Words by Sirish Chandran and Ouseph Chacko
Photography by Gaurav S Thombre and Vikrant Date
It’s tiny! Really, freaking, tiny. It’s ages since I drove an 800 of any vintage but the SS80 is like a matchbox. Which, incidentally, is what haters used to call it back then. I can’t imagine how four full size adults squeezed into one, or how they put any luggage into the so called boot, through the glass hatch. But also remember what it was like to drive an Amby and can well imagine the 800 feeling light years ahead. Monocoque chassis! Front wheel drive! The engine in the car in these pictures has done over three and a half lakh kilometres, yet it starts at the first crank, the gears slot cleanly, the pedals feel well weighted and the steering has feedback. Arms full of it, in fact.
When new, this SS80 made 39bhp. Surely by now very many have gone to pasture on god’s great greens, yet this car doesn’t feel hopeless. It weighs just about 600kg, so there’s not too much weight to hustle. The four-speeder ain’t bad even by today’s standards. And everything makes you smile. The horn buttons on the extremities of the spindly steering wheel. The lock on the door, that says lock. The glove box, that’s good only for gloves. The laughably tiny 12-inch wheels (still on cross plys!). This car is so old, and these SS80s are so rare, that I can’t find it in myself to cane her. I’d be lying if I said the SS80 left my nerve endings tingling. But one thing’s for sure: in its own way, she is still thrilling to drive!
Rewind back to that day in 1986 when a red 800 pulled into our garage. The engine remained the same – a 796cc triple that slurped through a carburettor to make 37bhp(down on the imported Japanese engine) –and the transmission still had only four gears but with synchromesh on first as well. But the rest of it was all-new. The wheelbase went up by 25mm to 2175mm. It grew wider and taller. It became a five-seater though how three fit in the back, I can’t fathom. Weight was up to 640kg. There was a more sophisticated dashboard, where you could even direct then blower on to your feet. The steering wheel was new. A conventional tailgate appeared. And the locks moved to the doors, so anybody with a stiff wire could slide it through a crack in the window and unlock the doors.
The rear suspension was upgraded to a three link set-up with leaf springs that improved the ride and made it more suitable to the roads of the day, not to mention the frightening overloading our 800s were subject to. I get my love for road trips from mum and dad who used to pile us kids into the 800 and embark on Kerala-Pune round trips thrice a year. In the eighties, when you had to carry your own food and a big flask of water, when you could have breakfast under a banyan tree by the side of the road, when, forget expressways, dual-carriageways did not so much as exist. Contrary to the matchbox impression it conveyed, the 800 was insanely tough and reliable; it never broke down which was a good thing because back then the dealer network isn’t what it is today.