“Baba, You’re a friend – and I’m asking you not to buy this car,” said Lionel gravely, brow furrowed, seized, as it were, by some inner dilemma. The year was 2007 and we were standing in the driveway of Lionel’s house in Delhi’s posh Defence Colony—a locale with a preponderance of mint-condition Ambys piloted by enthusiastic expats. Lionel fit the bill even more so: a Swiss musician, married to an Indian classical dancer and a dedicated Indophile—precisely the sort of guy who you’d expect to put down close to Rs five lakh for a spanking new Ambassador. In his case it was a wedding gift from his mother, and that’s why, in spite of not having been driven for close to a year, the Avigo still occupied prime real estate in his driveway.
For me, a confirmed motorcyclist who didn’t need a car, it had been love at first sight. The Avigo—for those who may not have seen one—is a manifestation of all the classic notions of good taste and beauty. Her lines (pardon the gender) run seamlessly, without a hard corner anywhere. The dash has a beautiful retro dial for an odometer; the flat bonnet doesn’t have the trademark Ambassador crest in the centre; and there are two gorgeous, bulging headlamps and extended tailfins. Perfect, at least at first glance. For two years, and every time I met Lionel socially, I had reiterated my first dibs on the car, should he have cared to sell it.
The Ambassador is arguably India’s most iconic car, and it penetrated every aspect of the country’s consciousness during its 56-year production run in the country. Hindustan Motors shut down the Ambassador plant in 2014 due to very poor demand, and it recently sold the brand to Peugeot for Rs 80 crore.
Eventually, practicality trumped emotion, and a year after the car had been lying draped in tarpaulin, virtually mothballed, I got the call. “I want you to think very clearly about this, and especially about the maintenance that this car demands,” he said. Lionel, who now drove a Hyundai i10, had called in the local mechanic after the boot filled up with water during the monsoon. “It’s an Indian car sir, these things happen and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he had been told. That was the last straw.
The car was in bad shape: there were a couple of nasty gashes on the running board, a few dents, a cracked tail-lamp, a dead battery and an engine woefully out of tune. I recall her being wheeled out after a month-long overhaul: skin buffed to a radiant silver-grey, new tyres, chromed front grill, heads turning as she passed. “God, is that an Ambassador?” asked a woman who’d been waiting with me for her car. “No, she’s an Avigo,” I replied proudly. The Avigo doesn’t pirouette in front of you saying, “Hey, look, I’m beautiful!” She just lies there like a woman on a beach on a sunny day.
As it happened, the Avigo flopped so badly that HM made only 200 of them from 2004 to 2008. I, however, like to think of it as a limited-edition model. The reasons aren’t difficult to gauge: it’s afflicted with all the ills of bad production quality—the striking headlamps which imbue it with so much of its character are impossible to focus and are much better suited for illuminating birds on trees than watching the road; the electricals are primitive; its production quality is the same as it was 50 years ago.
Given this, I think it’s forgivable that I tried to cure her shortcomings. Tired of the sluggish power delivery and raging drivers honking behind me as I took my time to slumber off red lights, the rattle of the door panels, the constantly malfunctioning electricals and central locking system, I asked my friend Pablo (the managing editor of this magazine and a former auto hack) for advice. Seemingly puzzled by my insistence on spending money on the car—I wanted to get a direct exhaust, air intakes, perhaps even fit a turbocharger—he shook his head. “Accept it for what it is and drive it,” he proffered sagely.
I think the Avigo sensed my dissatisfaction: she didn’t run too well for a while after that—the central locking refused to work, the coolant container ruptured and I had to get a suspension overhaul. And I felt quite guilty—almost as if I’d violated the trust in the relationship. Gradually, after a few weeks of regular buffing, waxing and polishing, she accepted my apologies, but I had to work hard at regaining that trust.
The French automotive brand Peugeot has operated in India earlier, in 1993, when it made the Peugeot 309 in partnership with Premier Automobiles India. It exited India in 1997 and almost re-entered in 2011; now, with the CK Birla Group, it intends to set up a manufacturing plant in Tamil Nadu. Whether the Amby will be revived or not remains unclear.
And so it goes. Tooling around is something I’m comfortable with – if nothing else, it’s made our bond even closer. Oils need to be checked every week; nuts and bolts, which come loose because of the vibrations of the 2-litre diesel engine, have to be tightened every Sunday. Grease guns have to be let loose on the grease nipples on the suspension, and, if you don’t make sure that the drainage pores at the bottom of the doors are open, water collects and eventually rusts off the lower part of the doors. My heart leapt at the recent news of Peugeot acquiring HM: I can’t wait to see which parts I’ll be able to transplant onto my car. One day I’ll get a sunroof and, perhaps when the money’s good, Stanley leather upholstery; heck, maybe even a modern engine when she needs a heart transplant. My friend and vintage car enthusiast, Gerard, has promised to get the out-of-stock tail-lamps fabricated in Colombo.
In a way, it feel like things have come full circle. As a 13-year old in a small cantonment, sneaking out with my father’s Ambassador Mark III army Staff Car (while everyone took an afternoon siesta) and driving on the one good road out of town was my first brush with real freedom. One road, which led to Jhansi and then to Delhi and out to the Himalayas and God knows where else – and that Ambassador, with a steering column-mounted gearshift, was my vehicle out of there. I’d wanted one since.
Now, as I write this, I walk out to the terrace just to get another look at her standing on the street below. It’s become a ritual, and I know exactly how the light from the yellow streetlamps reflects off the bonnet, the gentle arc from headlamp to rear bumper casting a long shadow on the pavement. Someone posted on my timeline recently that if you can resist the temptation to look back and admire your car every time you park it, you’re not driving the right car. By that yardstick, the Avigo and I were made for each other.