Bangalore: Ever heard of a car called the Dolphin?
Meant to be an Indian car for the Indian masses, the car was turned out in 1978 by Bangalore-based Sipani Automobiles Ltd, and was quite a head-turner for an all too brief period of time.
Five years later, the Maruti 800 hit the roads and went on to transform India’s automobile industry, until then dominated by Hindustan Motors Ltd, maker of the then ubiquitous Ambassador based on the Morris Oxford, and Premier Automobiles Ltd, which made the Premier Padmini modelled on the Fiat 1100.
Sipani Automobiles started life in 1974 as Sunrise Automotive Industries Ltd and released its first product called Badal with help from the British manufacturer of three-wheeled cars called Reliant Motor Co., which was known for its rather quirky products.
After running into regulatory trouble, as three-wheelers in India are traditionally categorized as autorickshaw taxis, the Sipanis in 1978 released the four-wheeled contraption called Dolphin.
The Dolphin was a two-door car, based on a discarded Reliant model called the Kitten. The Dolphin was a hit for a brief while, mainly because its body was made of fiberglass, an innovation in the Indian market then. Given its 848cc engine, its power-to-weight ratio was pretty good and the car was a popular choice even among rally drivers. It was the original city car meant to negotiate start-stop driving conditions.
However, given that even by 1983 the entire car market in India could absorb a mere 40,000 units yearly, Sipani could never manufacture the car in adequate volumes to justify investments to constantly improve the product. Compared with the Maruti, which boasted Japanese technology, the Dolphin was found wanting.
Because of onerous governmental regulations, the Dolphin was mainly sold in south India and could never gain visibility elsewhere. Since Indian families preferred the four-door Maruti 800, the Sipanis were forced to introduce a successor called Montana.
The Montana had four doors, but technologically was inferior to the Maruti 800, prompting the Sipanis to go in for an overhaul within two years of its launch. The result was a variant called the D1.
The new Montana D1 was a mishmash of several automobiles. It was based on Daihatsu’s Charade but had a combination of Maruti and Mahindra parts in it. To ensure 100% local content, it actually sourced a Shakti-Mitsubishi mini tractor diesel engine, which was manufactured by VST Tillers in Coimbatore.
Even the new car could not match the popularity of Maruti 800. After innumerable attempts at reviving the company, including assembling the Rover Montego after importing it in a completely knocked-down form, the Sipanis gave up. After a brave attempt at creating a domestic auto industry, Sipani Autombiles was eventually wound by a fiat of the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction.
The Dolphin had its share of fans and still has. Like T. Balu, 64, who fondly recalls the times he would drive it on Parade Ground, now known as M.G. Road, Bangalore’s main thoroughfare.
“In its day Dolphin was the queen of the road,” says Balu, who bought the car at the end of 1982 for Rs63,000 and drove it till 1988. “Heads would turn when I would take the car out on Parade Ground on weekends.
“If only they had constantly improved its technology,” he sighs.