India’s biggest automobile manufacturer pulls off Maruti 800 from the production line, the car that India used to come home in By Dhruv Bhatia
The best things in life come in small packages whether it is Sachin Tendulkar, the God of cricket, or the revolutionary Maruti 800. While Tendulkar’s batting gave succour to a billion people, the all-time bestselling car of India touched more than a billion lives and revolutionised the automobile industry. Its popularity amongst the masses held its ground. It became a symbol of the Indian middle class. About 2.7 million Maruti 800s have rolled out of showrooms across the country. From being priced at 50,000 Indian Rupees to the last price of 2, 35,000 Indian Rupees, it hasn’t just been successful in India. The Maruti 800 was exported to several countries including Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Morocco and some European countries. Remarkably, the 800 is the second longest production car after the Ambassador. It was a joint effort between Maruti Udyog and Suzuki Motor Co. Japan. If Sachin Tendulkar was the people’s champion, then the Maruti 800 was the people’s car. So when Maruti Suzuki announced last month that it had stopped producing its most iconic model, India found a reason to turn sentimental.
It was on the cold chilly morning of December 14, 1983 when Harpal Singh, an employee of the erstwhile Indian Airlines and a Delhi resident, received the keys of India’s first Maruti 800 from then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He and his wife Gulshanbeer Kaur had bought the car for 47,500 Indian Rupees. Since then, there has been no stopping the 800. The first vehicle to fuel an automobile hunger in the country, it became a status symbol for the Indian middle class. The existence of the 800 is as old as the writer of this article. And this writer became a petrol-head and car enthusiast by getting a first-hand driving lesson in the 1st and 2nd generation of the legendary 800. The 800 became the first car for millions of families across the nation. Its reliability and durability stood out in stark contrast to those of its competitors. And it was a complete value-formoney car.
Beginning Of A Legacy
The decade of the 1980’s has been a memorable time for India in many ways but the country was still in the grip of the Hindu rate of growth. The 800 was a departure, a landmark of modernisation, technological advancement and consumer aspiration. In a way, it was a precursor to economic liberalisation. The car didn’t just change the country’s automobile industry but changed the way people commuted and travelled. Maruti Udyog was established as a public sector undertaking (PSU) to manufacture cars on February 24, 1981. It was Indira Gandhi who decided to rope in a foreign partner and allowed Suzuki to have a 40 per cent equity share.
Stumbling upon Maruti Suzuki chairman R.C. Bhargava’s ‘The Maruti Story’, an extraordinary and rare insight into how a few determined people created an iconic car, one can understand the emotions of Indira Gandhi and what it meant to her. Bhargava describes her address to the nation on December 14, 1983. He writes, “With tears in her eyes, she described the long hours her late son Sanjay Gandhi spent every day trying to develop an Indian small car and translate his dream into reality. In between her voice would crack, and she would sip water and dry her eyes.” When the company was formed, one key decision not recorded anywhere, was that the products should bear the name ‘Maruti’. In that manner, Sanjay Gandhi’s dream would become a reality. Thus began its rivalry against established giants of the day – Premier Automobiles and Hindustan Motors.
The decision to have a small car enter Indian roads stemmed from a survey by the Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB) in 1981. It showed that big cars would prove to be unsuitable and a loss-making initiative. Only a small car would meet the needs of the Indian market. This came to fruition after gruelling research in the pre-Internet era, a visit to the Tokyo Motor Show and a meeting with Osamu Suzuki in December 1981.
But it wasn’t until October 2, 1982 that Maruti Udyog signed an agreement with Suzuki Motor Corporation (SMC) to supply technology and completely knocked down (CKD) parts for the next 10 years. Once production of Suzuki SS80 (which later became Maruti 800) kicked off in the October of 1983, the first roll out occurred December 14 of the same year.
In his riveting narrative, R.C. Bhargava explains that along with Harpal Singh, close to 800 customers in Delhi and Bombay also became proud owners of India’s first modern car. Initially sales were restricted to these two cities but by March 1984, they had extended to Kolkata, Chennai, and Chandigarh, practically exhausting the first year’s production of 852 cars. Rest, as they say, is history.
Under The Hood
Rakesh Gupta, Head of International Marketing for Maruti, was responsible for overseas dispatch for over 16 years starting in 1983. He terms the 800 as the “greatest contribution to the country.” “Before the Maruti 800 came around, holidays had to be planned at least six months in advance,” he says. He also explains that the car was extremely successful in the international market. “It reached countries that had never seen a small car before such as Chile and other South American countries. Chile in particular did not want a small car since the market was dependent on the used big car segment. The analysis showed that the new Maruti 800 proved to be more economical and more value for money. It broke the barriers in these international markets. Algeria of Northern Africa and Australia also turned out to be very lucrative,” Gupta adds.
Ravi Kapoor was looking after corporate planning and marketing. After being involved with the company through a corporate strategy project in 1985, he eventually joined Maruti Udyog in 1986. “You would not believe what many of the earliest customers complained about the car. They said the horn wasn’t loud enough,” he says. That was when the team came up with the double horn system. A mere scratch on a Maruti 800 in Ambala led to a major scuffle as it was considered a prized possession. “In Those days, there was always a Maruti 800 gifted to the newlyweds,” Kapoor reminisces.
Jeff Lepps, representative of Pearey Lal & Sons Maruti showroom in Dehradun, had organised the first service camp for Maruti. The idea was to get the customers, vendors and service personnel on the same platform. Dealers across the country had no choice but to invest in the concept of a service camp. “The training by Maruti officials was positively effective. The Maruti 800 could be repaired and serviced anywhere in the country though as a car, it was far more advanced than its rivals Ambassador or the Premier Padmini. Without a shadow of doubt, the M800 has changed the car industry in India. It has made India mobile and opened the doors for the rest of the players that you see today. Without a doubt, it was a cult car,” quips Lepps.
End Of The Road, End Of An Era
Indian roads have never been the same ever since. Last month, millions of Indians felt a bittersweet rush of surprise, disbelief and nostalgia. A thirtyyear- long journey came to a screeching halt. If the announcement felt like the end of an era, it was because the little car was one of the few first outstanding consumer products of India. So on January 18, 2014, when the last Maruti 800 rolled out of its Gurgaon production line, it was a moment of loss for the country. Seldom can any brand claim such a connect. C.V. Raman, Executive Director of Engineering at Maruti Suzuki, said, “We have an emotional connect with the vehicle, but at some point of time, you have to take hard decisions…the transition had to be made.” Apparently, the vehicle became unviable for the company to upgrade to comply with BS IV emission norms. And the phasing out of production actually began back in 2010.
The technical specifications of the car have remained virtually unchanged since launch, but the tiny 796cc engine hid a big heart. The Maruti 800 was a workhorse, ferrying people and loads through rain and snow, up in the hills and down in the plains. Maruti 800 taught an entire generation of middleclass Indians not just to drive but also to dream. It was a symbol of aspiration that would find full expression postliberalisation in the 1990’s. Until then, only the rich owned cars. The great success was not just transforming India’s fortunes but also that of Suzuki. A relatively small player in Japan’s highly competitive car market, it became the largest player in a vast emerging market, one that today sells one million new small cars a year and expects to double that figure by 2018.
The end of the journey was inevitable but its impact on India and Indian hearts would be everlasting. The best things may come in small packages but all good things come to an end. However, Harpal Singh’s 800 still continues to scorch the tarmac on Delhi’s roads