Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ambassadorial Times

I actually learned driving,  in 1967 , on an Ambassador car , that our family owned. I even remember the license plate number and the color of the car.

The earlier car was a sea-green Hillman , with the sort of horn you don't hear today, and as children , we always knew someone was reaching home, when a signature honking with a 1-2-123 beat was heard  on roads with the then minimal traffic near our house.  This car had trudged up hills, blown radiator lids in the ghats, and even successfully made it to a hill station , stuffed with passengers, and a radiator with a banana skin tied on top to replace a lid which actually fell into the valley. The banana skin thing was a truck driver's idea.  The car had also driven down the mountain to the coast, with passengers sitting on mattresses loaded on to the rear seats, en route to leaving a child (not me ) to a residential technical Institute in Mumbai (from where I am now actually writing this) .....

Growing families and the firm belief that larger spaces enabled the transport of entire sets of relatives from point A to Point B , probably made folks zero in on the Ambassador , which was acquired , after advancing for years and years,  through a  huge wait list.  In those days, the choice was between Fiat and Ambassador, and it was, regardless of the technical specifications,   like choosing between  a delicate girl, and someone who was healthier.  My mother even once thought the Fiat as "taklubi" , and I suspect the idea was that a car  should have an ability to be hardy, and to hold its own in severe circumstances  and not collapse .

Silence was never a virtue in these cars,  you never changed the hand gears according to speeds specified in some manual, but actually by sensing the engine sound as you accelerated. There was no power steering then, and turning these cars at sharp angles was an achievement that kept your upper limbs in excellent health. Seat were designed for maximum usage , and clearly with the possibility that people would sit on laps, given the amazing leg room in the rear seats. Bucket seats were unknown, which was nice. I mean why should the company decide how many folks can occupy one seat ? 

The trunk of the car was very spacious, and nothing was sacrificed  to, say, modern design considerations.   These cars also came with something we used to call, for want of a better word, "handle".   This was in addition to the usual "jack" , using which we learned how to change punctured tyres in our time.   Whenever the car did not start after pulling a thing after switching the ignition on, someone would get out with this handle, poke it in through a hole way in front below the radiator, and rotate the shaft in a motion similar to extracting sugarcane juice.  For some reason it was always done with a jerk,  and at some point, the air-petrol mixture managed to ignite and get things moving, so to speak. 

Trunks and Bonnets did not ever open with some magic click from the driver.  Someone always tickled something below the bonnet , moved it and lifted the bonnet, showcasing the engine in all its glory.  A  collection of so many interesting shapes and sizes, at so many levels, where you could use a screwdriver to minutely tune things, and some experts could even do it by ear. There were steaming radiators, where someone always shouted at everyone else to stand away,  while opening the lid, and occasionally got scalded by the hot water. Those were the days of a complicated arduous climb up the Bhor Ghat from Mumbai to Pune, with mind boggling fearful acute U bends combined with a sixty degree simultaneous slope,  and everyone stopped up the plateau, after a tunnel, with bonnets open, and radiators cooling, with folks refilling the water in there, while other folks bought ice golas from vendors who frequented the place.

Being part of a family function, could mean being the driver, who transported numerous relatives from house to wedding hall in minimum number of trips, thanks to people occupying every single available space in all the seats, and laps of people. Seat belts and such restrictive stuff had not entered the Indian market,  were probably considered fashion then, and no one knew what air bags were. Small kids often stood leisurely leaning back against seats (front and rear), buffeted by weighty adults who kind of packed the kid in. It was considered  completely normal to ask your driving age son to give you and your ten friends a ride to the house of your eleventh friend who was having a Haldi Kunku. And it was often a prize winning , wordless, sometimes quietly  protesting performance from a  son, accompanied by so many ladies , in rustling silks, jewellery, flowers , some younger ones on laps of older ones, heads hitting the roof,  all of them vociferously wondering if they just missed the turnoff  to whoever's house, and should they go reverse and go back....

The sturdy car bore all these excesses with equanimity.  It was built  for societies such as ours, with bad roads, potholes,  lots of travelling luggage of assorted shapes, folding stools, random additions to number of passengers at the last minute, and people with a knack for pushing cars when stuck. When there was an engine problem,  there were people who would delve in and adjust settings , screws and levels, since nothing was packaged and covered like a black box, a la today's cars.  It also made members of the family,  semi expert on things like Carburettors, fast and slow settings, Shellac, Delco, Bendix Wheel, Starter, Fuel pump, dynamos, Armatures, washers, accelerator springs and so on. And no one ever cribbed about drying a drenched Delco point after driving through flooded roads in torrential rains.

When I moved on to a Fiat consequent to a life status change,  everything was so light. In comparison, driving the Ambassador felt like driving a tank.  The Ambassador was like a strict tough school teacher, who ensured you put in the requisite strong effort changing steering wheel  gears, doing laborious sharp turns, and proper reversing.  Because all that training is good for you. (Like learning math tables up to 29).

 The Fiat was like a holiday ; everything was easier on the biceps and triceps, and for some reason the steering while , although not of the "power" type,  could be twirled occasionally with one hand. It was actually like a female version of the Ambassador.  By and by, our  Fiat retired after 38 years of meritorious service, and is in Vanaprsathashram at a automobile repair teaching department at a  polytechnic at our native place in Kokan..

Those were days of no expressways, people drove with windows open, sometimes assorted handkerchiefs and towels drying in the breeze, anchored somewhere inside the car.  Hot seasons saw wet khus mats on the top of the car.  You stopped when you saw someone selling local fruit,  or a chai tapri away to one side.  Or a famous vada place . Someone would see a temple and one would stop to  honor a grandmother's wish.   We didn't really have radios, but plenty of kids sang popular  songs and played antakshari during the journey.   External communication from the car was  simply non existent. (I mean if you said "Bluetooth", a shocked driver would  simply take you to the nearest dentist, and saying "Ice Cream Sandwich", would get the benefit of a strict maternal glare. )

Life has changed. Today's cars  talk less. They glide.  Trying to do it noiselessly, on roads that haven't changed at all. Its like trying to do a fashion show in the middle of Bhuleshwar. 

 They also cost more.  Most are air cooled,  and it is in the fitness of things, and probably not a coincidence, that the radiator cooling spot in the Bhor ghat , disappeared with the advent of the expressway.  Today's cars are also selfish.  One seat , one person.  Compulsory seat belts.  When malfunctions happen, entire packaged engine parts are changed. Banana skins are not used.  Looks are important. And so are dynasties. German, Korean, Japanese, US and yes , Indian.

Mumbai's weather has not appreciably altered from the old days, but every modern car now come with AC.  With the result, that people are unable to otherwise tolerate heat.  And they get easily rattled.  When life gets too easy,  you get demanding  and  lose temper easily.  Speed is of essence in everything. Whether it is the expressway,  responses, phone calls,  food preparation,  or just about anything.   Which includes losing temper.

 So you have road rages.

I suppose we need to move with the times.   The newer cars are here to stay  in their different categories, shapes, colors, makes, fancy engines and fancier names.

But  somewhere, there is a thought, that  we lost something wonderful, when we gave up our eclectic ambassadorial lives  in this modern world.

Clearly, it wasn't just a car. It was a lifestyle......   




  1. Umm..the good old days of Ambassadors & Fiats! Now we have a new model coming before we can even notice the one that zipped by.