The year was 1996. India was witnessing a host of previously unheard of car names being launched in quick succession. The reason for the fact that India had never heard of car names like Daewoo and Ford can be attributed to India’s tight economic policies. The sweeping changes in these policies during the nineties led to opening up of the economy and to a revolution. And Daewoo and Ford were some of the early movers.
Ford wasn’t exactly new in India. They had been here during the early stages of the last century before shutting down in 1954. But when they came in 1996, they were here it seemed more so because of the opening of the economy rather than understanding of the Indian car market. I say this because of the car that they first launched. The car that they launched was the Ford Escort which was the Ford Escort Mark VI in the international market. Indians didn’t know much about Ford and its cars then but looking back at the decision now, it doesn’t exactly look like a properly researched or thought about decision.
The stodgy looking Escort looked out of place among the more sharper and conventional looking Daewoo Cielo. But the fact remains that even though the Escort didn’t exactly set the sales chart on fire, there are still lots of loyal fans who would stand by the car’s sturdy build and ride quality. Till about 7-8 years back, the car was quite preferred in the second hand car market.
These were the times when all the car manufacturers where exploring and testing the new and enigmatic market called India. There were no known paths to tread, no existing models to base new ones on. The only car manufacturer that was flourishing was Maruti Suzuki but it was largely backed by the Indian Government and hence its model and philosophies need not necessarily be valid. These were the times when hard core market analysis and surveys and polls had to be done to understand and decipher the Indian market and our colourful culture and how the vehicles that we choose depended on these. How a manufacturer responds was extremely important as it would either make or break its fortunes in the country that was being argued as one of the biggest automobile markets of the future.
Ford was unsure. Firstly it had a partner in Mahindra and Mahindra who themselves were just waiting to expand and break the tag that they carried of being the ‘Jeep Manufacturer’. The Escort was doing pretty decent but it was essentially a European car. When it came to its next product, Ford realised it had to offer something more customised. They realised that they were not ready to enter the small car segment yet, something which Hyundai was willing to gamble with and met with stupendous success. But they also knew that they had to get lower down in the segment to generate volumes and hence they worked on a sedan which would sit beneath the Escort.
This led to the birth of the Ford Ikon towards the end of the last century, which was essentially a face lifted version Ford Fiesta Mark IV. But this time Ford worked on the suspension and interiors in order to make it more acceptable and more importantly, cheaper for India.
With this story of the Ford Ikon begins the concept behind this writing of mine. You see Ford, unlike any other manufacturer at that time started positioning the Ikon as a youth symbol, or a car targeted towards the younger lot. The tagline – “The Josh Machine”, emphasizes this direction of Ford. Till that time, there were no cars that were sold saying that this will give you a rush when you drive it. It made people look up and take notice at the car which was cheaper than the earlier Escort.
Giving a tag line to a car for marketing purposes is one thing but giving it the character in line with the tag line is another. This is where Ford did not disappoint and according to me, opened up a whole new chapter in Indian Automotive Scenario. The Ikon was absolutely ballistic to drive. It was not about the power or torque or any other figures from the spec sheet. But it was to do with the way the car behaved on the road. It was the most fun to drive thing on Indian roads. The Ford India DNA had been formed.
Not that we did not have similar cars earlier. The Maruti Zen was a popular example of a car that was fun to drive. But looking at its history, it is hard to believe that Maruti created the Zen just to make it a fun to drive thing. It is just not the way Maruti works. It seemed more like the after effect of some serious effort to build a good car. But the Ikon on the other hand seemed to be built just for sheer driving pleasure. It was as if Ford had decided that they were going to make cars that were fun to drive first and then look at other parameters like fuel efficiency and interior space which were the primary factors for a car to be sold well in India.
The Ikon went through various iterations. But through out most of its life time, it came with basically two petrol engine options – the 1.3 and the 1.6 Rocams, which generated around 75 PS and 95 PS respectively and two diesels – the 1.8D Endura which was phased out in 2005 and the 1.4 TDCi which was the last effort from Ford to keep the car alive before the arrival of the Fiesta 2011. The various iterations came with the names of ‘Rally Sport’, ‘Nxt’ and ‘Flair’. Through all these iterations, what did not change was the car’s character. It was a cornering specialist and the high ground clearance meant you can drive through the undulations on the road thinking about the next turn rather than worrying about your car bottoming out.
I recently had a chance to drive one of the last generation’s 1.3 Ikon Flair. This drive was what made me think about the cars from Ford and is the reason for this piece of writing from me. The car was about 4 years old but even today it would put a big smile on your face with its antics. The 1.3 might only be putting out 75 PS, much lower than what a modern day 1.2 would generate, but it was such a rev happy engine. You floor it and it screams with happiness and thanks you with its crisp steering and confidence inspiring road hugging. The fact that it had just adequate power made it possible to extract almost all of it in day to day spirited driving. This coupled with the unbelievable revs from the engine and the sharp handling provided all the adrenaline pumping ingredients that a normal car lover would want. It was like a hyper active child having her first merry-go-round ride. The Indian adrenaline junkie’s cries had been heard.
Later on Ford launched the Mondeo and the Fusion, both with very limited success. I still remember the time when the Fusion was launched as it was at about the same time that Toyota launched the Innova amid much criticism of having phased out the Qualis. The Fusion was looked upon as the one with great promise and it was expected that Toyota would learn its lesson for having stopped the Qualis and launched the more expensive Innova. But how differently the market responded to these cars are now known to all. Ford, famous for its relatively higher pricing, made things easier for the Innova with exorbitant pricing of the Fusion.
But with the Mondeo, Fusion and the Fiesta, which was launched in 2005 (a year after the Fusion was launched), what was heartening to see was that the character of the cars from Ford remained intact. They were a driver’s dream. They all remained ‘adrenaline pumpers’. The older Fiesta 1.6S still remains one the most desirable cars for any car lover in the country. Even the Ford Endeavour which was humongous gave the confidence to zip in and out of traffic like a hatch. I know a colleague of mine who does this on his Endeavour with relative ease but the sad part was he did not realise this was a trait of his car until he scarily tried doing the same in other SUVs. The Figo which was responsible for literally changing the fortunes of not just Ford India but Ford globally was criticised for poor efficiency of its petrol engine and lack of power. But even in this case, the handling and ride quality were bang on.
When we at Riot Engine test drove the new Fiesta last year, we had all these thoughts running through our minds. There was criticism for having priced the car a tad too high and during the course of the road test we did get a scare when we felt that the engine was not the way it was in the older Fiesta. But all our doubts of whether Ford has decided to dilute their genes were laid to rest once we did some high speed and handling tests. It still was one of the best handling cars in India.
After the success of the Figo, Ford has been on a high and on a rampage. There has been mass expansion and efforts to reduce the maintenance cost of their cars. There have been talks about starting a new dealership every ten days, plans to launch 8 new models by 2015 and exporting of Figo to more countries. In short they have portrayed themselves as a very busy and committed manufacturer with very positive and cheerful outlook about the future. And of course there is the car which everybody is talking about – the EcoSport. And the EcoBoost engine which comes along with it. There are no doubts in our minds that this car will be no different from previous cars from Ford as far as its character is concerned. But then we would like to believe that this will be the case with all the cars that Ford plans to bring here. Here is a deprived Indian adrenaline junkie himself hoping and wishing for the same. Because there is nothing like a fun laden, corner craving and tyre screeching weekend after a monotonous and tiring week at work.