India's 'first car' axed after 56yr

Industry news

Mumbai - To South Africans, there's nothing unusual about a vehicle remaining in production for a decade or three after it's been replaced overseas. The Nissan 1400 and Citi Golf are prime examples of this.

But in the world of automotive relics, it's India that really takes the cake with its Hindustan Ambassador, which has just ceased production in India after 56 years.

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The Hindustan Ambassador is basically a 1957 Morris Oxfort Series III sedan that is still produced in India. Choose between a 53kW 1.8 petrol or 26kW 1.5 diesel. There is also a luxury model that offers a digital clock among other niceties.A mechanic repairs a yellow Ambassador taxi at a workshop in Kolkata. Picture: Rupak De Chowdhuri.

Hindustan Motors Ltd said in a statement it had suspended work at its Uttarpara plant, outside the eastern city of Kolkata, until further notice, and citing weak demand and a lack of funds.

Modelled on Britain's Morris Oxford, the Ambassador was the first car to be made in India, according to the company, and was once a status symbol.

But it began losing its dominance in the mid-1980s when Maruti Suzuki introduced its low-priced 800 hatchback.

It lost further cachet and market share when global car companies began setting up shop in India in the mid-1990s, offering models with contemporary designs and technology.

The Ambassador has remained the choice of a dwindling share of bureaucrats and politicians, usually in white with a red beacon on top and a chauffeur at the wheel. It is also still in use as a taxi in some Indian cities.

In a statement on Saturday, Hindustan Motors cited “worsening conditions at its Uttarpara plant which include very low productivity, growing indiscipline, critical shortage of funds, lack of demand for its core product the Ambassador and large accumulation of liabilities.”

The company sold about 2200 Ambassadors in the fiscal year ended in March 2014, a tiny share of the 1.8 million passenger cars sold during the year in India, according to industry data.

A new Ambassador in Kolkata starts at 515 000 rupees (R90 000), according to a dealer in the city.

“The suspension of work will enable the company in restricting mounting liabilities and restructure its organisation and finances and bring in a situation conducive to reopening of the plant,” the company said in its statement.

The plant, with nearly 2500 staff, also produced the Winner light commercial vehicle as well as components.

Some industry watchers said it would be difficult for the “grand old lady” of the Indian car market to make a comeback.

“In the present shape I don't think the Ambassador has got any chances of revival,” said Deepesh Rathore at research firm Emerging Markets Automotive Advisors.

“It doesn't make any business sense,” he said.


Abdul Majeed, a partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers India, said that to revive demand, Hindustan Motors would need to invest in shrinking the Ambassador and making it more fuel efficient, with success hardly assured.

Despite its dwindling sales, the distinctive car with its bulbous design and roomy interior has many admirers and was last year named the world's best taxi by Top Gear.

In Kolkata, there were some 33 000 Ambassador taxis at the end of 2013.

“There are newer cabs in Kolkata of different companies now, but we still drive an Ambassador and cannot think of the city without it,” said Ashok Kumar Singh, 32, who has driven a yellow Ambassador taxi in Kolkata for a decade.

“She is my livelihood,” he said.

IOL & Reuters

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