14 December 1983 is a red letter day in India’s automobile history. On that day, following a draw of lots, the keys to the first Maruti 800 were handed over to its proud owner Harpal Singh by none other than the country’s then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. The price of what was dubbed “the first people’s car” was a reasonable Rs 47,500 for the ordinary model. Another Rs 30,000 would buy you the prized air-conditioned deluxe model.
At that point, Maruti had assembled a grand total of 70 cars but the Rs 270 crore project had ambitious targets: to produce 20000 cars in 1984, 40000 in 1985 and one lakh in 1986.
The PM’s presence was significant. Not only was the project important from the point of view of showcasing India’s manufacturing abilities, but it was also the brainchild of her son Sanjay Gandhi, who had passed away tragically three years ago.
It had taken two years from the time the company was set up in 1981 and just a year after the collaboration agreement with Suzuki Motor Company, then a comparatively lightweight automaker in Japan. Given how long it took in those days for projects to go from plan to launch, this speed was dizzying. It helped that the company had the permission to import the first 40000 cars from Japan. Being the PM’s son for its inspiration did have some advantages.
The idea for the car dated back to 1971 when a young Sanjay back from an internship stint with Rolls Royce in the UK, first outlined his idea of an indigenously manufactured car. A fond mother, then the all-powerful prime minister of the country, pushed the cabinet to consider the proposal and a company by the name of Maruti Motors Ltd. was incorporated in 1971. But over the next few years, the project lost steam and after the Congress lost the 1977 elections, the company went into liquidation with the Janata government more interested in prosecuting the Gandhis than in indulging the son’s fancy for cars.
The return of the Congress to power in 1980 gave fresh legs to Sanjay’s dream though he didn’t live long enough to see it come to fruition. After his death, the project picked up the pace, and eventually three years later, the first of the Maruti 800s rolled out the Gurgaon plant. Powered by an 800cc engine the 5-door hatchback was targeted at the growing middle class looking for a reliable, fuel-efficient vehicle. And while it would never really achieve its stated fuel efficiency of 29.95 Km to a litre, it did tick most of the other boxes. It looked smart, sleek, was easy to maintain and test reports talked of the barely perceptible hum of the engine. No wonder that it was wildly popular. When bookings opened over one lakh people put down Rs 10000 as the advance against deliveries which in some cases took over two years.
For something which has had such an outsized influence on the lives of Indians through the 1980s and 1990s, its name was really tame. There are varying accounts of where the name Maruti came from with some accounts stating that it was named after Marut, the son of Hanuman, and considered the Wind god.
The name would go on to stick, as the Maruti 800 became the aspirational symbol of the newly emerging Indian middle class.