The car started life as a vehicle manufactured under license from FIAT by Premier Automobiles. The predecessor to the Padmini (Fiat 1100D) was also assembled under license – The Fiat Millicento. The company, Premier Automobiles, was founded by Seth Hirachand Walchand, who also founded Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in Bangalore, which would go on to become one of the largest manufacturers of fixed-wing aircraft & helicopters in India.
The Fiat was always the stylish choice in the Indian market. The Italians knew flair like nobody else! Right from the factory, the paint job was spectacular and a dual tone paintjob was a common aftermarket treatment many owners loved. Few Fiats were govt owned, yes – it was sought after by private owners but was also a successful taxi – not too many cars can pull off that double life successfully (Toyota Innova – you have done that well). This car was preferred for private use as it was blessed with light steering and nimble handing. It felt “peppy” and was reasonably fuel efficient. It was very reliable as well, and this combination of traits meant that this car was a hit among the (dare I say then uncommon) lady drivers. The car was narrower than an Ambassador with a larger turning circle. It had more turns lock to lock, but with lower steering wheel effort making it more easily manageable in city conditions.
During its entire production run, the Fiat 1100D would become the Premier Padmini, Premier President and Premier 137D. Cosmetic changes were typical to cars of the period, changes to the front grill, split front seats, addition of a floor mounted shifter option, plastic wheel trims as premium option & deletion of the outside sun visor. The cars were preferred highway mile munchers due to comparatively higher power/weight ratio & better top speed. The ride in these cars was not as cushy as the Amby, but they did manage bad roads well with high sidewall radial tires.
These cars also had their fair share of problems. Overheating during highway runs in summer time were a common problem. Early Fiat 1100Ds were notoriously easy to steal when parked. [The author’s father’s car was stolen under similar conditions in Bangalore City in the early 1980s]. The frisky performance and good handling meant that before the arrival of Maruti, these cars were often used for rally raids & also some unlawful activities. [The author’s father’s car stolen from Bangalore was recovered after being abandoned on the side of the road, presumably due to mechanical issues, loaded with smuggled sandalwood, in the Sathyamangalam forest area]. Later versions of the car fitted with a localized carburetor were often plagued by oil consumption, requiring “up-sizing” of piston rings to manage the oil consumption issues, but with better fuel economy. The soft rear suspension also meant that you had to be careful while handling speed breakers under full load.
The Premier Padmini also had the distinction of being one of the first unibody construction cars in India. This made it lighter than the competition providing both better performance and improved fuel efficiency. This trend of reducing weight to improve both performance and fuel consumption is a long-standing trend in the entire automotive industry. The lack of any chrome plated bright work on the Fiat 1100D (which had aluminum trims) made it much more rust resistant & easier to maintain.
The Premier Padmini is also one of the first few cars to have anti-roll bars on both front and rear axles. Not that they had much effect, if you drive one of these right after a modern car, you will still feel significant body roll. You may excuse the author for having rose colored glasses for this car, having spent many a weekend in his childhood in the back seat of this car on road trips.
Eventually, production of all Premier products would come to an end not due to market demand but labor issues. The industrial city of Mumbai would become the hub of the trade union movement from the 1970’s onwards (pro-tip – read about Datta Samant) leading to closure of several cloth mills & industries. The Kurla plant of Premier in Bombay, which made the Padmini right from the beginning would be shut down leading to the bankruptcy of Premier just when it had almost 200,000 orders pending for production of the Fiat Uno in the late 1990’s. The same Premier group would again fail to deliver to customers of its JV with Peugeot to produce the CKD form of the 309 in India during the same period.
Premier would try its luck again in the 2000s by licensing the rights to produce the Diahatsu Terios, but customers would not trust the brand after the debacle of the 1990s.