Of Indian Cars and Their Indian Market

For some time I had been thinking of changing my vehicle which I had had for more than seven years.  It was an Estillo from the Maruti Suzuki stable and had rendered me decent service. We do not dare to travel out of Bhopal on account of the reported road conditions. It, therefore, ran all through within the confines of the city. It was good and economical but was small – only of 3 cylinders and was of under 1000 cc. We wanted a slightly bigger vehicle wherein we could sit with greater comfort on the rear seats, now that both of us seldom drive.

So we got cracking looking for a suitable vehicle that not only met our requirements, but was within our budget. Today India is different in so far as cars are concerned; one is spoilt for choice. Time was when there were only three makes of cars that were available one of which wound down pretty early being unable to feed the market. It was the Standard of Madras (now Chennai) which used to manufacture variations of the vehicles produced by Standard Triumph of United Kingdom. One of these was Standard Herald, Indian version of Triumph Herald, introduced in mid 1960s, but by 1970s it did the disappearing act.

The Hindustan Motors’ Ambassador had a good run for almost half a century until 2014 but in 2017 it sold the brand and trade mark to the PSA Group of France. Ambassador cars were favourites of ministers who used to ride around on these mostly of white colour. Birla, the owner of Hindustan Motors, had such a stranglehold on the government that he did not allow any other make to appear in the Indian market. At one time the Ambassador was even used to be called “king of the roads”. After economic reforms of 1991 it became a curiosity as it was made on the platform of half a century old Morris Oxford Series III. Some were even exported to England just for fun.

The third make was of Fiat which later collaborated with an Indian firm Premier Automobiles. It put its Padmini on the roads in the mid 1970s. Built on the platform of its precursor Fiat 1100 it became quite popular in 1970s and 1980s. But it soon collapsed when the new small and fuel-efficient cars were introduced in mid 1980s. Though the Padmini plant owned by the Walchand Group was shut down somewhere around 1990s a few taxi cabs of that vintage can even now be seen on Mumbai roads.

 These three together would produce 15000 to 20000 cars per annum. No wonder, huge number of people used to be waitlisted. There used to be even quota for the government and government servants to speed up delivery to them. Here, too, people had to wait at least a couple of years before they got their vehicle. It was that classic “license permit raj”. In the meantime in early 1970s Sanjay Gandhi, son of Mrs. Indira Ganfhi, jumped into the fray hoping to cash in on a market ruled by scarcity. He promised a cheap car named Maruti for just Rs. 6000/-. It never saw the light of day and eventually Suzuki of Japan was persuaded to take over his ramshackle plant and his Maruti brand name. Indians, those who could afford a car, therefore, were denied a decent automobile because of government’s tight control for reasons that could only be called bizarre.

It was former Prime Minister Narsimha Rao who opened the automobile sector and in a matter of few years the economy acquired its tiger-ish traits riding the automobile boom. Almost all manufacturers – from South Korea and Japan to the US and Europe – came and setup automobile plants here. The market was starving for decent and modern economical cars manufactured in modern automatic plants. While the earlier Indian manufacturers left the scene having been vanquished, only two new ones – Daewoo from South Korea and General Motors from the US – have called it quits. Nonetheless, the Indian automobile industry is now one of the largest in the world, annually producing around 24 million vehicles as reported at the end of last fiscal. Of these 3 million were passenger vehicles. One can see them on the Indian roads fighting for space and generally causing jams even at unthinkable tier II and III towns. This is a far cry from what we had experienced in 1960s and 1970s. Even the luxury vehicles like Jaguars, Land Rovers, Mercedes, Audi’s and BMWs which one saw running around only abroad are now being manufactured in the country. The country literally is awash with automobiles.

And yet, we had a futile wait of as many as three months before we got a vehicle of our liking. Since 1984 I have been patronising Maruti Suzuki cars. I had as many as four of them one after the other as I found them good – light on the fuel and least troublesome. They would seldom have a break-down and as its service stations have proliferated one didn’t have much of a problem to have the vehicle attended to.

These plus points made me book another Maruti Suzuki vehicle – this time the bigger one, a sedan named Swift Dzire. As the firm decided to discontinue use of the “Swift” prefix to call it simply “D’zire” with minor changes in its overall make up my booking was converted for this model. And that made me wait for as many as three months with no guarantee that it would be made available anywhere in the near future. That’s when I said enough was enough and I cancelled the booking. Perhaps change in the model and introduction of GST caused some delay but an indefinite delay cannot be tolerated.

There was another reason for the delay. I had asked for the basic model of D’zire. But, the team leader of the dealer said, these basic models take longer time to be delivered as their demand is low and the manufacturer first feeds the high-end market. He said, customers these days mostly ask for vehicles that are “fully loaded” with additional features. Hence these are given priority. The Indian middle class obviously has changed – and changed for the better (?). They now want more sophisticated high-end cars with various luxury features and fixtures.

 Hence, the leading car maker Maruti Suzuki stopped manufacturing its basic 800 cc model with which it started its operations in India. It used to be the cheapest and a pretty good car but now nobody, it seems, wants it. Because of such negative reasons even Tata’s Nano bombed in the market. He thought of making this cheap small car (initially costing only Rs.1 lakh, 1600-odd dollars) having seen families of four commuting on two-wheelers. He took a lot of trouble in producing it cutting down on many non-essentials, made it very light on fuel and had it designed in Italy. He introduced it in competition with Maruti 800, the market share of which promptly tumbled by 20%. But, curiously Nano was shunned by even those for whom it was actually meant. They, probably, are keeping their eyes peeled for a bigger and more sophisticated car.

Such is the Indian automobile market. People are in money and are also aspirational.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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