Home / Companies / News /  Maruti 800: The small car with a big heart

On 14 December 1983, Harpal Singh, a Delhi-based employee of Indian Airlines, and his wife brought home their Maruti 800, the first to be sold in the country. The keys were handed over to the couple by then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

On 18 January 2014, the last Maruti 800s rolled off the production line at the company’s Gurgaon factory. Back in 2010, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd had announced that it would stop production of the vehicle that changed the way India drove, but no one knew that 2014 would mark the end. Indeed, the Maruti 800 had been selling well in rural markets, causing some to believe that this was a car that would not and could not die.

“We have an emotional connect with the vehicle, but at some point, you have to take hard decisions," said C.V. Raman, executive director (engineering) at Maruti Suzuki.

The firm stopped selling the Maruti 800 in 16 cities, including the metros, after it became unviable for it to upgrade the car to meet BS-IV emission norms. Raman said the company would continue to produce spares for the model for the next 10 years.

Back in 1983, the launch came 14 months after the Indian government and Suzuki Motor Corp. signed an agreement to produce a people’s car. Suzuki had a 26% stake in the company, then known as Maruti Udyog Ltd. The Japanese firm, which has not seen the kind of success it saw in India anywhere else in the world, including Japan, increased the stake to 40% in 1987 and 50% in 1992.

Priced at around 50,000 at the time of the launch, the Maruti 800 was a technological marvel compared with the cars then available in India—the Ambassador, from Hindustan Motors Ltd; the Premier Padmini, from Premier Automobiles Ltd (under licence from Fiat and which continued to be called the Fiat); and the Standard Gazel, from Standard Motor Products.

The technical specifications of the car have remained virtually unchanged since launch, but the tiny 796cc engine hid a big heart. The Maruti 800 was a workhorse, ferrying people and loads through rain and snow, uphill and down.

But the Maruti 800 was not just a car.

It was a symbol of the upward mobility that the Indian middle class saw, starting in the 1980s, when the process of reforms that reached a tipping point in 1991, really began. Until then, only the rich owned cars.

It was the vehicle that defined the shape the Indian automobile industry would take—from the birth of a thriving auto parts business to the predominance of the small car (a characteristic not seen in any other market of this size in the world).

It was the vehicle that taught Indians to drive and to pimp up their cars.

And, it was, at one point in time, the coolest set of wheels one could buy in the country.

Around 2.7 million units have been sold since 1983.

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