New Delhi: Nigel Harris, the current president and chief executive of Ford Motor India Pvt. Ltd, first visited the Delhi Auto Expo in 1998, when it was held at Pragati Maidan.

For many reasons, the expo was buzzing with activities, Harris recalled.

“Mr Tata was showcasing Indica, the first made-in-India modern car," he said.

In many ways, 1998 was a defining year for the industry. The Indian car market was a little over 4 lakh units a year and most of the multi-national companies, including Ford, were in the process of setting up their manufacturing operations in the country. The popular models on Indian roads at the time were Maruti 800 and Maruti Omni, Hindustan Motors’ Ambassador was still doing decent numbers, and the Korean company Hyundai had just introduced the Santro.

Cut to the present. On the first three public days of this Auto Expo edition, the show witnessed 322,375 footfalls as against 307,000 footfalls during the first three days of the 2014 edition. Ford unveiled its iconic sports car Mustang during the 16th Auto Expo, cult American brand Jeep made its Indian debut and Jaguar unveiled its crossover F-Pace.

Local and global manufacturers are increasingly making models to suit the tastes of Indian customers. India now sells 2.6 million passenger vehicles a year and most global automakers have representation in the country. In 2015, the Indian market grew fastest among the top eight automobile markets.

The venue for the auto show first shifted from a couple of banquet halls to the capital’s Pragati Maidan and as it grew further, the organizers opted for an exposition mart in Greater Noida, some 40 km out of the city. This year, there were at least 65 exhibitors and more than 80 new models of cars, bikes and commercial vehicles. The venue, India Expo Mart in Greater Noida, itself has been through a massive makeover. It now houses six large halls with an additional carpet area of 37,240 square metre (sq.m.). The venue previously had only eight permanent halls measuring 27,648 sq.m. As a result, in the 2014 edition, the remaining display was curated in temporary hangers measuring 32,400 sq.m. The gross indoor exhibition space has increased from 67,000 sq.m. in the previous edition to 73,000 sq.m. in the current edition.

“Now, it is world class. You can even compare the Delhi motor show with Detroit Motor Show," Harris said. Not in terms of quality and importance yet, but surely in terms of its size and footfalls.

The 2016 show also boasted some big names. While the Indian legend Ratan Tata gave the show a miss, chairman and managing director of Mahindra Group Anand Mahindra and Tata Group chairman Cyrus Mistry have been regulars. From global industry, the representation has been Japanese dominated. Suzuki Motor Corp’s president and chief executive T. Suzuki, Honda Motor Co.’s president and chief executive Takahiro Hachigo and Toyota Motor Corp.’s managing officer Kyoichi Tanada were all present at the show signifying the importance of the Indian market to Japanese firms. Together, they control 55% of the Indian market. The representation from European and American companies, however, was weak with top executives giving it a miss.

Still, this edition of the Expo comes when the Indian auto industry is going through one of the toughest phases, even as the sales have just started to look up. While usage of diesel vehicles has become an emotive issue, largely driven by public opinion around pollution, the debate has certainly thrown up a very big challenge that may require a complete overhaul of the technologies that the auto makers will use amid India’s pursuit of a blue sky. This coupled with emergence of concepts like shared economy, taxi aggregation, connected mobility are likely to create a disruption in the sector and may perhaps also redefine the automotive business in the country.

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