Top 5 best Indian cars ever made, and one that wasn’t
On Indian Independence day we salute its car industry and name our favs
By Shahzad Sheikh
In case you somehow didn’t know, Jaguar-Land Rover is now owned by Indian multinational conglomerate, Tata Group, and a huge number of manufacturers now make and assemble cars in India including GM, Mercedes, Ford, Hyundai, Renault, Mitsubishi, Nissan, BMW and Volkswagen as well others.
On top of that, the world’s largest democracy has its own long-standing home-grown car industry (originating with Mahindra & Mahindra in 1945). And it’s one that’s now certainly coming of age and itching to export and conquer new markets. The country is one of the largest car-making nations on earth and production is growing globally with an annual output of 3.9 million units last year alone.
Wishing India a glorious 65th Independence Day, we decided to pick our top five Indian made cars – and one that didn’t quite make the cut. Feel free to disagree below in the Comments section!
1. Hindustan Ambassador
Well it had to be didn’t it? It’s India’s most easily recognisable car and something of cultural icon, as anyone fed on a diet of Indian TV and cinema will know. It spanned generations and the classes plying the roads as Taxis and ministerial transport. And it’s been around a very long time, consistently in production since 1958, in fact.
Known for its simple mechanics and unburstable durability, its fundamental design dates back to the Morris Oxford MO of 1948, although the Ambassador itself was based on the Oxford III which ran from 1956-59. Despite mechanical and cosmetic updates inside and out, 54 years later ‘The King of Indian roads’ pays tribute to the integrity of British engineering long after the British car industry itself has all but withered away.
2. Tata Nano
Hard on the heels of the Ambassador for the crown of the car that’s most synonymous with India is of course the game-changing and ground-breaking Tata Nano. Touted as the ‘1 lakh’ car ($1800), it’s hasn’t quite stuck to that low price since its launch in 2009, but it remains the world’s cheapest new car (though ‘one-and-a-half-lakh-car’ doesn’t have the same ring to it).
It boasts a tiny two-cylinder 624cc engine in the back driving the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission and is deliberately pared right down to the absolute minimum requirements – so only three wheel nuts instead of four for example. Being incredibly light means performance isn’t as bad as you’d expect with 0-96kph in 8 seconds and 105kph, whilst sipping only 4.24L/100km.
It was designed as a ‘people’s car’ and pays homage to the likes of the Ford Model T, VW Beetle and the original Mini, but more than that it served to draw the world’s attention to the Indian car industry and started off the ringing of alarm bells from Detroit to Shanghai.
There are rumours of Nano’s being prepared for export one day – we’re still waiting. Rear-engined, rear-drive, wheel in each corner, manual tranny, with a bit of modification to the engine, this could proved to be a hoot!
3. Tata Safari
It is India’s best selling SUV. That alone doesn’t justify it being the second Tata in our line-up but it’s also the first SUV to be conceived and manufactured in India. Launched in 1998 with revisions in 2005 powered most popularly by a 3.0 common rail diesel engine, it won an SUV of the year award in 2007, beating rivals such as the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and the Land Rover LR2.
And that’s despite the fact that it would have been the slowest (0-100kph in 16.2secs) and crudest car in that company – in fact even in India reviewers have described it as slow, unrefined and pedestrian. British TV show Fifth Gear was even less generous describing it as having ‘about as much finesse as a three-legged giraffe’.
Still, what matters is that in the context of India – for the families, the roads, the culture, it just works. Besides the next Safari is said to 85% new and with Land Rover now in the Tata stable, expect some current tech filtering through to the solid Safari. SUV makers of the world, be afraid, be very afraid.
4. Maruti Alto/800
Maruti is essentially the Indian operation of Suzuki, and whilst it sells a full range of cars in India, it’s the tiny 800 and later the Alto (both based on several generations of the Suzuki Alto) that we are focussing on here.
Whilst the Ambassador was the ageing superstar of the Indian car industry, the little Maruti was the young and very prolific extra, and both the 800 and the Alto have been and are India’s best-selling cars. The 800 alone sold 2.4 million cars.
It may be small with a weedy engine, but it’s simple, reliable and you can fit an extended family of 15 somehow into this Tardis-like marvel, transport them across the roughest roads on the planet in bone-rattling comfort, and the little Maruti will just shrug it all off.
5. Mahindra Jeep
Like the Ambassador, this will be well known to Bollywood fans as the car the cops lamentably used to chase the baddies rapidly getting away in the Hindustans. They really would be seen to be heroic though as the Jeep CJ-based vehicles would appear to lean right over onto its doors handles through the corners – that is if there were any doors – and the good guys would cling on for dear life.
The Mahindra & Mahindra brothers launched their trading company in 1945 as they began making Jeep CJ-3A models from CKDs (completely knocked down kits) under license from Willys. And like the guys over at Hindustan, despite now being a huge conglomerate itself, Mahindra has continued to make pretty much the same car ever since. Although most of the rest of its range of passenger cars are Ssangyong-based.
It’s now known as the Thar, retains the traditional body-on-frame construction and remains the choice for hard-core off-roading – at heart remaining still a Jeep. Would be a cheap way into an Wrangler alternative, if only they brought them here to our market.
And here’s one that didn’t do quite as well, but we think should have
The Standard 1000, was an attempt perhaps to create a modern generation of the Ambassador, again taking a British car and reinterpreting it for India – and what a car to choose. The Rover SD1 was possibly the first four-door luxury coupe – well ahead of the likes of the Mercedes CLS or Porsche Panamera (the Rover even had a hatchback).
The most desirable models were fitted with the classic Rover V8, and these were used extensively as police cars in the 70s and early 80s (see any British TV action show from that era). The boys in blue loved the car so much that one constabulary even stock-piled them when production was ending!
They looked cool, were fast, handled well, were spacious and upmarket, and extremely desirable – I lusted after them
So logic dictated that when the now-defunct Madras car company, Standard, bought the tooling and started making them in India after it was replaced in the UK by the Rover 800, it would have done well enough to still be with us today.
Unfortunately Standard installed a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that dated back to the 1940s, producing a mere 83bhp (which then had to drag around 1335kg) fitted with a four-speed manual transmission. They also increased the ground-clearance, so it looked ungainly and lost its keen handling, dramatically reduced its quality and overpriced it. Production lasted barely three years, and ultimately the losses from this project saw the end of Standard in 1988.
Sad end to a British classic that deserved better.