In the midst of all the glitz and glamour of the Auto Expo, an event of perhaps far greater emotional relevance has missed everybody's attention. India's largest car maker Maruti Suzuki has given a quiet and solemn burial to Maruti 800 - the car that taught India how to drive and made Maruti what it is today.
Harpal Singh and Gulshanbeer Kaur of Delhi became the first proud owners of the first Maruti 800 car in 1983. The couple bought the car for Rs. 47,500 and its keys were handed to them by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Maruti 800 fuelled a car revolution in the country and became a symbol of status for the Indian middle class in the 1980s.
The last Maruti 800 rolled off the assembly line in Gurgaon on January 18 this year that brings to a close a remarkable 30-year-old journey for the nameplate. The 800 was the mainstay for the company till 2004 and remains the most omnipresent car on Indian roads with sales of over 29,50,000 units.
Maruti had already discontinued the car from 13 major cities in India including the four metros - Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai - back in 2010 when stricter emission norms came into effect. It was still sold in the rest of the country where Bharat Stage III emission norms are in place. The complete phase out comes a year ahead of the roll out of Bharat Stage III norms in the remaining cities, towns and villages of the country.
With an average production of 1,700 cars every month in the last few months of its life, the last few units are already with the dealer and expected to be sold out within this month.
The last Maruti 800 rolling off the line from Maruti's factory at Gurgaon. It was despatched on January 23 to Rani Motors, Shillong. (HT photo)
A file photo of Congress leader Sanjay Gandhi in the first prototype of what was to be the Maruti 800. (Photo credit: Company archives)
"When we started the project, none of us knew how the reception would be," said RC Bhargava, chairman, Maruti Suzuki India. "We had started with a very low ambition. When we were setting up a 100,000 units plant, people said it won't even sell 40,000 units. The booking of 125,000 at the beginning proved all the skeptics wrong. 800 is the car that made Maruti."
At a price of Rs. 50,000 at the time of its launch, the M800 was a coming of age car for India and offered an entirely different experience to the consumers as compared to Ambassadors, Premier Padminis and the Standard Gazels that ruled the streets then. It was small and peppy, offered features like air conditioning, was fuel efficient and quickly became a symbol of mobility in India.
The car also showed great resilience to competition over the years. Despite having an unsophisticated 796cc petrol engine and a shape that has not changed much over the years, it sold more than many of its younger counterparts even in the last few years. In 2013, its sales of 20754 was more than Tata Nano's tally of 18,447 units.
Harpal Singh receives the car keys of the first M800 from Indira Gandhi on December 14, 1983.(Company archives)
"We have an emotional connect with the vehicle, but at some point, you have to take hard decisions," said CV Raman, executive director (engineering) at Maruti Suzuki.
The end of a journey of the car was perhaps inevitable but its impact on India would be everlasting. And who can vouch for it better than its first owner Delhi's Harpal Singh whose M800 continues to chug along on the roads.