I bought this car from a relative just over 5 years ago. It’s a single owner car. Most Ambassadors of any vintage have been modified several times depending on HM’s ‘latest’ tweak. At the least they become slower, smoky, noisy, diesels. This relative of mine was famously tightfisted, spent the minimum to keep the car barely functional. That actually worked for me because the car though decrepit, remained an original 1983 Mark 4 petrol with 1,25,000 kms on the odometer. Not bad for a then 25 year old vehicle.
I approached an Ambassador owning friend of mine to get my vehicle rehabilitated. He suggested a small repair facility close to his residence. I had the car sent over and it was stripped and worked on from the ground up. Metalwork, paint, upholstery. The engine was rebuilt, everything that needed to be replaced at the time was, under the supervision of an old master mechanic. Took about 6 months, the vehicle looked really good when it was done but, as I soon found out, repair on an Ambassador is at best a work in progress. Old parts are expected to fail but replacement parts did too. Quality control with this vehicle is mostly myth, the car was hopelessly unreliable.
A huge problem was that no big shop was working on Ambassadors anymore, the small numbers of vehicles that were still around were mostly diesel. In 2010, I located a fairly large dealer in Coimbatore. Drove the car down, left it there for a month. They replaced and reworked some more, since then it’s been mostly reliable. I’ve taken the car on trips, the longest being to Hampi, 1000 kms each way. The car performed admirably, even completing the return journey with stops only for fuel (17.5 hours). Further, it only needed the rubber bushing on it’s balance rod replaced when I got back, a victim of Karnataka speed breakers.
Some persistent problems I’ve had -
- The air conditioning was overheating the motor, that was fixed finally with an oversize radiator and a slim line electric fan sourced from the US.
- Fuel pump would also heat up and stall, the new fan took care of that too.
- Electrical issues involved mostly the coil and distributor. The car stalled often with a hot coil. Replaced the standard coil with an oil filled one from the US, tossed out the distributor for a new one with electronic ignition, also sourced from the US.
- Today, the car runs strong. No stalling, hesitation or overheating.
I live in central Kerala and I do have access to a fairly competent mechanic. Ambassadors have issues with brakes, alignment, rattles and such on a fairly routine basis. This dude keeps it together for me. The car itself shows its age and it’s mostly incompetent English roots. I’ve used several Ambassadors in the past, learned to drive on some of them, they bring back memories of a era long gone. There is a certain charm to the work involved in keeping this bouncy, noisy, wandering antique on the road. Back in the day, when you parked a Mercedes somewhere it would draw crowds. Expensive German machinery is now a common sight, my Ambassador, not so much, I never thought I’d see the day when an Ambassador would draw so many curious onlookers.
The skinny door is deceptive as it’s heavy and shuts with a reassuring sound. The steering wheel within is thin and large in diameter, offset to the right for reasons unknown. Fortunately there is a feeling of heft to it as turns require some muscle. Seating position is comfortably high, the overturned bathtub profile allows for a reasonably spacious cabin. Clutch and brake pedal stare at you through holes in the floor large enough to allow drafts of warm air and road spray. I step on the clutch, grab the column mounted gear lever, find neutral, and turn the key on the upright, mostly metal, dashboard. Two colour lights and a fuel gauge show signs of life and the engine turns. I remember the SU downdraft carburettor and mechanical fuel pump and depress the accelerator a few times, the engine fires up, no fuss, just a gentle, lazy idle of a low compression motor.
The colour lights go off, the remaining gauges wake up and in a minute I let in the clutch, pull the gear lever towards me and push up to first gear. Gently prodding the accelerator with my right foot, I hear the SU inhale through the ‘oil bath’ air cleaner. I release the clutch and roll out, first to second arrives at 5 km/hr on the speedometer, second to third at 20 km/hr, third stays engaged through 40 km/hr and works well for winding though low speed traffic. The steering transitions from stiff to vague once underway, it shakes and shudders in my hand as the front tyres make contact with poorly laid asphalt and potholes. The car remains remarkably composed under 50 km/hr in 4th “top” gear, the motor is quiet, some drivetrain whine filters into the cabin.
The ride is fairly balanced as this car is rear driven with a small 1500cc, inline 4-cylinder up front. This Ambassador does not plow easy but its high profile and skinny tyres make it prone to oversteer. Brakes are vacuum assisted over sized drums, they lock easy and need to be carefully modulated to maintain control in any weather. The dark brown bucket seats are comfortable, seat belts are a welcome addition, lots of hard surfaces and painted metal in the cabin. Air conditioning is supplied by a rudimentary under dash unit, switching it on robs the motor of some grunt but the cabin cools quick, an oversize radiator and a large fan keep things cool under the hood. On a less congested road I crank up to 80 km/hr in 4th gear, the vehicle feels stable but noise levels go up some, it will go faster if prodded gently but the engine, tyre, road and other mechanical noise get excessive and intrusive.
Suspension is fairly basic-shocks supplemented by leaf springs in the rear. The suspension works in tandem with antiquated fixed axles to contribute a healthy bounce to the ride, poor asphalt surfacing can make the incessant pitch annoying. Low gearing allows the engine to operate at modest speed without frequent gear changes, works well for the normal two lane roads shared with melange of wheels, legs and debris. Overtaking requires some planning as does extended trips on highways where cadence is critical for efficient execution. Power output is optimistically pegged at 46 BHP. In mixed driving, the car returns 9 kms to a litre of petrol, 8 kms with the air con on.
Fit and finish on the car are abysmal. Most every part from the front bumper to the tail lights had to be reworked when the car was rehabilitated. It was essential to have a good body shop go over the car and make it an acceptable compromise, but reworking metal has it’s limitations. Poor quality, poor assembly, poor paint, fit and finish seem to be the norm and years of resigned acceptance by a long suffering public had set the bar really low for HM. Engineering tolerances at HM may only relate to how much potential punishment a consumer can stomach. But my tired old machine with it’s wretched English pedigree, antiquated hardware, unhappy compromises and challenging reliability remains an engaging drive and work in progress simply because it is a tangible experience from an era long gone and mostly forgotten.
- Thomas John