Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The millionth Maruti

You may have noticed the news item that Maruti announced that it had rolled out its millionth car in a single year ; apparently it joins global giants like Toyota, GM, Ford etc ; a handful of companies to have achieved this. For non Indian readers of this blog, Maruti is a Suzuki controlled Indian car company that’s the market leader in India. Such statistics mean little except dubious PR value. But it certainly set me off to wax nostalgic about when Maruti first came.

Readers of this blog are refreshingly young. Teenagers like AJCL, Gils, Deepa, Sandhya, et all, were hardly born when the first Maruti car rolled out on Indian roads :) Being slightly elder to this sprightly young lot, I have some credentials to a “those were the days” kind of post.

This is the late seventies; early 80s. India was firmly a socialist country. This was the time we actually amended the preamble to the Constitution to include the words socialist India (it still sits in the preamble). The Taliban would have been very comfortable in that setting – anything that even remotely connoted luxury was considered unethical. No colour TV (poor nation cannot afford it). Entertainment meant watching Sholay for the 37th time. No credit cards – not allowed. No foreign travel – daily allowance of forex, even if you did, was $20. In this wonderfully socialist state, a car was basically considered indecent.

So you had a choice of an Ambassador(Morris Oxford, which was discontinued in the UK in 1959) or a Premier (Fiat 1100 – god knows when it was discontinued in Italy). You had a scintillating choice of colours – black or white. They were considered “rugged” and “for Indian roads”. Every 20kms or so, you stopped your car , opened the hood, let out the steam, poured some water in, waited for some time and then drove off.

Sanjay Gandhi, an Indian politician, (or more accurately the son of a Prime Minister) was a car nut. He started Maruti. Of course that went against every fundamental grain of socialism. But Sanjay Gandhi being Sanjay Gandhi – he could do what he wanted. So this was positioned as a car for the masses. Our enlightened leaders, being what they are, agreed that this was very socialist. Sanjay Gandhi passed away in an air accident before the first car rolled out but by then the project had gone far too ahead to be reversed. So, on came the JV with Suzuki. Out rolled the Maruti 800 in 1983.

The sight of a Maruti 800 on the Indian road was a turning point in Indian’s economic history. It was a small car – a tiny car in order to keep with the socialist aspirations. But it was a car that was light years ahead of the Ambassador and the Premier. It was derided and mocked at for not being rugged enough to handle the Indian roads. It was joked that at the slightest touch, it would crumble and crush the occupant. It was jeered that at the smallest puddle usually found on the road, it would drown. But surprise, surprise, it actually was the more robust one. It broke down the least. It rarely stalled even in the Bombay rains.

At first it was a luxury symbol. Only the very rich bought it. Therefore the hilarious sight of a chauffeur driven Maruti 800 which, as it passed, usually generated hoots of derisory laughter from cab drivers driving the battle tanks that the Ambassador (in Calcutta) or Premier (in Bombay) were.

But slowly and surely, it became a hit. It changed India. Ambassador and Premier are blessedly no more. Maruti Suzuki itself is still the largest player in the market. But the Maruti 800 itself is now being phased out as newer models galore have taken to the streets. But it deserves a special place in India’s recent history. It heralded the takeoff of India. India would never be the same again.


Anonymous said...

The Maruti looks decadent compared to this gem...

kiwibloke said...

nice one boss, for a petrolhead like me this was my morning fix. I have never owned a Maruti till I got back to India in 2006. Bought a Baleno, (which is the last of the 8 cars I've had in 18 years), is an amazingly superb workhorse. One thing that stands out with Maruti is their After Sales Service. Simply super. Regret not having had a Maruti/Suzuki earlier. Safety is still a question, much lighter than the tanks built by the Germans (Audis/VWs/Beamers/Mercs) and surprise, surprise, even the french cars (Peugot/Renault/Citroen) are built robustly. I could wax eloquent when started up and fly into a rapture,'cos I love the whine of the engine at about 5K Revs, smell of petrol,the subtle clanking of valves when idling with your hood open and ofcourse the smell of rubber burning when doing a donut. Guess I'll stop

A journey called Life said...

Finally a post I can comment on..

Very well written- almost like mapping the entire history of Maruthi in such a crisp and clear manner.Thanks for doing this post.

Brought back many fond memories. The Maruthi 800 was our first car, bought in the early 90's and stayed with us well into the 00's. It used to be such a status symbol back then..

Calling an old woman (me) a teenager? isnt this taking things a little to far :)

RamMmm said...

Aaha, wonderful, pramaadham. :) And to compete with the Maruti 800 box, Ambassador had the Contessa and Fiat with the Premier 118NE. I loved their bright tail lights at that time. And not sure if you remember, the Standard 2000 which was probably as big as the Camry of today and looked like an Italian beauty (motor beauty, that is). The last that I saw of it was in some Tamil movie where it gets blown off. :(

And some of the first Marutis still run on our roads. I recollect the cost of the first Maruti-Suzuki car to be around 45000-50000 rupees.

I have never owned a Maruti-Suzuki car, but there is no denying that the company changed the face of the Indian auto industry.

And to the teenagers ... :-) :-) :-)

Anonymous said...

semma flow..."rama lakshmana jaanaki..jai bolo 800 maruthi" nu BGM la kekuthu baas.

Anonymous said...

ennathu...gils teenagera!!! enna kodumai saar ithu..oru pacha pullaya..inum play school admissionukay time irukara oru green babya paathu..ipuuddiii soliteengalay :(

ambulisamma said...

Well written nostalgic note on maruthi.
Nano underwent the same criticism as 800 did.
BTW an unacceptable thing in this post is gils being referred as teenager.

A journey called Life said...

@AA- LOL at ur dig at Gils..

