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4 decades ago, India started its road trip in this little car

Aug 10, 2022

In the early-1980s, almost a decade before the economy was liberalised, an ambitious project – linked in the popular imagination with Sanjay Gandhi, son of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – started taking shape. Unfortunately, Sanjay died in a plane crash in June 1980, without realising his dream of bringing out an affordable, efficient and indigenous small car that would appeal to the middle class, but not burn a hole in their pockets. He was not there to see his dream fructify with the creation of Maruti Udyog Ltd (now called Maruti Suzuki) – a unique joint venture between Japan’s Suzuki Motor Co. and the Indian government. 

The new company singlehandedly made India mobile and modernised the local industrial landscape, thanks to the clockwork precision of Japanese management and process systems. Right from the day it opened bookings on April 9, 1983, Maruti had the pulse of Indian buyers in its grasp. The opening orders crossed 1.35 lakh units (big even by today’s standards) by June 8, or just two months. 

The vehicle that led to this automotive revolution of sorts was the Maruti 800, still revered for its simplicity, efficiency, ease of use, adaptability, and easy-on-the-pocket price. At launch, the 800 cost Rs 52,500 in Delhi. When deliveries began on December 14, 1983 – a day chosen as it was Sanjay’s birth anniversary – the so-called people’s small car became the darling of rich and poor alike. 

PM Indira Gandhi Singh, who had sold off his Fiat car to buy the Maruti 800, got a hero’s welcome wherever he travelled in his new car – DIA 6479 – during the early days. People thronged to see the model that had challenged and single-handedly unsettled the mighty Ambassador and Premier Padmini. He fondly maintained and cherished the car till his last breath in 2010, never succumbing to the lure of newer and glitzier cars. 

The 800 never looked back again, as they say for all success stories, and went on to create one record after another as it caught the fancy of Indians who swore by its dependability and the ease of maintenance, which was backed by Maruti’s ever-growing dealer and service network, watched over for quality by the sharp eyes of Suzuki and the Japanese management. 

“It was the first car for me, and for so many from my generation, and even later,” Lt Gen (retd) Dr RK Suri, who is in his 80s now, reminisces fondly about the car that took him places but “never gave up”. 

RC Bhargava, the octogenarian bureaucrat-turnedbusiness leader, has been associated with the project from the beginning, and surprisingly, still serves as nonexecutive chairman of the company. Bhargava tells TOI Maruti’s birth “was really an accident….It was not as if the government suddenly discovered that they needed to modernise the automobile industry for some reason or the other. The passenger car industry at that time was not at all a favoured industry. Those were the days of socialism. And in a socialistic environment, private transport was way down the list because it was seen as a luxury product meant for the rich. 

“The government was always in favour of public transport… Maruti was set up because Sanjay died in an accident and PM Gandhi wanted that this dream of a small car should live beyond his death. That is why the company came into existence.” The government did throw in some ‘special favours’ to get the company going, including getting access to technology and allowing easy customs duty on parts (Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles objected to the latter concession). 

“It was allowed to have a foreign collaboration, and foreign equity participation of up to 40%. At that time, public-sector companies did not have any foreign equity in them and were 100% government-owned. An exception was made here.” 

However, Bhargava candidly admits that nobody even in their wildest dreams thought the company and Maruti 800 would become one of the biggest successes of an industrialised India decades later. “Nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, either in India or outside India, thought that this (Maruti Udyog) project would be a success. Everybody looked at it as a political project, which would maybe last a few years. Also, they expected it to wind up because it was into car production,” Bhargava says, though quickly adding with a sense of satisfaction and pride: “The Indian customer thought otherwise.” 

Such was the craze for the Maruti 800 that even the rich jostled with the common public for early delivery of the car, just for bragging rights. “The public suddenly realised that small cars can also be sexy. The Maruti 800 was light when compared to the bulky Ambassador, yet strong with a more efficient engine. Such was the craze that for some time in the early years, it became a status symbol – almost equivalent to owning a Mercedes,” says auto historian Adil Jal Darukhanawala. 

The car – which had external and internal upgrades right till the end of its life – did enjoy a ‘waiting period’, and a real one at that, for years to come. The end, after mammoth sales of 27 lakh-plus units and crores of kilometres run across the length and breadth of India, came in the year 2014 (after almost 31 years) as the stricter BS4 emissions norms kicked in, making the product and even an attempted upgrade unviable. 

The relatively-younger Alto had by then replaced the 800 in the league of entrylevel cars. But the legend of Maruti 800, the people’s small car, lives on. 

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