Sunday, 25 May 2014

An ode to a quirky tin can

One more icon from our childhood died today. The good old Ambassador car. A key partner of our life's journey - an important hero of many a childhood stories.

I come from a family of happy road trippers. Always happy to jump in and drive off to someplace far without a map or a destination. My first vague memories are our drives through the almost non existent roads of West Bengal in BRT 3189. This 1960 model Ambi was a prized piece of marvel. I kid you not. I have seen the key come off from the dashboard while the car was still in motion and the car would continue to glide on as if nothing ever happened.

BRT 3189 or its successor, WNF 3193 - neither had an air conditioner or a music system. So a drive was always about hot and dusty wind blowing on our faces while baba tunelessly belted out popular hindi songs one after another. If he sang loudly while he drove, it was because his voice would be drowned as everything in the car rattled loudly. Except the horn - it was rather meek and hardly ever audible!

Our family truly believed that the family that travels together, sticks together. There have been times when at least 12 people - a healthy mix of adults and kids - have jumped in and driven off to the mountains. No fuss, no nonsense - the tin can drove us up and down the hills without a grunt. There is no way, a car of any other make could have done it...that too, so effortlessly.

In our house, every ambassador car needed a lot of attention. There was always something the matter with the cars. But there was never a problem that could not be fixed with common household items such as a safety pin or a bent hair clip, a rubber pipe, turmeric or a hammer. But the essential ingredient was passion. Of course those were the days before it got its high tech Isuzu engine and the floor shift gear.

In the early 90's one could buy a pre-owned (perhaps owned by 5 people before you) for as little as 15 grand. My cousin Abhik bought a blue one to add to our repertoire of Ambi stories. I am not sure if he ever drove it but it did add a lot of character to our parking lot! While the local panwala eyed it and made an offer of a princely sum of Rs. 5000 to buy it, Abhik himself used it as a glorified-five door-cabinet.

Other high points in my life were the times when I could sit behind the wheels and pretend to drive and honk and fiddle with the various switches. I was so tiny that my feet would not reach the pedals below the steering wheel. But it would fly me off to a distant future - to a time when I was grown up enough to drive a convertible red Standard Herald. I wanted nothing beyond that in life.

Did I ever drive an Ambi? Yes. Once. On a hot summer afternoon while I was in college. Armed with my driving license and Shanu, my younger brother, I decided to try my hand at driving the car. It turned out to be quite a hilarious episode with Shanu shifting the gear while I somehow managed to control the wheels and press the clutch and the brake, in almost a standing position!      

In many ways, the ambassador was like a cantankerous old relative. It complained loudly about its aches and pains, needed a lot of attention and took up a lot of space in our lives. But, life would not have been the same without the old pair of wheels as a constant companion. It was a generous car, very reliable and dependable. Always ready to be a part of all our (mis)adventures.

While today, modern engineering and technology has dialed up the  driving experience many notches, it will never be able to replicate the joy and the charm of the tin can. Dear Ambi, you may never roll out of the Uttarpara plant but you will live on in these memories for ever.

Here is a post-liberalization ad which perfectly encapsulates the Ambassador's decent as a brand of popular choice.  

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