Peoples Car, Peoples Lives

Written by John Sarkar | Malabika Sarkar | Malabika Sarkar | Updated: Feb 8 2010, 02:25am hrs
Two years back, when Ratan Naval Tata stepped out of what looked like a giant jellybean on four wheels, he changed the way the world looked at automobiles. At the 9th Auto Expo in the capital, rival automakers watched with veiled sarcasm as the chairman of the Tata Group unwrapped his little, big dream, conceived when he saw a family of four perched perilously on a two-wheeler. But Tata found few takers for his virtuous theory. Some of his detractors were quick to point out that the Rs1-lakh Nano would be unsafe. Others smirked and whispered that it would fall apart on potholed Indian blacktops.

Months have gone by since. The potholes havent disappeared either. But the peoples car is slowly snowballing into a sociological phenomenon. In a faraway village in Gujarat, Bajarang, a farmer, wakes up every morning to drop his little girl to school. Instead of kick-starting his motorcycle, he picks up a soft cloth and wipes the dust off from his red Nanos windscreen. He doesnt understand the innovation behind the engineering or the 34 patents that Tata Motors has filed for the Nano, but the wide grin on his eight-year-old daughters face is testimony enough for him.

From the time of its launch, the Nano has cheekily managed to negotiate every hairpin bend, including the scariest one called Singur. The Tatas had put together a factory for the Nano in Singur, West Bengal, when a belligerent Mamata Banerjee, the states opposition leader, jumped into the picture and staged a standoff with them over the issue of displaced farmers. Eventually, the project was relocated to Gujarat. And, the feisty Nano lived to tell another tale, one full of possibilities.

The emergence of the supermarket and hypermarket chains in US and other developed countries is an example of how mass motorisation can arguably change the urban landscape. Before 1960, American stores were medium size. But after almost every American started owning a car, the stores got bigger and supermarkets and hypermarkets started cropping up on the outskirts of large urban areas during the Seventies and Eighties. They are usually located at the intersections of major highways and rely heavily on shoppers traveling in their own vehicles.

Its too early to jump the gun here, but Tata Nanos upcoming plant in Sanand in Ahmedabad, with five lakh units per annum capacity, is a sign of things to come. Over the past six months, around 18,000 cars have been delivered across the country despite production constraints. And, not surprisingly, other than a few technical teething problems here and there, like a few cars catching fire, not even a single car has fallen apart on the road.

On hindsight, the Nano is not just a car. It is status within reach for nearly nine million new two-wheeler buyers across the country every year. It has brought down the price of an entry-level car by nearly 30%. The rear-engine, 624-cc Nano not only has some design semblance to the popular Volkswagen Beetle, another peoples car conceived by Adolf Hitler, but the central idea of mass motorisation also remains the same.

About 75% of the bookings for the Nano came from non-metros. Auto analyst Abdul Majeed of PricewaterhouseCoopers feels that even if 4-5% (4.5 lakh approximately) of two-wheeler owners are converted into Nano buyers, Tata Motors will turn the tables (Maruti Suzuki sold around 8.4 lakh cars in 2009). Says Majeed, As the volumes are low at the moment, it is a tad difficult to arrive at any conclusive figure on production versus sales trend. We will have to wait till the Sanand plant functions at full capacity.

By 2030, India is touted to become the third-largest market for passenger cars after China and the US. More than 70% of the cars sold in the country today fall in the small car category. The introduction of Nano could very well expand the domestic car market by another 65%, feel researchers at rating agency CRISIL.

But, beyond the math, Ratan Tatas dream is not only revolutionising the way people commute in India, it is also changing the way people think across the world. Most major car manufacturers, such as Toyota, Honda, VW, General Motors, Ford and Nissan, have woken up to the fact that the future of automobiles lies in compact and efficient cars. All of them have on the anvil plans of launching small, affordable models in the small car segment. Says Michael Boneham, president and MD at Ford India, The compact car category is going to fuel growth in the future and there is no reason why it cant have a double-digit growth rate.

In the process, the population at the bottom of the pyramid has a fighting chance to not only own a car, but to travel comfortably and safely. Car penetration in the country is still very low at 10 per 1,000 people, compared to 500-600 per 1,000 people in developed countries. This leaves a huge gap, which the Nano and its kin can fill in the coming years.

Back in the capital, Arush Vohra, who owns a car modification studio and soups up cars that can churn out 500 bhp at the drop of a hat, is an excited man. He owns a couple of fast cars, but cant stop boasting about his 33-hp Nano on Facebook and Twitter. He drives it to work and his wife, who is a part-time rally driver, uses it to go shopping.

In short, the Nano is not reinventing the wheel. Its just helping people to use it in a better way.

