Can Peugeot ever re-invent India’s Ambassador?

French company Peugeot buying Hindustan Motors’ ‘Ambassador’ evokes both nostalgia and nightmare, mostly the latter!

Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
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S Ranjan

Make no mistake; Peugeot buying the Hindustan Motors Ambassador brand is not France’s revenge on India for beating them in the race for the British Jaguar and Land Rover.


While the rest of India may go into raptures remembering the romance of riding an Ambassador, for the humble Calcuttan it is still a daily nightmare. These battered yellow jalopies still ravage the crowded roads and narrow streets of Kolkata, and arguably hold the primary responsibility for the city’s traffic woes.


The Ambassador is no engineering marvel. Nor, did it mark a watershed in the history of automobiles. So what’s all the fuss about? Let us admit it is one more reminder of the sad legacy of the post-independence licence Raj. This control regime, in the name of safeguarding fledgling Indian industry from predatory international giants, actually made it both uncompetitive and obsolete by keeping it artificially insulated from the technological advances in the rest of the world.


The Ambassador was given a “Swadeshi” character by mandating it as the official car for ministers and secretaries in the government. Corporate honchos and public-sector bosses followed the bureaucrats in a false display of austerity. But, a “sarkari stamp” does not make anything iconic. On the contrary, it usually works against its snob value.

Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
The real test for Peugeot will be to get the Ambassador to evolve into something classy yet modern. That might bring back a chauvinistic pride in a “Made in India” brand that did not attain its potential during its lifetime

The Ambassador was an import of the Ford Morris just as Maruti was of the Suzuki mini-car many decades later. So far so good, as they say. But, the problem was that Hindustan Motors—like so many other Indian companies—comfortably ensconced under the cocoon of protectionism did not invest in technological up-gradation. Most of the changes carried out were cosmetic at best and not necessarily for the better. Fitting of the Isuzu engine was, perhaps, the biggest engineering leap the Ambassador attempted.


The automobile industry around the world thrives by building an eco-system of ancillaries around it. But, given its own out-dated design, the Ambassador did not develop any such downstream manufacturing of any consequence. Hindustan Motors itself remained saddled with inefficient plants, low on automation and a large unproductive labour force in a high cost, unionised industrial environment.


Thus some may even argue that the only useful purpose served by the Ambassador was to keep the market warm for the entry of a modern generation car, which eventually came in the form of Maruti.

It is being argued that, this is an age when “Retro” is “in”. So, does the Ambassador have the classic qualities to convert it into a “heirloom” brand? Regretfully no, thinks this writer.

Even discounting its generation gap, the design of Ambassador was an engineer’s embarrassment. It does not score high either on aesthetics or aerodynamics—compared even to the grand old beauties that come out during vintage car pageants. It is ergonomically faulty with a slanted steering wheel that required drivers to sit at a slight angle (though that served another purpose of accommodating an extra passenger in the front seat).


The high centre of gravity made stability an issue on curves and turns. The atrocious fuel-efficiency must have had a huge contribution to the oil imports bill of the country, apart from raising CO2 emissions (probably only next to auto-rickshaws).


As far as safety was concerned, the only point that could be said in favour of the Ambassador was its size. The tank or armoured car shape lent a false sense of security to the passengers.


Nostalgia comes with a sense of longing for the past—it is difficult to imagine people having happy experiences of an Ambassador that they would be yearning to relive. Amusing or astonishing stories yes, but great memories highly unlikely.


Most people I know associate the Ambassador with some fiasco or the other. Like the time its wheel went for a toss into a lake on the way to a picnic or, the radiator went on the boil while driving up to Nainital and Dad had to wet his expensive woollen muffler and tie it around the engine to keep it cool. Then there was the cousin who missed his wedding due to a breakdown on the way. The umpteen times it got stalled on flooded roads, during monsoons, on the way back from school. Or, when the entire family spent a winter night in the car sleeping comfortably after its axle broke just before dusk on the highway. Exciting as these may sound in retrospect—certainly not experiences people would like to go through again.

Most people I know associate the Ambassador with some fiasco or the other. Like the time its wheel went for a toss into a lake on the way to a picnic or, the radiator went on the boil while driving up to Nainital and Dad had to wet his expensive woollen muffler and tie it around the engine to keep it cool

can peugeot pull off a makeover?

It is being argued that, this is an age when “Retro” is “in”. So, does the Ambassador have the classic qualities to convert it into a “heirloom” brand? Regretfully no, thinks this writer.


In recent times, the Royal Enfield motorbike has done a fabulous job of reinventing its past. But, the Enfield brings back with it dreams that people want to relive in a modern mean machine. They wish to experience with it adventures for which, in its old avatar, the spirit was willing but the flesh (read engine) was weak. Finally, they see it as India’s answer to the Harley’s of the world.


The Ambassador also does not have the rich heritage and history of an Aston Martin. Therefore, what Peugeot must do is create a mythical aura around it. That might be a Creative Director and marketing whizkid’s delight—the task is cut out for them. While the easier part would be to do a heart (engine) transplant and fix the gut with a bariatric surgery, no amount of botox or cosmetic makeover will salvage the face and body.


Therefore, the real test of brand recreation will be how creatively Peugeot plays with the looks evolving it to something classy yet modern—much like Jaguar and Rolls Royce.


That might, indeed, bring back a chauvinistic pride in a “Made in India” brand that did not attain its potential during its lifetime. But, at what price would be the big question. If it costs as much as a modern luxury sedan—how many people will be willing to shell out so much money for a ‘collector’s item’.


Meanwhile, it can only be idle speculation as to whether Peugeot will revive the old Hindustan Motors factory in Uttarpara near Kolkata, shut since 2015. But, West Bengal Government can think of claiming a part of the ₹80 crore purchase consideration for keeping the brand alive by its Fiat (no pun intended) to allow only Ambassador cars as yellow-cabs in Kolkata.

S Ranjan is a roving marketer who blogs on life, living and people. He can be reached at nllktm@yahoo.com

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Published: 16 Feb 2017, 9:41 AM