Indians lament sale of iconic Ambassador car

A street cleaner sweeps the road next to parked Ambassador taxis in Kolkata.

New Delhi (CNN)Suhel Seth, 53, still remembers the license plate of his first car.

"WNF322," he says of the car he drove when he was just 22.
It was a black Ambassador, and "it was wonderful," he says.
    For generations of Indians, the Ambassador was a majestic presence on the country's roads.
    The car was modeled after Britain's iconic Morris Oxford, with its large, rounded exterior.
    When it was first manufactured in 1958, just outside the east Indian city of Calcutta, it was the first car to be made in India.
    And for decades, it remained one of only two brands manufactured in the country, a legacy of the protectionism and socialism that marked India's early years of independence.
    An old defunct Ambassador "State Car" hosts plant bearing pots at the basement of a government building in Bangalore on May 30, 2014 -- the year production was stopped.
    Last week, when the owner of the Ambassador brand, Hindustan Motors, sold it to French carmaker Peugeot for $12 million, Seth and many other Ambassador aficionados were taken by surprise and even anger.
    In the announcement, Peugeot didn't give specific details on what it will do with the Ambassador brand. It didn't respond to a CNN request for comment Thursday.
    "India has given away its crown jewel," says Seth, who is now managing partner at branding company Counselage India.
    "This is not a car, it's an anecdotal history of India."
    Rajkumar Kapoor, a driver in Delhi, stands with the Ambassador car that he drives.

    Wheels of power

    Aditya Kumar was seven years old when he rode in his first Ambassador. It didn't matter that it was one of only two cars available in India at the time, his excitement was palpable.
    "It was a luxury in India," says Kumar, now an official in the Ministry of Railways. This was the late 1970s when few owned or drove cars.
    The Ambassador car didn't even belong to Kumar's parents, instead it belonged to his grandfather, a government official.
    Together, the family would often drive on the weekend to their ancestral village, some 125 miles (200 km) away from the eastern city of Patna.
    There were no roads there, Kumar says, but that wasn't a problem for their Ambassador, which made its way with ease on the dirt paths.
    But the car impressed Kumar for another reason. For a long time, the car was the chariot for all of India's leaders.
    So many ministers, officials and other VIPs rode in it that its associations with power still resound today.
    Kumar grew up seeing an India where people would move to the side for an Ambassador car. "Even the prime minister of the country traveled in that car at the time," he explains.
    When he became a government official in 1996, he was proud to have an Ambassador as his official car. "It was a sign that you have arrived in government."
    Vad Prakash, a mechanic in Delhi, says the Ambassador is the best car in India.

    A car from another era

    The Ambassador is widely known to be a comfortable and safe car. Its heavy metal frame made it virtually indestructible.
    "If your car gets hit by someone, you'll still be safe," says Vad Prakash, a mechanic at Safdarjung Service Station in Delhi. "This is one of the best cars."
    However, the car was known to be finicky. It broke down often and did not give great fuel mileage. Prakash, though, says the car is easy and cheap to maintain, unlike other cars which require special parts.
    Yet by the 21st century, the Ambassador was losing favor.
    Once India embarked on economic reforms in the 1990s, brands from all over the world flooded the market.
    South Korea's Hyundai, Japan's Honda and the US Ford began to become more popular on Indian roads.
    Consumers bought newer cars which had AC and stereos and more modern features
    Hindustan Motors did little to counter this tide.
    "The ambassador failed to keep up with the competition," Kumar says
    And soon, even government officials stopped using it.
    "The government started opting for better models...and once the higher ups stopped using it, then it lost that sense of power."
    By the time the brand was sold to Peugeot, Hindustan Motors had stopped manufacturing the car.
    Still, its fans remain devoted. Seth said he immediately called to ask around about purchasing an Ambassador again after he heard about the sale.
    "In India, old is gold," says Rajkumar Kapoor, a government driver in Delhi who has driven an Ambassador for the last six years.
    "When you're driving this car on the road, other cars will move aside for you."