King of the Indian Road

Ask people to name the longest-running single model car of all time and many will come up with the likes of Toyota Corolla (1966-today), Porsche 911 (1963 to today), Ford Mustang (1962 to today), Chevrolet Corvette (1953 to today) or even, for Aussies, the Ford Falcon (1960 to 2016), and of course the Mini (1959 to today) – but all of those changed so much that, apart from the nameplate, there is nothing recognisable on the latest version that was on the first car.

Considering only cars where the last model still looked essentially like the original and we have the (Classic) Mini (1959 to 2000), the Citroen 2CV (1948 to 1990), the ubiquitous VW Beetle (1939 to 2012) and the Morgan 4/4 (1955 to today).

But of all the cars in the world, the one that holds the record for the longest production that not only looked much the same from first to last but that also changed little mechanically over the whole period, is The Hindustan Ambassador from India.

Built between 1958 and 2014 – and having its roots back to 1956 if you include the Morris Oxford Series III on which it was based – about four million Ambassadors were reportedly built. Compared with the other contenders (12 million Beetles, 6 million Minis, 4 million 2CVs), that is a good innings.

Hindustan Motors was started by the prominent Birla family in 1942, producing Morris-based vehicles for the Indian sub-continent from the late 1940s, with versions of the Morris 10 and 14. Their Landmaster was based on the Morris Oxford Series II design and in 1957 the company began to assemble the Oxford Series III, naming its local version the Ambassador.

When the Oxford tooling was shipped in its entirety from Cowley to Calcutta in 1957 the Ambassador story began. The relationship between Morris and the Birla family had been strong from the company’s origins, but few would have predicted production would continue for so long.

But another important factor was the Indian Government's protectionist policy for the young manufacturing industries in the newly independant country. This protection continued until the 1980s, which ensured the Ambassador a long and productive life.

Although India’s bourgeoning middle-class clamoured for the Ambassador – one of only a handful of locally-produced cars for many years – it was as an affordable and durable taxi that the “Amby” became famous.

The factory in Uttarpara, a suburb of Calcutta (renamed Kolkata in 2001) in Western Bengal, at one stage had a waiting list of up to eight years, and Calcutta’s taxi ranks alone were crammed with 33,000 Amby’s.

The first Ambassador’s to be produced came with an already old-fashioned 1476cc side-valve engine, but this was replaced within a year with the ‘B’ series 1489cc OHV engine, offering 55bhp.

While it became transport for the masses, the Amby was also the choice of Prime Ministers, high-ranking officials and the wealthy; it didn’t favour class in a country where badge snobbery had yet to arrive.

A nation’s car used for every purpose; a red flashing beacon on the roof symbolised Government officials, whereas emergency services were required to display a blue light. The preferred car for Government officials of all ranks, the Indian Government reportedly bought up to 16% of production in some years.

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