Some of the older people who are reading this article may remember an ad campaign of Tata Steel. It showed the community service that Tata was doing in the backward areas of what is now Jharkhand and it said “We also make steel”. Tata is one of the original business houses of India that was there from the beginning of the 20th Century, even during British Colonialism and post independence it went from strength to strength. There is probably no one in India whose life has not been touched by a Tata product. Tata makes salt, hair oil, at one time radio sets, information technology products and services and of course the subject of interest for us automobiles. What we know today as Tata Motors started as TELCO or Tata Electric and Locomotive Company. It made trucks and buses in collaboration with no less a company than Daimler Benz AG, the makers of the Mercedes Benz cars, trucks and buses which sported the three pointed star.
Along with Ashok Leyland, Tata Motors was the behemoth that took care of the transport requirements of cargo and passengers to areas which were not touched by the Indian railways. With the ascendancy of Ratan Tata within the Tata group, Telco or Tata Motors looked to making passenger cars. It is well know that Ratan Tata is a car buff and for him to move making cars was a natural progression from what they had been doing till then. During the 1980s, Tata applied for licence to make the Honda Accord in India, and were promptly refused by the Government of India. Tata then chose the long and difficult route to making cars, where in it relied on its own expertise in known areas to move into areas that were not very well known to them. If you want to understand the progression of Tata to making cars then the beginning point will have to be the Tatamobile – a pick up truck. Under the stewardship of Sumant Mulgaonkar, Tata took the first step towards making passenger cars by launching the 206 Tatamobile, a one tonne pick up. The intention was not to just remain a pick up truck maker. The Tatamobile was the platform that would start Tata’s definitive movement towards making passenger cars.
The Tatamobile featured a ladder chassis and a single cab up front which was followed by a load bed. The lessons learnt with the 206 Tatamobile translated into the 207 Tatamobile which refined things such as driver comfort, steering wheel position, brakes and suspension. While this was happening Tata also began working on two passenger vehicles the Tata Sierra and the Tata Estate. The Tata Sierra was essentially a load beta van with a hard top and a seat at the back. And to avoid unnecessary complications the rear only had a large glass on either side which was fixed like it was on some Ford SUVs in the USA and swinging rear door that also had the spare wheel mounted on it. The Sierra captured the imagination of the people and can rightfully be considered to be the first SUV to have been launched in the Indian market. The vehicle was reliable and many journalists travelled in it to difficult parts of India such as Leh, the Rohtang Pass and some areas of the north eastern part of India. The Sierra built itself the reputation of being rugged and fairly reliable.
The Sierra was followed by the Estate. This was more of a car than the Sierra. It had four doors and a hatch that opened like all proper hatches. The build quality was iffy, there were suspension problems but like the Tatamobile and the Sierra its face bore resemblance to old time partner Mercedes Benz vehicles. The Estate did not fare as well as the Sierra, though it did sell in decent numbers for a pretty long time. At one time it was considered to be a status symbol, but the Estate died much before the Sierra.
Through all this Tata were learning their lessons. They were investing heavily in R&D and even established a crash testing facility at their factory in Pimpri near Pune. Tata’s R&D was taken care of by its ERC or Engineering Research Centre, probably the first of its kind in India set up by an Indian manufacturer. The year 1995 can be considered to be an important year because it was in that year that Tata introduced the Sumo, a vehicle that went on to make history for the company. The Sumo was reputedly named after the departed Sumant Mulgaonkar, but this story has never been corroborated by anyone in Tata. Some said it was called Sumo simply because it was heavy, a characteristic of Tata vehicles which also became its bug bear. Since Tata drew heavily from its truck making experience, its passenger cars used the same methodology of construction and it took a while before Tata could unlearn this aspect of their engineering.
The Sumo was also built on the 207 Tatamobile platform but took the Sierra in the direction of making a proper SUV with four doors and a hatch. It tried to look like the Mercedes Benz G class or the Gelandewagen. It succeeded in its attempt at looking like the G class and ironically when Mercedes Benz has launched the G class in India recently many thought it looked like the Sumo!! The Sumo satisfied the requirements of the Indian joint family. It was humongous, swallowed people and luggage but it was not SUV. It had handling that was so bad, that in the initial years of its launch the sight of Sumo’s turned turtle on highways was very common. The Sumo was simply top heavy and had a centre of gravity and this in combination with its mushy suspension meant that it could just turn turtle when going around sharp bends at high speeds or if sudden changes in direction are attempted. However this did not stop the vehicle from selling in large numbers. It was launched only in five states initially and was overbooked. Tata was selling the Sumo only in white because that was the easiest colour to paint quickly. The Sumo still sells around two thousand units a month, mainly because the rural maxicab or taxi market loves it. It also now comes as the Grande.
