Tuesday, March 23, 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.