Nothing says ‘I’m in Kolkata’ like riding in the back of one of the City of Joy’s big, yellow Ambassador taxis, the cooling breeze from the open windows bringing with it the whiff of diesel fumes and a mashup of traffic sounds.
Modeled on Britain’s 1956 Morris Oxford Series III, the ‘Amby’ was the first car to be made in India, by Hindustan Motors in Kolkata in 1957.
For decades the Hindustan Ambassador was the most common vehicle on India’s roads. Government officials would be chauffeured around in stately white ones. Police officers drove theirs, also white, with flashing lights on top.
Being easy to maintain, comfortable and sturdy also made them ideal taxis. The world’s best taxis no less, according to the BBC’s Top Gear presenters, after an Amby outshone other classics such as Britain’s black cab in a televised showdown in 2012.
‘On May 24, 2014, the last Hindustan Ambassador rolled off the assembly line, ending an era’
In 2013, there were whispers of lighter, smaller models to update what The Times of India once called ‘the dowdy dowager of India’s roads.’
But on May 24, 2014, the last Hindustan Ambassador rolled off the assembly line, ending an era.
There’s still plenty of life in them, however, and still plenty of them on the streets of Kolkata.
During a recent visit, Ambassador taxis were so numerous I never had to wait longer than a minute, day or night, to flag one down—and they became my favorite mode of transport by a country mile.
They’re easy to spot, for one thing.
But, more than that, sliding across the black vinyl back seat as your driver pulls away from the curb and into the rushing river of cars, buses and motorbikes is like finding an old couch that can magically take you where you need to go.
Long may they ride.
Remember when cars were so robust you could sit or even stand on them without risking a dent? Ambassadors have been hailed as virtually indestructible—as these taxi drivers demonstrate, waiting for fares like surfers hanging out at the beach circa 1960—which might have something to do with their longevity.
A gap in the traffic, which is rare in Kolkata, a city choking on more modes of transport than perhaps any other: as well as thousands of taxis, there are trams and buses, human-pulled and auto rickshaws, motorbikes and bicycles, even horse-drawn Cinderella carriages (for romantic tourists).
One of the Ambassador’s best features is its roomy back seat. It’s like a sofa, its armrest the rim of the open window that screens a never-ending movie you watch while chatting to the driver’s eyes in the rear-view mirror.
Old and battered, this Ambassador has plenty of life in it. Most drivers rent their taxis from a ‘malik,’ a sort of taxi pimp who typically started out driving rented cabs himself, but can decide who they’ll pick up and where they’ll go—despite the ‘No Refusal’ sign hand-painted on the rear doors.
Room to move
An oft-overlooked virtue of the Ambassador is its enormous trunk (or ‘boot’ in post-colonial India), which can comfortably accommodate luggage, furniture or large boxes—as this taxi at Kolkata’s New Market shopping district clearly proves.
Photos: Alamy/Louise Southerden