The crowd-puller

Mahendrabhai Modi, 45

Private company executive, Ahmedabad

Parked in the basement of a run-down apartment building, the spanking new, sparkling white Nano is clearly the neighbours' envy and owners' pride. Mahendrabhai Modi, the proud owner of the sole Nano in his locality, has become a minor celebrity of sorts. In fact, you can walk down the street and ask any shopkeeper where the 'Nanowallah' stays, and you'll be promptly guided right to his doorstep.

Thanks to this smallest celebrity in the world of automobiles, I've become famous now, says Modi, who was among the fortunate few who got the first delivery of Nano in December 2009 through a random draw of lots by Tata Motors. It's such a cute little car that even an Audi owner whizzing past slows down to catch a glimpse of it, he adds.

The small wonder in India's auto sector has changed the life of this humble executive hailing from a small village off Ahmedabad in many ways. Since it's our first car, it has elevated our social status among people and changed their perception, Modi laughs. A few days ago, a relative who dropped by joked that the little car has improved the matrimonial prospects of my sons dramatically.

But jokes apart, owning a Nano has immensely improved the quality of life of this middle-class family. Bumpy and tiresome bus journeys to the family's native village, some 200 km away, are history. Only a few days back, we decided to drive down in our Nano and the journey took us less than four hours, exults a wonder-struck Modi. And what's better, the entire family of two sons, Modi and his wife could enjoy the drive together.

Even the drudgery of commuting within the city as a family has become so much more pleasurable for the Modis, who earlier rode in pairs on their Activa and Bajaj two-wheelers. We do our grocery shopping from malls in our Nano now, he declares with aplomb. Going to office, too, has become more comfortable in a city where summer lasts almost ten months. Even a helmet couldn't protect me from the heat of the scorching sun and I used to reach home exhausted and irritable. But driving to work in my Nano has made me so much happier, says Modi.

But what prompted him to choose the Nano as his first car Its my younger son, 17-year-old Viral, who's been tracking the Nano since it was unveiled. He has been fascinated by the car and convinced us to apply for it when bookings opened last year, he says, admitting, With both my sons studying and my wife chipping in with tuitions and part-time work as an insurance agent, we couldn't have afforded any other car.

Jyotsna Bhatnagar

One of the family

NK Jain, 55

Private company executive, Kolkata

A simple family, a simple car and loads of pride. The Nano has gelled so well with the Jain family that when they talk about it, it is difficult to make out whether they are referring to the car or a family member. The world's cheapest car has become their new identity, something other cars can never do for a middle-class family. NK Jain, a senior area manager at Kajaria Ceramics, had a passing thought of buying a car in 2002, but had more important things on his mindthe education of his two daughters. The older daughter, Parul, is a doctor pursuing higher studies, and the other is on her way to becoming a chartered accountant. In 2009, when Parul got her MBBS degree, the family celebrated with their first car, the Nano.

Jain had made up his mind to buy the Nano since he read about the car in 2008. Many advised him otherwise. People told me to go for a Maruti 800 or Alto since Nano was a completely new concept. But I had made up my mind and had immense faith in Tata Motors, says Jain.

The day the Nano was delivered will always be etched on the minds of the family members. It was October 8, 2009. From the dealer's showroom (AJC Bose road) to the Jain temple, Kali temple and finally home at the CMDA complex, with the daunting South City complex as its backdrop, people stood up and took notice of the car, with some even following them. Once at the complex, they distributed sweets to the 80-odd families and everyone had a feel of the car. Congratulations poured in from as far as Rajasthan. Today, Jain raves about the fact that even the most expensive of cars slow down to check out the Nano on the road. The Nano has now truly become a family car for the Jains after both daughters learned driving. Jain even jokes how the car even gave him a warning once, when it started vibrating after at 70 km per hour. He believes it will help him keep within the speed limit. On another occasion, he recalls two parking attendants fighting over the Nano, each wanting it to be parked in his area. Clearly, the owner's pride.

Lavina Mangat


Dr TN Rao, 64

Medical practitioner, Delhi

I have found that more women are interested in the Nano than men. The other set of people who enquire about the car are two-wheeler owners. They ask about the mileage, speed and later discuss among themselves, saying, 'badhiya gaadi hai', is how Dr TN Rao sums up the Nano's popularity quotient. A private medical practitioner by profession, Rao waited for his children to get settled before buying his first car. Till then, he managed with a motorcycle.

Rao got interested in the Nano after watching a television advertisement in 2009. The Tata name, coupled with the price factor, sealed the decision. It's a compact car and an indigenous one. It's made in India and by an Indian, which builds a trust itself. Moreover, Tatas are dedicated towards their product and also the country, says Rao. The family got the delivery of the car in December the same year and Dr Rao made the full payment of Rs 1.4 lakh for the Lx variant at once.

I wanted a car to visit my clinic, going to the temple sometimes and attending functions. The Nano serves all these purposes and, at the same time, is economical too, he says.

