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The Little ICON

JOY CHAUDHURI
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A common man's car, a status symbol, an object of desire, the Maruti 800 was emblematic of the aspirations of a changing India and its growing middle class. As it is phased out after three decades of revolutionising the way India commuted, JOY CHAUDHURI takes a personal and nostalgic look of what the car meant to him and the country.

The Delhi I grew up in was just a quiet town with big wide roads and little traffic. You could play a full game of cricket on the street without a car disturbing you. In the early 1980s, the total number of cars made in India hovered around 40,000. This was a figure that had more or less remained constant for the past two decades. I was one of those lucky people whose father owned a car. You had to be high-up or very rich to own a car. My father wasn't rich but his job in the oil sector in a public sector company meant that there was always a driver and an Ambassador at our door. But as the calendar ticked to 1983, the India of my childhood was about to change.

There was a lot to celebrate in 1983. Kapil and his daredevils came back from London with the World Cup. The Maruti-Suzuki 800 was launched. And I got my driving license.

I did not know then, how these three things would change my world. I was too busy planning a drive around the world with my friends and sneaking out my father's Mark II Ambassador whenever he was careless with the key. Obviously, the around-the-world-in-a-car trip didn't happen, but college did.

While I was busy in college doing all that young collegiates do, there was another world unfurling. While my knowledge and wisdom had grown negligibly in three years, Maruti Suzuki had managed to sell 100,000 cars! The street we used to play cricket on had become a parking lot. And woe any kid whose ball dare touch these shining new symbols of prosperity.

By the time I was through with college, dad's Mark II had been replaced by a Mark IV. Marutis according to my father were not ‘solid' enough. And were too small for our large family. A lot of people agreed with my father, but went out and bought a Maruti anyway. If I wanted a Maruti I had to buy my own.

But a fresh trainee's salary was hardly enough to put petrol into my new second-hand Yezdi, and date a girl. A girl who, inexplicably, loved mathematics, a subject Greek to me. Her father, unlike mine, had exchanged his Mark II for a shiny red Maruti 800 that sat idle on her driveway since he travelled much of the time. She had taken a few driving lessons on her dad's Amby and decided that driving was not one of life's more pleasurable activities. But had a change of heart when she realised that she had a boyfriend who dare not refuse, and a better car to continue her interrupted lessons. And so there I was, recruited to teach her to drive. All I really did was sit on the left seat and mask my abject terror as she studiously went through the gear and clutch sequence while all I wanted to point out was where the brake pedal was. She actually turned out to be pretty good driver.

Turning point

The M800 was a turning point in our equation. Till now my erratic Yezdi was our only source of transportation and she was dependent on me to pick her up and drop her and take her around. Now she was doing the picking up and driving me around. I also discovered the advantages of having a girlfriend who could drive you back after you are not in a medical or legal condition to drive. Or pick you up from the airport.

And I grew rather fond of the little car. The car looked modern. It was nimble and quick. The controls were light. The floor-shift gear, itself a novelty, was precise. It had a hand-brake that worked. It was fuel-efficient. You did not have to open the bonnet every morning to top up the radiator. In fact, you never needed to open the bonnet at all. It was reliable, and would get her back home safely after we had watched a late night show.

Delhi in 1990 was beginning to wake up from its slumber, and we had the M800 to explore the new restaurants and places that were beginning to come up. We were not the only ones. Everyone was out and zooming around in their new cars, enjoying their freedom and mobility after being in the dungeon for more than three decades. Old guards PAL and HM tried to tempt us back with the 118NE and the Contessa, but it was too little too late. Maruti upped the ante by launching the Maruti 1000. But the M800 was still the king.

The reason for the M800's popularity was clear. It was cheap to buy and cheap to run. Moreover the little car showed more resilience and spirit than its original designers had ever dreamt of. Bumping along happily on our pot-holed roads, overloaded with people and luggage in the heat of summer without a complaint.

