Should We Really Mourn The Passing of the Ambassador?
Screen-shot of the official HM Ambassador webpage. Can you miss the irony?
Sixty-five years in continuous production is indeed an enviable record, and by this yard-stick the Hindustan Motors Ambassador bests the likes of VW’s Beetle. However, is it something Indian industry should be proud of?
The Birla family-run Hindustan Motors has of course tried its hand at other products, with limited success, but the Ambassador is the only car the company is really remembered for. Not for it innovation, new product development, or strategic joint ventures; Hindustan Motors and its Ambassador survived and thrived in an economy which saw it lord its monopoly over everybody else. Stories abound about how buyers had to wait for years to take delivery of their Ambassador car, when it was one of only two models being sold in the country (the other being the Premier Padmini, or Fiat 1100). Equally, there are stories about a senior gentleman from the Birla family who refused to be driven in an Ambassador car himself, given its lack of quality and reliability.
There are lessons for Indian industry here. Monopolistic trade practices breed complacency and contempt for the consumer. Indian car buyers today have a plethora of brands and numerous products at various price points across different segments to choose from. The quality, reliability, safety and efficiency are also many generations ahead of what the Ambassador can manage. The few sales it had from taxi drivers in Kolkata and the odd government agency were never going to sustain the Ambassador much further, no matter the rumours of a sub-4-metre Amby.
The alliance with Mitsubishi in the 1990s was thought to be a new beginning, one that would catapult HM into the new millennium at a stroke, but that too has floundered. If we take the sedan market as an example, the Ford Escort, Opel Astra, Honda City, Daewoo Cielo and Mitsubishi Lancer all debuted around the same time. At the time, the Lancer was widely touted as being among the most technologically advanced of the bunch, with the best blend of attributes. Of these, the Honda City is the only brand which has gone from strength to strength, whereas all the others are all but dead. HM couldn’t even market the Pajero successfully, an SUV with an unimpeachable equity, simply because it tried to force an outdated model down Indian buyers’ throats. There’s that contempt for the consumer again.
Indeed, nostalgia has its place in this world, but even nostalgia cannot make up for gross corporate incompetence. The inertia at Hindustan Motors has left numerous members of the blue-collar workforce jobless, and indeed its junior and middle management will also struggle to secure meaningful employment elsewhere.
I’ll always remember the Ambassador fondly, given my soft spot for all kinds of automobiles, but I wish it had exited gracefully. In its present avatar, the Ambassador is not just an embarrassing anachronism, but a symbol of absurd government policy and contempt for Indian customers from one of India’s most celebrated business houses.
A sobering comparison can and must be made for anyone reading this column; look at Mahindra and Mahindra. It too enjoyed complete and unchallenged hegemony in the utility vehicle segment; M&M was making Jeeps under license around the same time that Hindustan Motors was making the Landmaster, and later, the Ambassador. But look where M&M is today. Yes, M&M can and does trace its heritage proudly to the Jeeps of yore, but the XUV 500 cannot be accused of being the same old Jeep with a new bumper and tail light design. And that is because M&M’s ethos is different. It has invested in people, technology and processes. Today, M&M exports Indian designed, engineered and manufactured vehicles around the globe.
There’s no excuse why HM couldn’t and shouldn’t have done the same. Only a fool would think the Ambassador deserved to soldier on.