With both their son and daughter abroad, it's only the old couple that uses the car. The car is used only for driving within the city, but they now feel comfortable and safe travelling.

We are extremely happy with our car. Though my wife does not drive, she likes the design of the Nano. Both our children haven't seen the car yet, but they are excited about driving it during their next visit to India, says Rao. Meanwhile, there is enough excitement around the car here itself and the doctor is overwhelmed with the response that he is getting from people. Whenever he stops at a traffic light, someone surely knock the car's window to enquire about its performance, engine and power. When asked about the recent incidents of a few Nanos catching fire, Rao says, I don't think it's because of any technological or manufacturing error in the car. The cars performance is satisfactory. I'm sure it will run smoothly till three years from now, he concludes.

Malabika Sarkar

One is not enough

Bharath D Brahmakal, 27

Software Engineer, Bangalore

Bharath D Brahmakal is unlikely to forget 2009. Not only did he acquire a wife last year, but a car as well. I owned a Honda Unicorn motorcycle earlier. After marriage, I thought of buying a car, as I wanted to travel with my family safely, says the Bangalore-based software engineer, who is attached with Oracle. At that time, he analysed various cars before zeroing in on the Nano. Two reasons swung the decision for him. I was budget conscious and wanted an economically viable car. Next, the Tata brand is already established in the market and I believed in their brand, he says.

The first owner of the Nano in Karnataka, today, he is happy with his decision. The Nano has fulfilled all my expectations, beams Brahmakal. The car is technically sound. Its comparatively cheaper with basic comforts and can be handled easily in crowded cities like Bangalore, he says.

The engineer and his wife chose a Champagne Gold Lx variant, the premium variant in the Nano range, for Rs 2.12 lakh (on-road price in Bangalore). Brahmakals office is located around 20 km from his house, while his wifes office, TCS, is 10 km further. I use the Nano to go to work everyday. Sometimes I drop my wife at her office too, he adds.

Initially, Brahmakal stuck within the city boundary with the Nano, but soon, he was pushing the limits. Now, he and his wife make regular trips to Mysore, 300 km from Bangalore, and have clocked over 5,800 km in the car. The 5,800 km were interspersed with interesting experiences as well. Several car lovers thronged our house to see the new car and take photographs, recalls his father, BS Dwarakanath. One night, a person driving a luxury car suddenly intercepted our car while we were driving back home. Within eight days of taking delivery, the family visited a restaurant near their house and soon, a crowd gathered. One person even offered Rs 30,000 as premium to buy the car on the spot, Brahmakal adds.

Before buying we thought it may not be too spacious, but we were wrong. Five people can easily sit in the car. The leg room in the rear is also very spacious, he claims. Now that his wife Pratheeba is learning to drive, Brahmakal is thinking of buying another Nano. Once she gets her driving licence, I may buy one more Nano for my wife, he says.

Jaishankar Jayaramiah

Neighbourhood watch

Rajeev Gupta, 52

Wholesale dealer, Lucknow

Rajeev Gupta has no qualms sharing his Nano with his neighbours. The only car in his locality, Gupta's Nano often doubles as an ambulance during a crisis. So if it is not ferrying Gupta's wife to the hospital for her regular treatment, the car is much in demand for pregnant women and the aged. At other times, the family of five enjoys shopping trips and rides to film theatres and weddings in full style.

For the wholesale dealer of cosmetics, buying a car was unthinkable till the Nano came along. But Gupta found he could easily stretch to the Rs 1.26 lakh that he paid for his Summer Blue Nano BS II.

Says Gupta, who till now rode a motorcycle, I didn't really need a car in my daily routine, but for only for social occasions like taking my family to a wedding or eating out or going to watch a film. While earlier we had to hire rickshaws to complement the TVS Victor that we have, or wait for buses, now we just step into the car right at our doorstep. Moreover, all five of us are together. It is a great feeling.

Indeed, with a wife who has a problem walking even a short distance and three children, Rajeev's life is much easier now that he has a car. Taking my wife Mithilesh to the doctor has become so easy. Not only that, our Nano is used by the entire neighborhood as an emergency vehicle, he says.

While the need for a car was not very acute for Rajeev, the fact that it was coming at a price of a little more than that a two-wheeler was a major factor. Since I cannot see myself buying a bigger or expensive car in the near future and my needs revolve around taking the family within the city limits, I think the Nano is best suited to both my needs and my pocket, he adds.

The car is also a dream come true for Meenu, Ankur and AnkitGupta's three children. With the Nano, we have moved up several notches in social standing and many in the neighborhood look up to us ever since we purchased the car. It is a big show piece for the entire family and a trophy we love to flaunt, says Meenu, a 22-year-old web designer, who dreams of going for long drives in the car as soon as she learns driving.

Deepa Jainani