reasonable sales the Ambassador’s production line was still offering 24000 units per year during the decade. With the popular decision to include a diesel variant taken in 1978 India’s first oil burning car kept the demand at a reasonable level but like its petrol cousin the ‘B’ series diesel was less efficient than modern engines at the time. The Indian market began to open up and government policies aimed at cleaning up the overcrowded and polluted cities this allowed Maruti-Suzuki to enter and dominate the Indian small car sector with their Alto. Hindustan Motors looked to Isuzu for a new range of power plants that they could build under licence to take their models through the nineties and beyond. The Ambassador 1800 ISZ offered 75bhp and a 5 speed gearbox, new dash, instrument panels and mandatory seat belts; the engines potential was known to the factory as VIP and armoured versions of the Amby had used them since the mid-80s. Suddenly this 40 year old design had pace and power, plus Japanese reliability would ensure a few more years of production for this much loved car. During the 1990’s Hindustan Motors had an R & D department of 250 staff but one doubts much time was dedicated to the Amby. Figures of 4 million vehicles produced by 2004 cannot be confirmed as manufacturer’s records are sketchy but as the numbers declined over the next decade the writing was on the wall for the Amby. In May 2014 Hindustan Motors announced the final completed car had left the production line at their West Bengal plant. From Calcutta to Smallfield Richard Monk is located just a couple of miles from Gatwick airport and has a workshop that has seen many Hindustan Ambassador imports pass through its doors; he is without doubt a leading authority on the marque. The passion started decades ago with his father Wally, a man who didn’t consider vehicle maintenance a priority. ‘My father bought a 1955 Morris Oxford for £15.00 in 1968’ Richard explained. ‘I remember the car very well, WPG 99 and even as a young lad I was amazed its lack of any maintenance never resulted in a break down. Robust and reliable we towed my brother’s stock car all over the country, even up to Cowdenbeath in Scotland and it never let us down’. The Oxford made such an impression in October 1982 Richard then 22 purchased his own; just £150 for a special car he still has today. ‘It’s undergoing the world’s slowest restoration, so far 20 years since I started, but the body work is largely done’ explained Richard as he removed the protective sheets covering his Oxford. The delay in finishing this restoration is largely due to the success of his business maintaining and repairing both imported Hindustan versions and original Cowley built machines. Over the years he has built a vast knowledge of both marques and repaired every conceivable fault and acquired two of the later Amby’s which are massively popular wedding transport for the Indian bride. When I met up with Richard one of his Hindustan’s was minus its engine due to a cylinder head crack that is unlikely to be repairable; so where does he get replacement parts? Hindustan maintenance includes old brake shoes new linings and some clever rivetingOn his workshop floor sat an Isuzu engine and gearbox fresh from a Bedford Midi van, the identical replacement for his Amby. Richard explained that many of the parts were obtainable when the original Oxford was available, for example brake cylinders from a Morris Minor and rear shoes from the Hillman Minx. The front shoes are bespoke, so relining has become the norm in this workshop, requiring special rivets and skill for this job. Over the years Richard has found many matching parts including utilising bits from Marina and Ital models but some parts just have to come from India. Using a contact in the sub-continent original parts are sourced and imported; much handmade and even the packaging is unique. A Differential/Planet wheel repair kit is supplied in a tin can with the parts covered in a varnish, brushed on to stop corrosion with a price tag of 684 Rupees or around £6.00. India’s King of the Road in the UK The nostalgia that surrounds the Amby has led to several companies importing cars direct from the factory plus a few individuals have also taken the chance to own a new, 50 year old car. In the 1990’s London based Fullbore Motors began providing the UK buyer with an Amby more suited to our climate which included installing a heater, rustproofing and the fitting of a catalytic convertor. Resprayed in a more durable finish the Fullbore Mark 10 (as it was named) also enjoyed new seals, tyres and anti-roll bar plus the radiator was drained of coolant reducing the risk of waterborne diseases spreading from the sub-continent. All this pushed the price up to £11,425 in the mid-90s and the options list would take the price higher if you chose a leather interior or the improved dash. One customer that took the idea to another level, Tobias Moss, whose Notting Hill based Karma Kabs vetted customers to ensure their mood didn’t upset the ‘Karma’ ambiance individually created in each car. Silk and flowers adorned both interior and exterior of their Amby’s with customers including many famous faces preferring a more relaxed taxi ride complete with Hindi music and incense. The Fullbore dream disappeared just before the new millennium arrived but many of the 30 imported vehicles are still around and can be purchased for a fraction of their original cost. Riding in the Amby
1995 Hindustan Ambassador 1800 ISZ

Transport for the masses below the Amby above the latest Airbus A380 double decker

Richard’s third Ambassador arrived at Southampton docks in 1996 named ‘Mossy’, this 1800 ISZ supplied in MB white came with air-con but no heater; other exterior finishes included Bombay Racing Green. Mossy’s interior was converted to full wedding spec last May when Richard was requested to ensure one bride attended her big day in style. Richard’s partner Katy created a design that makes a trip in this car an experience to remember with some fabulous fabrics. The choke located low down under the dash was only needed for a few seconds on start-up, the Amby is very manoeuvrable even without power steering. The cable clutch is quite light and the five speed box is slick but with all drum brake cars caution is needed although these are far more effective than my Morris Minors. The rack and pinion has little play and constant steering adjustments were not required as we cruised around the country lanes. The ancient suspension design may induce some body roll when pushed but is able to soak up the worst of the UK’s roads, no surprise when considering the surfaces this marque endures at home. You can imagine using the Amby as your daily driver quite easily; Richard uses a 1954 Morris Oxford and has done for years. Within a few minutes the comfort of the bench seat reassures the traveller you could spend many hours behind the wheel and although the Amby has few sporty pretensions it still makes you smile. Whilst you may not see too many on our roads the Ambassador remains one of the most recognised vehicles on the planet. I wonder how many people have taken a journey in one, many millions no doubt. My ride in the Amby added one more to the list thanks to ‘Mossy’ and Richard Monk; the man to talk to about anything Oxford or Hindustan.

1995 Hindustan Ambassador 1800 ISZ Specification

  • Body: Monocoque 4 door saloon design from the 1950s.
  • Engine: 1817cc 4 cylinder OHC (Isuzu design)
  • Gearbox: 5 speed all synchromesh (Isuzu)
  • Performance: 74BHP @ 5000rpm  0-60mph 16secs  Top speed 84mph
  • Suspension: Front; Independent torsion bar double acting shocks. Rear; Semi elliptical springs with shock absorbers
  • Steering: Helical rack and pinion turning circle 35.5 feet
  • Brakes: Servo assisted 9 inch drums cable handbrake to rear wheels
  • Wheels & tyres: 15in options in both radial and crossply
  • Electrics: 12V Fuel Capacity: 54 Litres
  • Length: 14ft 1in Width: 5ft 5in Weight: 1.7 ton