The one car I knew I had to drive if I ever went to India was the Hindustan Ambassador. Going to India and not driving one would be like going to Philadelphia and not eating a cheesesteak, or going to Paris and avoiding the Eiffel Tower, or going to Colombia and not swallowing several condoms full of cocaine. You just can't avoid it.
The Hindustan Ambassador is India. If there was a big parade with every country getting one car to represent them, India wouldn't even have to vote. Of course it'll be the Ambassador. Hey, by the way, someone should do that parade.
(Full Disclosure: I was in India because Mahindra has an amazing CEO. I got to drive an Ambassador around Mahindra's test track because I asked them to find me one, and, incredibly, they did. They don't even build the damn thing. )
Readers unfamiliar with the Ambassador but with 20/600 vision or better may notice that the design looks a bit dated. You know, just a touch. Well, nothing gets by you, sweet, sweet reader. The Ambassador's design is an honest-to-Ganesh 56 years old. The Amby started life way back in 1957 as a Morris Oxford Series III. Even back in the late '50s nobody was looking at the Oxford and thinking "this design is so radical and ahead of its time it could last into a future age where pornography can be instantly beamed to a tiny screen in your pocket."
It's a 56-year old car, gently upgraded over the years with some (relatively) modern drivetrains and minor cosmetic changes. It's like a time capsule, and in this context, it's absolutely without peer in the automotive world, save for maybe the Morgan 4/4. When it was designed, man had yet to leap into space, the current president of the United States had yet to be born (in Kenya or Hawaii), and computers took up entire buildings. It's old.
Today, Hindustan Motors is in a bit of a pickle. For years they were one of the only cars anyone could get in India at all, and in that protected environment the Ambassador thrived. Once the market opened up, Indians rapidly left the evergreen Amby to the cabbies and government officials. Currently, most Ambassadors are sold to the Indian government, where, decked out with flags and often a red light, serve as VIP cars for politicians and the like. In fact, the car that Mahindra sourced for me to drive came from some local politician. Hence the (covered) flags.
I would have loved to have heard the pitch to the politician to convince him to loan his car to some American dipshit he's never met. A dipshit who wants to drive his stately, comfortable VIP car around a track. Someone at Mahindra must have either the silverest of tongues or a healthy willingness to distribute bribes.
The look of this car is by far the best part about it, and it certainly is good. It's so wonderfully archaic, so out of time with modernity, it's like a coelacanth or something. It's really quite pretty in its rounded, somewhat dumpy way, but more than that it's just charming.
At the Mahindra dealership I visited I got to see a brand-new Ambassador. The borrowed one I drove was older, somewhere around 2003-2005 or so. Even the half-hearted attempts to modernize the look, the body-colored bumpers, and on the newest ones, the modern crisp-edge taillight lenses just reinforce how archaic the whole thing looks.
What baffles me about the car is how jaded Indians are to it. I would have thought this retro-looking rear-wheel drive fossil would be perfect for Indian hoons and hot-rodders to cram in more potent engines and uprated suspension and other bits and make them into terrific street rods. Currently, that's not really on Indian drivers' minds, and that's a shame. Because this car would make an incredible drift car or something similarly absurd. Hindustan should be exporting them to America without engines just for this purpose. We have plenty of LS1s sitting around, just waiting for something like this.
The interior is truly baffling on the Ambassador. On the brand-new one I saw at the dealership, the interior was done up in a pleasing fawn/beige color. So far so good. But, if you possess eyes and hands, things rapidly decline. I've never encountered such shitty plastics and fit/finish and build quality on almost any consumer product before. Seriously, I've seen Happy Meal toys with more refined construction and materials. It's surprising, because this is a car for Important People, and the overall mechanical build quality seems excellent, and has a reputation for extreme ruggedness.
I believe that, seeing Ambassadors all over the place, handling the rough Indian road conditions with aplomb. But the interior dash plastics, the door panel fittings, all that are just awful. Look at this center-mount stop light housing — the beige plastic's color is mottled, there's plastic flash around the seams from sloppy finishing after molding — it's surprising.
The older model I drove had a black interior, and had the distinction of having the dimmest dash idiot lights I've ever seen. It's like mood lighting for your glow plug indicator.
On the plus side, the seats, especially the rear bench, are incredibly comfortable. It's like a big sofa. And that makes sense — the VIPs who have these cars are often driven, not driving. So the effort and quality is put into the parts where the Important People will be. The dashboard and controls may never even be touched by the big shot sleeping on the back seat.
Thanks to some early unibody construction the not-so-big Ambassador is actually quite roomy on the inside, especially in the back seat. Plus, the trunk is a vast, domed cavern that you could comfortably nap in.
The biggest problem? The pedals. I've never driven a car with pedals placed as uncomfortably as this car. I'm not even sure how or why they're that way — they just make your legs feel like you kind of have to exert energy to hold them in an awkwardly high positon. They may be bending some sort of physics constants to make this happen. It's hard to describe, but when you sit in the car, something feels off immediately. I'm sure you'd get used to it, but for my short drive it was awkward.
