Curbside Classic: 2000 Hindustan Ambassador 1800 ISZ Classic – The Never-Ending Amby

When does a car attain “living fossile” status? Forty years seems like a minimum, in my book, but your Ice Age may vary. So what can we file under this definition? Not a whole lot. The VW Beetle, obviously. The Lada Zhuguli, no doubt. The Morgan Plus 4, to be sure. The BMC Mini (1959-2000) barely qualifies, as does the Citroën 2CV (1949-1990). There may be a few more, but the only Asian member of the club that I could name, though, would be the sacred dinosaur that is the Ambassador.

Hindustan Motors (HM) built the Ambassador, out of their West Bengal factory on the outskirts of Calcutta, without changing the basic body shell, or much of the chassis (engine excepted), from 1958 to 2014. How this particular one ended up in Tokyo is somewhat mysterious, but I’ve learned to expect the unexpected in this city. It’s an occasion, however, to look into the very peculiar automotive history of the Subcontinent in general and of HM in particular.

The Amby, as it’s affectionately called, may be India’s most treasured national automotive symbol, but as I’m sure many of you know, it was really born in the UK in October 1956 as the Morris Oxford Series III. The Morris angle of the story has been expertly CCovered by Roger Carr already, so I’ll skip that part. But although the Amby became their main claim to fame, Hindustan Motors had prior expertise in carmaking.

The company was founded in 1942 and started assembling Morris Tens in 1946, just prior to Indian independence. A complete history of Hindustan Motors is a little outside the scope of this post, given that they assembled a pretty large array of vehicles over the years, including Chevrolet and Bedford trucks, Zetor tractors, Isuzu trucks, Vauxhall cars and Mitsubishi 4x4s.

We’ll just focus on the Morris side of the equation here. The Ambassador was the fifth Morris design adopted by HM when production started off in 1958, but it would end up being the definitive one. The very first cars still had the Morris side-valve engine, but this was very quickly changed to the 50hp 1.5 litre B-Series OHV used on so many BMC-related vehicles throughout the world. The Mark II (1964-75) brought a new grille and a marked increase in locally-sourced parts.

The sturdy Ambassador chassis was also used for hard labour. Station wagons and delivery vans could be ordered from the factory, or a commercial chassis could be supplied instead for a variety of Indian coachbuilders to finish the job.

By the time the Mark 4 was launched in 1979, the Ambassador had become India’s undisputed “King of the Road.” Yet apart from a few modest esthetic changes, as well as, if Indian web sources are to be trusted (and why wouldn’t they be?), a marked decline in build quality, the car had changed very little in its first couple of decades.

Diesel power became available for a select few circa 1980: private owners were not yet allowed to partake, but taxis, some government operators and commercial chassis buyers could sample the 36hp thrill of the BMC 1.5 litre oil-burner. This was later relaxed, and many an Ambassador currently in operation has been retrofitted with the cost-saving Diesel, though usually the more capable Isuzu 2-litre.

In 1990, the Amby was given yet another facelift, now becoming the “Nova.” In addition, HM launched a deluxe variant called the Classic – i.e. our feature car – that was also available, for the first time, with a pair of Isuzu engines: a 1.8 litre 75hp petrol and the aforementioned 2-litre Diesel.

These Isuzu engines were all the Amby needed to have the ability to simultaneously go up hills and provide A/C – quite a desirable option in a place like India.

The Nova / Classic also ushered a more plasticky interior. The outside of the car still said 1956, but in here, it’s definitely the ‘90s. The transmission also abandoned the steering column and became a 5-speed.

The Ambassadors of the ‘90s were definitely still at the top of the heap in their home market. Being one of the largest domestic cars on offer meant that nearly all the police, government employees and politicians from the president down to the local mayor used the back seat of the Amby. And a pretty tight space it is, too.

Regardless of the car’s antediluvian design (or perhaps because of it), HM tried exporting the Ambassador to a number of countries by the early ‘90s and into the next decade. You could purchase India’s most famous automobile in places like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, but that’s not unexpected. However, some were also sent over to the UAE, Japan and Great Britain – an interesting case of return migration.

It’s quite unclear how many Ambassadors were shipped abroad in general and in Japan in particular, or whether this specific one made it here when new. The fuel-injected Isuzu engine would have been a definite point in its favour, along with the looks. But it would still be a hard sell, even at the doubtless crazy low MRSP these would have been peddled at.

Yet even in India, time was marching on. The Ambassador seemed to keep its national symbol status into the new millennium, but an increasing amount of competitors started threatening the immortal Amby. Yearly production went from 25,000 on average in the ‘70s and ‘80s to 15,000 by the turn of the century. Then in 2003, the unthinkable happened: the Indian president switched to BMW. That same year came the Ambassador Grand, one of the more in-depth facelifts the car was ever subjected to. This was followed by the even-more-facelifted Avigo in 2004. The Classic remained in the line-up in parallel for a number of years, though – but it was all to no avail, the Ambassador was now losing relevance in its home market. HM finally called it quite in 2014.

I’m not very sure of the model year for this car. It’s very difficult for non-experts such as yours truly to date any Ambassador, the pre-Grand ones even more so. It’s not just the antique detailing, either: this particular car, but Ambies were routinely rebodied over the years.

This is another level of weird. I heard of Tatra 603s being remodeled by the factory, so that your series 1 could look like a series 3. But nobody actually owned Tatra 603s back in the day: they were not sold to private individuals. Ambassadors were also “official” cars, but private sales were permitted, even in the pre-liberalization days. So if you wanted the new look for your old chassis, HM had you covered – and they weren’t shy about advertising it, either.

What is so great about the Amby is the randomness of the whole affair. The VW Beetle or the Mini were designed to be ground-breaking, sold far and wide, and possibly for a long time. The Morris Oxford Series III was never supposed to be in this category, yet through a series of unlikely events, it outlasted its sell-by date by half a century and half a world away.

I’m so glad to have happened upon this accidental Bollywood legend! Just goes to show that, given enough time, every and any car in the world can be spotted in Japan.


Related posts:


Cohort Pic(k) of the Day: Hindustan Ambassadors – The Ultimate Living Automotive Fossils Are Back Where They Came From, by PN

CC Outtake: Hindustan Ambassador Spotted In Calgary, by PN

Curbside Classic: 1955 Morris Oxford Series II Traveller – From Cowley to Kolkatta, in 60 years, by Roger Carr