Visitors to Delhi half a century ago have abiding memories of a family perched precariously on a bicycle alongside their meagre possessions. A quarter of a century later, the picture remained the same, only the cycle was replaced by a scooter.
A couple of decades later the people-mover was the Maruti 800. For a large part of its independent history, India has travelled in a Maruti — the Gurgaon plant churns out every second car Indians drive today. News, then, of the 800 being consigned to the pages of history evokes nostalgia on a national scale.
Some of the best moments in the lives of a generation have been at the end of a ride in one of these zippy, problem-free compact cars. Be it getting married or driving off on a vacation, the Maruti 800 has tootled along merrily everywhere on the subcontinent, slightly short of breath crossing the Rohtang Pass or wading neck deep in Kolkata’s waterlogged streets.
Initial sceptics were silenced by the car’s legendary — at least by Indian standards — dependability. It rarely let us down: a proud army of owners will swear to this even after moving on to bigger and more expensive cars. The most compelling reason to buy a Maruti 800, of course, has been its price: adjusted for inflation, a new car costs less than the Rs 50,000 it would have set you back in 1983.
But it is time we moved on. Suzuki says it does not intend upgrading the Maruti 800 to meet stricter emission norms in 13 of the country’s largest cities, and biggest car markets. The automaker would need to remap its engine control unit — the car comes equipped with the more expensive catalytic converter — but its makers don’t feel it is worth the effort. Maruti Suzuki sold just over a million cars in the 12 months to March 2010, of which only 30,000-odd were Maruti 800s. Yesterday’s people-mover is bowing out when tomorrow’s mass carrier is rolling out of Tata plants. The difference is not merely about purchasing power. The Nano is a product created for the Indian reality of today. The world can buy the solution off the shelf much in the way India took the idea of the Maruti 800 from Japan. By interring the 800 legacy, India is showing a new technological maturity where it can work around the challenges facing it. Yet, the Maruti 800 will remain a fond memory from their youth for millions of Indians.