After the Sumo became an MUV Tata worked on the Safari which was launched in 1998. The Safari was a proper SUV that was designed by the now defunct Mayfair engineering. The Safari start with an IDI engine but went on to have a Dicor or Direct Injection Common Rail Engine of 3 litre capacity and this was later replaced by the 2.2 litre Dicor engine with a Variable Geometry Turbo (VTT in Tata speak). The Safari’s replacement the Safari Storme has been shown at the 2012 Expo. While the body looks similar to the existing Safari it is actually all new with the chassis coming from the Aria.
While the Sumo was being produced and improvements were being made, Tata also had dabbled in making a monocoque van which some auto journalists had started calling the Calypso. In typical Tata style the name was neither denied nor confirmed and the van never made it into production. But the lessons learnt on the van which was displayed at a couple of Expos were used in the creation of the first proper monocoque car that Tata made, the Indica. Much before the Indica was made Tata did make public the project that it had taken up and it was from the conceptualizing of the Indica that one actually started seeing Ratan Tata at work. Even though the Indian economy was liberalized and cars taken off the licence system, Ratan Tata decided that the company had invested enough to warrant making cars on their own. So he gave his first famous brief to his engineers. Make a car that had the space of an Ambassador inside, had the size and ride of the Maruti Zen on the outside and the price of the Maruti 800 as its price point.
Sceptics, who were plenty in numbers, pooh poohed the idea. But Ratan Tata and the team were determined. The only outside help that was taken for this car was for the external design of the car and this came from IDeA which also designed the Fiat Palio. The small car was kept under wraps and nobody got to see even a glimpse of what the car looked like. The journalists fraternity gave it the name Indica and again in typical Tata style the name was neither confirmed nor refuted for a very long time. Internally the car was called the Mint, because the engineers in Tata were so sure of their product that they thought it would mint money for the company. Finally the covers were taken off in grand style from the car at the Auto Expo of 1998 and it was there that Ratan Tata himself announced that Tata had decided to go with the name Indica since everyone was already calling the car that.
The Indica debuted into a market that had seen the launch of the Santro, the Daewoo Matiz and already there was the Zen from Maruti. But when the covers came off the Indica it scared the competition. It was unlike anything that Tata had done before and it seemed that Tata engineers delivered on the brief given to them. It scare Maruti sufficiently for them to bring down the price of the Maruti 800. Patriotic Indians celebrated the launch of the Indica and like the Sumo it was overbooked. And like the Sumo it had a bugbears relating to quality and handling. But unlike with the Sumo, Tata were faster to react to feedback and very soon the V2 or version2 of the Indica was launched. The version two has been around for more than a decade now and that it still sells in good numbers is testimony that Tata had ironed most of the problems. Problems pertaining to plastics and other small things could not be ironed out because the Indica had to be built to a price. But its suspension, engine and handling all improved and the car also had a trump card in the form of the diesel engine that no other car had. This forced Maruti to source the TUD5 diesel engine from Peugeot and plonk it in the Zen.
The Indica also inaugurated the Tata link with Fiat’s thinking and the disconnect with its obsession with Mercedes Benz. Like the A178 platform of Fiat, the Indica platform was also meant to support other body styles such as a sedan and an estate car. The sedan became the Indigo (apparently to symbolize the Indian on the go) and the estate the Indigo Marina. The Indica range also showed another facet of Tata which was till then unseen. Its marketing savvy. Tata quickly learnt that marketing was important in a competitive environment. Tata saw that there was huge market for the Indica from taxi operators. In order to ensure that Indicas did not end up as taxis and drive away the personal car buyer, they launched a de-specced version called the Indicab which was available only in white. When the Indian Government came up with the sub four metre rule for cars to qualify for excise relief Tata took advantage to create the Indigo CS or the Compact Sedan. Tata went from being India’s biggest truck and bus maker to third biggest car maker behind two multinational companies Maruti Suzuki and Hyundai.
The enormity of Tata’s achievement will be clear when you see that companies that had more experience than itself in the manufacture of cars have struggled to get anywhere near the numbers that Tata sells. GM, Ford, Fiat, Renault, Nissan et al have mass market products with diesel engines, yet Tata is comfortably ahead of them.