@Gils- whatz ur reaction?? and lol at the BGM bit.. only u can think like this

Anonymous said...

//BTW an unacceptable thing in this post is gils being referred as teenager.//

alo athaanga naanum green babya paathu teenager solitaaru :(((

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

Hi Ramesh - nice one. Here is my own Maruti/India story with a very topical Chinese twist. In February 1993 I was in a meeting with the Governing Council of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. It was - and hopefully still is - housed in a magnificent building in the Fuxingmenwadajie, just off Tien-an-Men (with real bullet holes in the walls from the 1989 incidents). We were then taken to lunch by the Council and they proposed that we walk to a Sechuanese place nearby. I was walking next to a very elegant lady in her early 60s. Having conversed all along through interpreters, she used the informal setting to talk to me in English (perfect, Governess-trained, pre 1949 English, something I came across a lot of in those days). She told me she had visited Delhi in 1985 as part of a Chinese delegation to talk to India's Ministry of Trade and Industry. This was just after Rajiv Gandhi met Deng Xiao Ping in 1984. She said they were very interested in the PMP (Phased Manufacturing Programme, something older readers of this eminent blog would recognise) in the automotive sector, and that she had visited Maruti Udyog. She told me she was very impressed with the desire of the Indian managers to learn from the Japanese. They learnt a lot from the concept of the PMP and they brought much of that learning to China. She asked me "Mr Rajagopalan how many such car factories do you have in India now?" I said "Well it is still just the one". Eyebrows arched in surprise, she said "Just the one? Mr Rajagopalan, we have ten such factories in China today".

I did not know what to say.

Ramesh said...

@Hopfrog - Oh; the Maruti 800 cames decades ago. Nano is all new and chape, but you guys won;t even give a second look to it !

@kiwi - Oh; you are really a car nut !! French cars are actually very struday - they are found all over Africa.

@AJCL - You can write a superb comment on any post . Really. Hey; who's the old woman ??? You strapping lassie ....

@RamMmm - Yes, the Contessa, the Standard 2000 were monsters. Pity the guys who bought the Standard 2000.

@gils - Superb comment as always, You've grown up; no longer a baby !!! :):)

@ambulisamma - The Nano isn't getting anywhere like the criticism the 800 got. When it first came out, you were almost a sissy if seen in one !

@Ravi - Beautiful perspective and story. Of course the Chinese expertise in implementing at speed is well known. Nobody can implement like them - so India is not alone to pale in comparison.

Sandhya Sriram said...

wow, what a captivating narration. amazing. couldn't take off my eyes off the screen until the piece was over.

first of all thanks to you - for taking my age behind by more than a decade - its always nice to hear your age less.

There are many of these turning points in history. which people dont feel as one when it occurs, people mock, people laugh... but when time passes, it always is looked up.

whether is Indira Gandhi's Bank Nationalization, Narasimha Rao's privatization, Manmohan's Nuclear deal or Sonia's women bill...

we dont know at the point of occurence what consequence it would be. it would have people speaking for and against. it could end of the day end up being a misjudged calculation. It could have all gone wrong as well. but the very fact that some one had the guts to do a sweeping change of that scale is in itself an achievement.

even in a corrupt and self centred political enviroment, hats off to those politians who saw into the future (for whatever reason) and created a future for the country.

Anonymous said...

like joey from "FIRNEDS" i've a deal with god :D

Deepa said...

Mmmm ok! Atleast you didn't call me a toddler!

BTW I've learnt driving, on a Premier Padmini. :) With that I dust off your dig at me!

But Maruti 800, surely deserves the tribute you've penned (typed literally). My grandad used to say, not everyone can drive an Ambassador, but anyone can drive a Maruti800 effortlessly. It indeed brought driving or owning a car to the masses.

ambulisamma said...

@ gils: i think was on time machine and went 35 years back while he wrote this comment? inna karikta?

@ ramesh : neenga ivangala ellam teenager.nnu sonnadhu vanja pugazhchi aniya?(Indha tamil ilakannam theriyalanna neenga google andavar thayavai naadalam)

@ ajcl:apada support.kku orutharavadhu irukkangale.

Ramesh said...

@Sandhya - Yes; some actions have a long lasting legacy even though it may not appear so initially. In this case, it was only a single company, but it turned around a whole industr

@Deepa - It was one of those things that pushed the nonsensical socialism that India followed, away. Hence a turning point. Btw, you must have learnt driving on one of the historical pieces of Premier :)

@ambulisamma - Wow ; Such poetic Tamizh ; I am honoured to have literary experts amongst the readers

Durga said...

Looking like a sissy in a Maruti 800! I learnt driving in this car. Will always have a soft corner for this one!

Ramesh said...

@Durga - I should have included you in the list of teenagers which has caused such clamour in this comments' forum !!

ambulisamma said...

again vancha pugazhi ani by stating me as literary expert.

gils said...

ambulimaama madam...ungala avar teenager solalanu thana imbutu kovam..dont worry..ungalayum listla sethira solidlam :D :D

ambulisamma said...

epdi gilsu ungaluku ipdi ellam thonuthu,seri seri ungalukku therincha ungaloda vechikkalam,aen ipdi publicuty pannareenga?

Vishal said...

Bravo Maruti! They have really been largest player in the market, variants from many other leading world companies came and went but Maruti was still able to drive a radical change in Indian auto industry. The story of next 10 years would be interesting to observe given stiff competition off late by other major players. What do you think?

Vishal said...

I guess I would also qualify as a teen as defined by you ;-)

Ramesh said...

@Vishal - Maruti does have some significant strengths - great dealer network; good service, etc etc. Despirte all the competition, I think they'll continue to do well. As for your inclusion in the list, ..... :):)

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