A voice from behind said “Hello !, this is my car… I maintain it myself” as I was framing the mythical Indian luxury car’s behind into my camera’s view finder. It was both the ‘No hand sign’ and ‘Power break’ anachronistic emblems on the trunk lead that drew my attention.
Ambassador, an automotive dinosaur of British heritage, symbolized status within Indian society ever since…. oh.. well ever since this car was invented. “You can get our cars in any color you want as log as it’s black” said one Detroit automobile pioneer. Here, on the other side of the world, its a day and night difference, you can practically get it only in white. Nowadays politician and the rich had shifted to Japanese SUV’s and one of the last traces of colonialism on Indian roads slowly began to dwindle down..
I had never taken a ride on one. My backpacking travels and interest in rural village life don’t frequently intersect with fortune, power or with an owner of such a curvy white classic.
In some places around India Ambassadors are used as tourist agency limos or even as upscale taxis. My choice are the budget tariff auto-rickshaw or government bus.
Back to the voice… A. Jai Harlan Pappou proudly owns his since 1996. Actually his retired father bought it back then from it’s original owner, a hotel business man from Chennai.
- “22 km/liter” he said. About 49 mpg, a very impressive performance feature for any 4 wheeler, much more for a piece of machinery skipped by evolution. Wait ! The gas tank proudly features “diesel” in curly red English letters. “How much is 1 liter of diesel fuel?” I asked. Rs. 40+, which means, compared with Rs.76 gasoline rate this mobile fossil is yet an extra 40% in efficiency. Around 70 mpg !! on a cost based scale. It does drop, but only by 5mpg, once you enjoy the comfort of the OEM A/C.
So where’s the catch, you ask. It’s the beauty sleeping under he hood, a ‘Made in Japan’ Isuzu engine. The factory stock engine was made by an Indian licensee of Isuzu but in 1996, for an extra Rs. 40,000 it was replaced with an imported reconditioned Isuzu power unit manufactured in Japan.
Speaking about cost, Rs.3.7 lakh (370,000 orabout $8200 in current Rupee Dollar exchange rates) was the price tag on the HM as it dropped off the assembly line in 1989. 7 years later it changed hands for Rs. 70,000.
Pappou is currently working for a financing arm of a local bank while waiting for a teacher position in the public education system. His parents, sister and… any family member he mentioned were either principals or assistants. Judging by his open, respectful yet friendly approach, his patience with my curiosity, questions and his clear knowledgeable explanations I feel he’s going to be an asset to schools and a blessing for students. Oh… and I forgot his dedication for following up and maintaining relationships such as with his car!
He says that even if he buys another car ever, he is not going to sell this one. The speed pickup is such that he passes most new car’s around and that is not at the cost of overheating. Knowing from my own experience of living in hot weathered cities in Israel and California, there’s no better test field for an older engine then a summer in such a city. “No waiting 10 minutes for cooling the engine” Pappou shared such a familiar scenario with me.
Then, he opened the doors and let me in. He started with the bucket seats ?! Ehh….. as an Aquarius myself I noticed that these buckets can’t bear water. Quite flat although there was a curvature only it was more towards the cushy rather then the cozy. Well, some English terms have a different lives in other countries.
Next came the tilt-back / sliding front seats. I was not aware but I believe these are not yet a standard feature on Indian cars.
But the serious surprise was hovering above. A built-in drop-down flat screen with ceiling mounted stereo speakers. By this time I was smiling. This could only rhyme with chitichiti bangbang or my Israeli 1970′s English learning TV series ‘Scootermen’ (where the special task duo was riding a Vespa scooter with a video conference monitor installed where the glove compartment used to be).
The windshield, apparently, is a sort of UV filtering, mirror-like as Pappou described, or another glass treatment I am not yet aware of, but the bottom line is that in winter time there’s no condensation on the inner side and visibility is maintained.
Despite the spotless paintjob on the outside, the doorstep had a corrosive “viewfinder”, a see-through to the road beneath. “The salty rain in Chennai, the ocean…” Pappou said digging into the car’s early days. “Inside it is very quiet” he added.
The tires deserve special attention. No joke. In India, whatever comes in touch with the road surface and survives deserves respect. More over the drivers who safely steer worn-out rubber (well… by western standards, a tire which grooves are no more then a mere trace of themselves). Pappou is riding on Gipsy wheels. Now don’t catch me me here please, I really tried to get this one straight. This combination of wheel and tire gives a sharp braking ability even on unpaved, gravel roads. However I bet any of you readers can’t beat the cocktail of brand names and variety of wear conditions Mr. Pappou had installed on only 4 wheels.
-” so is it not a problem that there are no grooves in the tire ?”
Pappou pointed at ‘Radial’ embossed on the tire wall as what makes the difference and explained that only radials can handle long rides on hot days without overeating, loosing grip or excessively wearing out. Street wise, his experience speaks for itself. How many can drive the same car for 15 years on the harsh roads and traffic of India and still have it reliable and clean looking as this one.
Based on his vast knowledge I was surprised he had no idea how many cylinders or what’s the engine displacement on his motor. Well, on Indian roads size doesn’t matter so much. Actually it better be small if you want to get anywhere in the dense and mixed-up traffic. Especially if your driving a ‘space-guzzling’ 4 wheeler.
We got around to wrap up our spontaneous tour. Similarly to this hybrid of old-school design and new-age technology, so was Mr. Pappou, the financier in sharp specs and corporate looks, speaking with shining eyes about his native village. There are an ancient Hindu temple, Mosque and church. He offered and promised to show me around if I gave him a 2 day notice so he can arrange to be there.
Back at my room I thought: in India new and old live so complementary side by side. There’s respect to whatever sustains and proves itself over the years regardless of where it originally came from.
Today, ambassadors are still produced.However the central and state government fleets have only aging Ambassadors. The current purchasing shifted to other local and foreign models. Pappou mentioned that Indian intelligence services are using them to electronically monitor street activity.
You can check out more stories and photos at JPG Mag
I just finished reading these two:
Desi Cow – Or – how to spell “Indian street”
Indian Motorcycle Diaries
More about my experience in rural India and this documentary project: My India: Where every village is home – Experience !