On Friday, Maruti Suzuki India announced that it had stopped the production of the Maruti 800. The Maruti 800 is now officially dead.
The Ambassador and the Premier Padmini may have been ubiquitous on Indian roads until 1984, but it was the Maruti 800 that put India on four wheels that year. For the next 20 years, it was India’s best-selling car, outselling all others by an order of magnitude. But it was never the numbers that made the 800 what it was; it was always about heart.
Vintage: The Ambassador and the Premier Padmini may have been ubiquitous on Indian roads until 1984, but it was the Maruti 800 that put India on four wheels that year
For a generation of Indians, the 800 was their first car; for many, their only. This newspaper, in 2000, gave some of its senior employees, the M-800. I was one of them. When I left the organisation in 2003, I bought it at a princely sum of Rs 1.04 lakh. I still have it, and I still drive it. I don’t particularly enjoy driving it — its steering requires you to enroll in a gym, its brakes are not particularly remarkable, and in the name of passenger safety, well, there is the seat belt. It has no storage, its air-conditioning is primordial at best and in the boot, there is hardly space to keep one’s suitcase.
Nevertheless, there is immense joy in driving the 800. Fourteen years after I first drove it in 2000, there is still a sense of thrill when I enter it and turn on the ignition. Besides, the 800 is a rarity. People look at you as if you were a freak, just as the same people would look at a person driving a Lamborghini with awe. The emotions in the two cases may be polar opposites, but an equal number of audience members is guaranteed.
The M-800 is an icon because it has stories connected with it. At least two generations of men have used the car to impress the woman they like. Families have spent some of their most memorable moments in it. Children have rolled down the windows and enjoyed the breeze on a long drive outside the city. Some of my friends decorated the car during festivals with the same fervour as they would their house. And yes, if you forgot your key inside, you could still open it with something as basic as a ruler or a narrow stick. Due to this, at one point in time, it was also the most stolen car.
After the economy opened up in 1991, and as Indians began to reap the fruits of liberalisation, the number of car brands increased. Maruti Suzuki alone has 16 other car models, and is still India’s largest car manufacturer. Japanese, American and European brands invaded, and the 800 slowly lost its supremacy on the Indian roads. But it never lost its charm. My five-year-old daughter refuses to ride in the Japanese Sedan we own, and she loves travelling in the M-800. Only because the car has no child lock and she can roll down the windows and watch the world go by. Well, to each his own.
I would be lying if I say that I never thought of selling the M-800. It is cumbersome to maintain after 14 years. It is tedious to drive. Its turning radius is worse than the above-mentioned Japanese Sedan. Often, when I have driven for more than two hours, I have had to rest for the next 30 minutes to recover from driving stress. But I have never complained. Not to my wife, not to the car mechanic, and never to my daughter.
Maruti says the car’s spare parts will still be available to the Indian public for the next 8-10 years. But we all know it is only a technical detail, a legal requirement.
Just like me, there are millions of M-800 owners (and past owners) whose lives have been touched by the car; a vehicle that would not have made such an impact if this were any other country. But Indians were starved for choice in 1984. Maruti 800, no matter how small it was, gave us that choice.
Driving it was, in a sense, more liberating than what we felt after the economy opened up in 1991, 44 years after socialist shackles that held us back. Therefore, the M-800 was like a friend. It spoke to you; it completed your family; it alone defined an era.
This country will miss the M-800.
Sachin Kalbag is Executive Editor of MiD DAY. He tweets at @SachinKalbag