How many of you can boast to have been driven around in an Ambassador car in the UK? I don’t think there are too many of you out there.
I was purely lucky.
I had first heard of Adrian Shooter (in picture above) and his garden railway about 10 years ago in my hometown Siliguri, in the foothills of the Darjeeling mountains, where I worked as a reporter for The Telegraph. I used to cover the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) and would get to meet steam fanatics from all over the world, especially the UK where they exist in large numbers. I once did a piece on how the DHR lovers had converted a narrow-gauge station in Wales into the Sukna station of the DHR in West Bengal, India. Adrian Shooter’s steam locomotive, which had in the past hauled the Toy Train (nickname of the DHR) in the Darjeeling hills, was used to pull the tourist train of the Ffestiniog Railways.
So, in the summer of 2013, during my stay in Oxford, UK, I went to meet Mr. Shooter and check out his DHR loco. And guess what? there he was at the railway station with the very Indian Ambassador car.
He drove me to his house in Steeple Aston village and back. Oh! what a thrilling drive it was. Never before–never while taking the yellow-and-blue Ambi taxis in Kolkata– had I thought that in the foreign roads I’d get meet this ancient bulbous beauty, increasingly shunned by the rising Indian middle class for smarter, snazzier, more fuel-efficient and more comfortable models.
I enjoyed the ride and memories of it remained latent in my mind until the time that Hindustan Motors announced earlier this year that it would halt the production of the Ambassador, India’s first car–once the status symbol for the upper-class and now the source of livelihoods for the lower-class taxi drivers.
I was reminded of Mr. Shooter. He and I had chatted at length about his Indian wheels (not only those that run on tracks) and his experiences with them, and also about how the great Indian jugaad tradition helped him get entry to the Hindustan Motors factory near Kolkata.
I wrote a piece on that visit which has been published in Forbes India.
A narrow lane off Heyford Road leads to his house. Once inside his garden, Shooter drives his 2003 Ambassador Classic with a 1.8-litre petrol engine alongside the narrow-gauge rail tracks. On some stretches, the Amby goes over the tree-lined tracks. The drive tries to simulate the 78-kilometre journey from Siliguri to Darjeeling, where the DHR (more fondly known as the Toy Train) and the Hill Cart Road crisscross.