Maruti 800 revolutionised motoring in India even though it never got a proper name. As it prepares to ride into the sunset, here is a look into the rear-view mirror.
India’s biggest automobile brand is a number the 800 made by Maruti Suzuki India. The little car, called the ‘Fronte’ and ‘Alto’ at different times and in different countries, attained iconic status through constant innovation, price cuts achieved through higher volumes and efficiencies, and lower cost of ownership, to overcome the hugely negative pre-launch perceptions and stay abreast of the best the market had to offer in its category.
In a couple of years, the car that revolutionised Indian motoring may pass into history. Maruti Suzuki has decided to stop selling it, along with Omni, in 11 key cities from next year. Under the new emissions rules, only Euro IV-compliant models can be sold in these cities and the cost of upgrading Maruti 800 or Omni to the new standards would be prohibitive.
Launched with almost totally imported components, the 800 transformed the car ownership experience in India, and also the automobile component manufacturing industry that supported it.
For all its achievements, it never got a proper name. “There was a lot of discussion on this and various names were suggested. But we felt that the name Maruti had to be established, partly because of political reasons. The Japanese city car (called the ‘kei’ class) had to be modified with interesting changes in India.
The 800 set new standards on how cars were sold at launch. Forms were sold through banks and, after submission, a computer-generated allotment number was provided so that every applicant knew the date of delivery. The traditional method of using contacts to get an Amby or a Padmini ended forever.
For special cases, though, there was a directors’ quota. Pricing was structured in a new way too besides the ex-showroom cost of the car, buyers had to pay a delivery charge for transportation to their city.
Finally, the 800 was launched with the Maruti van (later called the Omni) and buyers could switch models within a certain date — a new option in Indian car buying again.
Then came the cost of ownership. “It was staggering when buyers realised that instead of the few thousand kilometres of the Amby, the service interval of the 800 was at least 5,000 km stretchable to 7,500 km if you were a city user.
Driven by unprecedented high sales as a result of these innovations, the 800 received additional marketing boosts through its 25-year long life. For example, when other small cars came along to challenge its hegemony, Maruti relaunched the 800 with easy financing, offering the basic model at Rs 2,399 a month.
This financing package created lakhs of new car buyers who found the monthly installment affordable and comparable to the family travel bill on a 2-wheeler and public transport. And then, there were the engineering innovations that made the 800 the success it was.
For example, to cope with water logging on Indian roads that routinely stalled the Hindustan Motors Ambassador and Premier Padmini, engineers raised the air intake pipe of the 800 to the highest level under the car bonnet and placed a small steel plate just ahead of it.
As long as the car moved, the steel plate pushed away the water and created an air pocket that kept the engine running.
The car also boasted of virtually waterproof electricals for the first time in the country and this added to its ability to survive flooded streets.
Its small size and relatively minute tire size generated equally negative perceptions and many predicted it would collapse on potholed roads, more so given the Indian penchant for overloading cars.
In reality, the front strut and rear beam suspension combination, along with front engine-front wheel drive design and unitary shell body (all firsts in India) gave it unprecedented ability to cope with challenging terrain.
The initial model had a 796cc (hence the name 800) engine, producing approximately 34 bhp of power, ran on 12-inch wheels with a kerb weight of around 650 kg, but could seat four adult passengers and a child and convey them at speeds that baffled HM and Premier owners, with fuel consumption of around 15-18 km a liter against the Ambassador’s 7-11 km and Padmini’s 8-12 km a liter.
Above all, buyers woke up to the outstanding safety provided by the brakes and headlamps of the 800, which were several generations ahead of all other Indian cars of that time. This meant shorter stopping distances to avoid crashes, and much better visibility in darkness or in foggy conditions.