2020 Auto News Auto Sales Indian automobiles

Longest running cars and bikes in India

The typical life cycle of a car today is 6-8 years, and it’s not uncommon for models to soldier on beyond 100 months. But to live beyond 250 months is quite rare. We dive into the fascinating history of these cars and motorcycles, each of which has a unique story to tell.

Hindustan Ambassador (1957-2014) – 684 months

The Ambassador wasn’t just a car. It was an Indian icon, the national car – one that spanned different eras and generations while serving political leaders, bureaucrats, businessmen, families and taxi drivers alike. It dominated Indian roads for decades and became an integral part of the country’s landscape. That it lived for 684 months gave it the honour of being the car with the longest production run in the world.

The Ambassador’s roots go back to the 1948 Morris Oxford, launched in India in 1954 as the Hindustan Landmaster. In 1957, it got a new grille, hood and rear fenders and was christened the ‘Ambassador’. Thereafter, the car was unchanged for decades, save for minimal cosmetic changes that came far and few between.

In 1963, it got a new grille and was named the Mark II. Then, a full 12 years later, another grille change made it the Mark III. In 1979 came another grille change, and, you guessed it, it became the Mark IV. This marked (no pun intended) the end of the Mark series, which was a sad industry joke at the time and reflective of an era in which product development was virtually non-existent. The little product development that was done was dieselising the existing 1,489cc petrol engine in 1975, to offer the Amby’s huge taxi market a low running-cost option.

Emission regulations finally killed the ageing 1.5 petrol engine but not the car. To meet BS2 emission norms in 2000, HM shoehorned the 1.8-litre Isuzu engine from the Contessa into the Ambassador, which made it the fastest accelerating car in its class, beating Fiats, Marutis and Tatas at the time!

Finally, in 2014, HM pulled the plug on a car that should have died many generations ago. But while the good old Ambassador has gone, it’s been around far too long to be forgotten in a hurry.

Premier Padmini 1100 (1964-2000) – 432 months

The other car, the only alternative and rival to the Ambassador was the Premier Padmini, which for around two decades was one of two choices Indian car buyers had. The Premier Padmini was essentially a rebadged version of the Fiat 1100 ‘Delight’, and it went on sale in 1964. Eight years later, Premier Automobiles Limited (PAL) was freed from the licensing contract with Fiat and started producing its own version of the 1100, which was first called the President, and then named ‘Padmini’.

More user-friendly than the Ambassador, the Padmini was the preferred choice for families, and at one point, just before Maruti came in, it commanded an 8 to 10-year waiting period!

Like the Ambassador, the car hardly changed over the course of its long 432-month life. With the arrival of the game-changing Maruti 800 in the early 1980s, PAL was jolted out of its stupor and a series of improvements were initiated on the Padmini. In 1985, the bypass oil circulation system was replaced by a full-flow system that improved the oil circulation. The compression ratio of the 1,089cc engine was increased, taking the power from 39hp to 42hp. In 1987, the traditional front quarter glass was deleted to save the company Rs 40!

Between 1989 and 1992, the company went from Pierburg to Solex carbs to lower emissions and improve power. The Padmini briefly had a diesel engine – a 1,367cc unit that developed 41hp, which appealed to the taxi segment. It was this engine that gave diesel a notorious name, with its exhaust spewing out thick, black smoke and triggered a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) against vehicular emission, which is a running battle in the courts until today.

The heart of the Padmini was always the 1,089cc engine that goes back to the 1937 Fiat Millicento! The biggest change to the good old engine came in 1993. The cylinder head was reworked completely, which boosted power to 48hp. This more powerful variant was called the S1 for Step 1. Sadly, there was no Step 2, and the Padmini, fast losing ground to the all-conquering Maruti 800 and unable to meet BS2 emission norms, was finally put to rest in 2000, after a solid 432-month inning. Best known as a kaali-peeli taxi immortalised in so many Bollywood movies, the Padmini made Fiat a household name.

Maruti Omni (1984-2019) – 420 months

It was launched in December 1984, exactly one year after the Maruti 800, but it went on to become the most enduring Maruti ever, finding customers right until it was discontinued in mid-2019. That it remained largely unchanged for over three decades is a remarkable testimony to its fitness for purpose, which was to transport the maximum number of people in the cheapest and most efficient way possible.

However, it did not start out with the large Indian family in mind. It was launched simply as the Maruti Van for semi-commercial application. But, what cost-conscious Indians saw in this affordable, user-friendly and ultrareliable van was a frugal way to carry up to eight people. The closest 8-seaters were those from Mahindra, and they were too big, too crude and a lot more expensive in comparison.

However, as a family car, the Maruti Van was also a bit too basic, and based on customer feedback, Maruti with its first stab at in-house R&D, tweaked it to make it plusher and more comfortable. The all-black interiors were changed to lighter and airier tones. The thin and flat middle-row seat was replaced by a bench with far more generous cushioning, and, lastly, the rear suspension, originally designed for high payloads was redesigned to make the ride softer and more compliant. And with all those changes came a new name. In 1988, the Maruti Van was rebranded the Omni, and this image makeover established it as the de facto family car in rural India. In fact, few vehicles have enjoyed such a loyal following and it’s not uncommon for households to have rebought the Omni 5-6 times.

The Omni remained largely unchanged for the rest of its life, except for a few cosmetic changes and upgradation of the venerable 796cc, three-cylinder F8 engine to meet the new emission standards. At the turn of the century, the Omni was given disc brakes in a bid to improve safety. But the fact is that, with its small wheels, high centre of gravity and small track, and, lest we forget, zero crash protection afforded by the cab-forward design, the Omni was anything but safe.

In fact, this is what finally killed the Omni as it simply could not meet the more stringent crash regulations that came into effect last year. Its discontinuation has left a huge void in Maruti’s portfolio, which can never be filled. And at a price of just Rs 2.88 lakh (8-seater; ex-showroom) before it went off the market, there will never be another people carrier that can offer as good value for money.

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