It was the taxi driver’s kaali-peeli. It was also the neta’s white carriage, exuding power with not just its occupant, but also with its strong, boxy body, its “power brake” matter-of-factly printed on its trunk, and its roof always capped with a beacon. But for the rising Indian middle class, the Amby was too old-fashioned, too fuel-inefficient, and perhaps “too Indian” when compared to sleek, fuel-efficient, foreign-made cars. Hindustan Motors, which began manufacturing the car in 1958, neither changed its design nor enhanced its technology over the years. This resulted in falling sales — from 24,000 cars a year in the 1980s to less than 6,000 in the 2000s. Last year, 2,200 Ambys were sold, a tiny fraction of the 1.8 million cars sold. On May 25, HM decided to shut its plant at Uttarpara, West Bengal. Though the company has said it’s a temporary suspension, few believe the car will make a comeback.
The tiny car was aspirational as it was iconic. While Amby was for the political class or the taxiwallah, the M800 was the middle class’s vehicle of pride. Named after its original 800 cc F8B engine, the car’s production began in 1983 and ended in January 2014. With 30 years in business, it remains second only to Amby in having the longest production life. About 2.87 million M800s were produced during its lifetime of which 2.66 million were sold in India, while the rest were exported to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It was the country’s best-selling car till its sibling, the Alto, sped ahead of it in 2004.
The car’s non-compliance with Euro IV fuel emission norms, combined with declining sales, led to its phased discontinuation across different cities, beginning April 2010. The last M800 was manufactured in Gurgaon on January 18, 2014. In the final few months of its life, its monthly production averaged only 1,700 units.
The car, which had a debut price of
Rs 50,000, withstood competition over the years. Its sales peaked in 1999-2000, with 190,000 units sold. In 2013, 20,754 M800s were sold against 18,447 Tata Nanos.
The humble family scooter — often handed as a wedding gift till the 1990s — gave way to the macho motorcycle almost five years ago. After selling scooters for over 50 years, Bajaj Auto exited the business in December 2009 to focus on the growing motorcycle market. “We are hardly making 1,000 scooters a month. If we have to be a motorcycle specialist, we have to make a sacrifice,” Bajaj Auto MD Rajiv Bajaj had said then.
Bajaj’s first, and flagship, model Chetak was launched in 1972 followed by Super and M-50. Earlier, it sold Vespa 150 under licence from Italy’s Piaggio. At one point of time, Chetak commanded a premium in the market and after booking, people had to wait for months to get the scooter. In
1977, Bajaj managed to produce and sell one lakh vehicles.
The angular Padminis were manufactured from 1964 to 2000. Launched by Premier Automobiles Limited under licence from Fiat and named after a 14th century Rajput princess, the Padmini managed to poach many taxiwallahs from the Amby, but could not impress the netas. It, however, did strike a chord with youngsters, celebs and women in the ‘70s because of its modern look and ease of use. In the ‘80s, it lost out to M800, its popularity thus confined to taxi operators.
The black-and-yellow Padminis continue to thrive on Mumbai’s streets, but after a law passed in April 2013, they may soon become history. The law prohibits taxis over 20 years old from plying as they don’t comply with new pollution norms. Most of the 90,000 Padmini taxis are expected to go off Mumbai’s roads.
A sedan of sorts, Contessa was launched in 1984 by HM, as a contrast to the Amby. Its sleek design, comfortable seats and roomy interiors were a hit with the middle class but its not-so-powerful engine and uncomfortable gearbox earned it bad reviews. In the ‘90s, foreign sedans like Daewoo Ceilo (which too disappeared from the roads long ago) and Honda City hit the final nail in Contessa’s coffin.
Compiled by Irena Akbar