It just wasn't on our streets that the Japanese effect was being felt. I could feel it at work too. Corporate India having seen Maruti's success, wanted to replicate its work ethos. Cubicles gave way to open space offices. Everyone was talking Kaizen and TQM. And our benchmark was international standards.

Meanwhile we got married and moved bag, baggage and car to what was then Bombay. On my very first day I learnt the difference between driving in Bombay and Delhi; I was stopped by a traffic cop for jumping a light. I protested that I had only turned left. In Delhi all left turns were free while, as I discovered, in Bombay it was not.

For two young people, working in top-list companies, the city was our oyster. The car spared my wife from Mumbai's famed local-train commute to the office. It allowed her to discover shopping in Fashion Street and Andheri. Took us back home after dinner and movie in town, through flooded roads in the monsoons. Then on weekends, hit the highway to explore the countryside. Drives that our parents would plan weeks in advance was very much an impulse decision in the M800. Check air pressure, top up tank and go.

By the mid-1990s, the streets had become unrecognisable. Daewoos, Opels, Fiats, Fords and Mercedes joined the lines of Marutis on the streets. In fact, it was Maruti that was responsible for other manufacturers rushing in to India. In a bid to keep their prices low, Maruti had to make their car parts in India rather than import them. Since the Indian automobile component industry neither had the necessary skills or technology, Maruti started a joint venture with Indian entrepreneurs. It got them foreign collaborations and technology. The component industry was able to upgrade itself and improve its quality, and it made it easier for other car manufacturers who followed in Maruti's footsteps. We were even exporting components. India was taking its place in the world market.

As time passed, Bombay became Mumbai, the roads got more crowded and a little boy was born. The little red M800 carried him home, carried him to the paediatrician, and even rocked him to sleep whenever he refused to stop wailing. One short drive and the bawling colicky baby would transform into a peaceful sleeping angel.

The old car had never asked anything of us except regular service and the odd clutch plates, brake pads and tyres. But we now wanted more. We discovered that we could no longer live without an air-conditioning and music system and power steering and windows and central locking in a car. The old M800 had to go. But since we didn't have the heart to sell it, the car was sent back to Delhi to my sister-in-law who did not have such emotional baggage attached to the tiny red car and disposed it off.

Value addition

The M800 is now marching off into the sunset. It is no longer sold in the country's metros since the old lady no longer meets the new emission laws. It is no longer the country's largest selling car. But the values this car bought in dictate the market even today.

The Indian buyers' favourite question — “average kya hai ?” — can be traced back to the M800's fuel efficiency. India is today the small car capital of the world, which again can be traced back to the M800. It was this car that showed India that a small car can be big value. Which brings us to the third point: value. We now demand more value from our cars, even high-end cars, since Maruti showed us how.

I began by saying how 1983 changed us. When we won the Prudential World Cup in cricket, we suddenly had the confidence that we could take on the world's best, and win. It gave our generation the confidence to walk off the beaten path and make your own road. This confidence is today not just seen in our boys on the cricket field, but in all spheres of life including industry and culture. Who would have thought then, that Tata would own Jaguar and a top international pop diva would be singing “ jai ho ” to a song by an Indian composer.

The second important thing to happen was the launch of the Maruti 800. After more than a quarter of a century, we had a contemporary and modern car. And opened our eyes to what we had been missing for over a quarter of a century. Having tasted blood, the Indian consumer was not going to go back to the days of having to stand in queues for years and then be satisfied with an outdated product. Liberalisation of the market from hereon was just a matter of time.

My driving license and the M800 started a love story that became my calling, one I continue to pursue today by writing about cars.

The M800 was replaced by its worthy successor, the Alto, which anyway was the original name of the M800 in Japan. And as far as I am concerned is just a younger M800. Ten years later, my wife is still driving the Alto and refuses to change it. The values the M800 ushered in nearly three decades ago continues to find resonance in India even today.

The familiar shape of the M800 may be disappearing, but don't write its epitaph just yet.

After more than a quarter of a century, we had a contemporary and modern car. And opened our eyes to what we had been missing for over a quarter of a century.


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