The Hindustan Ambassador started life as the Morris Oxford, made under license in India. This vehicle would start life as a side-valve engine powered Hindustan LandMaster, before quickly updating the engine to a 1.5 liter displacement overhead valve unit, it’s almost cult like status would follow soon with the Mark 1, Mark 2, Mark 3 and Mark 4 Ambassador. The review I attach is by experts, and is time period current of the expectations of such a car in 1957, in its home market. The updated Morris Oxford shown here in this review has some extra goodies, that show up as innovation in our market even today! Also 1957, much like 2021, had the same sort of issues with supply chains being disrupted due to blockades of the Suez Canal. (1956 – Suez Crisis – Tripartite Aggression by Israel, France & Britain against Egypt who had just nationalized the Suez Canal out of Western Control; 2021 – Much less dramatic, much more amusing – The EverGiven is stuck within the Suez Canal – blocking traffic)
The eagle eyed amongst you will notice this vehicle came with a variant which had the predecessor to what we would call today as a manual shifting AMT. This current innovation was brought by Maruti Suzuki into the Indian market with considerable success in the Maruti Suzuki Celerio in 2014. The AMT has become a low-cost almost automatic solution found on many low-end cars today. We might look at the HM Ambassador as a relic in the modern era but it was a beautiful piece of engineering back when it was launched. (p.s., this Manumatic was not offered in the Indian variant as far I know).
If you have ever had the fortune to drive one of these beauties, while it isn’t fast by any stretch of imagination, once it gets going it is no slouch. There is room for everyone in this 6-seater with 2 wide bench seats, including the elephant in the room. The satisfying feel of a column mounted shifter on earlier versions is something that cannot be replicated, when maintained well. The mechanical engagement action was sublime. The regal brightwork, the dashboard with exquisite customization (not at the factory, but by the owner who’s pride and joy would not be replaced any time soon), and the comfy ride in the back seat made it the preferred choice for Babus and Lal Batthis alike. Even today the ride quality is as good as any D1 segment sedan (Corolla, Elantra, etc) – in fact the high seating position is as good as in an Innova.
The ruggedness of the vehicle is showcased by just how many of them as still running as Taxis all over the country. Regional customization is quite unique, chrome-overload on a Mark I Amby when polished spectacularly is a common sight in several cities in interior Tamil Nadu (especially the Coimbatore – Tirupur – Erode belt). During the course of its long production run in India, we’ve seen a more powerful 1.8L “Isuzu Engine” avatar, a version with power steering and a diesel. A shift from the column shifter to floor mounted, and the changeover from a deep dish 3 spoke steering wheel with a ring horn to a more “modern” plastic one with button horns was also mourned by enthusiasts. The switch-gear also moved to more modern control stalks in the Mark IV, together with air conditioning (aftermarket as well as OEM options). Chrome Hubcaps were replaced with plastic wheel trim. Even the front bench seat made way for “bucket” seats. What remained unchanged was that beautiful upright high rear seat, that commanding view of the road and that beautiful ride quality that ironed out most of India’s broken roads with aplomb.
Even for a car that has so many fans, there were a few issues that weren’t addressed throughout the life of the vehicle. The steering felt vague, and excessive steering play & effort plagued even the power steering versions. Build quality (assembly) issues were common. Rust is an enemy, so are welds that failed prematurely, re-painting an Amby is a reasonably common pastime – mainly because of these issues. Everything worked on this car, but with considerable effort, switches were hard, doors had to be slammed shut. You felt the vehicle pitch & lean in every corner and whenever you braked.
The platform used for mechanicals underneath can still be judged as acceptably modern. Most carmakers even today use a front end with Independent suspension, soft leaf springs at the rear (maybe a switch to coils?), longitudinally mounted engine & rear wheel drive for any vehicle which has to be reliable & handle abuse, if not be the most refined. More modern legends like the Toyota Qualis & Chevrolet Tavera, which were the vehicles of choice for abuse friendly taxi duty use the same formula. Yes, safety standards have moved miles ahead, brakes are way better & vehicle dynamics have improved considerably (thankfully!), but the formula is still right.