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End of the road for India’s Maruti 800 car

The Maruti 800 stood witness to the gradual blossoming of the Indian automobile sector and gave many middle-class Indians their first taste of car ownership.

Maruti 800 (796cc) cars are parked at the sales and dispatch area at the factory of Maruti Udhyog Limited (MUL) in Gurgaon, Haryana. India's Maruti Suzuki said on February 8, 2014 it had halted production of its iconic first small car, the Maruti 800, which revolutionised road transport for millions of Indians. Prakash Singh/AFP Photo
Maruti 800 (796cc) cars are parked at the sales and dispatch area at the factory of Maruti Udhyog Limited (MUL) in Gurgaon, Haryana. India's Maruti Suzuki said on February 8, 2014 it had halted production of its iconic first small car, the Maruti 800, which revolutionised road transport for millions of Indians. Prakash Singh/AFP Photo

NEW DELHI // The revelation that the Indian car manufacturer Maruti Suzuki had stopped production of its iconic Maruti 800 model came in a poetically appropriate setting.

C V Raman, the company’s executive director, made the announcement at the Delhi Auto Expo last week where the floor was dotted with Indian-made concept cars. But when the Maruti 800 first puttered on to India’s roads in 1983, an exhibition of this nature would have been unthinkable – especially one showing off locally produced vehicles.

Imported cars were taxed heavily 30 years ago while the only major Indian-made cars around were the ovoid Hindustan Ambassador and the hat-shaped Premier Padmini, cars based on old European designs. These cars were produced at a very sedate pace, resulting in long waiting times for delivery.

From those early days, the Maruti 800 stood witness to the gradual blossoming of the Indian automobile sector and gave many middle-class Indians their first taste of car ownership.

“It was the car which drove the motorisation of India,” Puneet Dhawan, the deputy general manager of Maruti Suzuki, told Reuters. “But people wanted a more modern car, and sales were slowing.” This was why, he said, the decision was taken to halt production of the model that has sold more than 2.7 million units in India.

The Maruti 800 started becoming unavailable in 16 Indian cities in 2010, due to stricter emission regulations in force there. Next year, those regulations will be applied across the rest of the country.

Not surprisingly, the Maruti 800 is often regarded with nostalgia in India. “I think I miss the days when there were only three models of car on the road,” V Rajiv, a Bengalore-based lawyer, told The National. Then he thought back to those times of scarcity and said: “But maybe this is just retrospective rose-tinting.”

Mr Rajiv’s family bought their white Maruti 800 when he was three years old, in 1989. “The 800 was never confined to notions of being a city car,” he said. “It was simply the car. It was revolutionary to own one.”

The Maruti 800 was as much a political project as it was a car. Its genesis had been announced as early as 1971, when the then-prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, proposed that the government produce a “people’s car”. Controversially, her son Sanjay was given the licence to start this state-owned manufacturing firm, even though he had no experience in the automobile industry.

Sanjay Gandhi first explored a collaboration with Volkswagen before turning to Suzuki, the Japanese automotive giant. The boxy design of the Maruti 800 was born out of Suzuki’s successful Fronte SS80 model, which it was selling elsewhere in Asia.

Sanjay, who died in an air crash in 1980, did not live to see the Maruti 800 come to fruition. On December 14, 1983 – which would have been his 36th birthday – his mother pressed the button that set the assembly line in motion, producing its first batch of cars for sale.

“In a voice choked with emotion she said: ‘This small car has a very long story’,” R C Bhargava, the chairman of Maruti Suzuki, recounted in his 2010 book The Maruti Story. Indira Gandhi personally handed over the keys to the very first owner, an Indian Airlines pilot named Harpal Singh, who was chosen by lottery.

The car cost Mr Singh roughly 47,500 rupees then. Its most recent price was 235,000 rupees (Dh 13,836) – the cheapest car on the market until India’s Tata Motors launched its 100,000-rupee Nano in 2008.

At its peak, in March 2003, Maruti Suzuki sold 20,701 units of the 800, but recently only 1,700 cars per month, on average, have been produced.

A stock photo of Mr Singh and his wife standing ramrod straight next to their white car was found frequently in newspapers and magazines over the subsequent decades, as the Maruti 800 remained India’s best-selling automobile until 2004.

“The 800, in some respects, became both a status symbol and a social leveller, as it was found parked both outside the cramped houses of grocery shopowners in congested localities as well as the driveways of industrialists,” Mr Bhargava wrote. “It also led to a new sense of freedom for women,” who found the Ambassador and the Premier Padmini bulky and difficult to drive.

Maruti Suzuki also exported more than 200,000 of the cars to countries in south Asia and Africa.

The success of the Maruti 800 spurred the company into becoming India’s most successful car manufacturer. Even today, Maruti Suzuki accounts for one out of every two cars sold in India.

“The Maruti 800 acted as an omen for the rapid development of the automobile industry in India,” said Brian de Souza, news editor at the trade magazine Autocar India. “Japanese suppliers came to India along with Suzuki, even as a desire for four wheels was ignited in the middle class.”

Mr de Souza pointed out that Suzuki was only the first of several foreign car companies to set up shop in India. Now Hyundai, Ford, BMW, Volkswagen and General Motors – among other giants – have factories across the country. Two million cars are sold every year, a number expected to grow to 5 million by 2020, making India the world’s third-largest car market.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae