The Maruti 800 – changes everything forever

The Maruti 800 – changes everything forever

Innovation – a new method, idea, product etc.

I’m tempted here to use the most valuable product of management education to the betterment of humanity, a 2 x 2 matrix, but let us look at it another way.

Maruti was the Indian govt’s effort to introduce a people’s car (the socialist dream), a project that had many fathers, including Sanjay Gandhi at one point in time. Over the 10+ years that it took to eventually pick a partner, Maruti Udyog (and its predecessor Maruti Ltd.) are rumored to have been in talks with the large OEMs of the world including Volkswagen. As was traditional with any govt bureaucrat driven initiative at that time, it too was accused of being scam prone and inefficient. I will let the more interested readers find out more on their own about this aspect.

Finally, Suzuki Motor Corporation was chosen to setup an advanced factory, a local supply chain, and given license to manufacture & sell cars in India. As a joint venture company with the Govt of India, there would be significant oversight, but Suzuki would be given a free hand to run the business. Suzuki chose the Suzuki Alto FX –  a small car it had already developed for its entry into the tightly fought European market for mini-cars as its weapon of choice to take on the might of the Indian License Raj automotive sector. The car would be called the Maruti 800.

Driving as we knew it would never be the same again.

Indeed, here was a small car, with front engine front wheel drive format. All the “good” features from the Morris Minor are on display here, rack & pinion steering, a split folding rear seat to make way for more luggage, & a heating system with ventilation fan even on the basic variant. (Air conditioning was optional on the Deluxe SS80 DX variant)

Engineering had improved a lot over the 30-year period, where effectively India was in the dark ages of automotive evolution.

Disc brakes were now to be found on the front wheels of a budget car, and kerb weight was down to a mere 610 kg. That made for very spritely performance even from the meagre 39.5 HP on offer, which incidentally was lower than the 48+ hp benchmarks set by incumbent dinosaurs. The formula of independent front suspension and a leaf spring dead beam rear axle, accurate rack & pinion steering together with unibody construction was on proud display here as well. With a go-kart like low driving position hugging the road (compared to the high seating competition), peppy performance from the low kerb weight, great handling & negligible in comparison body roll, the new Maruti 800 was an absolute revelation to drive. As a bonus, due to the more advanced engineering, you would get better fuel economy and bullet proof reliability, something that you could never expect out of the incumbents.

It was not that the Suzuki Alto FX SS80, as it was known in other markets, was revolutionary in any way particular way. It was that we had been left so far behind, 30 years is a long time for the game to move on. In comparison, 30+ years is the time one spends on average, working, assuming you take your first job at 22 and retire at 58. The 800 was hailed as breakthrough innovation for India, surely it had an impact which was comparable. The Maruti 800 was a mini-car which was better than the best in global markets, and was very helpful to gain market share in crowded & competitive markets around the world. Versions of this car were sold in Japan, South East Asia and Europe, with different engines – the European version was almost identical to the car sold in India.

The nature of innovation which leads to behavioral change is such that it makes the old ways seem archaic and much more cumbersome to return to.

Just like the Model T revolutionized the automotive market, effectively ending the era of the horse for everyone, the Maruti 800 changed the way Indians saw cars. Suddenly, the maintenance prone combatively larger sized Fiat 1100D & Ambassadors were seen a Chariots & White Elephants. The 800 was the car to have, with significant waiting periods. If fact there was a Tatkal scheme introduced where if you paid in dollars, you got your car delivered on priority, people paid the premium! For those of you who don’t know, India was a trade deficit country which did not earn as much foreign currency selling goods as it spent buying goods. To minimize this trade imbalance or deficit, often goods were sold at a premium if you were buying in dollars. The author would add here that having an 800 at home was the new status symbol in upper middle-class India. For many who bought their first car as a Maruti 800, this feeling of having arrived lived on, even after the 800 became ubiquitous. I can personally vouch for this, as many 800 owners held on to their cars long after spare part availability became an issue. In my own extended family, there was a Red 800 maintained in beautiful stock condition, which was the pride and joy right from 1985 to 2019 – having run just 65,000 kms in that time. For almost 10 years, that uncle who owned the 800 was the most popular among kids when he gave out “rounds” in the car.

The Maruti 800 set the benchmark for what a car meant in modern India. It was reasonably fast, light, frugal, quite fun to drive, reliable and cheap to fuel/maintain front wheel drive cars with plasticky interiors (a sea of wear resistant, tacky, hard black/grey plastic). This was a template that many a successful car would follow.

Dare I say it, maybe this was the beginning of the “Kithna deti hai” phenomenon. You will agree that as a nation, we are way more fuel efficiency obsessed than any other I’ve seen. Also, we have chosen world class products as our own if they met these criteria, but rejected many a good product when it wasn’t fuel efficient. Even today, in high value car segments where depreciation per km per day is the highest cost, mileage obsessed Indians refuse to buy petrol powered vehicles over their comparatively more frugal diesel powertrain options.

I’ve attached a review of the pre-facelift Suzuki Alto FX, for the UK market built in Japan, at the time the car was launched. This is car is identical in specification to the Indian vehicle, except for interior color, wheels, headlights & steering wheel design. It confirms most of the reasons India learnt to love the car.

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