D. Murali

Chennai, Jan. 4 With only days to go for the unveiling of Tata’s small car, expectations are understandably high on the likely impact.

“The ‘one lakh car’ could do for rural Indians what Henry Ford’s Model T did for early-twentieth-century Americans or Andre Citroen’s 2CV did for French farmers impoverished after World War II,” foresees a recent book by Iain Carson and Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran.

“Ratan Tata’s original dream was that this car would make budding entrepreneurs of tens of thousands of Indian mechanics in small towns and villages across the subcontinent, as they would assemble the cars from kits stamped out in a Tata factory in West Bengal,” they write in ‘Zoom: The global race to fuel the car of the future’ (October 2007). “Now he accepts this will happen in a later phase.”

The book – which opens with a part dramatically named ‘highway robbery’ on how ‘America’s car and oil industries got the world into the current energy crunch and in the process may have killed off their own future’ – describes the ‘one-lakh car’ as “a four-door, five-seat vehicle designed to meet international safety standards with a simple, tiny engine of less than 1 cubic litre capacity, producing a humble 30 horsepower.”

Americans might scoff that this would not even count as a motorcycle in their country, the authors concede.

“But such a cheap and cheerful car might well prove attractive to those in poor countries ready to trade up from motorcycles,” argue Carson and Vaitheeswaran.

Indica story

It was in the late 1990s that Ratan Tata conceived the idea of an all-Indian car company, encouraged by the success of the Tata truck firm in making light trucks, the book recounts.

“He called in an expatriate Indian, Kumar Bhattacharya, who was a professor at the prestigious Warwick University in the English Midlands and a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher.”

Egged on by the professor, the company developed Indica, ‘the first Indian-designed car,’ which became a success, ‘after a shaky start.’

Years later, in Tata’s Ace, the small-load carrier, too would benefit from Bhattacharya’s inputs.

He would push the company’s engineers to come up with a ‘quick and dirty solution’ to move small loads, and agitate them to think ‘differently by dramatically overplaying or underplaying a scenario,’ as Mr Ravi Kant, Managing Director of Tata Motors, would reminisce in a 2005 media story, posted in www.tata.com.

Combining his sense of social responsibility with his business sense, Mr Tata planned to have the ‘revolutionary new small car’ built in a new factory in West Bengal, an area sorely in need of industry and jobs, notes ‘Zoom’.

“He saw a huge market in putting in millions of Indians who ride dangerously overloaded scooters onto four safe wheels.”

The book cites Toyota’s boss Mr Katsuaki Watanabe to emphasise that the time has come to employ revolutionary new techniques to make cheaper cars, even ones involving new, lighter materials.

“The European Renault brand, which had a smash hit with its Logan basic car (at a price of $6,500) made in Romania in 2006, immediately started work on a future version designed to retail for around $4,000.”

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 5, 2008)
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