A Sign of Progress and Hopeful Obituary

About 20 years ago (roundabout 1983), a very young Prime Minister of India (Rajiv Gandhi) saw his dream come to fruition. Like Hitler (the Similarity stops here), he wanted to make a People’s Car for India. But India, being an awful, socialist country at the time (and very much 3rd-to-4th-World in 1983) wasn’t going to be able to do this on its own. So the Government of India held discussions with various companies, to see if they could make a car at what were dirt cheap prices. GM and Ford backed down after initial discussions, because they couldn’t figure out how to make a car under the terms specified. This is where the Suzuki Motor Company of Japan steps in, and thus was born Maruti Udyog (otherwise known as Maruti Suzuki). Along with the birth of this company, comes the birth of the Maruti 800. It defines Modern India, much like the Model T, The Mini, The Beetle and the Trabant all define respective parts of other countries’ history. Yes, there is a Morris Oxford look-alike called the Ambassador. And most of the Orientalists will tell you that is the car which defines India, not this puny little upstart. But you see, The Ambassador defines Old India, not New

The Maximum Retail Selling Price of the car in 1983 was Indian Rupees 47,500. Taking the APPROXIMATE exchange rate to the US$ (INR 10 : USD 1) at the time, that means this car cost US$4750, fresh off the assembly line. Of course, the tech specs need to be noted:
At US$4750, you get an in-line 3-cylinder 0.8 Litre engine. No Power Steering. No Power windows. No Air-Conditioner. (The A/c model was more expensive). No Stereo. No Automatic Transmission. No MultiPoint Fuel Injection. 4 seats, a gear shift lever, 1 rear-view mirror (not Day-Night) and ONE side-view mirror – on the Driver’s side…

Yes, you’ve heard of motorcycles with more features. But that’s not the point. The point was to get India mobile. And it worked. Of course that aim came at some cost. Having a car this small and this “zippy” also led to some of the most awful driving ever done in the history of man. On a lane-marked road, this car can fit between two cars in their respective lanes. That means it can sneak up on you and squeeze past. Unless of course you accidentally drift a little to either left or right, in which case….bang…But then it also help liberate a lot of middle class people and women too. This car was EASY to drive, after the old clunkers that used to dominate the Indian roads, that women took to the streets in droves. It gave birth to an entire industry of car accessories to prevent your Maruti conforming to the Any Colour So Long As It’s Black philosophy

e.t.c. e.t.c.

That was then. This is now. 20 years on, the reign of the 800 has finally come to an end. Not only are Indians driving other small cars, they’re also driving more medium/big ones. Cars which are much more advanced technologically, a lot less polluting, with a lot more features. Hyundai, Chevrolet, Fiat, Honda, Toyota, Skoda and a host of others are selling their stuff.

So join me, in wishing farewell to the Maruti 800, and the end of an era in which Indians had to sign up on waiting lists for cars, and air-conditioning in cars was greeted with a HUH? And a shrug.

NOTE to the Cynics/Orientalists. This post is not about social issues related to driving, Indian infrastructure, or morality. So I do not mention parking problems, road rage, rash driving, drunk driving, pot holes, starving-people-in-villages-without-anything-to-eat while little rich boy takes his car out for a drive, because I fail to understand why every post related to India must have those obligatory references. Thank you for you time.

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