On January 18, 2014, a firebrick red Maruti 800 rolled out of the Gurgaon assembly line of the country’s largest carmaker, Maruti Suzuki — the last of the bestselling car that revolutionised road transport for millions of Indians.
When the first 800 got ready to hit the streets on December 14, 1983, it was a culmination of an initiative taken more than a decade earlier.
The concept of a “people’s car” came up in the early Seventies. Subsequently, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet proposed the production of a fuel-efficient, indigenous automobile that middle-class Indians could afford. Gandhi’s son Sanjay was entrusted with the venture and was handed out the contract and the exclusive production licence. In June 1971, a company called Maruti Ltd was incorporated under the Companies Act with Sanjay Gandhi as its first managing director.
Sanjay had first contacted Volkswagen AG for a possible collaboration and joint production of the Indian version of the original people’s car, the Beetle. However, this company went into liquidation in 1977. The government salvaged the Maruti project in the early 1980s and started scouting for an active foreign collaborator. Japan’s Suzuki Motor Corporation was eventually chosen.
Shinzo Nakanishi, the former managing director and CEO of Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, was one of the first Suzuki representatives to come to India in 1981 to evaluate its investment opportunity. Last year, Nakanishi, a close confidante of Osamu Suzuki, recounted his initial mission. Though the Japanese firm “didn’t know India at all”, after he visited India, Nakanishi said he felt confident about the prospects of the venture. “First, I felt India was promising. Second, we had a feeling that the government was a good partner,” Nakanishi said in his last press briefing as the MD and CEO of Maruti Suzuki in March 2013.
Maruti Udyog Ltd was formed as a result of the Nakanishi report, following which a joint venture agreement was signed between the Hamamatsu-based small car-maker and the government of India in 1982. Suzuki acquired a 26 per cent stake in the venture, with an option to increase it to 40 per cent.
To begin with, Maruti had 883 employees on its roll. The factory was set up in Gurgaon and the Maruti 800 was launched in December 1983, followed by India’s first mini van – the Omni. The original 800 was based on the Suzuki Fronte SS80, and had a three-cylinder 800cc engine, hence the moniker.
Few were willing