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Friday, May 20, 2022
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WHAT IF...

What If Maruti Hadn't Hit The Roads?

Would we all still be driving around in those ye olde dabbas? Would we still have had Morris Minors, Austin Englands, Impalas and Triumphs, all dating from the pre Ambi-Fiat era, on our roads?

What If Maruti Hadn't Hit The Roads?
| Jaychandran
What If Maruti Hadn't Hit The Roads?
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

The only achievement of the younger scion of the Gandhi dynasty that was not controversial, was his ushering in the modern era in automobile travel with the Maruti, called a ‘people’s car’ since it had a reasonable price tag. It also looked reasonably 20th century in design, at least when compared to those caste-iron battleships, the Ambassador and the Fiat, that sailed our roads in the immediate pre-Maruti era.

Ashamed of these antiquated cars that belied our claim to be a modern nation, we embraced the zippy-looking Maruti with fervour. Little did we realize that we were, forever, giving up comfort for aesthetics. That while it was undoubtedly a heady experience travelling in a car that looked more like Princess Diana than the Queen Mother, we were condemning ourselves to a future of acute discomfort. The Maruti set a trend. No sooner were foreign cars allowed the privilege of plying on our potholed roads some ten years later, than a scourge of dinky sized Santros, Fiat Unos, and Matizes appeared.

So, too, did bigger models, but since these are financially out of the reach of the middle classes, most of us go around in Altos, Wagon R’s, Santros, Unos and Indicas looking like we have been stuffed into our seats at high pressure. Every time we climb out, the more generously endowed among us know what a cork feels like when it is ejected from a champagne bottle.

At such times I yearn for the cavernous interiors of that dubba-on-wheels, the Ambassador. Before the Isuzu engine and power steering, driving an Ambi was an arm-wrenching experience, but, then, this was strictly a car in which one was driven (like all our mantrijis). You walked into an Ambi not sank into it; you could stretch your legs to the maximum, have plenty of room for a third passenger in the front and stack your entire household belongings in the boot. I bet even the Maybach can’t offer comparable perks. 

The Maruti pretty much standardized the shape and size of cars, putting an end to the odd, eccentric and usually ancient collection of vehicles that once coasted down Indian roads. There were Morris Minors, Austin Englands, Impalas and Triumphs, all dating from the pre Ambi-Fiat era. They came in a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes and colours adding much interest to our roads. Few people bought new cars; everyone bought a car at second or third hand and then drove it, like, forever.

I remember wallowing in the cathedral sized back seat of the Chevrolet that my grandparents owned, or the even more cavernous interiors of a grand uncle’s Mercury. My own father owned a Citroen (French not English, the latter being considered a pretentious upstart by Citroen connoisseurs of whom there were a surprisingly large number in Mumbai). These everyday workhorses of yesteryear are now brought out once a year at vintage car rallies where the younger generation gawks at them in disbelief.

Cars were highly individual and unpredictable in the pre-Maruti era. Today, you can’t tell a Ford from a Honda, a Zen from an 800 or a Skoda from a Siena, but you can be sure of getting to your destination without requiring the help of passers-by who materialized out of nowhere to give a helpful shove to your inevitably stalled Fiat.

The Maruti changed our way of travelling just as the modern ‘flat’ changed our way of living. It standardized, it scaled down, it was easier to manage and cheaper to buy. It was, I suppose, ‘progress’.

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