Maruti first became aware of its mortality in 1998. This was the year its aura of invincibility was pricked by two South Korean companies, Hyundai and Daewoo, and an unassuming Indian challenger, Tata Motors.
Ironically, Japanese carmakers like Suzuki, the driving force behind Maruti, used to look down on South Korean cars. But Hyundai and Santro, seeking fortune outside their home country, which was reeling under a financial crisis, came to India and coaxed respect out of Suzuki’s Indian baby.
Daewoo was already in India, with the Cielo. But sedans such the Cielo, or Ford Escort and Opel Astra – which came when the government opened the automobile sector to foreign investment – could barely ruffle Maruti’s feathers.
Only the small cars would do that, as they struck at Maruti’s core market. It was forced to sit up and notice the Matiz, a pretty little thing from Daewoo. The big jolt came from Hyundai’s Santro. Though it would compete for the crown of the ugliest car in people’s minds, the Santro won their hearts with its smooth drive, cabin space, and ease of ownership.
The technology, too. That was the time we first heard about the multi-point fuel injection, a vast improvement over the carburettor system. It also gave out much less emission. Such was the campaign run by Hyundai and others that India moved to a higher notch in emission norms, and Maruti was forced to embrace the new technology, not least because of a Supreme Court intervention.
The 1998 Auto Expo, therefore, remains etched in memory for showcasing the Santro and Matiz. And also because a young Rajiv Bajaj would tell journalists he was going to convert Bajaj Auto, hitherto run by his father Rahul, into a motorcycle maker, shaking off the legend of the Hamara Bajaj scooter. He didn’t carry business cards. “I expect people to know me,” he used to say. It’s an attitude that has endured, and serves him well.
Rising above these images is that of Ratan Tata, impeccable as usual in dress and speech, bringing a little jewel out of a giant oyster. It was the first public sighting of the Tata Indica, and for whatever it went on to represent, it looked like a marvel when it came out. It marked Tata Motors’ entry into the passenger car market. It also fired public imagination, being the first made-in-India car. If you think there is too much talk about Make in India today, you should have heard it back then.
Ten years later, at the 2008 Auto Expo, Tata was at it again. This time, he went one better. The Nano, which he showed to the world for the first time, was not just a subject of every discussion in India, but also abroad. Right from the time Tata told the Financial Times of London he would love to bring out a car that could sell for $2,000 (Rs. 1 lakh at the time), the Nano became a thing of curiosity for everyone everywhere.
You should have seen Tata when he unveiled it. The audience that packed the hall did not see the understated Tata they had grown accustomed to. They saw a feisty, testy Tata say: “A promise is a promise.” He had managed to keep the car’s price to what he had said.
For a change, Tata did not try to be politically correct. He said he had thought of naming the car Mamta, or Despite Mamta, in a reference to the campaign by the West Bengal politician (she later became chief minister) that drove the Nano project out of Singur.
Tata’s engineering and R&D people would tell you how much it took to make the Nano. It was like an obsession. And for whatever it has gone on to represent, it remains an engineering marvel in the context of its price. They should have marketed it as something other than “the world’s cheapest car”.
This year, there is no Tata. He wasn’t there at the last Auto Expo either. He has retired, though is among the more active angel investors in start-ups. But to anyone associated with the Auto Expo over the years, he forms its defining images.
That brings us to the company with which this story started. Maruti has come a long way . So much so its cars – the Vitara Brezza and the IGNIS concept – are the big draws this year. It launched the new Baleno just a few months ago, but managed to save enough for the big show.