Goodbye, Old Friend!

Final recall

One never thought the day will come when the long innings will end.

The years that have passed in the life of the Ambassador surely encompasses the period of free India. After all, it was the teacher that taught India to drive. And it pervaded the length and breadth of the country. Indeed it was the warp and woof of everyday life from great grandfather to great grandson.

It had all begun with a baby egg in 1947. That’s right. A midnight child. It grew into the Land Master in 1954 and finally metamorphosed into the full-fledged egg in 1957.A 14 gauge sheet-metal esconced body with iron works inside. A steering wheel as wide as your shoulder spread. A floor-gear of iron rod topped by a wooden bulb that wore brown to the usage.  

The years of indigenisation began with that gear coming up next to the grinding stone wheel. That meant a mark up. Mark I. Touted as the car with the steering gear shift, this was the technical innovation of the decade. 

The collaborator, who had merged with a multinational by then, begged leave parting with the wisdom that by mistake they had given her a side valve which belonged to the period of the Second World War, and what they had meant to give her all along was an OHV (overhead valve) which only means that the engine this time was right side up. 

The indigenisers capitalised on that and touted the old lady as the brand new OHV. Mark II, indeed.   

The collaborators had departed. But the Marks had to go on. So the ingenious indigenisers began first on the switches. All aluminum up and down switches were replaced by the revolutionary ‘Piano’ switches — white plastic things that another indigenising collaborator of bathroom fittings had brought into the country. So we had the Mark III with white bathroom fittings. 

Yars passed. The indigeniser was itching to bring out his ‘all new’ Mark IV. He padded the lethally sharp metal edges on the dash. He cushioned the seats with some more foam. The advent of the phony leather called the ‘feather touch’ gave him some more fillip. The thing that clinched the issue for him was ultimately the side indicator, the hand — literally the hand — that stuck out on the side. It could now be replaced with a vastly cheaper flickering light that no one can see in sun-lit India. So we had the Mark IV.

The Costing department liked this mark up best of all, so fell in love with and married the Sales department. Thus began the era of the big strip based on the incontrovertible principle; in an ugly duckling, the less the better. Off with the solid metal bumper. What we need is two rubber thumpers under the headlights. Off with the hand starter. This is the electronic age. If the car does not start, get a new battery. The old 14 gauge steel body yielded to a gossamer thin 22, in the name of elegance. The marriage clearly was a success, like almost all Indian marriages, based on an early agreement about who dominates whom.

We have thus passed oversize decades of indigenisation and convinced ourselves that because the roads are bad, the spares are bad, the drivers are bad, we are bad, the best we deserve is the nearest thing to a lorry! A generation of Indians had grown up with one leg shorter than the other because the ‘original’ design skewed the steering stem to an acute angle, forcing one to drive from an acute position — on the right extreme!

England, the mother country which had last seen its baby, the Morris Oxford Series III some 40 years ago, suddenly discovered it still gamely wheezing along on Indian roads and imported it mainly for laughs. Some laughs! While the landing cost was 8,000 pounds, it took around 3,000 pounds to make the egg tolerably road-worthy. This bespoke service included among many minor things like tyres, also the redoubtable steering wheel. In a head-on collision they realised, the grinder can effectively dismantle a body!

Well, the happy days are gone. A time will come when one has to explain to one’s great grandchild the times when a car was a moving house and incidentally how you developed a limp!                    

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