Made For Indians

Made For Indians

Soon after the oligopolistic system set in – with just three car manufacturers making three outdated and relatively expensive models – most citizens of India and many politicians realized that what India needed was a ‘people’s car’. Reacting to popular opinion the government decided to give another license, to a fourth potential car-maker, one who would make a more accessible ‘people’s car’. Several Indian industrial groups, entrepreneurs and many of the international auto majors offered or proposed to make cars that were significantly cheaper than the existing car models.

Standard Motors modified the Standard 10 into the Stanmobile as a proposal for a cheaper ‘people’s car’, but they didn’t get the go-ahead from the Indian government
It seems that an Indian company signed up with Glas of Germany to produce the Goggomobil in India (Courtesy Harit Trivedi)
Despite a meeting with India’s Prime Minister then, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Goggomobil didn’t get the go-ahead from the government either (Courtesy Harit Trived)

After much debates, discussions and controversies, on November 13, 1968, the Minister of State for Industrial Development, Raghunath Reddi, announced that his ministry had received a proposal to make an inexpensive people’s car from Sanjay Gandhi, the son of the then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. The proposal from the 21-year-old Sanjay Gandhi was for a small car that could get to a top speed of 85km/h, run more than 18km per litre, yet cost just Rs 6,000 only, less than half the price of the cars on sale then.Reddi also mentioned that the government had received proposals from 13 other carmakers, entrepreneurs and engineers. Despite all the other very worthy proposal, on November 31, 1970, the Minister of Industries, Dinesh Singh, handed over a letter of intent to Sanjay Gandhi to make the people’s car, and Sanjay Gandhi presented his prototype small car in November, 1972. The car was named Maruti, and its unveiling was quite an event. The people’s car, of the people, manufactured by the people, for the people of India had finally arrived. Or had it?

Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti – a car for the people of India (Gautam Sen Archives)

Sanjay promised that the first commercial production cars would roll out just five months later, by April 1973. But that didn’t happen at all.

Indira Gandhi imposed a State of Emergency in June 1975, and Sanjay Gandhi had other matters to attend to. During Emergency, Maruti survived by building bus bodies, but with Emergency coming to an end, business collapsed. With elections in 1977, the opposition Janata Party was voted to power, and a series of legal cases and enquiries against the Gandhi family and Maruti ensued. When, on March 06, 1978, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana ordered the winding up of Maruti Motors, not more than 40 Marutis, at most, may have been made.

Not more than 40 of the Sanjay Gandhi Marutis must have been made (Gautam Sen Archives)

In January 1980, Indira Gandhi’s party, the Congress, came back to power, and Indira was back in the driving seat of the country. Apparently, son Sanjay was very excited about the possibility of reviving Maruti. But then fate had other plans. On June 23, 1980, Sanjay Gandhi crashed whilst flying a Pitts aircraft, and was killed instantly.With the death of Sanjay Gandhi, Indira was devastated. Though the mother had lost her favourite son, it was still possible to keep alive his dream. So, soon after Sanjay’s death, Indira Gandhi and her government set about the process of establishing India’s national car project, for a car to be made in collaboration with an international major using foreign technology.

To take that route, the first essential was to identify the product and a foreign carmaker who would willingly part with technology and participate in the making of India’s ‘people’s car’. A core team to head the project was established. A newly created legal entity – Maruti Udyog Limited – was created, and the process began to identify companies for partnership and products that would be appropriate. After meeting and discussing with most of the major European carmakers, the choice eventually narrowed down to the smaller cars from Japan, and then specifically to Suzuki, for the model known as the Suzuki Alto (SS80), which became the Maruti 800 for the Indian marketplace.

The short-lived first generation Maruti 800, made from 14th December, 1983 to mid-1986 (©Kartik Ganesh)

And, as it has turned out, Maruti became for Suzuki Motor Corporation its most important deal in its history as a car-maker. And so, it came to pass that on December 14, 1983, on the 37th birth anniversary of the late Sanjay Gandhi, his mother, Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, ceremoniously handed over the key of the very first Maruti 800 to its first customer, a certain Harpal Singh from Delhi. Though Harpal Singh passed away in 2010, the car is still with the family!

Harpal Singh being presented the key of his Maruti 800 by Indira Gandhi on the 14th of December, 1983 (Gautam Sen Archives)

When Harpal Singh took delivery of his Maruti 800, there were some 135,000 others in the queue to take delivery of India’s new marvel. Maruti Udyog, before production began, held a series of roadshows of the three vehicles that it was planning to make: the car, the van and the pick-up truck version of the van. Ten of each of the vehicles were brought in and displayed in every important town, city and metropolis in India.

Indians went crazy. Thousands thronged to take a close look at these little wonders, these brightly painted sculptures in metal that were so much more modern and smarter than the ancient Premiers and Ambassadors that the masses had got bored to the eyeballs with! And thus began the next chapter in India’s renewed love affair with the automobile…

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