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VOL. XXII NO. 4, June 1-15, 2012
Driving down memory lane:
Our cars, 1962-2011
By S. Viswanathan

For fifty years I have been looking at the Indian automobile industry. It has grown from a volume of 54,800 vehicles in 1961 to over 3 million today. In this travel down memory lane, I recall a few vignettes and watersheds.

In the early 1960s, I was teaching at Madras Christian College. The automobile industry was a fledgling infant. There was heavy dependence on imports for tools and stampings, as also for a wide range of components. Small production capacities were dictated by licences, permits and quotas. And, of course, there was a severe shortage of foreign exchange.

Yet, there was a fascination for the automobile. I quit my teaching job and decided to publish a transport monthly. I travelled to Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi and other cities to visit automobile plants before launching Mobile in September 1962.

I started on a clean slate without any knowledge or expertise either of the industry or of journalism. But travel and interactions with leaders and professionals in the industry, and the compulsion to survive in an entirely new field, helped establish the magazine in quick time. Over the next six years, I focussed on sharpening the information presented in Mobile.

Car production in India was distributed among three manufacturers, namely Hindustan Motors (Ambassador), Premier Automobiles (Fiat) and Standard Motors (Standard). In the early 1960s, C. Subramaniam (CS), then Union Minister of Steel, Mines & Engineering, expressed concern over the low production of automobiles. A production volume of 28,000 was miniscule and CS felt that unless the volumes were scaled up, the industry would not become viable. He suggested that one of the three units could be taken over by the government and integrated with the other two for expanding production.

About that time, George Turnbull, then Director, Standard Triumph International Ltd of UK, with whom Standard Motor Products of India Ltd (SMPI) collaborated, visited Madras. SMPI invited a few pressmen to meet Turnbull. Asked for his reaction to CS's proposal, Turnbull replied that he would welcome the prospect of expanding the output of Standard Motors, and indicated that at a volume of 20,000 the company could bring in some economies (SMPI was turning out less than 2000 cars per year).

Of course, Turnbull missed the implication: that in the event SMPI became a government company, K. Gopalakrishna would be out of it!

KG promptly called the pressmen that evening and informed them that the views expressed by Turnbull were totally his and that SMPI did not subscribe to it! He also stated firmly that in the Indian context, scale of production would not bring in any economies.

Some time later, I ran into George Turnbull at a reception given by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) in Paris on the eve of the Automobile Salon. Turnbull was then the President of SMMT and he headed Talbot Motor Company Ltd, UK. Talbot was later taken over by the American auto major, Chrysler Corporation. In line with other major British producers, it was going through difficult times and its production dropped by nearly 70 per cent largely due to loss of export business.

I reminded Turnbull about his press conference in Chennai. After a hearty laugh, he reminisced over the prospects of producing cars in India and said: "We offered Talbot's Scotland works, which were closed down, on highly attractive terms to Maruti. But V. Krishnamurthy preferred the Japanese Suzuki."

There was understandable disappointment.

I quipped: "The Maruti deal was one of the rare decisions to leap-frog on technology. In India, we produce cars that belonged to the 1950 genre; and little has been done to update the design or to make it fuel-efficient. If the Maruti experiment succeeds, and there are good prospects for its doing so under Krishnamurthy, it would do a lot of good to upgrade technology down the line – at the ancillaries level. And for the first time the Indian public will have a fuel-efficient automobile comparable in its performance to those elsewhere."

Thanks to the then Industry Minister, R. Venkataraman, Chennai was rapidly emerging a strong centre for automobile manufacturers. There were Ashok Leyland Ltd, Standard Motor Products India Ltd, Enfield India and Tractors & Farm Equipment Ltd (TAFE). Dozens of component manufacturers and ancillary units sprang up and grew as flourishing vendors to these mother units. Amalgamations, Rane Group, Tube Investments and later TVS took up manufacture of a vast range of components in collaboration with well-known manufacturers in Europe, US and Australia. (Courtesy: Industrial Economist)

(To be continued)

Tail piece

Back then, there were only two types of cars. Not Ambassador and Fiat. But, cars that ran, and cars that did not. The first lesson in driving schools was how to start a car when it got stuck on the road for no rhyme or reason. Someone would push the car from behind and you would have to shift into the second gear. Things changed in 1983 with the arrival of the Maruti. Today, you hardly see cars stall, except perhaps for lack of petrol.

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In this issue

A good act, but could be better!
Integrating the City's transport
It's time to manage transport in the City
Elephants over the centuries
Vivekananda's Chicago visit
The day the Don had us nearly run out
Our cars, 1962-2011
Sounds you do not hear

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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