“Once upon a time, King Ambassador and Queen Padmini ruled the land. They stayed in power for a long, long time. Then there appeared a smart and svelte princess named Maruti who stole the hearts of the masses…”
India’s automobile history prior to liberalization would make a fine fairy tale indeed. Hindustan Motors launched the Ambassador in an almost non-existent car market in 1957. In spite of its stodgy exteriors and modest engine performance, the Amby instantly became a symbol of national pride. It was also considered the perfect foil for India’s hostile road terrain. The Ambassador was patronized by bureaucrats, business bigwigs and politicians alike, creating a buzz that “India is governed from the back-seat of the Amby”! Till the early 1980s, Ambassador commanded more than 70% of the market share. Premier Padmini, a locally manufactured car based on the Fiat, claimed the other 30%.
The Maruti 800 entered this automobile hegemony in 1982. The car was the product of a joint venture between the Government and Suzuki Motor Corporation. Though sceptics wrote it off as “the matchbox car”, Maruti revolutionized the Indian car industry with its resilient build, spacious interiors, striking looks and, above all, extremely affordable prices. For the first time, the common man could dream of owning a car. In 1982, the total size of the Indian car market was 35,000. By 1997, the sales of Maruti cars alone crossed the 2 million mark.
Though the three protagonists of this era had their own unique characteristics, they were all tuned to the Indian psyche. All of them had a rugged constitution to withstand the bumpy rides on Indian roads. The exteriors were functional at best - utility invariably scored over aesthetics. But the most striking aspect of all the three cars is that they were all positioned as providing “value for money”. Cars were considered status symbols, but India was still nowhere close to the era of “pure luxury on wheels”.
Though liberalization brought about a paradigm shift in the Indian automobile industry and ushered in several new players, many Indians feel that nothing can match the cult status that the Amby, and later the Maruti, once enjoyed.
So were the “Amby years” the pre-historic age or the Golden Era? Do you think we haven’t found a car that has quite defined India the way these golden oldies did? Or do you think one of the newer brands has taken on the mantle of India’s car well?