City City Bang Bang, Columns

The re-birth of the Ambassador?

The selling of the Ambassador brand to Peugeot is an eyebrow raiser. Why would anyone want to revive a car that is deservedly dead and in the minds of many, took far too long in its death sequence a la a Hindi film hero in the 70s? Clearly, Peugeot has no interest in the car in its physical form; what it is buying is the idea of the Ambassador, and the meaning that it can give it in today’s context.

There is something about the Ambassador that lends itself to nostalgic affection. Unlike the more ‘sensible’ Fiat which offered a timid version of the modern, and hence stops short of evoking an era and a culture, the Ambassador’s relation with the modern was frosty. It remained steadfastly true to its own sensibilities, largely because it refused to change or perhaps lacked the capability to do so. Barring minor modifications that were universally mocked at for their transparent lack of ambition, the Ambassador stood its ground for a long time. Eventually, it did change its engine, but it was too late by then. Its time was over once the hot plastic era of the Maruti made its appearance.

amvbassador

In its time, the Ambassador reigned supreme. Its lines were inspired by a matron’s commodious petticoats and its interiors had the comfortable well worn shabbiness of the Indian drawing room. The gears shifted with a grunt and the car began its journey with a groan. It drove one with the laconic recalcitrance of the father while offering you the familiar comfort of a mother’s lap. One sprawled inside the car when not carrying one’s entire brood of third cousins and their family friends to the railway station to receive or to see someone off in the dead of night. The car was large, solid and rounded; nothing about its design acknowledged that it was an object designed to move. Indeed it seemed to actively shun any association with the aerodynamic. The Ambassador squatted on the ground, embracing its own centre of gravity. It was a car that clearly believed that it was better to waddle than to race and moved with stolid disregard for one’ surroundings or one’s intent. The Ambassador was status quo on wheels, a car that allowed one to stand still even as one moved and to do so with one’s entire way of life intact. It pointed nowhere and took us nowhere, which was where we wanted to be.

The Ambassador was equanimity in a world where abruptness was the norm. Traffic on Indian roads might have been slow, but it was always sudden. Roads disappeared from under their feet, cows changed their minds about moving, buses decided to come tearing down the wrong side for a closer look and pedestrians stopped in the middle of the road to scratch themselves meditatively. The car itself was a constant source of uncertainty- it stalled, leaked oil, the brake fluid ran out at odd times; of course, it could also be repaired anywhere by virtually any mechanic and so life chugged along. The ability to accommodate anything- people, merchandise, circumstances, recurring dents and scrapes, breakdowns without showing any sign of strain made the car a natural in the Indian context.

At the surface level, the Ambassador might offer an easy route to marketable nostalgia, particularly in the West. It is a quirky riposte to the modern, and works at the level of an ironic joke. But this is the kind of appeal that works fast and dissipates even faster. However, there is something more substantial about the idea of the Ambassador, apart from its incongruous looks.

The idea of the Ambassador’ potentially holds allure today because it tells us that it is possible to completely disregard context. It exposes the fuss that cars make about moving from point A to point B as being unnecessary. Neither motion nor the car as an object of desire are fetishized. According to the Ambassador, one can be a placid cow, chewing cud while the world goes on around it spinning out of control. The individual finds no reflection in the car, the fluidity of time and fashion mean nothing to it. It restores to the car the idea of affectionate and comfortable warmth; it feels like home should.

Equanimity is the ornament of those that understand time. One doesn’t have to hurry, the world doesn’t need to be about oneself, one is secure in the knowledge that current events will pass however unlikely it seems today. When one is home, the world outside holds few terrors, at least for the time being. And while this idea has been born out of India and its realities, today it is unlikely that this idea will find much resonance in India for as a country, we have traded placid wisdom for prickly ambition. Even if Peugeot were to re-present the Ambassador in an acceptably contemporary form, the country today wants to see a more desirable face in the mirror. The individual wants to see himself and his future in the car he drives. The idea of the Ambassador becomes in effect a return to an earlier era, and there is little appetite for that today. Globally, on the other hand, it might be another story.

The brand’s attractiveness to a company like Peugeot lies in the fact that the Ambassador is above all, a brand. It stands for an idea that is located in a culture, and it signifies a belief in some values. It has a design ethos, and a point of view about mobility and indeed, about the world we live in today. It is unlikely to offer the opportunity to build a huge global brand, but there is a truth that it speaks that could potentially create value for the French company. Shorn of the shoddy product that carried this name, it might just be that the underlying idea of the Ambassador has relevance in today’s times.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*