A struggling Fiat was given a life line by Tata when it agreed to distribute, sell and service Fiat cars through its extensive dealer network which can match that of Maruti and Hyundai. Tata also inked a pact to create a new entity called FIAL or Fiat India Automobiles Limited, a company in which Tata holds half the stake. This gave Tata access to Fiat engine technology, both petrol and diesel and a few years ago when the time came to create a new Indica which became the Vista, Tata used engines from Fiat. The sedan which became the Manza also uses Fiat tech and is actually built at the Ranjangaon facility that Fiat owns. All this has meant that Tata has been honing its technological and manufacturing skills without pushing up prices inordinately.
While all this was happening, Tata never lost an opportunity to display new concepts at all Auto Expos and it has also been displaying concepts such as the Indiva or Indivan at international motor shows like the Geneva motor show. These concepts have been the grounds on which newer vehicles such as the Aria have been built.
At one point Tata used the Prima name to show a Pininfarina designed D segment sedan as a concept. It seems however that the idea of making this concept into reality has been dropped.
But the next big idea again came from a radical brief. The story goes that Ratan Tata was travelling home one day and it was raining. He saw a family on a motorcycle with an umbrella aloft and saw that it was hazard not just for the family on the motorcycle but for others as well. So he came up with the idea of the Rs. One Lakh car. This brief was more difficult than the Indica brief and meant taking on completely new engineering challenges. Thus the Nano was born. A brave attempt.
When the Nano was announced the Greens cried foul and said it would worsen traffic and atmospheric pollution because it would sell in large numbers. Tata tried his own version of affirmative action by taking the project to the backward state of Bengal a decision that he will regret for the rest of his life. Mamata Banerjee made political capital out of this and Tata Motors was forced to go to the other extreme of the country, Sanand in Gujarat. But the movement from Singur to Sanand consumed time, pushed up the project costs and in general won a bad name for the Nano. Numbers have been bad sales wise and it is only with a concerted push from the marketing side and addition of new features and colours to make the car an icon for the youth that the sales of the Nano have started picking up. But the Nano is still far from being out of the woods. Tata needs to use its marketing muscle to push the car which everybody thought did not need pushing. There is no denying that the Nano is a wonderful car that can seat four oversized adults in complete comfort and chug along at a decent clip. It also has a cutesy design that is not overly fussy but elegant in the right measure.
As usual at the Auto Expo 2012, Tata had various concepts. The most important of these is the hybrid Manza featuring a combination of petrol engine and electric motors. This could also be how the facelifted Manza would look. Then there is the Pixel, Tata’s take on the Nano for congested spaces in developed markets such as Europe. The car features scissor doors that lift upwards and therefore give the ability for the car to be parked in congested spaces. It also could be how the next generation Nano would look like.
The Nano platform also is the basis for an auto rickshaw replacement the Tata Magic Iris.
Tata has been doing all this while it has acquired Jaguar/Land Rover from Ford. When Ford sold the two companies together, Land Rover was the better performing marque while Jaguar was mired in the boon docks. It is to Tata’s credit that they have managed to make Jaguar/Land Rover profitable and incredibly enough it is Jaguar which is now growing faster. And the Jaguar/Land Rover range including the new XJ sedan and the Range Rover Evoque were displayed at the Auto Expo. Despite not having enough dealers in India, Jaguar/Land Rover is growing rapidly and with new dealerships in place the Jaguar range can become legitimate competition to the German trio of Mercedes Benz, BMW and Audi.
In the commercial vehicle space too Tata has been very mobile. Internationally it acquired Daewoo Trucks, Hispano Carrocera of Spain and has a collaboration with Brazil’s Marco Polo. Tata has launched the Prima range of tractor trucks and heavy duty trucks for mining apart from the Divo range of buses to take on Volvo and Mercedes Benz. Tata also displayed a hybrid bus featuring a fuel cell, no less, at the Expo.
Tata has also tied up/bought over a French firm that is working on air as a propulsion.
Tata has also shown a fully electric version of the Vista and the Nano.
After seeing all this it is pretty much evident Tata is almost there with the best. A little more time and continued dedication and innovation is the key to getting there fully. The acquisition of Jaguar/Land Rover will only strengthen Tata’s engineering skills.
Cyrus Mistry has to fill in a very big void that the retirement of the visionary Ratan Tata will create. The good thing is that the great man will be there for guidance. And one hopes that the youth of Cyrus Mistry will take Tata to greater heights and make it a global player of consequence.