I suppose it's nice that Hindustan has kept the acceleration matching the look of the car. Even though it's swapped out the archaic Morris engine long ago, the mostly-modern 2 liter Isuzu diesel isn't exactly a powerhouse, cranking out a tidy 52 HP at 4200 RPM. Being a diesel, the torque's a bit better at 78 lb-ft at a mere 2200 RPM. Those 50 horses have to pull about 2600 lbs of vintage unibody and VIP ass, so things are pretty leisurely.
On the track, it didn't feel quite as slow as the numbers would suggest, but that may just be because on the oval, mostly featureless track there's not much to remind you how slow you are. It's relaxed, let's say. Maybe stately. Stately is better.
Well, the brakes do make you feel a lot better about the lack of acceleration. I'll give them that. There's discs up front, at least, drums in the rear, and they're connected to what feels like a little rubber hat stuck on a short, sturdy column of Silly Putty.
They do stop you, but it's a bit more gradual than you may choose in many situations.
Even the original Oxford back in the 50s was noted for its comfort, and that hasn't changed in half a century. It's a smooth-riding car, the suspension is tweaked in favor of comfort so it soaks up bumps and turns them into pleasant little rolling hillocks of vertical motion.
Even on the banked sections of the track the Ambassador held itself with grace and poise, doing all it could to keep the possible Important People in the back from noticing that the car was mostly sideways.
From a ride context, this car makes total sense.
It's not that the handling is that bad, it's just that it feels genuinely vintage and is more tuned to comfort than handling, anyway. It's not a car really designed to carve up roads like a Lotus. It's softly sprung, the body leans and rolls, and the assisted steering, while quite easy, isn't particularily responsive or direct.
That said, driving it with these caveats in mind is still a very enjoyable experience, and with 50 oil-guzzling horsies on tap, how much of a limit are you really going to push it to? I suspect there's lots of low-hanging fruit to pick here for some easy handling improvements in the hypothetical world where people turn Ambassadors into rubber-burning sleepers.
I liked the gearbox. It's a five-speed manual, and, yes, the shifter was a little vague, but once you got used to it, it felt pretty good. The ratios are well picked to make the most out of the power and torque on tap, so taking off from a dead stop doesn't feel quite as lethargic as all the evidence would seem to suggest.
Well, this is tricky. By all standards, the engine doesn't technically sound good, or powerful, or have an animalistic snarl. It's a diesel, and has the characteristic agricultural clatter of a diesel. But I liked it. It fit well, and there was something endearing about the rattle.
The body's well-insulated, so if you don't want to hear the engine, it's not too big a deal to avoid it. The audio system seems to be just a generic single-DIN sized head unit, so don't get your hopes up there. But who cares, you can put aftermarket iPad docks and whatever in pretty much anything if you really want to.
You wouldn't think the Ambassador would be above average here, but it is! And, again, the action's in the back seat. There's no LCD screens on the dash or nav systems or anything like that, but there's a very cool gooseneck LED reading lamp on the rear parcel shelf so the significant people in the back can read about themselves in a little article in the Economist or Maxim or whatever.
Also back there is a nifty little octopus of phone-charging cables with connectors designed to fit most brands of phone. That way, you never have to worry about bringing your own adapter. Neat, right?
The loaner car I had had a few other interesting tidbits: a strange mirror facing the rear seat, possibly for checking how you look? It didn't seem positioned to look out the back of the car, but maybe it's for that. Also, flag mounts count as a cool car toy in my book any day.
In US dollars, the Ambassador comes to about $9373. That's cheaper than anything you can buy in the US today, and this thing is so much cooler than a Nissan Versa or something it's not even funny. Sure, it's outclassed in almost every category other than ride or trunk space by almost anything you can buy, but it's got so much charm I just don't care. I'd happily give up 50 HP to get in this everyday as opposed to a Yaris or something.
It gets about 27-28 MPG, which isn't too bad for a four-door. It's not amazing for a diesel, but, well, it's not bad.
The build quality of the mechanical and exterior parts seems good, but it is sort of a plasticky exposed screw-heads craphole inside. Comfy craphole, though!
I think the numbers here are honest and fair, but I'd encourage everyone to put an asterisk by the final score, because this thing has so much survivor's charm. It's an iconic vehicle, and as such is more than the sum of its parts, or the slapdash way some of those parts are put together.
- Engine: 2.0L Isuzu Diesel I4
- Power: 52 HP at 4,200 RPM/ 78 LB-FT at 2,200 RPM
- Transmission: Five-Speed Manual
- 0-60 Time: Pack a lunch
- Top Speed: Maybe 80?
- Drivetrain: Rear-Wheel Drive
- Curb Weight: 2,600 LBS (est.)
- Seating: 5 or 6
- MPG: 27 MPG or so
- MSRP: $9,373