Made By Indians

Made By Indians

The first of the Indian industrialists to look at assembling cars in India after the bankruptcy of International Tyre & Motor Company was Walchand Hirachand Doshi. Walchand went to the US in 1939 looking to collaborate with one of the American Big Three for the manufacture of cars. As both GM and Ford already had assembly facilities in India, Walchand Hirachand eventually ended up with Chrysler Corporation, signing up in 1940. But then WWII intervened, and car production was put aside for the war effort.

Another wealthy industrialist, Ghanshyam Das Birla incorporated Hindustan Motors in 1942. And automobile enthusiast (and owner of a Bugatti Type 35A) J R D Tata decided to get the Tata Group to incorporate Tata Engineering & Locomotive Company Limited (TELCO) in 1945, with plans to make locomotives and vehicles. In Punjab, a company called Mahindra & Mohammed was incorporated in 1945 to initially trade in steel.

Post WW II and the independence of India in 1947, once things had stabilized the business of car manufacturing and assembly was once again considered. By 1948, Mahindra & Mohammed had become Mahindra & Mahindra, as business partner Ghulam Mohammed left for Pakistan to become Pakistan’s first finance minister.

Though Hindustan Motors began work on a new factory near Calcutta in 1948, it was Premier Automobiles who were the first off the block in early 1949, when the first set of Dodge, Plymouth and DeSoto badged cars rolled off their factory near Bombay, along with the first batch of trucks with Dodge, Fargo and DeSoto branding.

A Dodge Kingsway from 1957, assembled by Premier Automobiles, which began assembling Chrysler Corporation cars from 1948 (© Makarand Baokar)

Later the same year, the assembly lines began rolling at Hindustan Motors too as the company cleverly signed two deals, one with American carmaker Studebaker and the other with British manufacturer Morris Motors.

A Studebaker from late 1956, assembled by Hindustan Motors near Calcutta (© Makarand Baokar)

Starting by assembling the six-cylinder Studebaker Champions, Hindustan Motors began its Morris assembly operations with the Ten, launched in India as the Hindustan 10 in 1949, the latter becoming the first model of car with an Indian branding.

The Hindustan 10, one of the first cars with an Indian ‘badging’ (© Makarand Baokar)

Shortly thereafter, in 1950, Hindustan replaced the 10 with the ‘Baby’ Hindustan, which was the recently unveiled Morris Minor, and complemented that with the slightly bigger Hindustan Fourteen (the Morris Oxford). It was also at the same time assembling the Studebaker Champions, the Deluxe Sedan and the Regal Deluxe Sedan.

In 1954, the Hindustan Fourteen was replaced by the Hindustan Landmaster, which was the Morris Oxford Series II. The Landmaster remained in production till 1957, when it was replaced by the Ambassador.

A very rare Hindustan Landmaster ‘woody’ estate (© Makarand Baokar)

The Ambassador was the Morris Oxford Series III, launched in 1956 in the UK, but wasn’t introduced in India till 1957. In 1959, when the Oxford Series III was replaced by the all-new Farina-designed Series V, the tooling of the Series III was shipped to India … becoming the Ambassador, which was made… and made… and made till 2014!

A Hindustan Ambassador (Mark II) from 1965; the Ambassador was made from 1957 to 2014! (© Makarand Baokar)

Though Premier Automobiles had started off before Hindustan Motors, its product planning wasn’t as good. Till 1951, the cars that Premier was assembling were the Chrysler Corporation cars, the DeSoto Diplomat, the Dodge Kingsway and the Plymouth DeLuxe. In 1951, Premier started assembling the Fiat 500C too, under license, and soon followed that up by introducing the all-new 1100 in 1954, a year after it had been launched in Italy.

The Fiat 500C on Premier’s assembly line (courtesy Premier Ltd)
The Fiat 500C, the first Fiat assembled by Premier Automobiles (© Makarand Baokar)

Till 1965, as Fiat in Italy kept updating the 1100 with cosmetic upgrades, the Premier-assembled Fiats in India too kept getting facelifts. In 1965, Premier introduced the Fiat 1100 D, or Delight. This was the Italian Fiat 1100D from 1962, which was made in Italy till 1966. The tooling was shipped out to India soon thereafter, and, like the Ambassador, the Fiat 1100D remained in production from 1966… to 2000!

A Fiat 1100 Elegant from 1957 (©Makarand Baokar)
A Fiat 1100 Super Select from 1962 (© Makarand Baokar)
The Fiat 1100D was re-badged the Premier President (above) and later the Premier Padmini (© Makarand Baokar)

In the meantime, Tata went into the business of manufacturing trucks signing a technical collaboration with Daimler-Benz, from Germany, in 1954. A prominent importer in Calcutta, Dewar’s Garage also waded into the assembly business, bolting together and selling British brands such as Singers and Rovers. But more interestingly Mahindra & Mahindra inked a deal with Willys to assemble the Willys Jeep CJ3B, under license in India, in a factory in North Bombay: this was branded as the Mahindra Jeep.

In Madras too automotive assembling began with Austin cars, by a company called Ashok Motors in 1949, with the A40. Soon after, Ashok Motors began the assembly of Leyland trucks, and with the company eventually concentrating on the business of making trucks, it was renamed as Ashok Leyland.

Another Madras-based company, Union Motor Company, set-up an assembly line in 1949, and tied-up with British carmaker Standard Motor Company. Union Motors began its assembly operations with the Standard Vanguard saloon in 1948, and then went on to introduce the smaller Standard 8, followed by the 10 and, subsequently, the Pennant.

At some point, the name of the company was changed from Union Motors to Standard Motors Product of India Limited, though Standard UK had no stake in the Indian company. Not unlike Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles, Standard Motors too narrowed operations to becoming a one product manufacturer by 1962, when it launched the Triumph Herald, badged as a Standard Herald.

Though the Standard badge was last used in 1963 in the UK, it carried on in India till 1987, with the Herald and its progenitor, the Gazel, being made till 1977.

An extremely low mileage completely original Standard Herald from 1964 (©Karl Bhote)

Why did this product stagnation happen? Because of government policies. In 1954, the Indian government realized that there were some 60-odd models of cars selling in a market that barely totaled up to 20,000 sales per year. Clearly, with competition from imported vehicles, the fledgling auto industry couldn’t survive. Also the import of automobiles and components was a serious drain on foreign exchange. Plus with self-sufficiency an important policy of the Indian government then, it was decided in 1954 that high import tariff for automobiles and components was necessary to support localization and growth of the automobile industry. Consequently, both GM and Ford stopped their assembly operations that year.

The Standard Herald III – this one is the very rare four-door version, specific to India (© Makarand Baokar)
An India-assembled Chevrolet Fleetmaster, from 1947 (©Makarand Baokar)
Another India-assembled GM product, the Buick Super, from 1947 (©Makarand Baokar)

With the eventual objective of complete localization, the three Indian carmakers decided that it would be prudent to concentrate on one specific model, for which they acquired the tooling from their respective collaborators. It also made sense to phase out the assembling of the slow-selling Studebakers and Chrysler Corporation cars, which is what Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles did, respectively, by the end of the 1950s.

Thus, from the beginning of the 1960s it was a case of just three car models being manufactured in India: the Hindustan Ambassador, the Fiat 1100 (later rebadged as the Premier Padmini) and the Standard Herald. And this remained so for the next two-and-a-half decades.


Extracted from “A Million Cars for a Billion People” by Gautam Sen, published by Platinum Press, Mumbai

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