Friday, February 28, 2014

Cars and India

Twenty years ago if you had seen Cars on the Indian roads and compared it with some of the western countries you would have easily thought India be a third world country. Substandard cars, funny looking yesteryear models plying the polluted and overcrowded roads. You would imagine a poor country just a brush with relatively new found economic freedom with no money to import foreign cars or a market for its big middle class. What they would not know is its rich past history.

If this was India of early 20th century a scene on your left would have been quite common. India was a country of big and small 100s and thousands of princely states with Princes and Kings with huge disposable income. India was a British slave with more or less free princely states. What did they spend on? Rolls Royces. Cars were their passion and not just any cars the costliest of them all. All custom made for them looking different from anybody's else. A car to reflect their own personality, their own reflection - A status symbol. India of that time did not have many Millionaires but the number of its Ultra Rich were by large far more than any other country's. India's super rich were richer than most. India was not a poor nation. Only the money was not available to all. India was still a rich car market.
There was a parallel world then shaking the foundation of these riches and their masters - British.  But thanks to them India got access to cars meant for upper middle class - The mass produced cars of Fords and Chevrolet. By then Cars were made faster if not rugged than Elephants and our own political leaders loved to use them. There was no dearth of such cars - Indian businessmen, lawyers, politicians owned them. Our front line leaders came from this class of people. Educated, exposed to western world and its culture with a vision of their own for their own country free from the clutches of a western power.
Due to British presence in India and willing buyers of its upper middle class same cars were available in India that were available any place else. Same Fords that were sold in Chicago were also available in London and the same in Bombay. If you found Gandhi walking with a help of a long stick, pictures like on your right were not too rare either. If anything else other than perseverance of Indian people helped achieve India its independence then it must have been the mass produced cars. If Rolls Royce represented the oppressor, cheap Fords represented the leaders fighting them. India was still a big market for cars. Only the common Man was still not using it.
Then came India's independence. Fortunately WWII gave enough impetus to mechanized growth that cars and trucks and jeeps were not for a few but became a necessity. Collaborations, Assemblers, Franchises in auto industry increased. Enough of used Jeeps of WWII saw a new market in India. Indian defense and its new administration needed a mode of transportation. A transportation that was relatively cheap and rugged enough to enable them to reach far and undeveloped places. They also needed better city cars rugged but sleek enough for the new leaders of Independent India.
Then came a car that solved India's transportation problem and became so iconic with a cult following that barely anything major changed in its base design in the last 50/60 years - Hindustan Motor's Ambassador - An Indianized British Morris Oxford. This was a blessing and a curse to what was India's next three decades of no development in its car market. The car was good enough for streets of Mumbai to political broadening roads of Delhi to dirt roads of villages. If its manufacturer ever put any thoughts in its design then it was its rear seats and its suspension. Though today's car beat this car left and right but still envy its rear seats and legendary leg space it offers. While this was an Indian car almost monopolizing the Indian car market the market was still open for manufactures like General Motors before being shut in '70s. By then enough of celebrities had owned the then popular Chevy Impalas and you could see many Austins and Buicks in the rusting garages of Doctors, Administrators and Movie Celebrities.
Though these western cars were never cheap to own and Ambassadors seen as the Office car the car market remained unfulfilled for middle class that eagerly was waiting for affordable four wheels. And then came a car that remained likely the only challenger of Ambassador and made sure its hegemony in public sector was not extended to private buyers of the working class people.The Italian Fiat collaborated Premier Padminis put a smile on many families faces as they started to park these cars on the road sides of where they lived. Cars that they loved to drive themselves and did not need a cap wearing driver to be hired. Then came a decade that split the car market of India into two suppliers - Be it privately owned or Taxis either they were Ambassadors or Premiers. Though they were inefficient cars by today's standards but their big inner space and pig-iron body made sure they had enough space for the family and relatively safer. These cars extended their reach to middle class. But still they were seen not for everybody. They sure made your neighbor envy but the market of people who had more money than to buy scooters but not enough to go for Fiats just swelled. India saw consistent increase in its purchasing power and better city lives. It needed more, more than what they had with in the constraints of a closed economy.

Before Indian economy was re-opened in early 90's that allowed reentry of foreign brands and by then matured Indian manufacturers to compete with them came a car so iconic and game changer that changed how India traveled. It did not just challenge monopolistic Ambys and Premiers it destroyed them and reduced their market to small eroding segment of Taxis. A cheap, faster, light weight, easier to drive and the only car with non-English Indian name Maruti - A car for everyone. What happened in the next decade was an astonishing growth. The middle class got its Rolls Royce. 

** Thanks to Google and sites like Team-BHP for image downloads. 

1 comment:

sahul hameed said...

Nice post about the cars in india. i have learned more valuable information like the WWII gave enough impetus to mechanized growth that cars and trucks. in addition, jeeps were not for a few but became a necessity at that time of independence. The use of Jeeps of WWII saw a new auto market in India.Finally , i appreciate what you mentioned as Collaborations, Assemblers, Franchises in auto industry increased.Please post about the Indian Popular Cars and their specifications.Overall, it is useful post.